The myths of manhood embodied in the image of the cowboy have and still do influence how men think of themselves in the West. Not the real cowboy. Just his image.
No one has contributed more to that image than Owen Wister in his "The Virginian," the subject of Darwin Payne's fascinating and disturbing biography. It is one of several recent books dealing with these myths, but it differs from the others in that Payne shows the complex relationship between these myths of masculinity that men cherish and the realities of their lives; an unresolved conflict.
In our time, "Eastern Western" writers and their "Eastern Westerns" are scorned. But, in his time, Owen Wister was recognized as an honored literary figure. He was feted by the most prestigious universities. He was acclaimed by Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Dean Howell, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton and other luminaries of the time who hailed him as a major American writer.
The creator of the cowboy archetype was a Boston Brahmin, a Harvard man, one of the elite of Boston society and an "incurable aristocrat," says Payne. On his many trips to the West, for his health, Wister tried to be a cowboy. He grew a beard. He rode wild "bronchos." He was a born-again cowboy. For the West was really "like Genesis," he said: "Each breath you take tells you no one else has ever used it before."
Even so, he was a dude in paradise. He could not spell corral which he wrote first as "Koral" and then as "coraal." He knew no Spanish. The cowboys inspired him, but he could hardly understand them, and besides, they had bed bugs which were "horrid." And yet like many Easterners who went West, he wanted to preserve it as it was for himself and keep out those Easterners who were interested in "horses breed better than women."
But the West he loved was the West of his imagination. It was the idea of the West, not the grubby, cruddy day-to-day life of the cowboy that enthralled him. (One Montana rancher once complained to me that ranchers had no image of themselves other than "The Virginian," and then he added, "And we know we're not like that.")
The patrician, Henry James, in one of his more generous moods, called "The Virginian" a "rare and remarkable feat (that) happens only once." Perhaps he saw the book as a work born on the innocence of the West that could never be repeated as the West was changing. And the New York Times, agreeing with James, said it was "the American novel."
"A man's man" a newspaper in Rochester called "The Virginian." That may have been one source of the book's appeal in the East, for it romantically depicted not only the West but also the manliness of the cowboy. It created the prototype of the masculine hero that still permeates our male concept of manhood.
Payne astutely notes, " 'The Virginian' was ruggedly masculine, honest and tender." He represented "two nations conflicting in Wister's own mind; his early belief that the West would spawn individuals free of the sufficating culture and commercialism of the East and his ultimate acceptance of Eastern culture." It was a celebration of the freedom of man in the West and at the same time his swan song.
More and more as the 20th Century engulfed his dream, Wister felt a sorrow and frustration at what was happening to the West. To him, it was a symbol of what was happening to the country. "Damn this money dredging country," he raged. "Civilized! We're not as civilized as we were 50 years ago. The American people have been looking at stealing for so long we have lost the power to be shocked."
In his latter years, the romantic innocent became increasingly bitter and acerbic. He cursed not only the newcomers who had "New Yorkified" the West, but also the poor emigrants who had "alien blood" (he was a leader of the Immigration Restriction Society), and the blacks who were "altogether inferior to whites" as his friend Theodore Roosevelt said, and the Jews, like Henry Morgenthau, of whom he wrote: "He's a Jew and that's what seems to be the matter. Slightly oily in voice and manner."
The "old curmudgeon," as he was called, had an opinion about everyone and everything and he delighted in outrageous statements. Education at Harvard had been replaced by football, he said, a sport based on the "female lust for gore." Thomas Jefferson should not have been President because he had "bad manners." Utah was "a perfectly horrible place, all asphalt, heat and Mormons." Woodrow Wilson was a "coward," and if he were alive, George Washington would "blast" his soul. Henry Ford uttered "oracular imbecilities," and Franklin Roosevelt was a "pain."
Somehow it seemed as if Wister had become a character in one of his own stories. He was "The Virginian." The lone cowboy on the super highway, the individualist in an industrial society, the ornery and obstinate loner in the world of the media. When Wister, born in 1860, died in 1938, he had outlived his time.
"It's not my world anymore," he said.
And yet, for all his fury, he was remembered by many, including his admirer Ernest Hemingway, as a "sweet old guy" who not only encouraged the young writer but offered him money so he could write. "He was most unselfish and loving," Hemingway said, one of the few writers he ever liked. An old-fashioned gentleman, he was one of the last of a vanishing breed of proper Bostonians.
No doubt that Owen Wister was more complex and contradictory than he or his cowboy hero pretended to be. Payne has captured the conflict between the myth and the reality in his detailed and comprehensive history. At times, the details tend to overwhelm the story, as often happens in biographies, and the writing is sometimes flat and uninspired, but this book is an important contribution to Western history and an understanding of the masculine image of the cowboy that Wister helped create in "The Virginian."
The cowboy, said Wister, was a modern knight whose armor was his idea of himself. It still is.