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Indian wars, lynch mobs, desert crossings, mining camps, stagecoach robberiesall are brought vividly to life in Owen Wister’s Red Men and White, the first book of western stories written by the author of the classic cowboy novel, The Virginian. Published in 1895, most of the stories are based on actual events as told to Wister during his extensive travels in the Old West. Filled with humor, drama, and tragedy, Red Men and White offers a fascinating glimpse of Wister’s writing at a time when he was laying the foundations of the modern Western.
Owen Wister was born into Philadelphia high society in 1860. His grandmother was the renowned Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble, and his mother, Sarah Butler Wister, was a respected literary critic and close friend of novelist Henry James. His father, Owen Jones Wister, was a prominent physician from an old Pennsylvania family. After graduating from Harvard, the younger Wister floundered in search of a profession, until a mysterious illness in 1885 sent him on a journey west to recuperate. There he found his purpose in life as a writer seeking to capture the frontier characters and western landscapes that he grew to love. Wister published numerous stories in Harper’s magazine during the 1890s, many of them illustrated by the artist Frederic Remington. Red Men and White solidified Wister’s reputation and brought comparisons to Rudyard Kipling. It was followed by a western novel, Lin McLean (1897), and another volume of short stories, The Jimmyjohn Boss (1900). Wister capped off this most fertile period of his career with The Virginian (1902), which became a phenomenal best seller and is credited with transforming the cowboy into a national icon. His later writings included a novel, Lady Baltimore (1906), as well as biographies and political commentaries. Wister moved in the most exclusive social circles and was a frequent guest at Theodore Roosevelt’s White House. In the latter years of his life, he encouraged and supported new writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis. Wister’s last collection of western stories, When West Was West, appeared in 1928, ten years before his death.
How a person like Owen Wister became famous for writing stories like those in Red Men and White may at first seem puzzling. It was an improbable fate for someone who was raised in the rarefied world of boarding schools and country estates and who once seriously aspired to become a classical composer. Part of the answer lies in the stories themselves: they very much reflect the broader social concerns and anxieties of white educated middle- and upper-class Americans in the late nineteenth century. Three of the stories from Red Men and White, “Little Big Horn Medicine,” “Specimen Jones,” and “The General’s Bluff,” are episodes from the Indian wars, just ending in 1891. Two other stories, “The Serenade at Siskiyou” and “Salvation Gap,” are concerned with vigilante justicethe 1890s witnessed a historically large number of lynchings, particularly in the South (as Wister describes in his preface) but also happening nationwide. Two more of the stories, “The Second Missouri Compromise” and “A Pilgrim on the Gila,” which focus on political corruption, were certain to resonate with readers during the decade when a widespread political revolt was challenging both major parties. “La Tinaja Bonita,” with its multicultural love triangle, involved questions of ethnic, racial, and gender boundaries in a period when high levels of immigration were remaking life in America’s cities also resonated with readers. Seeking to explain the West as a setting for these picturesque tales, Wister in his preface refers to the country’s “uneven” historical development, which had resulted in “various centuries . . . jostled together as they are today upon this continent.” Yet even if one granted his idea that the West remained a throwback to an earlier time, untouched by progress, the topics of Wister’s western stories were as current as the day’s headlines.
Above all, Red Men and White expressed a desire for order in a very disorderly era, a central problem for men of Wister’s elite class and background. Such men, exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt, believed that it was up to them to bring order to the nation, with themselves at the top of the social heap. Wister’s well-trained ear may have allowed him to convey the speech and dialog of common people, but there is no denying that he was something of a snob. To his credit, he made true friends among the soldiers, cowboys, and wilderness guides that he met on his many trips roughing it in the West, though inevitably some of them borrowed money or were otherwise indebted to him. His attitude toward minorities and others whom he considered his social inferiors was stated all too plainly in an important essay, “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” published in September 1895, two months before Red Men and White appeared in bookstores. “No rood of modern ground is more debased and mongrel with its hordes of encroaching alien vermin,” he wrote, “that turn our cities to Babels and our citizenship into a hybrid farce. . . .” The essay had substantial input from Frederic Remington, who if anything was dimmer in his views of the lower classes. Nevertheless, Wister thought well enough of it to include the essay as a new preface for a later edition of Red Men and White. He obviously saw the two works as complementary. The stories dramatized situations of disorder, sometimes set right by characters acting singly or collectively; the essay defined the type of individual who could achieve such mastery: “the Saxon,” who throughout history had been “conqueror, invader, navigator, buccaneer, explorer, colonist, tiger-shooter.”1 Such a man became Wister’s ideal of the western hero.
This heroic type (or archetype) was eventually personified in Wister’s greatest creation, the character known as the Virginian, but it already hovered behind the various plots of Red Men and White. In “Specimen Jones,” for example, the title character uses his wits in an attempt to avert probable bloodshed with some Apaches, and he does the same for a clique of disgruntled ex-Confederates in “The Second Missouri Compromise.” Similarly, the real-life General George Crook in “The General’s Bluff” is shown to be every inch the cool customer, seeking to persuade the volatile Indian chief E-egante and his people to yield to federal authority. At times, however, words and stratagems were insufficient, and force became necessary to preserve order, Wister believed. His western men were made of stern stuff, as he depicts with the soldiers confronting the messianic Cheschapah’s foolishness in “Little Big Horn Medicine,” and with the male citizens in “The Serenade at Siskiyou,” who have little patience with the do-gooder meddling of their womenfolk in a matter of crime and punishment. More starkly, his male characters might violently redress offenses against their manhood perpetrated by women, as occurs at the hands of Drylyn in “Salvation Gap” and of Genesmere in “La Tinaja Bonita.” And as Wister explores in “A Pilgrim on the Gila,” where a classic western holdup is only the most visible sign of a whole web of official corruption, there were also those situations in dire need of a hero, but none appears.
Wister found his ideal of the western hero to be heartening, if not therapeutic, given his general pessimism about turn-of-the-century America and his own prospects within it. He had originally gone west in 1885 suffering from neurasthenia, a diagnostic grab-bag that physicians of the period applied to a wide range of poorly understood physical and psychological problems. Curiously, neurasthenia was never observed among ordinary people; it seemed only to afflict the extra-sensitive natures of the upper crust, who seemed especially susceptible to the pressures and clamor of modern urban-industrial life. Wister’s own case occurred after he had abandoned his dream of becoming a composer for a more respectable but humdrum career as a stockbroker, or perhaps a lawyer. He was the only child of demanding and exacting parents, with whom he remained too close; he sent a letter home to his overbearing mother every week well into adulthood. Bored and at loose ends after graduating from college, Wister had lived a rather dissipated life in Boston and co-wrote a risqué novel that was never published. With law school at Harvard looming in the fall of 1885, Wister in June succumbed to some sort of breakdown, and S. Weir Mitchell, the foremost expert on neurasthenia, advised him to take a “rest cure” on a ranch in Wyoming Territory.
Wister had lived and traveled widely in Europe, but prior to this trip had not been more than an hour’s train-ride westward from the East Coast. The ranch was situated at 6,600 feet elevation near the Laramie Mountains, a place completely new to his experience. As Wister’s eastern dude narrator in The Virginian remarks, looking on the same exotic scene, “‘What world am I in?’ I said aloud. ‘Does this same planet hold Fifth Avenue?’” Wister was quickly rejuvenated by several weeks of “living in the open air, and basking in the perfection of content,” camping, hunting, and horseback riding, even helping out at some roundups. His mouthpiece in The Virginian summed up the effect on him: “No lotus land ever cast its spell upon a man’s heart more than Wyoming had enchanted mine.” Yet beyond his sense of personal renewal, this stay and his many subsequent sojourns in the West evoked for Wister, viscerally and powerfully, the myth of the frontier: the notion that a new Americaand a new type of Americanwas being created in the free, pristine, boundless West. It was the “great playground of young men,” where their manhood could be tested by nature, savages, and villains, and where their inner Saxon could be unleashed.2
The trouble for Wister was that the West was not new, free, pristine, or boundless. Oppression, violence, crime, and corruption occurred there, as did the process of historical change. A number of scholars and critics have noted that Wister in his short stories of the 1890s sought somehow to freeze the passage of time, to achieve with words what Remington seemed to do with paint and sculpture. He wanted to preserve the Wild West and what it stood for as a timeless monument, to depict it as myth rather than as history. Wister’s conceit in the preface to Red Men and White that the West existed in another century was one hallmark of this attempt, as was the assertion in his “Cow-Puncher” article that the medieval knight and the cowboy were “nothing but the same Saxon of different environments . . . in each shape changelessly untamed.”3 But change had come to the West well before Wister wrote those defiant words. His first arrival in Wyoming virtually coincided with the beginning of the end of the open-range cattle kingdom and the heyday of the cowboy in the West. The terrible winter of 1886–87 decimated herds and drove many operations out of business, including the very ranch where Wister had spent his enchanting summer. The surrender of Apache resistance leader Geronimo in 1886 and the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890 signaled the conclusion of the Indian wars. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave his famous paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in which he pronounced the centuries-old frontier closed and saw the country now entering a new and uncertain phase in its historical development. More alarmingly to the conservative Wister, labor strikes and political radicalism were spreading across the West by the mid-1890s, as hard economic times hit the nation. But rather than dwell on all of these developments, he attempted to retreat to the West of his imagination, finding refuge in stories from “ancient surviving centuries” such as those collected in Red Men and White.
Wister was only partly successful, as Red Men and White revealshis anxieties still bled through to the story lines. He made his last stand with The Virginian, and it could be argued that with this work he did ultimately succeed in creating a timeless Old West, if indirectly. Countless pulp novels as well as western movies and television series, consumed by generation after generation of Americans, can be traced back to the formula concocted in Wister’s novel. (The Virginian itself was made into no less than five movie versions, the earliest by Cecil B. DeMille in 1914 and the latest produced as recently as 2000.) For Wister personally, however, the mythic vision of the West could not be sustained. He had preserved the West in Red Men and White and his two subsequent works of the 1890s. But by the ending of The Virginian, it is clear that progress and industry were arriving to close down the “great playground of young men,” sealed symbolically by the marriage of the Virginian to the schoolmarm. Certainly, Wister’s own marriage and large family may have contributed to his change in mindset. As he put it in Members of the Family (1911), one of only two western books that he published after The Virginian, “The nomadic, bachelor West is over, the housed, married West is established.” He now saw that it had been an “illusion” to think that the “eternal Saturday,” the “happy hunting-ground” of his youth, could ever be “permanent.”4
Wister’s later collections of stories, written sporadically over three decades, contrast significantly with Red Men and White. Most scholars agree that they are by turns darker and more superficial. Wister was largely done with the West by the time those books appeared in the 1910s and 1920s, reluctant to visit it, preferring instead to vacation in Europe. In one of his last works, thoughRoosevelt: The Story of a Friendship (1930)he recalled the fervor that had originally driven him to begin writing of the West in 1891. Wister justly placed himself among the triumvirate who had more or less invented the Old West for modern Americans. He remembered vividly a dinner conversation during which he and a companion talked about the West in literature. They praised Roosevelt, who by that time had already written a book about his experiences as a rancher, and they agreed that Remington’s illustrations were capturing the public’s imagination. But where was the American Kipling who would enshrine the West in fiction, which as everyone knew, always outlasted fact? That very evening in the autumn of 1891, Wister left the dinner, ran upstairs, and began to write his first western story.
Robert L. Dorman, Ph.D., is monographs librarian and assistant professor at Oklahoma City University. He is the author of Revolt of the Provinces: The Regionalist Movement in America, 1920–1945.
1. Owen Wister, “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 91 (September 1895): 603–604.
2. Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 36, 57, 71, 56.
3. Wister, “Cow-Puncher,” 604, 606.
4. Owen Wister, Members of the Family (New York: Macmillan, 1911), 9–11.