Owen Wister

Inducted: 2010
Born: 1860 - Died:
1938

There is some irony in the character creation of the quintessential cowboy hero in the fictional literature of the American West. The John Wayne image of the strong, silent, chivalrous Western hero was created by a Harvard graduate who once wrote operas and poetry. Novelist, playwright, screenwriter, composer, and poet Owen Wister was born in 1860 in the northwestern part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Owen Jones Wister, was a wealthy physician raised in Germantown. He was a cousin of Sally Wister, who wrote a journal describing life in Philadelphia during the British occupation in 1777 and 1778. His mother, Sarah Butler Wister, was the daughter of Fanny Kemble, a British actress, and Pierce Mease Butler, heir to a fabulous fortune and a notorious gambler and slaveowner.

Wister briefly attended schools in Switzerland and Britain and later studied at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he was a member of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and the Delta Kappa Epsilon (Alpha chapter). Wister was also a member of the Porcellian Club, the most exclusive Harvard men’s club, through which he became lifelong friends with future 26th President Theodore Roosevelt. As a senior, Wister wrote the Hasty Pudding’s then-most successful show, Dido and Aeneas, whose proceeds aided in constructing their theater. Wister graduated from Harvard in 1882.

Wister began his literary career in 1882, publishing The New Swiss Family Robinson, a parody of the 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson. It was so well received that Mark Twain wrote a letter to Wister praising it. Despite the relative success of his first literary effort, Wister aspired to a career in music and spent two years studying at a Paris Conservatory. After writing six operas that were never produced, he gave up his idea for a musical career, returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1888. He practiced briefly with a Philadelphia firm but was never truly interested in law as a career. He was interested in politics, however, and was a staunch supporter of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1885, he suffered a breakdown that included vertigo, blinding headaches, and hallucinations. Like his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston traveled west to restore his health. By July 1885, he found himself a guest at the VR Ranch near present-day Douglas, Wyoming. He was impressed with the beauty of Wyoming’s half-civilized newness, and especially its population of profane, whiskey-soaked, pistol-wearing ranch hands, gamblers, stage drivers, and cavalry troopers.

He began to write stories and sketches of Western life and, for the next 15 years, spent nearly every summer living on ranches, in cow camps, and at cavalry outposts, gathering material. While his writing was fiction, it was based on events he had heard or seen. In 1896, his stories began appearing in Harper’s Weekly, including Red Men and White, followed by Lin McLean and The Jimmyjohn Boss. The magazine gave him a growing audience and urged him to write a novel. He began writing The Virginian in 1901, basing it on several of his cowboy stories and adding a significant character, Molly Wood, who came to Wyoming as a schoolteacher. While the love story is predictable, the ranch and trail life episodes are unique. The Virginian demonstrates his superior skill, wit, and character in feats of horsemanship, practical joking, gunplay, and, most famously, in facing down an enemy (“When you call me that, smile!”).

The Virginian was an immediate sensation, selling nearly 200,000 copies in its first year. Within six months of the book’s publication, Wiser was one of the best-known writers in the world. It was adapted successfully for Broadway by Wister himself. Five movies and at least one TV series have been made since, and the book has never been out of print. By 1938, Wister’s novel had sold 1.5 million copies.

More importantly, Wister’s novel became the template on which Western books and movies are based – the eastern tenderfoot narrator, the innocent schoolmarm, hostile Indians, cattle rustlers, the shrewd camp cook, the callow kid, and the devious, doomed villain. Great Western movies such as Stagecoach, Shane, and The Unforgiven all follow the model Wister created in The Virginian.

In 1898, Wister married Mary Channing, his second cousin. The couple had six children. Mary died during childbirth in 1913. Wister’s writing about the West ended with The Virginian. Much of his 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 Willet family, but in Wister’s time, it was dominated by the boat-building family of the Saunders, second only in importance to the Herreshoff’s in Bristol. Writers were drawn to Saunderstown because of the recreational qualities of the area. Several prominent Philadelphian families were permanent summer residents, including the Wisters, the Whartons, and the Lippincotts. Wister built a year-round home in Saunderstown in 1908 at 1600 Boson Neck Road. He named it “Crowfield” and summered there until he died there 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 his lifelong friend, Theodore Roosevelt. Wister’s collected works, numbering eleven volumes, were published in 1928.

Since 1978, University of Wyoming Student Publications has published the literary and arts magazine Owen Wister Review. The magazine was published bi-annually until 1996 and became an annual publication in the spring of 1997. Just within the western boundary of the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, there is an 11,490-foot mountain named Mount Wister, named for Owen Wister. Near a house that Wister built near La Mesa, California, but never occupied due to his wife’s death, is a street called Wister Drive. In the same neighborhood are Virginian Lane and Molly Woods Avenue (named for a character in The Virginian). Wister himself named all those streets.

In 1976, Owen Wister was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. In 2010, Owen Wister was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.

Films inspired by The Virginian
· The Virginian (1914 film) directed by Cecil B. DeMille, with Dustin Farnum
· The Virginian (1923 film) with Kenneth Harlan and Florence Vidor
· The Virginian (1929 film) with Gary Cooper and Walter Huston
· The Virginian (1946 film) with Joel McCrea and Brian Donlevy
· The Virginian (1962–1971 TV series) with James Drury and Doug McClure
· The Virginian 2000 telefilm with Bill Pullman, Diane Lane, John Savage, Colm Feore, and Dennis Weaver
· The Virginian 2014 telefilm with Trace Adkins, Brendan Penny, Ron Perlman, and Victoria Pratt

Novels of Owen Wister
· The New Swiss Family Robinson (1882)
· The Dragon of Wantley: His Tale (1892)
· Lin McLean (1897) (1918 filmed as A Woman’s Fool by John Ford)
· The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902)
· Philosophy 4: A Story of Harvard University (1903)[19]
· A Journey in Search of Christmas (1904)
· Lady Baltimore. Hurst & Company. 1906. p. 17.
· Padre Ignacio: or, the Song of Temptation (1911)
· Romney: And Other New Works about Philadelphia (written 1912–1915; published incomplete 2001)

Operas
· Dido and Aeneas
· Kenilworth
· Listen to Binks
· Montezuma
· Villon
· Watch Your Thirst: A Dry Opera in Three Acts

Plays
· The Dragon of Wantley
· The Honeymoonshiners
· Lin McLean
· Slaves of the Ring
· That Brings Luck

For additional reading:
· “Owen Wister: Brief Life of a Mythmaker,” Harvard Magazine, 2002.
· “The Board of Overseers”. Catalog of the Officers and Students of the University in Cambridge. 1918.
· Wister, Owen (1958). “Introduction”. In Wister, Fanny Kemble (ed.). Owen Wister Out West; His Journals and Letters (1st ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

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