It happened today - May 28, 2015
If Dracula gives you the willies (see “It Happened Today” for May 26, the Virginian might help calm you down. It was on May 28 of 1902 that Owen Wister, a sickly Easterner with poetic and musical talents and summa cum laude Harvard degree, created another iconic figure in modern culture, the cowboy.
Of course there were other cowboy stories, of varying degrees of mediocrity or worse, before Wister’s book appeared. But it had an immediate transformative effect on the popular understanding of this figure, creating the brave, courteous, lighting-fast, tall, laconic lone hero represented by Hollywood greats from Gary Cooper to John Wayne and, in a more sinister vein, Clint Eastwood. Also Ronald Reagan, if the words “Hollywood great” make you smile when you say it.
Actually in the book the Virginian’s line is “When you call me that, smile!” But sometimes it’s what you should have said that makes you famous. And again it underlines the iconic power of certain cultural creations that they overshadow not only their creators but even their own actual selves.
Wister himself, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt who recuperated from a mysterious illness out West, did intend to influence the culture, to preserve the world of the cowboy even as progress was eliminating it (see Kid Shelleen’s lament about turning the OK Corral into a roller skating rink in Cat Ballou, one of literally hundreds, probably thousands, of films that would not exist without Wister’s achievement, including the parody genre).
Wister’s book was an immediate success, selling over a million copies by the time he died in 1938 (having decided, perhaps wisely, never to write another Western).
There are things to lament in Westerns, including offensive racial attitudes that, it must be said, were reflected rather than created in the genre. And of course a vast flood of derivative work that ought never to have seen the light of screen. Something like a third of American movies in the 1920s were westerns and in 1959 an incredible 28 western series were running on television in the U.S. And yet the Western also gave the United States, and by extension the West, a kind of native aristocracy of merit, an admirable model of a hero who does not look for trouble but meets it bravely when it comes, defends the vulnerable, and gets off great lines while doing it.
Smile when you read that, pardner.