The Wild West of Yester-Year

Owen Wister
By Rachel Kovaciny

Writers of western fiction, like myself, owe an immense debt to a man by the name of Owen Wister. I’d like to share more of what I’ve learned about the man widely regarded as the “father” of western fiction. Like the title character of his most-famous novel, The Virginian, Wister was not a native Westerner. He was born in Philadelphia, PA, to wealthy parents. He studied music at Harvard and in Paris and toured Europe after graduating with the highest honors. Later, he went back to Harvard for a second degree, this time in law. In fact, he sounds about as far as you can get from the ideal person to pen the first great cowboy novel. 

But when he was at Harvard, Wister made friends with a fellow named Teddy Roosevelt. When doctors advised him to seek a change of climate to improve his health in his mid-twenties, Wister followed his friend Roosevelt’s lead and headed west. He spent several summers in Wyoming, where he shot game, rode broncs, helped round up cattle, met American Indians, and fell in love with the west while it was still a little wild. Back home in Philadelphia, Wister practiced law and dabbled in writing fiction. He published a variety of articles and short stories that revolved around cowboys and other western subjects. And he continued to make yearly treks to the west, fifteen of them between 1885 and 1900. 

And, in 1902, he published a full-length novel set in the west: The Virginian. While his short stories had achieved some critical acclaim, The Virginian was nothing less than a smash hit. Some people debate whether it was the first “western novel,” but it was the first wildly popular western. Critics praised it, audiences couldn’t buy it fast enough, and it paved the way for an entire genre of books. I first read it when I was eleven. I’d seen a few episodes of the 1960s TV version at my grandparents’ house that summer, for they had cable TV. In the early 1990s, before DVDs and streaming video, cable was the only way you could see old shows. I’d developed a little crush on the title character’s sidekick Trampas, as played by Doug McClure. I knew I wouldn’t be able to see any more episodes until the next summer’s visit, so when I found the book they based it on at the library, I figured I had struck gold. I’d be able to read about Trampas and his friend, the nameless Virginian, all year until I could return to cable TV heaven! Picture me, eleven and struggling through one of my first forays into adult literature, eager to find my new hero. And then falling into a disappointed, shocked gloom when I discovered that, in Owen Wister’s book, Trampas is not The Virginian’s sweet, helpful sidekick. He’s the bad guy. In fact, he’s a terrible guy, not just a pesky antagonist. CChalk it up to the power of Wister’s storytelling that I stuck with the book anyway. Part of me kept hoping Trampas would redeem himself somehow and turn out to be not so awful after all. And part of me was so hooked on the story, I couldn’t stop reading, even if Trampas just stayed bad the whole way through. 

Viewed through a modern lens, The Virginian can seem archaic, even elitist, in its attitudes. It sometimes presents a rose-tinted and idealistic view of life in the west. Its characters can feel stereotypical, with courtly, knight-like heroes, determined damsels getting themselves into distressing situations, and villains who would probably twirl their mustaches if given the chance. But readers need to remember this book was the first of its kind, and any sense we might have today of its characters or plots being overused is because others have copied and paid homage to it so often in the last hundred and seventeen years. When I reread it two years ago, I still found it a compelling story that kept me turning page after page even though I knew how it ended.


After The Virginian achieved fame and fortune for him, Owen Wister continued to write and publish novels, biographies, and even a stage play based on The Virginian that toured the country for a decade. None of his other books reached the same heights. But they didn’t need to — his legacy as the father of westerns was secure.