Some people seek comfort food, but I tend toward comfort books. Comfort books are the ones I return to when the problems of the day become too much. They’re my macaroni and cheese without the calories.
A few weeks ago, as Americans seemed at war with Americans, I turned to one of my comfort books, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister. This 1902 novel was required reading when I was in junior high school. I loved it then and loved it again when I reread it in 1980, 1991, and late this summer. The book belongs near the top of any list of great American novels.
I feel almost apologetic for enjoying the book. There’s much in it to make 21st-century Americans shudder, including racial epithets, vigilante justice, and sexism. But with its depiction of a noble (if flawed) American hero, its virtuous (if flawed) schoolteacher, and the unspoiled American West, the reader sees a grand country, where possibilities seem endless, and a good man can prosper. The Virginian is just the man to succeed.
Narrated by an Eastern tenderfoot whom the Virginian is taking to visit Judge Henry in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, we see the wild country from the eyes of an outsider, just like us. The contrasts between the natural West and the constrained East come quickly. The West proves the winner, but both Westerners (particularly in the person of the native Virginian) and Easterners (the narrator and the schoolteacher and her family) learn and grow.The character of the Virginian has become the paradigm of the American cowboy—noble, just, intelligent, soft spoken, and handsome. He’s known only by his state of birth or by the term Southerner. Wister doesn’t give us his name or that of the narrator.
People who have never the book surely recognize at least one sentence from it. That comes early in the novel, when the Virginian is in a card game with a man named Trampas.
Trampas is losing, the narrator hears someone near him say, and he “don’t enjoy losin’ to a stranger,” meaning the Virginian.
When it comes time for the Virginian to bet, “he did not speak at once,” the narrator tells us.”
“Therefore Trampas spoke. ‘Your bet, you son-of-a —-,’
“The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: ‘When you call me that, SMILE.’ “
The Virginian chooses his words and actions carefully. In the afterward to my 1979 edition of the book, Max Westbrook contrasts the gambling scene with an earlier one in which the narrator has just gotten off the train from the East. He’d overheard the Virginian bantering with a man he’d called Uncle Hughey.
The Virginian then approaches the visitor, saying he’s been waiting for him. By way of conversation, the visitor says:
“’Find many oddities out here like Uncle Hughey?’
‘Yes, seh, there is a right smart of oddities around. They come in on every train.’”
Westbrook explains that the visitor caught the sarcasm and realized that he’d been patronizing. He’d become too familiar too quickly, and the “son of the soil” came off as the better gentleman:
“The creature we call a GENTLEMAN lies deep in the hearts of thousands that are born without chance to master the outward graces of the type.”
The Virginian is the natural gentleman, who can distinguish character quickly, determine when to use words to make his points and when to raise his pistol, who knows which rivals to disarm with a clever ruse, and when a lady is worth waiting for. He could be playful and witty, while sending a message against pretense, pomposity, and insincerity.
The central plot lines are his romance with the schoolteacher, Molly Wood, and his conflict with Trampas. They reach a climax as the Virginian is preparing for a shootout with Trampas. The schoolteacher wants him to leave and avoid the fight. To her, shooting Trampas would be nothing but murder, while to him it’s about being a man.
There really is no question to readers that she’ll stay loyal to the Virginian—it is a 1902 book after all— though he is unsure as he leaves for the fight.
Owen Wister was not himself from the West. Born in Philadelphia in 1860, he studied in Switzerland and England and received a degree from Harvard University in 1882. Three years later he was ill and his friend Theodore Roosevelt suggested he spend the summer on a Wyoming ranch.
He returned to the East and attended Harvard University Law School but visited Wyoming often for vacations.
One sentence in Westbrook’s description of Wister’s life caught my attention on this reading. His mother, Sarah Butler Wister, was the daughter of Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler, “one of America’s founding fathers,” Westbrook wrote.
Having devoted a chapter to Kemble in my book Speak a Word for Freedom, I was stopped short. If Westbrook were writing today, I think he would explain Wister’s lineage differently. Kemble was a passionate abolitionist who defended Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her marriage to Butler ended because he was a large slaveholder in Georgia. Their two daughters disagreed about slavery, with Sarah, Wister’s mother, siding with Kemble.
In the book as well as in the afterword, I see new things each time I read. I expect I’ll return to both again. No macaroni and cheese needed.