Most followers of Thoughts on the Edge of Forever probably know by now that I enjoy Westerns. A lot. Films, books, TV shows – whatever the medium, I will happily devour tales set in the Old West.
In many ways, the men in the Old West were the American equivalent of Old World knights. They were our gallant heroes on horseback who defeated the villains, saved the fair damsel, and destroyed evil so good people might thrive on the unimaginable wealth of the American West. Have Gun, Will Travel even references this perception of the Western man in the theme song about its hero, Paladin: “A knight without armor in a savage land.”
I have reviewed some books about the Old West by one of my favorite authors, Louis L’Amour, here on this blog several times. But a little while back, I got to read a classic western that was, in many ways, the progenitor of the archetypes we recognize in the genre today. This was none other than Owen Wister’s The Virginian.
This book has been made into a film several times. It also gave us the television series led by James Drury and Doug McClure. I began watching reruns of the show ages ago, so I knew something of the book’s characters and plot from research I did on the series.
But I have to say, studying the details really does not do the novel justice. It is something of a slow read, in the beginning. This book was written at the turn of the twentieth century, after all, when there was a certain form expected of a novel. The author used these forms liberally.
Of special interest to me is the fact that Wister dedicated his book to Theodore Roosevelt, even changing one page in the story because the President implied it was not well done or accurate. If that is not a stamp of approval, then I do not know what is!
The Virginian is told largely from the point of view of an unnamed Narrator. Due to poor health, our Narrator is invited west to get better by a friend named Judge Henry. The Judge sends his most “trustworthy man” to collect the Narrator at the train station. In case you have not guessed who this is yet, we know him throughout the story as the Virginian.
If you thought you knew the Virginian in James Drury’s portrayal of the character, readers, you have not seen anything yet! From start to finish he pulls surprise after surprise on you. Whether he is playing a devilishly brilliant prank on someone; dealing with his archenemy, Trampas, or expounding upon the equality of men, the Virginian is never still or dull.
Over time, the Narrator becomes a lovable character, too. Honorable mention goes to his and the Virginian’s mutual friend, Scipio le Moyne, who is absolutely wonderful. The Judge is an amicable character, and when you run into the preacher, Dr. MacBride – Holy cow! Do not read that section in the library. You will be laughing or choking so loud, people will have to shush you right out of the building!
There is only one thing about The Virginian which bothers me, and that is the damsel our lead falls in love with. Having been fed off of Louis L’Amour’s rich stories for so long, I expected Miss Molly Wood to have the same qualities as L’Amour’s women.
No such luck. Molly Wood is an absolute twit. More than once, I wanted to smack her upside the head and tell her how many buns make a dozen. I have never – not once – felt that way toward any of the women in L’Amour’s novels and stories, readers. It was a new and rather aggravating experience, which made reading this wonderful book a little trying at times.
Lest you think this was misogyny or sexism on Wister’s part, I will tell you that he characterizes two other women in the novel quite nicely. Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Henry are fine, smart Western women. They know their men and understand the Virginian better than Molly Wood does. Mrs. Taylor even goes so far as to say that if she could, she would marry him herself, and that she does not think Molly Wood is good enough for him. (I agree with her wholeheartedly on that.) I do not doubt that both these women also know how to handle guns, just like L’Amour’s women.
Another magnificently characterized woman in the story is Molly Wood’s great aunt. She is wise and capable, not to mention a deep thinker who knows her grandniece’s heart better than the girl’s mother, who is twice as irritating as Molly. So Wister did not think all women were airheads, readers. He respected women in general and treated three of them well in the book.
But this makes his decision to have Molly Wood be such a dense cluck more puzzling than before. I cannot help but wonder why he wrote her the way he did. Maybe she was based off of a real woman he knew; maybe she just walked into his head and he could not expel her. I do not know.
What I do know is that she drove me crazy enough to wish the Virginian had not selected her as his bride. To pair someone that amazing, that wonderful, off with a woman so stubbornly stupid seems pretty unfair to him and to readers like me.
Other than this quibble, I enjoyed reading The Virginian. I hope that you will, too, readers, in spite of all my griping. It really is a wonderful story that should be read more often than it is.
‘Til next time!