Book Review: The Virginian

A literary buffet long on granola but short on bacon. 

Inside Owen Wister's, The Virginian, there lurks a great western romance novel. Unfortunately the reader doesn't encounter this story until the book's third act. Prior to this, it's all tedium and tumble weeds. 

Don't get me wrong - I'm thankful that The Virginian exists. By publishing this book way back in 1902, Owen Wister effectively birthed the cultural genre we know today as 'the Western'. Its got horse thievery, card playing, cattle driving, a climactic gunfight - the whole shootin' match. Without The Virginian, there is no Lonesome Dove, High Noon, or John Wayne, perish the thought. 

The difficulty lies in the fact that Wister cobbled the book together from a bunch of short stories he had written prior, so the resulting narrative is disjointed and awkwardly stitched together. Moreover, the first two thirds of the story is dull and Wister's tale doesn't hit its stride until a later chapter when the main character comes to the aid of a horse who has been viciously abused; everything leading up to this point is one expansive yawn. 

Something had changed. He looked everywhere, and feeling it everywhere, wondered what this could be. Then he knew: it was the sun that had gone entirely behind the mountains, and he drew out his pistol.
— The Virginian

Owen Wister

The tale itself takes place in and around the cowtown of Medicine Bow, Wyoming. The action is centered around an archetypal Marlboro Man cowboy figure who originally hails from Virginia (hence the title) and his romance with Molly Stark, a prim school teacher who has journeyed out west by way of Vermont. Along the way, the Virginian runs afoul of Trampas, a good-for-nothing rake who must eventually be dealt with. Pistols at dawn methinks? 

When The Virginian is good, it's really good (hanging a set of horse thieves makes for a particularly effective chapter) but there isn't enough there to warrant any rereads or in depth analysis. 

The more interesting journey is the one which Wister himself underwent prior to writing his novel. A hyper-intelligent but rather sickly youth, he would journey to Wyoming as a young man in the hopes that the climate might improve his health and restore his general outlook upon life - which it did.  Wister became enamored of the American West and the The Virginian was his love letter. One wishes it was slightly better written.