. . . translation of a Polish phrase meaning “not my problem”.
Click on the image to enlarge.
It would not be an exaggeration to call The Virginian, by Owen Wister, from 1902, the most important work of Western fiction ever published. It almost singehandedly made the Western novel respectable and almost singlehandedly created the modern myth of the cowboy as a kind of knight errant of the frontier.
The novel was part of a larger cultural movement in America which sought to understand the meaning of the frontier, and its conquest, in the life of nation. In 1890, the U. S. Census Bureau had announced the end of the frontier — meaning that there were no longer large habitable areas of the country untouched by settlement. An era in American history was coming to a close and the moment inspired a wave of nostalgia and reflection. The crusade to preserve wilderness regions intensified and the colorful legends of frontier life started to become codified into mythic conventions.
Theodore Roosevelt’s memoirs of his various Western adventures, ranching and hunting, published in the decades preceding The Virginian, had contributed to his national reputation as a quintessential American figure. The Western drawings and paintings of Frederic Remington (a friend of Wister’s who illustrated one of Roosevelt’s Western memoirs when it was serialized in a magazine) along with those of Charles Russell were widely reproduced.
It was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (above) that gave this cultural trend its most sensational dramatic and visual expression, which the movies would eventually appropriate and expand on, but it was Wister’s book which inaugurated the new literature associated with the trend, one very different from the lurid exaggerations of the 19th-Century dime-novel narratives.
The Virginian is surprisingly readable today. It’s written in a breezy, genial style, and because it portrays a way of life in 19th-Century Wyoming that was already disappearing in 1902, its quaint Victorian mores seem more nostalgic than dated. Its celebration of a simple, decent, gallant manhood informed Western literature and movies for generations — the book has been adapted for the screen six times (that’s Gary Cooper above in one of the adaptations) — and remains appealing in our own time.
Ernest Hemingway’s post-WWI investigation of manhood is vested with more doubt and angst than Wister’s, but owes something to it. Hemingway loved popular Western fiction, and he and Wister were friends. You might say that Hemingway tried to imagine Wister’s Virginian as a veteran of the wars of the 20th Century, wondering what might be left of him and his simple, gracious virility after passing through those epic soul-shattering catastrophes.
My hatred of modern-day “L. A.” (as some people like to call it) is equaled only by my love of Los Angeles (with a hard ‘g’ please) before my time, the 1950s and earlier.
From Bryan Castañeda comes a link to the wonderful footage above, apparently filmed to be used as process shots for the 1948 movie Shockproof, directed by Douglas Sirk.
In the early days of cinema, itinerant cameramen would have collected footage like this as “actualities” for exhibition to audiences spellbound by the sheer beauty and fascination of tracking shots depicting their own or distant cities. By 1948, the spell of such shots was broken, at least as a stand-alone commercial product, relegated to material for back-screen projections, but the footage recorded is just as beautiful and fascinating as that collected by the cinematographers of the Edwardian era.
I attended a venerable New England prep-school (above) called St. Paul’s. It numbers among its graduates several famous people, among them John Kerry and Gary Trudeau, but the graduate I most admire, from the class of 1877, is Owen Wister:
Wister, who was from Philadelphia, went on to attended Harvard College, where he befriended Theodore Roosevelt, and like Roosevelt he traveled about on the Western frontier and became enamored of that region. Also like Roosevelt, he became a friend of Frederic Remington, the Western artist.
In 1902, Wister wrote what is now considered the first classic cowboy novel, The Virginian — probably the most influential work of Western fiction ever published. It introduced the line “When you call me that, SMILE” as well as a host of other Western scenes and themes and types that would become clichés in time.
It was enormously successful commercially, and remains readable today — an extremely entertaining work of popular fiction which helped fuel the craze for all things Western that gripped America around the turn of the last century. It preceded by only a year The Great Train Robbery, the one-reel movie that almost singehandedly established the story film as a viable commercial form, helping to create the genre of the movie Western in the process.
St. Paul’s is not the sort of place you’d think of as a breeding ground for authors of Western fiction, but every century or so it produces one — like the author of Fourteen Western Stories, now available in a paperback as well as a Kindle edition.
Underwood Deviled Ham, which has been around since 1868, was a popular item on the Western frontier, along with many other canned goods. In 1902, in his novel The Virginian, Owen Wister wrote:
The cow-boy is now gone to worlds invisible; the wind has blown away the white ashes of his camp-fires; but the empty sardine box lies rusting over the face of the Western earth.