Owen Wister (1860-1938) the quintessential cowboy hero in the fictional literature of the American West. The image of the strong, silent, chivalrous demeanor of countless buckskin and Levi-clad templars of justice of the plains received their inspiration from a Philadelphian elitist who spent much of his writing career in Bayside, Saunderstown, Rhode Island.
Musician, lawyer, and novelist, Owen Wister, shared at least one personal experience with one of his main authentic heroes, Theodore Roosevelt. They both spent several summers in the West seeking to restore their health. As was the case for both greenhorn easterners, they absorbed more than fresh air, sturdy diet, and sunshine. Like another contemporary writer, Mark Twain, Wister captured the quirks and qualities of the people he met in the West and limned them out in literary sketches which found a permanent home in his successful novels of the region. The most famous of these, The Virginian, was written in 1902. Modern western author, Wallace Stegner, sums up The Virginian as “notable less as realism than as a triumphant definition of the cowboy as folk hero.”
Owen Wister was born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1860. His family had come to area in 1727 as part of the German Palatine migration. They prospered. His father was a physician and Owen was related through his mother to Fanny Kemble, the famous Shakespearean actress. Their home was a frequent destination of famous cultural figures, like Henry James.
The domestic advantages of a comfortable and interesting family atmosphere were not wasted on Owen. He attended good private schools and was tutored in classical music. He believed he would enter the professional musical world but became a lawyer instead. The time between his undergraduate years at Harvard (class of 1882) and Harvard Law School (1888) were the years when he went West for health reasons. He stayed in Buffalo, Wyoming and fell in love with life on the plains during these five summers in the West.
In 1891 he wrote his first western story. In 1896, Red Men and White appeared, followed by Lin McLean (1898) and The Jimmyjohn Boss (1900). Two years later came The Virginian. Again, according to Wallace Stegner, “what he actually created in the soft-voiced Virginian was not a rogue, but a myth.” The book was dedicated to the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. It was a best seller for six months and then converted into a Broadway play whose road show toured for ten years. There have been four movie versions of the book. By 1938, Wister’s novel had sold 1.5 million copies.
Much of Wister’s later writing career was spent in his summer home in the North Kingstown village of Saunderstown. The seaside working waterfront and visitor mecca is located south of Wickford and Plum Beach. It was originally a farming community of the Willett family, but in Wister’s time it was dominated by the boat-building family of the Saunders, second only in importance to the Herreshoffs of Bristol. Writers were originally drawn to the recreational qualities of the area around the time of the American Civil War. Several prominent Philadelphian families, notably the Whartons and Lippincotts were permanent summer residents. Author, Christopher LaFarge and his extended family put down roots there. It was logical for Wister to become part of this colony, many of whose members built year-round houses.Wister’s home, constructed in 1908 at 1600 Boston Neck Road is still there. He named it “Crowfield” and summered there until his death in 1938.
In later years, Wister’s writings included books of humor and works on the English language. His biographical studies featured presidents Grant, Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt. His fascination for the latter did not extend to T.R.’s cousin, Franklin, who Wister opposed vigorously over the issue of enlarging the Supreme Court. Wister’s collected works, numbering some eleven volumes, were published in 1928.
Albert T. Klyberg, L.H.D.