Not any one writer or time period defined the American cowboy of 1920s literature. Rather, the cowboy hero of 1920s literature represented both a deviation from the traditional dime store novel hero's of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as well as an illustration of their influences. According to Henry Nash Smith the hero's and westerns depicted in dime novels " lead almost in a straight line from the Beadle to the Westerns" (Yates, 9). According to Lon Taylor's "The American Cowboy: An American Myth Examined," the 1902 release of Owen Wister's The Virginian marked the final stage in the evolution of the cowboy from western hero to national icon and entertainer.

Owen Wister was a Philadelphia-born aristocrat and Harvard graduate who fell in love with the west during a hunting trip to Montana. His novel, The Virginian was the story of a young cowboy and his love for a eastern school teacher. The story follows the protagonist as he attempts to reconcile his sense of honor and justice with his loves sense of legal and moral right. Critics described The Virginian as a symbolic attept to unite the ordered society of the east with the sense of freedom that penetrated and defined the western region. The Virginian marked a turning point in the development of the cowboy as a national hero, it also illustrated the final step in the creation of the romantic cowboy:

The Virginian firmly established the stereotyped cowboy as young, handsome, courageous, soft-spoken (who can ever forget, "When you call me that, smile?"), independent, and holding a high sense of honor. It also established him as irrevocably Anglo-Saxon--there is not a black or a Mexican in the entire book. As depicted by Mr. Wister, he is a creature of such physical beauty, such mental vigor, such moral attitude, such exectutive equipment, and such universal genius as ought to serve as a beacon or headlight for the nations, and, indeed, an example for the human race. (Taylor, 71)

The cowboy depicted by Wister was an immensely popular figure and his book was an instant success:

It sold 50,000 copies in the first two months, and Wister was deluged with letters from westerners who complimented him on the accuracy of his description, often adding that they had known The Virginian. (Taylor, 72)

The success of The Virginian demonstrated that American's loved cowboys whether they were real or artificial and through his success Wister compelled many writers of the time to write literature based on the cowboy experience. The cowboy was no longer merely a westerner--his traits as defined by The Virginian illustrated the universal nature of the cowboy. The qualities that characterized the cowboy as a hero--honor, valor, inteligence, and independence--were clearly national qualities not relegated to a specific area of the country.

In conclusion, the cowboy as a hero of the 1920s both represented the historical interpretations of the cowboy depicted in dime store novels and redefined the western cowboy along more universal lines--the western cowboy became the American cowboy. This transition was in part made possible by Wister's The Virginian, which set the stage for an insurgence of western literature and the creation of the American Cowboy not only as a hero, but as a icon as well.


Taylor, Lonn and Maar, Ingrid. The American Cowboy. New York: Harper and Row, 1983

Yates, Norris Wilson. Gender and Genre: An Introduction to Women Writers of Formula Westerns, 1900-1950. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.


"She Pioneered in Novels: Honore Willsie Morrow Tackled Fiction WIth the Courage and Persistence of Ancestral Pioneers," Grant Overton
The Mentor, July 1927
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