W is for… Well, my theme for all posts comes from my love of the Old West and that is where we will wind up. But first we must meet Owen.
Owen was born in Philadelphia, his parents’ only child. His doctor father was well off enough to marry the daughter of a famed English actress, Fanny Kemble. His mother, Sarah, enjoyed a successful career of her own as a magazine feature writer. The couple enjoyed an enviable position in Philadelphia’s best social circles. They sent Owen to study at boarding school in New England and then abroad to finish in Switzerland.
Owen attended Harvard, pledged Delta Kappa Epsilon, earned outstanding marks, and edited for the Lampoon. Here Owen befriended a future president who he would adamantly support in years to come. He composed music and wrote plays, including the Hasty Pudding Club’s presentation of a comic opera, Dido and Aeneas, in his senior year. The production toured professionally, eventually playing in New York. His varied success in academics animated Owen’s dreams, and, seeking a career as a composer, he spent a year abroad in Paris at conservatory studying music. (I know I said this fit with my Old West theme; keep reading.)
Owen never did master composing and unhappily returned to the US and took a job in banking in New York. Still dissatisfied he joined a legal practice back home in Philadelphia and planned to enter Harvard Law School. But Owen began to suffer vertigo, hallucinations and migraine. He feared for his health, left his position with the law firm and retreated to a better climate in hope of restoring his health. It was while away that Owen began to write. He enjoyed the craft and with a bit of work, he thought, he might just make a writer. On completion of his first book, 200,000 words on an artist forced into business by his father, one friend offered the opinion that the piece had shown talent but might best not be shown to a publisher. (Okay – now even I am beginning to wonder what the heck this has to do with the Old West.)
So Owen tried smaller works and began to experience success. He recovered his health and married. Again he assembled a novel and this time it was published. In fact the book was reprinted 14 times in its first eight months of publication, eventually selling 200,000 copies in the first edition. It would spawn five films, a Broadway play, and one television series. Owen became famous overnight. He was lauded by all, all but those Philadelphia Socialites, his hometown friends who thought his work base and low brow. Even his old friend now in the White House admired him publicly. (here comes the Old West angle)
It was that friend and president who had suggested the place for Owen to recover, the VR Ranch in Medicine Bow, Wyoming. Owen’s pal, Teddy Roosevelt, knew the West well and Owen, that’s Owen Wister the “W” of today’s post, used that place as the setting for his book and the first of its genre, (wait for it) The Western Novel.
Wister’s book , The Virginian – published in 1902, gave us all the familiar Western archetypes: the tall, dark cowboy as hero, the schoolmarm, the eastern tenderfoot as narrator, lynch law, the rustler as villain and the climactic gunfight. Wister never enjoyed the critical acclaim some think he deserves, but no one from his native Philadelphia, save Ben Franklin, has been more successful as author, though his social circle never did accept his work. Maybe that’s appropriate for those long gone snobs. In the 110 years since publication of Owen’s masterpiece, The Virginian has never been out of print!
Oh by the way, The Western Writers of America call their award for lifetime achievement, The Wister