The Virginian by Owen Wister

Here is a phrase I never thought I would be able to write in my life: I found a really great Western novel.

It's not that I'm against the Western genre. I love the idea of the frontier and cowboys controlling their own destinies. There's a sense of wonder, almost fantasy, about this notion of the West in American culture. It's just that so many I've tried before focus on the violence and the conflict and are more serious than a history text on western expansion.

What I like the most about Owen Wister's The Virginian is the wit of the author. Take, for instance, this description of the vastness of the territory from a man straight off the train:

A land without end, a space across which Noah and Adam might come straight from Genesis.

Or a local's description of why a poker player should not be concerned with the decorum of the Virginian:

But a man like that black-headed guy is...need never worry you. And there's another point why there's no need to worry about him: it'll be too late!

What separate Wister's text from so many others I have tried is the sense of artistry. Wister does not forget that he is an author. He knows his role is to write this story of a cowboy as best as he can. It may be a bit unrealistic to assume the first person narrator would actually think in these terms, but it works for the novel. The reader is brought in as an outside observer attempting to reconcile this notion of "the West" into understandable terms.

Take, for instance, this aside on love:

Had any botanist set down what the seed of love is? Has it anywhere been set down in how many ways this seed may be sown? In what various vessels of gossamer it can float across wide spaces? Or upon what different soils it can fall, and live unknown, and bide its time for blooming?

It's pretty safe to say that a dedication to such picturesque language stops the narrative dead in its tracks. It works for The Virginian. The novel is so adept at attempting to capture the slower, more open nature of the idealized west that such distractions are welcome.

If you have the time to dig into a big old slice of America, you could do a lot worse than spending some time reading The Virginian. A man can't survive on modern Gothic and Weird Fiction alone. It's nice to swim in the earthy realism captured by Owen Wister.

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