Like Cooper, Wister was a man of upper-class background who found himself in a world in which the status of his class seemed increasingly tenuous. As White has shown in The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience," Wister's childhood experience and cultural situation rather closely paralleled that of two friends who also became early twentiethcentury apostles of the West, Frederic Remington and Theodore Roosevelt. All three men came from established eastern families, felt a sense of the loss of family position, underwent neurotic crises in their youth, and found personal regeneration in the West. Wister became the exponent of the West in fiction, Remington its artistic interpreter and the illustrator of many of Wister's books, while Roosevelt created a political symbolism that drew heavily on the western mystique. Wister dedicated his major western novel to Roosevelt.
Undoubtedly, Wister's own sense of regeneration in the West was reflected in his portrayal of a young man who has left a decaying Virginia to find a new life in Wyoming and of a New England heroine who is transformed by her western experience. Wister's new treatment of the West depended on literary precedent as well as personal experience and need. Wister's version of the West caught on with the public because it synthesized a number of important cultural trends into the archetypal form of adventure. While Wister certainly knew Cooper and probably had some awareness of the dime novel tradition, another literary development had an important influence on his portrayal of the West. Along with the dime novel, there emerged in the later nineteenth century a new kind of western literature that, unlike most of the western adventure stories, was written by men with an actual experience of the area. The humorous, satirical, sometimes sentimental sketches written by Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane, and their numerous imitators embodied an image of the West far different from Coopers romantic wilderness. This new version of the frontier was social rather than natural, and it was of a society distinctively different from that of the East, to the point that a new kind of dialectic began to operate, replacing the opposition of nature and civilization by a cultural dialectic between the East and the West. Twain's Roughing It satirically embodies this tension in its portrayal of the narrator as greenhorn being initiated into the new society of the West. Twain was far too familiar with his subject to make a heroic romanticization of this new society. In Roughing It, western life has its delights, but it is also profoundly corrupting. As the narrator becomes acclimated to its animalistic brutality, he is bitten by the get-rich-quick fever; his mad pursuit of wealth in the mining country drives all other ideas from his mind. When the bust comes; he can barely muster enough energy and interest in life to go back to work for a living:
After a three months' absence, I found myself in San Francisco again, without a cent. When my credit was about exhausted (for I had become too mean and lazy, now, to work on a morning paper, and there were no vacancies on the evening journals), I was created San Francisco correspondent of the Enterprise, and at the end of five months I was out of debt, but my interest in my work was gone; for my correspondence being a daily one without rest or respite, I got unspeakable tired of it. I wanted another change. The vagabond instinct was strong upon me .32
The key to the West as Twain portrayed it in Roughing It was not nature, but a new kind of social order in which the traditional restraints were off and the hierarchy changed every day as one man's claim played out and another struck it rich.
In the early days a poverty-stricken Mexican who lived in a canyon directly back of Virginia City had a stream of water as large as a man's wrist trickling from the hillside on his premises. The Ophir Company segregated a hundred feet of their mine and traded it to him for the stream of water. The hundred feet proved to be the richest part of the entire mine; four years after the swap its market value (including its mill) was $1,500,000.33
Twain himself was fascinated by this new society and the men it produced. Roughing It is full of humorous, colorful, fantastic, and even sometimes terrifying anecdotes about western life. Yet, at the same time that he feels its glamour and excitement, Twain cannot accept this life and its values without reservation. His ambiguity reveals itself clearly in his treatment of the very type that later western writers would so strenuously romanticize: the gunfighter. One such character, the desperado Slade, so intrigued Twain that he devoted two chapters to a discussion of the man's character. Occasionally Twain speaks of Slade in something resembling the accents of a dime novelist: "an outlaw among outlaws and yet their relentless scourge, Slade was at once the most bloody, the most dangerous, and the most valuable citizen that inhabited the savage fastnesses of the mountains.'"-` But in the final evaluation of the gunfighter there is none of the haze of romance that later clustered around this character. Instead, there is the complex puzzle of human behavior and its problematic moral significance, as Twain reflects on the strangely pathetic way in which Slade faced his execution:
There is something about the desperado nature that is wholly unaccountable-at least it looks unaccountable. It is this. The true desperado is gifted with splendid courage, and yet he will take the most infamous advantage of his enemy; armed and free he will stand up before a host and fight until he is shot to pieces, and yet when he is under the gallows and helpless he will cry and plead like a child.... Many a notorious coward, many a chicken-livered poltroon, coarse, brutal, degraded, has made his dying speech with what looked like the calmest fortitude, and so we are justified in believing, from the low intellect of such a creature, that it was not moral courage that enabled him to do it. Then, if moral courage is not the requisite quality, what could it have been that this stout hearted Slade lacked?this bloody, desperate, kindly-mannered, urbane gentleman, who never hesitated to warn his most ruffianly enemies that he would kill them whenever or wherever he came across them next! I think it is a conundrum worth investigating.35
Harte was far more sentimental than Twain in his treatment of the West, though his basic emphasis was much the same: the West as a uniquely colorful society in which the traditional moral and social restraints no longer operated. But Harte was particularly fascinated with the way in which traditional middle-class values and attitudes might reappear in such a society among individuals who seemed to have left such virtues as domesticity, purity, and love far behind. Thus Harte's classic situation was the appearance in the wide-open mining camp of some symbol of traditional middle-class ideals-a baby, an innocent maiden, a feeling of true romantic love or selfsacrifice-and he delighted in tracing the impact of this symbol on the rough and lawless souls who encountered it. Thus his chief stock in trade was sentimental and, occasionally, ironic paradox. The brutal and violent miner gives his life in an attempt to save the baby from drowning. The innocent young girl dies in the arms of a prostitute and both are redeemed by the experience. The dance-hall girl who has nothing but contempt for the most handsome and virile men falls in love with a man who has been totally paralyzed in an accident and devotes her life to service as his nurse. Thus, for Harte, the Wild West was a place where people rediscovered and reaffirmed the most important values of life, a quality that would be central to the western romances of Wister and Zane Grey. Yet, despite his sentimentality, Harte had a darker and more complex view of life than would be characteristic of the modern western. In his stories, though the characters might be redeemed, it was usually too late. Their regeneration usually cost them their lives. It is interesting to compare Harte's most famous story, "The Luck of Roaring Camp," with two later westerns modeled on the same basic situation: Wister's novel Lin Mclean and John Ford's film Three Godfathers. All three of these works concern rough characters whose lives are changed when they become involved with a small child. In Harte's story, one gets the sense there is something inherently hostile to Roaring Camp's attempt to reform itself when the prostitute, Cherokee Sal, dies while giving birth to a child. Though the aura of the child transforms the camp from a slough of violent outcasts into a quiet and decorous place, nature itself rises against the experiment and camp, child, and all are swept away in a violent rainstorm. The story ends on a note of sentimental tragedy with the most violent and brutal of all the miners giving his life in a fruitless attempt to rescue the child. In Wister's novel and Ford's film, the result is almost the opposite. In both cases, responsibility for a child transforms the lawless cowboy who, after various trials and tribulations in the attempt to live up to his new duties, will clearly settle down into happy domesticity, having found a sweetheart to complete his newfound family. Thus, where Harte ultimately points up the almost irreconcilable paradox of lawless violence and the peaceful virtues of settled domesticity, Wister and Ford synthesize the two sets of values in a redemptive conclusion.
The twentieth-century western inherited from Harte, Twain, and other local colorists a new sense of the western setting as well as elements of humor and sentiment that would persist in such stock characters as those created by movie actors like Andy Devine and Walter Brennan. But, above all, what the western needed was a new hero. As writers came to treat the West not as the embodiment of nature but as a different social environment, the Leatherstocking hero, defined by his adherence to natural values and his flight from society, was no longer very appropriate. Actually, while the Leatherstocking figure became an important protagonist in the twentiethcentury nonformulaic western epics of writers like A. B. Guthrie, Frederick Manfred, and Vardis Fisher, he tended to disappear from the formula western because the kind of values that he symbolized were not associated with the West of mining towns, cattle ranches, and farms. The benevolent outlaw, so beloved of the dime novel, was somewhat more a part of the new legend of the West, but this character was so obviously mythical that he could not operate much beyond the limits of the dime novel and later western pulps. Harte, Twain, and other western writers peopled the western town and gave a distinctive shape and character to its society, but they were not primarily interested in heroes. Therefore it was, above all, Owen Wister who initiated the modern western by creating a hero type who belonged to the new image of the West but was, at the same time, in the tradition of transcendent heroism launched by Cooper. This new figure was the cowboy.
Wister certainly did not invent the cowboy-hero, but he did give this already popular figure a new thematic significance. Though the cowboy had already become an American hero through the dime novel, through newspaper stories, books, and plays about western figures like Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, and General Custer and, above all, through the enormously popular spectacle of the Wild West Show, Wister, in The Virginian, created a story that related the cowboy-hero to a number of important social and cultural themes. The novel begins with the relationship between the narrator and the Virginian, the first of a number of studies in cultural contrast between East and West. The narrator, a somewhat effete easterner on his first visit to friends in the West, encounters the Virginian at the railway station of Medicine Bow when he disembarks for the long overland journey to the ranch of his friend, Judge Henry. The Virginian, a cowboy on the Henry ranch, has been delegated to meet the "tenderfoot." Their first encounter immediately establishes the basic contrast between East and West. The easterner is tired and confused. The railroad has somehow misplaced his trunk, and he feels utterly cast adrift in a savage wilderness:
I started after [the train] as it went its way to the far shores of civilization. It grew small in the unending gulf of space, until all sign of its presence was gone save a faint skein of smoke against the evening sky. And now my lost trunk came back to my thoughts, and Medicine Bow seemed a lonely spot. A sort of ship had left me marooned in a foreign ocean; the Pullman was comfortably steaming home to port, while I-how was I to find Judge Henry's ranch? Where in the unfeatured wilderness was Sun Creek?36
In the midst of the narrators despair, the Virginian politely introduces himself with a letter from Judge Henry. When the narrator adopts a condescending and familiar attitude toward this "slim young giant" who radiates an air of "splendor" despite his "shabbiness of attire," he is met by a sharp but civil wit that shakes him to the core and leads him to his first realization about the West: that this is not simply a savage wilderness but a land where the inner spirit of men counts more than the surface manners and attitudes of civilization. In such a setting a man must prove his worth by action and not by any assumed or inherited status:
This handsome, ungrammatical son of the soil had set between us the bar of his cold and perfect civility. No polished person could have done it better. What was the matter? I looked at him and suddenly it came to me. If he had tried familiarity with me the first two minutes of our acquaintance, I should have resented it; by what right, then, had I tried it with him? It smacked of patronizing; on this occasion he had come off the better gentleman of the two. Here in flesh and blood was a truth which I had long believed in words, but never met before. The creature we call a gentleman lies deep in the hearts of thousands that are born without chance to muster the outward graces of the type.37
After this realization, the narrator soon comes to a new view of the West. Despite the appearance of wildness or squalor, this landscape is a place where deep truths of human nature and life, hidden in the East by the artifices and traditions of civilization, are being known again. Soon he begins to see the apparent chaos and emptiness of Medicine Bow in very different terms:
I have seen and slept in many like it since. Scattered wide, they littered the frontier from the Columbia to the Rio Grande, from the Missouri to the Sierras. They lay stark, dotted over a planet of treeless dust, like soiled packs of cards. Each was similar to the next, as one old five-spot of clubs resembles another. Houses, empty bottles, and garbage, they were forever the same shapeless pattern. More forlorn they were than stale bones. They seemed to have been strewn there by the wind and to be waiting till the wind should come again and blow them away. Yet serene above their foulness swam a pure and quiet light, such as the East never sees; they might be bathing in the air of creation's first morning. Beneath sun and stars their days and nights were immaculate and wonderful.38
Just as the purity of the landscape redeems the seeming squalor of the town, so the inner nobility of the cowboys illumines their apparent wildness:
Even where baseness was visible, baseness was not uppermost. Daring, laughter, endurance, these were what I saw upon the countenance of the cowboys. And this very first day of my knowledge marks a date with me. For something about them, and the idea of them, smote my American heart, and I have never forgotten it, nor ever shall, as long as I live. In their flesh our natural passions ran tumultuous; but often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature.39
Wister's image of the West is dominated by the theme of moral regeneration. To some extent, his treatment of this theme reflects a primitivism not unlike Cooper's. Because civilization and its artificial traditions have not yet taken a firm hold in the West, the influence of nature is more strongly felt in that "pure and quiet light, such as the East never sees." But the influence of nature is less important for Wister than the code of the western community, a distinctive set of values and processes that is in many respects a result of the community's closeness to nature but also reflects certain basic social circumstances. Because institutional law and government have not yet fully developed in the West, the community has had to create its own methods of insuring order and achieving justice. As Judge Henry explains when the heroine is distressed by vigilante justice, the code of the west is not inimical to law. On the contrary, the vigilantes represent the community acting directly, instead of allowing its will to be distorted by complex and easily corrupted institutional machinery. Of course, Judge Henry insists this situation will change when civilization reaches the West, yet in his praise of the principle of vigilante justice, the judge intimates that the western type of direct action is not merely a necessary expedient, but a rebirth of moral vitality in the community:
In Wyoming the law has been letting our cattle-thieves go for two years. We are in a very bad way, and we are trying to make that way a little better until civilization can reach us. At present we lie beyond its pale. The courts, or rather the juries, into whose hands we have put the law, are not dealing the law. They are withered hands, or rather they are imitation hands made for show, with no life in them, no grip. They cannot hold a cattle-thief. And so when your ordinary citizen sees this, and sees that he has placed justice in a dead hand, he must take justice back into his own hands where it was once at the beginning of all things. Call this primitive, if you will. But so far from being a defiance of the law, it is an assertion of it-the fundamental assertion of self-governing men, upon whom our whole social fabric is based.40
As presented by Wister, the code embodies the community's moral will but it also gives full weight to the importance of individual honor. Since the fundamental principles of honor and the will of the community transcend responsibility to the official agencies of government and the codified, written law, the Virginian finds it incumbent upon him to participate both in a lynching and a duel, illegal actions according to the written law, but recognized by all his fellow western males as inescapable obligations. The Virginian's difficulties do not come from the demands of the code. Though the actions it requires of him are dangerous, they cause him little inner conflict. His real problem is that he has fallen in love with the eastern schoolteacher, Molly Wood. Women pose a basic threat to the code, because they are the harbingers of law and order enforced by police and courts, and of the whole machinery of schools and peaceful town life. These institutions make masculine courage and strength a much less important social factor. The Virginian becomes increasingly aware of the danger his love poses to the code, and at one point his love makes him break with the code, by explaining to Molly the villainy of another man:
Having read his sweetheart's mind very plainly, the lover now broke his dearest custom. It was his code never to speak ill of any man to any woman. Men's quarrels were not for women's ears. In his scheme, good women were to know only a fragment of men's lives. He had lived many outlaw years, and his wide knowledge of evil made innocence doubly precious to him. But to-day he must depart from his code, having read her mind well. He would speak evil of one man to one woman, because his reticence had hurt her.41
But if the hero's romantic interest in the schoolmarm tends to draw him away from the code, his struggle with the villain Trampas reaffirms his dedication to it and ultimately demonstrates what seems to be Wister's main thesis: that the kind of individual moral courage and community responsibility embodied in the code is a vital part of the American tradition and needs to be reawakened in modern American society. Romance and the struggle against villainy are interspersed throughout the novel. At the very beginning of the novel, the Virginian confronts Trampas over a card game and puts him down with the immortal phrase, "When you call me that, smile" This supremely cool challenge, which forces on Trampas the necessity of choosing either to draw his gun or back down, illustrates an important aspect of the code-one must never shy away from violence, but at the same time never bring it on by one's own actions. Honor cannot be compromised, but the true hero, as opposed to a lawless man like Trampas, always lives within distinct moral limits. He never fights out of anger or even from a desire for glory, but only when he must preserve his own honor or enact the community's just sentence. In this initial incident, the Virginian is supremely in control of himself and no inner conflict gives him any doubt about the proper course of action. But it is not long before the snake enters this garden of honorable masculinity. Careering across the countryside in a stagecoach driven by a drunken driver, Miss Molly Stark Wood of Bennington, Vermont, descendant of revolutionary heroes, is nearly tumbled into a dangerously high creek before a dashing man on horseback rides out of nowhere and deposits her safely on the other shore. After saving her life, a gallant gentleman can hardly avoid falling in love with the lady. When they meet again, some time later, the Virginian announces his determination to make Molly love him, even though she has just finished unmercifully roasting him for his part in some masculine high jinks. Thus begins the conflict between the masculine code of the West and the genteel ideas of civility that Molly carries with her from the East.
Wister develops the Virginian's courtship of Molly and his conflict with Trampas in counterpoint until the two lines of action intersect and the Virginian must choose between his two commitments. Molly is at first quite resistant to the Virginian's courtship. Her eastern manners and beliefs make her recoil at what seems to be the Virginian's crudity, childishness, and lack of civility. When she discovers that, despite his lack of formal education and social graces, the Virginian has an instinctive gentility as well as a strong native intelligence, she begins to become interested in him. We have already seen the narrator of the book go through a similar process. Molly's eastern prejudices against the West and her inability to conceive of the idea that a Wood of Bennington, Vermont, might marry a cowboy still defend her against the Virginian's love until a dramatic incident completely changes her attitude. On his way to a rendezvous with Molly, the Virginian is attacked and left for dead by a marauding band of Indians. (Note how in Wister, as in many later dime novels, the Indian has become a narrative convenience rather than a central element of the story.) When the Virginian does not appear at the rendezvous, Molly rides out along the trail and finds him seriously wounded. Wister represents this as a great moment of truth for Molly. Casting off her demure gentility, she summons up the courage and daring of her revolutionary ancestors, rescues the Virginian, and nurses him back to health in her cabin. This experience is the first real step in the westernizing of Molly, which Wister sees as a kind of atavistic return to the spirit of her ancestors. In this way, Wister suggests that the West is not entirely a new cultural experience, but a rebirth of the revolutionary generation's vigor.
Along with this awakening of the deeper instincts in her blood, Molly's love for the Virginian blossoms and she agrees to marry him. Now the story moves toward the final confrontation between Molly's eastern scheme of values and the code of the West. Trampas increasingly menaces the good community of the ranch. When he tries to persuade the ranch crew to go off hunting gold, he is outwitted by the Virginian. In response, he leaves the ranch and turns rustler, carrying along two of the Virginian's former friends to be members of his gang. The code of the West swings into action against the rustlers. Judge Henry, the ranch owner, makes the Virginian leader of a posse charged with the capture and execution of the rustlers. The Virginian must reluctantly join in the lynching of his former friend Steve, while Trampas escapes and succeeds in eluding further pursuit. Finally, Trampas returns to town and the Virginian prepares to meet his challenge to individual combat. Molly insists that the Virginian refuse to fight Trampas or she will break off their engagement and return to the East. Caught in this conflict of love, duty, and honor, the Virginian does not hesitate. He explains,to Molly why the code of masculine honor must always take precedence over other obligations:
"Can't yu' see how it must be about a man? It's not for their benefit, friends or enemies, that I have got this thing to do. If any man happened to say I was a thief and I heard about it, would I let him go on spreadin' such a thing of me? Don't I owe my own honesty something better than that? Would I sit down in a corner rubbin' my honesty and whisperen' to it, 'There! there! I know you ain't a thief'? No, seh; not a little bit! What men say about my nature is not just merely an outside thing. For the fact that I let'em keep on sayin' it is a proof I don't value my nature enough to shield it from their slander and give them their punishment. And that's being a poor sort of a jay."42
So the Virginian confronts Trampas, believing that his defense of his honor will lose him the woman he loves. But, of course, it doesn't work out that way. Once Molly sees her sweetheart in danger, she realizes that her love for him transcends all her moral compunctions. Their reunion follows:
The Virginian walked to the hotel, and stood on the threshold of his sweetheart's room. She had heard his step and was upon her feet. Her lips were parted, and her eyes fixed on him, nor did she move, or speak.
The fourth main plot line of The Virginian is the story of his success. Like some grown-up Alger hero, the Virginian, beginning as a poor cowboy, is soon appointed foreman of Judge Henry's ranch. In that post, he meets the challenge of leadership and demonstrates his aspiration to rise in life by investing his wages in land so that he can become a rancher himself. At the end of the novel, we are assured that the Virginian will continue to rise and in due course become one of Wyoming's leading citizens.
What Wister did with his story of the Virginian was to synthesize Coopers opposition of nature and civilization with the gospel of success and progress, thus making his hero both an exponent of natural law and of the major ideals of American society. This shift is particularly evident in Wisters treatment of the code of the West, which, as we have seen, is based on both the individual's sense of personal honor and the moral will of the community. In the final conflict with Trampas, the hero not only maintains the purity of his individual image but acts in the true interest of the community. Cooper was never quite able to resolve the conflict between Leatherstocking's commitment to the wilderness life and the advance of civilization. In one of his later novels, The Oak Openings, he attempted to create a protagonist who, like the Virginian, would pass from the wilderness into society and become a success. But two things prevented Cooper from arriving at the kind of happy synthesis that Wister pulled off in The Virginian: first, Cooper could not imagine that the qualities that made a Leatherstocking so effective in the wilderness would also lead him to social success. Second, Coopers view of civilization was still strongly enough permeated by traditional aristocratic assumptions that he did not consider it appropriate or even possible for a man to rise from the status of a frontiersman to that of a leading citizen in a single lifetime. Consequently, he made the protagonist of The Oak Openings a bee-hunter rather than an Indian fighter like Natty. Ben Boden's involvement in the wilderness is a matter of accumulating capital rather than a commitment to the life of nature. Once he has acquired enough of a stake to become a merchant, he turns his back on the wilderness. Cooper makes it clear that Ben is only the founder of a genteel family. At the end of the novel we are assured that it will take another generation for the rough edges to wear off before the Boden family will take its place with the gentry.
For Wister, however, the western hero possesses qualities that civilized society badly needs. It is not his lack of refinement that prevents the Virginian from assuming his rightful place as a social leader, but the shallow prejudices of an overrefined and effete society that has lost contact with its own most significant values. When the Virginian goes east to meet Molly's family, it is Molly's great aunt, the one closest to the family's revolutionary heritage, who understands and fully appreciates the Virginian's qualities. This representative of an earlier order sees the basic resemblance between the Virginian and General Stark, the founder of the family. Because of this she understands that the West is not a barbarous land, but a place where the original American traits of individual vigor, courage, and enterprise have been reborn: "'There he is,' she said, showing the family portrait. 'And a rough time he must have had of it now and then. New Hampshire was full of fine young men in those days. But nowadays most of them have gone away to seek their fortunes in the West.'"44
Thus Wister resolved the old ambiguity between nature and civilization by presenting the West not as a set of natural values basically antithetical to civilization, but as a social environment in which the American dream could be born again. As Wister summed up the message of his book in the "Rededication and Preface" that he wrote for a new edition:
If this book be anything more than an American story, it is an expression of American faith. Our Democracy has many enemies, both in Wall Street and in the Labor Unions; but as those in Wall Street have by their excesses created those in the Unions, they are the worst; if the pillars of our house fall, it is they who will have been the cause thereof. But I believe the pillars will not fall, and that, with mistakes at times, but with wisdom in the main, we people will prove ourselves equal to the severest test to which political man has yet subjected himself-the test of Democracy.45
There are many similarities between Wister's view of the West and Frederick Jackson Turners frontier hypothesis, for the two men were near contemporaries. Like Wister, Turner characterized frontier society in terms of revitalization. He argued that America's recurrent frontier experience was the source of many of the values and institutions of democracy, just as Wister, in The Virginian, portrayed the West as a place of social and cultural regeneration, where the vigor and enterprise of revolutionary America might be rediscovered. Turner saw the closing of the frontier and the growth of large industrial corporations, labor organizations, and governmental bureaucacies as signs that American culture was entering a new phase of development. Because he believed that the most important aspects of American democracy had depended on the open frontier, he feared that in the new institutional context these values might be lost. Similarly, Wister represented the East as an environment of decaying values and the West as a source of social and moral regeneration. His comments in the 1911 "Rededication" quoted above even suggest Turners view of the danger of large organizations in the absence of an open frontier.
In actuality, however, Turner and Wister's views of the frontier were quite different. That one can find so much surface similarity between them suggests the extent to which both reflected certain widespread cultural preoccupations at the end of the nineteenth century: the final settlement of the continental United States, the growing awareness of the changes wrought by industrialism, the sense of moral decay in American life, the realization that America was changing from a predominantly rural to an urban society, and the search for some sense of reassurance and regeneration. We find the same preoccupations and the same fascination with America's frontier experience in individuals as diverse as Wister's dedicatee Theodore Roosevelt, who made the quest for national regeneration a basic topic of his political rhetoric, and in the sentimental religious novelist Harold Bell Wright, who wrote best-seller after best-seller by sending his jaded urban protagonists to the Ozark Mountains or the West in search of redemption. Turner, who stimulated American historical interest in the western experience, and Wister, who created the modern western romance, shared these preoccupations, but if we look more closely at their versions of the West we discover fundamental differences. For Turner, the most important aspect of the West was the way in which it maintained social fluidity and equality of opportunity, and because of this, transformed the mass of men into free individuals with hope and idealism for the future:
Most important of all has been the fact that an area of free land has continually lain on the western border of the settled area of the United States. Whenever social conditions tended to crystallize in the East, whenever Capital tended to press upon labor or political restraints to impede the freedom of the mass, there was this gate of escape to the free conditions of the frontier. These free lands promoted individualism, economic equality, freedom to rise, democracy .... In a word, then, free lands meant free opportunities. Their existence has differentiated the American democracy from the democracies which have preceded it, because ever, as democracy in the East took the form of highly specialized and complicated industrial society, in the West it kept in touch with primitive conditions.46
For Wister, however, the real significance of the West lay not in the way western social conditions transformed the mass of men, but in the revitalization of aristocracy. For him the rise of the Virginian symbolized the emergence of a new kind of elite capable of providing the vigorous and moral political leadership that America desperately needed. America, as Wister saw it, was as much a class society as any other country; the difference lay in the fact that the American elite was not determined by family status or traditional prerogative, but by inner worth tested in the competition between men.
There can be no doubt of this:
Turner's West was that of a liberal progressive, and he laid considerable stress on the necessity for social action to "conserve democratic institutions and ideas" in a period when the natural safety-valve of free land would no longer operate to prevent the formation of rigid classes:
In the later period of its development, Western democracy has been gaining experience in the problem of social control. It has steadily enlarged the sphere of its action and the instruments for its perpetuation. By its system of public schools, from the grades to the graduate work of the great universities, the West has created a larger single body of intelligent plain people than can be found elsewhere in the world. Its political tendencies, whether we consider Democracy, Populism, or Republicanism, are distinctly in the direction of greater social control and the conservation of the old democratic ideals.48
Wisters view of the future of western politics reveals a very different perspective:
When the thieves prevailed at length, as they did forcing cattle owners to leave the country or be ruined, the Virginian had forestalled this crash. The herds were driven away to Montana. Then, in 1892, came the cattle war, when after putting their men in office, and coming to own some of the newspapers, the thieves brought ruin on themselves as well. For in a broken country there is nothing left to steal.49
If we ask how the same West that could produce the heroic Virginian and revitalize the eastern narrator and heroine could also be taken over by a gang of thieves, we see, I think, the essential conservatism of Wister's point of view. Where Turner sees the West as playing a fundamental role in the ongoing evolution of American democracy, Wister sees it essentially as a return to the true American aristocracy, a return that is threatened rather than enhanced by further social evolution. Wister admired the early stages of western development. He hoped the new elite, revitalized by their contact with the primitive strength and honor of the code of the West, would return and reform the corrupted East. His friend and hero, Theodore Roosevelt, seemed to be playing this role; though offspring of an aristocratic family, Roosevelt had lived in the West and had proved himself a man of courage and honor by western standards. Enormously vigorous and projecting a high sense of honor and morality, Theodore Roosevelt seemed able to articulate and embody the moral will of the people. Indeed, Roosevelt's career might be interpreted as a national embodiment of the same kind of democratic aristocracy that the Virginian symbolized in western terms. Yet it remained an open question for Wister whether the Virginian could overcome the "thieves" just as he was not sure whether Theodore Roosevelt could roll back the "political darkness" that "still lay dense upon every State in the Union [when] this book was dedicated to the greatest benefactor we people have known since Lincoln." Despite the success of his hero, there still remained an edge of the elegaic tone with which Cooper orchestrated his Leatherstocking series. For the society that had begun to evolve in the West after the disapearance of the cowboy looked ominously like that new American society that Cooper, too, hoped would be only a passing phase. All the romance and excitement and honor seemed to be gone:
What is become of the horseman, the cowpuncher, the last romantic figure upon our soil? For he was a romantic. Whatever he did, he did with his might .... The cowpuncher's ungoverned hours did not unman him. If he gave his word, he kept it. Wall Street would have found him behind the times. Nor did he talk lewdly to women; Newport would have thought him old-fashioned. He and his brief epoch make a complete picture, for in themselves they were as complete as the pioneers of the land or the explorers of the sea. A transition has followed the horseman of the plains; a shapeless state, a condition of men and manners unlovely as that bald moment in the year when winter is gone and spring not come, and the face of Nature is ugly. I shall not dwell upon it here. Those who have seen it know well what I mean. Such transition was inevitable. Let us give thanks that it is but a transition, and not a finality.50
But the elegaic tone is muted in Wister. Generally, the note of triumph and synthesis rings clear, and it is to this that Wister probably owed the great success of his book and its capacity to spawn so immense a progeny. The Virginian brings together in harmony a number of conflicting forces or principles in American life and this synthesis and resolution of conflicting values is a literary exemplification of the principle of having your cake and eating it too. Wister's characters, actions, and setting have a surface verisimilitude, but it is moral fantasy that shapes character and action. Thus a reader can enjoy a world in which things work out just as he wishes them to without any sense that this world is overly artificial or contrived. This principle so permeates the book that we can find examples at every level from particulars of style to the overall pattern of the action. Two passages quoted earlier, one of which describes the jerry-built ugliness of the western town against the serene and uplifting beauty of the landscape and the other the cowboy's inner nobility of spirit lying under his rude and seemingly amoral exterior, are good examples of the basic stylistic level. In just this fashion Wister constantly represents characters and setting through a synthesis of seeming commonness, ugliness, or violence with transcendent beauty and morality. On a larger scale, the character of the Virginian neatly combines verisimilitude and fantasy. In one sense the Virginian is the opposite of a traditional romantic hero. His origin is obscure, he has to work for a living, he likes to horse around and play practical jokes. He is far from chaste and pure, and in one of the first episodes in the novel Wister even suggests his involvement in an adulterous love affair. Yet, the Virginian is also a shining knight, a man of supreme integrity and purity, a chevalier without fear and without reproach. Such a combination is inescapably attractive and has been the delight of readers since 1902. Even today I find that cynical and sophisticated students are more often than not charmed by The Virginian, rather delighted, I expect, that its verisimilitude about little things allows them to accept a fantasy that otherwise they would feel compelled to reject.
The Virginian also synthesized a number of other cultural conflicts. Just as Conan Doyle created a character of great fascination by bringing together in a single figure the diverging cultural symbols of the romantic artist and the scientist, Wister combined in the Virginian several conflicting images of American life: the Virginian is a new self-made man, but he is also a throwback to heroic types of the past like the medieval knight; he is a nascent entrepreneur and he marries a New England schoolteacher, but he is also a son of the old South and carries in his demeanor the chivalric ideals of the antebellum South; thus he represents a synthesis of the conflicting stereotypes of Cavalier and Yankee; he is a tough, fearless killer, skilled in violence, and a gentle lover and friend; and, finally, he is a supreme individualist of unstained honor, and yet a dedicated agent of the community. In The Virginian, Cooper's problematic antithesis between nature and the claims of civilization was annealed and harmonized.