Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Owen Wister, native of Germantown, wrote The Virginian (1902), which was influential in the establishment of the characters and format of that genre.
Owen Wister, a son of a wealthy Germantown family, was born in 1860. The future novelist first showed promise as a musician, though his father directed him into a career in banking and then in the law. Plagued with neurasthenia, Wister took a variant of the “rest cure” of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, traveling to Wyoming on Mitchell’s advice. From these experiences, Wister began to write short stories on the West. His Western writing culminated in the 1902 publication of The Virginian, the most popular Western ever. During his career, Wister published another novel, many short stories, an opera, three biographies, and a number of political pieces. Owen Wister died at his summer home in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, in 1938.
Owen Wister was born on July 14, 1860, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. He was the only child of well-to-do parents. Owen Jones Wister was a well-established doctor in Germantown, and he descended from a successful German family. Sarah Wister was the daughter of the famous stage actress Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler, who was a descendant of the Butlers of South Carolina. Wister’s mother influenced the course of his early life profoundly. Her interests in culture and learning fostered Wister’s early talents in music and writing.
Wister’s education matched the expectations for the upper class of his time. From 1870 to 1873 he joined his family in Europe and was taught in schools in England and Switzerland. In 1873, the Wister family returned to Philadelphia and young Owen, known to the family as “Dan,” was packed off to the St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. Upon his graduation, he matriculated at Harvard University. His time at Harvard was invigorating for the budding young musician and writer. He wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and published a fantasy called The New Swiss Family Robinson (1882), as well as a light opera for the Hasty Pudding Club, Dido and Aeneas (1892). Wister also made lifelong friends at Harvard, most prominently future president Theodore Roosevelt, future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and future Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. He graduated from Harvard in 1882 summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He was determined to pursue a career as a composer.
Following graduation, Wister traveled to Europe to study music. His musical ability was so apparent that his grandmother engineered a performance for the great piano virtuoso Franz Liszt, who said that Wister had “un talent prononcé ” (a pronounced talent). After his audience with Liszt, Wister studied at the Paris Conservatoire. However, Wister’s ever-practical father ordered him home in 1883 to find a proper job. Wister returned to a position at the Union Safe Deposit Vault. He loathed bankers for the rest of his life. After a year’s drudgery, he sought and was granted parental permission to return to Harvard for law school.
He expressed his disappointment and frustration during these years in two ways. First, he wrote a novel called A Wise Man’s Son about a young man destined to be a painter, but forced by his father into business. Upon the advice of William Dean Howells, the leading figure in American Letters at that time, Wister did not attempt to have the novel published. The manuscript has not survived. Wister then began to suffer a number of nervous and mental problems that incapacitated him and worried his family. Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell eventually diagnosed the malady as neurasthenia and prescribed a variation of his famous “rest cure.” Following the doctor’s prescription, Wister made the first of numerous trips to Wyoming and to other parts of the West. This cure became the inspiration for the work that made Wister famous.
By 1891, Wister determined to do something with the copious journals he had kept during his trips to the West. He recalled in his semi-autobiographical Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship (1930) that in the autumn of that year that he and his friend Walter Furness were discussing the West when one of them asked “Why wasn’t some Kipling saving the sage-brush for American literature, before the sage-brush and all that it signified went the way of everything?” After lighting a cigar, Wister recalls telling his companion, “Walter, I’m going to try it myself...I’m going to start this minute.” He even purports to have written most of his first published story, “Hank’s Woman,” by midnight. The accuracy of particular timeline is questioned, but Wister’s story was published in January of the next year in Harper’s Weekly. He also sent a graphic story, “Balaam and Pedro,” to Harper’s Monthly, where it was illustrated by the renowned artist Frederick Remington.
During the rest of the 1890s, Wister continued writing short stories on western themes. In 1895, he published his first volume of short stories, Red Men and White. In 1897, his first “novel” appeared, Lin McLain. Though Wister liked to call it a novel, Lin McLain is largely a stitched-together collection of stories with a common character. He published The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories in 1900. The featured story of the volume, “Padre Ignacio,” was so much a departure from Wister’s usual concentration on action and on landscape that Remington found it impossible to illustrate for Harper’s. It is the moving tale of a priest exiled from Europe to Mexican California with only a yearly packet of letters and musical scores from Paris to maintain his connection to the world. He becomes tempted by the tales of the outside world that an adventurous creole tells him. He is so tempted that his idyllic existence is temporarily marred. He eventually regains his satisfaction with his mission on the Camino Real, and he dies with a “silent and thankful heart.”
By the end of 1897, Wister resolved to ask his distant cousin Mary Channing Wister to marry him, and he proposed on New Year’s Day in 1898. They married on April 21, 1898, at the bride’s home, and they honeymooned in Charleston, South Carolina, and the state of Washington. The former location provided inspiration for a future novel. The couple had six children during the course of their marriage.
Wister began to work on the novel that elevated him from the ranks of accomplished short story writers to the level of celebrity. Wister decided to create a novel about a character who had appeared fleetingly in some of the Lin McLain stories, a character known only as “the Virginian.” Darwin Payne describes this unnamed character as “a composite figure representing Wister’s dream of the kind of superior individual the American West should have produced. The Virginian was ruggedly masculine, honest, and tender. He was not perfect; he recognized in himself a need for culture and learning.” The tale of this superior individual is told in 1902’s The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains through the eyes of a “tenderfoot” Easterner who bears more than a passing resemblance to Wister himself. An episodic novel, though much more unified than Wister’s earlier Lin McLain had been, The Virginian depicts the changing climate of the West, the growing relationship between the Easterner and the Virginian, and the beauty of the Western landscape. It creates many standard features of the Western genre: fast-draw contests, noble code of conduct, the Eastern school marm, and many others. It is also the source of the great Western line, “When you call me that, smile,” which was line in response to an insult levied at the Virginian. Loren Estleman writes, “the importance of Owen Wister to the literature of the American West cannot be overstated....With The Virginian, Wister fashioned both a native language and a national voice.”
In his initial review of The Virginian, a New York Times critic wrote: “Owen Wister has come pretty near to writing the American novel.” The unnamed critic went on to praise the novel in detail: “It rings true, and we believe it to be a faithful study. Certainly the book is absorbingly interesting. It contains humor, pathos, poetic description, introspective thought, sentiment, and even tragedy.” Henry Irving Brock later wrote in the Times, “In the main, Mr. Wister writes well and true...The Virginian is a character that will stick in the mind of even a confirmed novel reader for a long time, and leave its mark there.” However, he did quibble over Wister’s depiction of dialect and took him to task for the last chapter, which portrayed the couple’s honeymoon. Brock said, “Nobody has any right to know anything about the details of honeymoons—even where basic savages are concerned.”
In 1904, the stage version of The Virginian appeared in New York after a very successful try-out in New Haven, Connecticut. The Times critic wrote that while “The Virginian is well worth seeing, both for its artistic and its popular interest,” it missed a chance to become a “great American drama” by remaining a “dramatized novel.” Despite this review and other lukewarm reviews, The Virginian enjoyed a four-month run on Broadway and toured successfully throughout the country for a decade. The legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille began his career by producing the first film version of The Virginian in 1914. Film versions also appeared in 1923, 1929 (one of the first “talkies,” starring Gary Cooper as the Virginian), and 1946. The novel also served as the basis for the NBC television series, The Virginian, which ran from September 19, 1962, to March 24, 1971.
After the amazing success of The Virginian, Wister left the West as the primary location for his fiction and turned south. In 1906, he published Lady Baltimore. It concerned the fate of the genteel “Old South” in Charleston and the threat posed by carpetbaggers. The novel generally was well-reviewed and sold well. Wister’s great friend, President Roosevelt, however, loathed the book for putting too favorable a light on the Southerners and too dark a shadow on the Northerners. Darwin Payne writes that Roosevelt “reacted so vehemently against Lady Baltimore that is it surprising the friendship survived.”
Following the success of Lady Baltimore, Wister lived largely as a celebrity. He gave many speeches at public events and similar activities. In 1906, Wister fell ill with another bout of something akin to neurasthenia; he was incapacitated for a year. After his illness, he gravitated into politics. He not only vigorously supported his good friend Theodore Roosevelt’s third party candidacy for the presidency in 1912, but he also ran as a reform candidate for the Philadelphia City Council. He lost and turned his hand to writing a third novel, one that would do for Philadelphia what The Virginian had done for the West and Lady Baltimore had done for the South. He had written some 48,000 words of Romney, when his beloved wife Mary died in 1913. This devastated Wister and ended any further significant work on the novel. He wrote in his journal in January 1914, he felt his life had “begun the final volume—And the thought is not unwelcome.”
Wister did not turn back to fiction until 1928. During the World War I period, he devoted himself to writing a set of three “political and moral polemics,” as James Butler terms them, on getting America involved in the war. These were 1915’s The Pentecost of Calamity, 1920’s A Straight Deal, and 1922’s Neighbors Henceforth. He was aggressively anti-German before, during, and after the war. When President Wilson did not take a course against the Germans in the early years of the war, Wister used his celebrity status to attack him. In early 1916, he published a sonnet to Wilson in which he says, “Dead Washington would wake and blast your soul.”
After the war, Wister’s writing production dwindled. In 1923, he published a satiric opera about Prohibition entitled Watch Your Thirst. He also returned to his Western material and published When West Was West in 1928. John L. Cobbs writes that “in each story, there is a moving portrait of fallen greatness. The greatness is that of the early West which Wister had seen and presented in his first fiction as a world of almost infinite potential and an essential moral and spiritual health.” Darwin Payne writes that it marks the end of the “real” West for Wister. Two stories in the volume are most noteworthy: “The Right Honorable, The Strawberries,” which was about an English lord exiled to America and his eventual decay and “At the Sign of the Last Chance,” where the inhabitants of a depopulated town come to realize that the town and their saloon have died, causing them to bury the saloon’s sign according to English custom.
In 1930, Wister published his last substantial creation, Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship. It was the third of three biographies that Wister wrote. The others were about George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant. John Cobbs writes, “Taken together, the cast of characters [in Roosevelt] formed the rootstock of America’s ruling class at the beginning of the century.” The book is much more similar to the memoir genre than to traditional biographies.
Owen Wister died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, on July 21, 1938. His funeral was held at the Church of St. James the Less in Bryn Mawr, and he was buried in North Laurel Hill Cemetery. At his death, Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, praised Wister’s “brilliant literary work, lofty standards, high enthusiasms, and nobility of character.”
According to the Official Website of the Town of Medicine Bow, in 1939, the towns people of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, erected the Owen Wister Monument made of petrified wood as a “tribute to Owen Wister and his book that made our town famous.”
In May 1940, the Bulletin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art published an 1800 word excerpt of Wister’s Philadelphia novel. In 2001, James A. Butler published the complete surviving text of Romney (some 48,000 words) with The Pennsylvania State University Press.
The Owen Wister Award is given yearly by the Western Writers of America for lifetime contributions to the field of western literature.
Lin McLean. New York: A.L. Burt, 1897.
The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. New York: Macmillan, 1902.
Lady Baltimore. New York: Hurst, 1906.
Romney and Other New Works About Philadelphia. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2001.
Short Story Collections
Red Men and White. New York: Harper’s, 1895.
The Jimmyjohn Boss. New York: Harper’s, 1900.
Members of the Family. New York: Macmillan, 1911.
When West Was West. New York: Macmillan, 1928.
Ulysses S. Grant. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1901.
The Pentecost of Calamity. New York: Macmillan, 1916.
Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship. New York: Macmillan, 1930.
Watch Your Thirst: A Dry Opera In Three Acts. New York: Macmillan, 1923.