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Wister’s West

by David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published January 16, 2002

Even later, in the 1960s, it was an extremely popular television series. At last count, there were five movies based on The Virginian, a novel written by Owen Wister (1860- 1938), a Philadelphia and Main Line novelist of the turn of the century.

The Virginian is so popular and important to the West that the town of Medicine Bow, Wyo., made a museum of a general store where Wister once spent the night on the store’s counter. The experience made it into the book, and that’s good enough for this tiny town, located northwest of Laramie.

Nearly a century later, The Virginian still is selling fairly well, a tribute to what was the first “Western.” It led to a worldwide awareness of America’s Old West, perhaps the single most enduring international image of American culture.

That would be neat enough, but this novel was written by a man who La Salle University’s James Butler says would have difficulty finding someone in Philadelphia’s high society to whom he wasn’t related. Owen Wister was a product of Philadelphia society at the peak of its form.

“He was very much like the Main Line characters, so far up in society that all you can marry is a cousin, usually with the same name,” Butler said. “He was so tightly in Philadelphia social life, unlike other writers, not many Philadelphia writers stayed here,” he said.

In 1898, at age 38, Wister also married a cousin, Mary Channing, and they had six children, Butler said. His wife was extraordinarily important to him, so important that the writing of the novel Wister called Romney quit – in mid-sentence – at the time of her death. For that reason, only a 50,000- word segment survives. Butler presumes, based on other novels, that this would be about a third of the finished novel.

Penn State Press has just released the “lost” novel Romney, about Philadelphia and Philadelphians. It is edited by Butler, a chairman of La Salle University’s English Department, who found the unfinished work in the Library of Congress among Wister’s papers. In addition to being an authority on English poet William Wordsworth, he’s also the curator of the Wister Family Special Collection at the university.

Historians have looked for the lost novel since Wister’s death in 1938, because there was evidence in both his letters and from acquaintances that he was at work on a book about hometown Philadelphia. In his later years, Wister lived in Bryn Mawr, which he referred to as “Ap Thomas” in his works.

What historians sought was a manuscript relating to the name Monopolis, which Wister had indicated was the name he planned to use for Philadelphia. For decades, historians combed his papers seeking some part of the book that evidence strongly suggested had existed.

What made Butler successful is that he wasn’t locked on the name Monopolis. In the thousands of files of papers, he discovered a large scrap of work in a file named Romney, which for some reason historians had overlooked.

“Owen Wister in his Philadelphia novel did refer to his native city as Monopolis, but the book itself he called at first Dividends in Democracy and then Romney,” Butler wrote in his preface to the recently published Romney & Other New Works About Philadelphia.

But Wister wasn’t just another guy who fell in love with the West. To him, the West demonstrates what is as close to a classless society as existed in America.

His first trip to Wyoming was for health reasons in 1884, a time at which Wyoming was certainly still a pioneer society. He fell in love with the territory and visited it 10 times.

But Wister saw that America was changing and was as intrigued with this societal evolution as his dear friend Theodore Roosevelt, the president of the United States, to whom he dedicated The Virginian. “Wister was aware of what areas were undergoing social change and tended to write politically about what happens to the top level of social class with respect to democracy,” Butler said.

Romney would have been the third novel of a trilogy Wister had talked about writing. The first was The Virginian, which was published in 1902, describing the culture of the West in what became the most-read novel in the beginning of the 20th century.

The second book, Lady Baltimore (1906), was a tale of high society manners in Charleston, S.C., and what happened to the generation of the Civil War after that society was destroyed and had to be rebuilt.

Although Romney is ostensibly about Philadelphia, at the time of its writing, Philadelphians didn’t split hairs and considered the Main Line a social extension of the city. The Main Line was an important element of Romney. Wister portrayed life along the Main Line so much that Penn State Press chose an etching of the Bryn Mawr train station for the cover.

But Butler feels that Romney truly catches the nature of Philadelphia social life. “The towns of the Main Line are where Wister really caught the nature of the area,” Butler said. “Twothirds of what takes place in the story is along the axis of the Main Line.”

In addition, after the death of his wife, Wister moved there. According to Butler, he became more and more curmudgeonly in age. He died in Rhode Island at the age of 88. Beyond Wister’s West

It may be the best known of his works, but it’s not the only work of Philadelphia author Owen Wister, whose bad health led to the creation of the “Western” novel. Still in print today, it’s a classic story that defines the Western as more than a historical novel, requiring a morality play to be authentic. That attitude of the battle of good and evil has permeated Westerns, via book, movie or teledrama.

The first Western, Wister’s The Virginian (1902), is set in the Wyoming territory of the late 1870s and 1880s.

The title character is a courageous but mysterious cowboy known only as the Virginian. He works as a foreman of a Wyoming cattle ranch.

He meets a pretty schoolteacher, Molly Wood, from Vermont. She introduces him to the works of Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare and Keats. The Virginian is forced to preside over the hanging of his best friend, Steve, who has been accused and convicted of cattle rustling.

Molly is horrified, and Judge Henry, the Virginian’s employer, explains to her the code of the West. However, their marriage is threatened by Trampas, who also works on the farm. He vows to gun down the Virginian, whose honor is now at stake. The climactic gun duel between the two men is the first “showdown” in fiction. Trampas fires first but misses, and the Virginian kills Trampas.

In the end, the Virginian marries Molly and rides with her into the mountains.

The television series from 1962 to 1969 had little to do with the original story. Trampas (Doug McClure) was an impulsive pal rather than a villain.

The film adaptation from 1929 included the first famous exchange of talkies: Villain (Walter Huston): “You longlegged Sonoma”

Virginian (Gary Cooper): “If you wanna call me that, smile.”

Huston: “With a gun in my belly, I always smile.”

Selected works and words:
– The New Swiss Family Robinson, 1882
– Dido and Aeneas, 1882
– The Dragon of Wantley, 1892
– Red Men and White, 1896
– Lin Mclean, 1898
– The Jimmyjohn Boss, 1900
– Ulysses S. Grant,1900
– The Virginian, 1902

– Film 1914, dir. by Cecil B. DeMille, adapted by Kirk La Shelle and Owen Wister

– Film 1923, dir. by Tom Forman, adapted by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton

– Film 1929, dir. by Victor Fleming, adapted by Howard Estabrook and Edward E. Paramore Jr.

– Film 1946, dir. by Stuart Gilmore, adapted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

– TV film, 2000, dir. by Bill Pullman, starring Bill Pullman, Diana Lane, Dennis Weaver.

– TV series 1962-1969, starring James Drury, Doug McClure, Lee J. Cobb (later Charles Bickford). Among guest stars: George C. Scott, Bette Davis, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin.

– Philosophy 4, 1903
– A Journey in Search of Christmas, 1904
– The Seven Ages of Washington, 1907
– Mother, 1907
– Padre Ignacio, 1911
– Members of the Family, 1911
– The Pentecost of Calamity, 1915
– A Straight Deal, 1920
– Indispensable Information for Infants, 1921
– When the West Was Won, 1926
– Collected Works, 1928
– When West Was West, 1928
– Roosevelt: the Story of a Friendship 1880-1919, 1930
– Two Appreciations of John Jay Chapman, 1934
– My Father, Owen Wister, and Ten Letters – to His Mother During His First Trip to Wyoming in 1885, 1952
– The Vain, 1958 (Play, Privately Printed)
– Owen Wister out West, 1958 (Ed. By Fanny Kemble Wister)
– My Dear Wister, 1972
– The West of Owen Wister, 1972
– That I May Tell You, 1979
– My Dear Wister,1982
– Owen Wister’s West, 1987
– Romney & Other New Works About Philadelphia, (Penn State Press, 2001)