Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thoughts on re-reading a classic western novel

My class in the American western myth read Owen Wister's The Virginian for tonight's discussion. Published in 1902, it's clearly a romantic 19th-century novel in style and content, and some of the class found it difficult reading. But The Virginian set the mold for countless western novels, movies, and TV shows to come, including a series called The Virginian (in which the villain of the book miraculously becomes one of the good guys). I understand a remake of the movie is underway, and I've seen clips from the 1960s TV show used as an advertisement for something--a bank, I think.
If you haven't read it and  you have any interest in the American West and how we came to make cowboys our heroes, you should read it. The Virginian (we never learn his name) is the archetype of the mythic cowboy--innately smart and culture though unlettered (he's soon reading Shakespeare), clever in a foxy way, always a gentleman, with an inborn sense of right and wrong. Oh, yeah, he's really good-looking--and really young. Twenty-four when the book opens and twenty-eight when it closes. I shudder to think of myself at twenty-four.
Basically, the novel is a love story, the account of The Virginian's courtship of schoolteacher Molly, from New England. A narrator, perhaps an incarnation of Wister himself, tells the story, and we must forgive the lapses in point of view when he recounts things he was obviously not there to witness. Wouldn't get away with that in today's market.
My class's opinions (there aren't many people) varied from the book was difficult to read and Molly was pitiful to Molly was following the 19th-century stereotype of "follow your man," though that took her through a lynching and a shoot-out. No one seemed as disturbed as I was by the idea of vigilante justice that those events suggested, and one woman suggested the old Texas question, "Did he need killing?" The general opinion was that it was appropriate to time and place--readers of the time (1902) and even the first half of the twentieth century would understand and appreciate. In our post-Freidan era, we have a harder time identifying with the characters and the plot.
No one seemed to be much concerned with the basic concept that led me to choose the book: the impact it had on cultural development in this country during the whole twentieth century.
Next time (two weeks from now) we discuss Emerson Hough's Hearts Desire and I'll enlarge the discussion to talk about women in the pre-1900 American West. After that, remind me, please, not to teach again. It's a strain on my nerves.

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