“When you call me that, smile.” -The Virginian
The Virginian was published in 1902 by Owen Wister (1860-1938). The novel received critical acclaim and was a huge bestseller, eventually spawning five films, a successful play, and a television series. An instant success, it sold over 20 thousand copies in the first month, an astonishing number for the time. It went on to sell over 200,000 thousand copies in the first year, and over a million and a half prior to Wister’s death. This minor classic has never been out of print. Beyond the multiple works that carry its name, The Virginian has inspired hundreds of stories about the Old West. What made this novel so appealing?
Critics give The Virginian credit for establishing the legendary storylines of the Old West and stereotypical characters of the genre. Sergio Leone’s famous protagonist had no name, nor is the Virginian’s name ever mentioned. He’s a laconic cowboy who lives by his own code and is extremely capable in every undertaking, including fighting-with fists, guns, or words. The book’s lament for a dying lifestyle has been recounted endlessly. Like the Lonesome Dove character Jake Spoon, the Virginian hangs his friend after he turns outlaw. The buildup to the climatic shootout has been repeated countless times.
Can the book’s unbroken popularity be attributed solely to being first? There were plenty of dime novels before The Virginian, but they were pretty shoddy. Wister produced the first literary example of the genre. A new story is a fresh story, and this certainly helped to generate remarkable sales at the turn of the twentieth century, but more had to be involved for decent sales to extend for over a century, and for the story to be told on stage, in movie houses, and on television.
There are three qualities that make The Virginian timeless. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water tale, it appeals to both sexes, and it realistically portrays life on the frontier.
The narrator, Wister himself, is a city-dweller from Philadelphia, on an adventure in the Wild West. The love interest, a schoolmarm from the East, can’t fathom the Code of the West. Even the Virginian is a transplant. Not only is this a fresh tale, but one told by fresh eyes, wide open in awe of all about them. This stark, new world is described by people from another part of the planet-a part with civilization, comfortable social norms, and constable-imposed order. The Virginian is partly autobiographical and Wister uses his contemporaneous journals to inject a sense of wonderment into the story. Wister liked the Old West, and he gets us, his readers, to like it as well.
Runaway bestsellers are read by both sexes. The Virginian’s primary plot follows classic Western lines, which appeals to men. More important, Wister describes the comradeship of men in a male-dominated culture. The pranks, good-natured ribbing, displays of athletic prowess, and rough language will be recognized by any man that has played team sports or served in the military-at least those who participated before women invaded these previously exclusive male domains. To men, the Virginian’s world feels familiar and comfortable.
Wister also presents two plotlines that appeal to women. Molly Stark Wood, the heroine from Vermont, struggles in a foreign land and culture. She’s from a solid family that prides itself in education, and she’s horrified by random violence and vigilantism. How she overcomes her fears to discipline her corner of a raw frontier shows bravery by a female seldom encountered in run-of-the-mill Westerns. In most of these lesser stories, women need a valiant knight to keep them safe. Molly can get along all by herself, thank you very much. How she gets along adds spice to The Virginian.
Additionally, The Virginian is a love story. The hero doesn’t ride off into the sunset, he marries the heroine. And he goes to Vermont to meet her family. The clash of cultures gets turned upside down when the Virginian takes tea and banters with nonplused eastern ladies.
Wister wrote fiction, but he experienced the nineteenth-century Old West and wrote from personal experience. Many incidents in the book came from his journals. This gives the story an air of authenticity lacking in lesser works. Probably only The Virginian and Roughing It, by Mark Twain, give us actual observers’ descriptions of the Wild West. The lifestyle, implements, and ethos of the era ring true in both books-even if a bit exaggerated (again, in both books) for entertainment purposes. When we read historical fiction, realism allows us to live in another time.
The Virginian is more complicated than just being the first of a breed. It’s a good story, well told, with sophisticated subplots. The century-old literary style can make The Virginian somewhat difficult, but once you’re into the plot, you forget the more formal writing style. This is a novel that will still be selling in the twenty-second century.