American Literature Owen Wister
Gary Scharnhorst
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0168


Born into a patrician Philadelphia family, a descendant of Pierce Butler, a signator of the Constitution, and the grandson of the Shakespearean actor Fanny Kemble, Owen Wister (1860–1938) was educated in Europe and at the exclusive St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. He was admitted to Harvard College in 1878, where he studied music and befriended the future president Theodore Roosevelt. After his graduation in 1882, he enjoyed the Wanderjahr traditional to young men of his class. Denied permission by his father to study music in Europe, however, Wister returned to the United States and a tedious job in a Boston bank. He soon developed a case of neurasthenia, a nerve disease that has since been defined out of existence, and his physician S. Weir Mitchell prescribed a trip to the American West in the summer of 1885. Wister would be plagued by ill health for much of his adulthood. In 1891, three years after graduating from the Harvard Law School, he began to write professionally about the West and quickly earned a reputation in the field. He gathered his earliest western tales into three volumes: Red Men and White (1895); the short-story cycle Lin McLean (1897), a series of tales about a raucous ranch hand; and The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories (1900). Wister later turned his full attention to a minor character in some of the McLean tales, an unnamed but noble cowpuncher known simply as “the Virginian.” Eight of these tales were subsequently incorporated into his most important novel, The Virginian (1902). An immediate best-seller, it passed through fifteen printings during its first eight months and became the basis of a popular stage play Wister co-wrote the next year with the theatrical producer Kirk LaShelle. He subsequently published a novel of southern manners set in Charleston, Lady Baltimore (1906), and a biography of the first American president, The Seven Ages of Washington (1907). Seven of the eight tales Wister collected in Members of the Family (1911), his first western book since The Virginian, feature Scipio Le Moyne, the sidekick to the hero of his earlier novel. After Wister married his second cousin Molly Channing in 1898, he and his family often vacationed in the West, especially between 1911 and 1916, when he owned a ranch near Jackson’s Hole, Wyoming. An unapologetic “reform Republican” in the Roosevelt mold, he launched a failed anti-civic corruption campaign for a seat on the Philadelphia city council in 1908, and he championed the Great War as a defense of western civilization and culture. He collected his final elegaic western stories, all written after 1923, in the volume When West Was West (1928), and he published his last book, Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, both a personal memoir and biography of Teddy Roosevelt, in 1930. He died eight years later from a cerebral hemorrhage at his summer home in Rhode Island.

General Introductions

Cobbs 1984 and Etulain 1973 are the most satisfactory overviews of Wister’s entire career, and Whipp 1990 makes a case for Wister as a literary realist. In the heyday of the so-called myth and symbol school in American literary studies, Wister’s western fiction was a popular topic (Boatright 1951, Lewis 1954, Mogen 1975, Marovitz 1984, Stegner 1984). More recently, under the sway of the new American studies, Wister’s western fiction has become fodder for cultural critics and New Historicists (e.g., Bold 1982, Bold 2013).

  • Boatright, Mody C. “The American Myth Rides the Range: Owen Wister’s Man on Horseback.” Southwest Review 36 (Summer 1951): 157–163.

    A pioneering essay on Wister’s literary and cultural significance and whole-hearted endorsement of the myths of Anglo-Saxon superiority and laissez-faire economics.

  • Bold, Christine. “How the Western Ends: Fenimore Cooper to Frederic Remington.” Western American Literature 17 (Summer 1982): 116–135.

    DOI: 10.1353/wal.1982.0091

    Situates Wister in a western literary tradition that originated in Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (1827–1841) and Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods (1835) and concludes with Remington’s John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902) and The Way of an Indian (1908).

  • Bold, Christine. The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880–1924. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199731794.001.0001

    Examines the role of such organizations as the Cheyenne Club in the development of western American literature and the authority of clubmen in influencing the politics of the frontier depicted in The Virginian.

  • Cobbs, John L. Owen Wister. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 475. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

    A reliable overview of Wister’s life and career in the familiar Twayne’s United States Authors Series format.

  • Etulain, Richard W. Owen Wister. Boise State University Western Writers Series No. 7. Boise, ID: Boise State College, 1973.

    A fifty-page biographical sketch of Wister, which touches briefly on virtually all of his western tales.

  • Lewis, Marvin. “Owen Wister: Caste Imprints in Western Letters.” Arizona Quarterly 10 (1954): 147–156.

    Wister imagined a war between authoritarians and libertarians in which the authoritarians triumph. His bestselling novel exulted in a caste system that reinforced class markers.

  • Marovitz, Sanford E. “Unseemly Realities in Owen Wister’s Western/American Myth.” American Literary Realism 17 (Autumn 1984): 209–215.

    Argues the case for the increasing racial and class tolerance of Wister and many of his characters, including the Virginian.

  • Mogen, David. “Owen Wister’s Cowboy Heroes.” Southwestern American Literature 5 (1975): 47–61.

    Traces the development of the mythical American West in Wister’s fiction from its origins in Lin McLean to its emergence in The Virginian which depicts a fantasy of male maturation.

  • Stegner, Wallace. “Owen Wister: Creator of the Cowboy Myth.” American West 21 (January–February 1984): 48–52.

    An introduction by a Pulitzer Prize recipient to the unfinished “Chalkeye,” first published in this issue of the magazine. The protagonist of the fragment “looks toward Wister’s later literary efforts and the timeless time of myth.”

  • Whipp, Leslie T. “Owen Wister: Wyoming’s Influential Realist and Craftsman.” Great Plains Quarterly 10 (Fall 1990): 245–259.

    Attributes Wister’s influence on American popular culture to his realistic literary strategy and the “technical features” he deployed in The Virginian, such as the tenderfoot narrator, the epistolary device, and the romance of the hero and Molly Wood.

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