Friday, December 2, 2011

The Iconic Cowboy: The Virginian

by Libby Sternberg

My first encounter with The Virginian was the television show of the same name back in the 1960s, the one with James Drury in the title role and Doug McClure as his pal, Trampas.

The Virginian, TV style
His pal? In the book, Trampas is The Virginian’s adversary, not his friend. 

But I didn’t make that shocking discovery until thirty-some years after the TV show, at a period in my life when I was reading absorbing old stories I’d passed over during my teen years. The first in this reading journey was Catherine Marshall’s Christy set a few decades after The Virginian, not in the wilds of Wyoming but in the equally foreign (to me) terrain of the Smoky Mountains.

Both stories have similar themes, however. They deal with questions of morality in the face of lawlessness. The heroines of both books have to reconcile their church-and-school-learned views on right and wrong with the reality of wrongdoers. The heros in both books have to actually deal with the wrongdoers. In the Virginian’s case, action involves painful decisions.

I swooned over the Virginian and his romance with the feisty schoolteacher Molly, two strong characters from opposite backgrounds. She was educated; he was not. She was at ease in society; he was not. They both shared a principled view of the world. His views, however, were put to the test, while hers were tested only by reflection.

Owen Wister masterfully built up their attraction by first building strong characters. From the moment readers encounter the Virginian, they are fascinated by him. He’s the iconic cowboy—strong, fair, a doer, not a talker. Molly, the woman he comes to woo, is equally strong, though, but in different ways. Her character unfolds with relentless drive, as steady and forceful as the train that first takes her from Bennington, Vermont on her journey west.

Bennington—I knew at least part of that journey. Not too long after reading The Virginian, my family moved to Vermont. But I made regular train trips back to my native Maryland, probably following some of the same tracks as Molly on the very first part of her fictional passage to a new life beyond her staid New England existence.

The first time I read the book I became so swept away in the romance at its core that other parts of the story remained in memory’s shadows. Only later when I reread the novel did I become aware of its historical aspects—the Johnson County range wars, the fight against corruption, the moral ambiguities involved in striving for freedom and independence.

Nothing summed up that latter theme better than the final dramatic passages in the book, involving, of course, a shootout of High Noon proportions. I don’t think I give anything away by reproducing part of the argument between the Virginian and Molly just minutes before this scene. It encapsulates the moral debate running through the book:

“I am not going to let him shoot me,” he said quietly.
“You mean—you mean—but you can come away!” she cried. “It’s not too late yet. You can take yourself out of his reach. Everybody knows that you are brave. What is he to you? You can leave him in this place. I’ll go with you anywhere. To any house, to the mountains, to anywhere away. We’ll leave this horrible place together and—and—oh, won’t you listen to me?” She stretched her hands to him. “Won’t you listen?”
He took her hands. “I must stay here.”
Her hands clung to his. “No, no, no. There’s something else. There’s something better than shedding blood in cold blood. Only think what it means! Only think of having to remember such a thing! Why, it’s what they hang people for! It’s murder!”
He dropped her hands. “Don’t call it that name,” he said sternly.
“When there was the choice!” she exclaimed, half to herself, like a person stunned and speaking to the air. “To get ready for it when you have the choice!”
“He did the choosing,” answered the Virginian. “Listen to me. Are you listening?” he asked, for her gaze was dull.
She nodded.
“I work hyeh. I belong hyeh. It’s my life. If folks came to think I was a coward—”
“Who would think you were a coward?”
“Everybody. My friends would be sorry and ashamed, and my enemies would walk around saying they had always said so. I could not hold up my head again among enemies or friends.”
“When it was explained—”
“There’d be nothing to explain. There’d just be the fact.” He was nearly angry.
“There is a higher courage than fear of outside opinion,” said the New England girl.
Her Southern lover looked at her. “Cert’nly there is. That’s what I’m showing in going against yours.”

As I reread and absorbed the themes of the story, I became newly appreciative of Owen Wister’s craft. He’d taken a real part of American history and fictionalized it. In doing so, he probably made it more real to readers than a dry examination of the facts of that time, especially of the gray shades between all those white and black hats. That’s the beauty and power of fiction—to make reality… more real.

When I decided to write a western historical, I have to admit to having The Virginian on my mind. Not the exact details of the story—no, I wasn’t interested in re-creating that. I knew I wouldn’t be able to come close to what Wister had achieved.

But I did want to place an iconic cowboy and a strong-willed, if troubled, woman in a setting where they’d both have to deal with moral questions that challenged their principled views of the world. Thus, my novel Kit Austen’s Journey was born, the tale of a woman trying to escape her past to start a new life only to realize that she cannot stop herself from falling in love, especially when the object of her affection is the archetypal western man—strong, resolute and kind.


Readers can find Kit Austen's Journey for Kindle here, for Nook here, and for other ereaders here. It is now also available in print.

The Virginian is available for free from Istoria Books. Go to our website at and look for the "Free Favorites" section

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