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Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

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The Virginian: A Philadelphian Goes West

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Owen Wister

Where is the Philadelphia gentleman? According to Owen Wister, that wealthy Philadelphia novelist of the late 19th century, a true gentleman is found on the frontier. He rides horses, brands cattle. He is a cowboy. Wister is credited with creating this great American archetype, now so familiar from hundreds of movies, in his novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. Published in 1902, the novel documents the experience of a sensitive young Philadelphian traveling through the still unformed West, where he meets the American nobleman. Wister originally intended this book to be the first of a series of four charactrizations of the types of Americans. A second, about Baltimore, was published, but after that the fame of his brilliant first novel swept his career in other directions. He seems to have originally intended to describe Virginians more than cowboys, but it's hard to know where his original intention would have carried him.

{The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains}
The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains

Here is nevertheless a true classic. Using charmingly archaic language, Wister paints a landscape of sky and wild forests. His narrator speaks to the reader with the kind of verbal affection that only flourished in 19th century literature. With an air of respect and modesty the narrator introduces the reader to the novel's hero, the "Virginian." A transplant from the American south, this young man is a true Cowboy, a "daydream of glory made flesh" as Wallace Stegner once wrote. Early in the book he stamps the hero with the line that made it all famous: "When you call me that, smile."

A host of colorful characters swirl around the Virginian as he aspires to social credibility and respect in the West. Western society, as understood through the Virginian's challenges and successes, is run by its own rules and social norms, norms that are heavily based on a largely male code of honor and decency. We learn about the code of the West as our Virginian learns it.

But the West is not only a myth of the American man; Molly Wood, another Easterner adrift in the wilderness, serves as a passionate, complicated love interest for the Virginian. Their relationship serves to contrast the social regulations of the East with the wilderness and abandon of the West. Wister's search for an American gentleman reminds us what it means to go West in search of something pure and new. What he found in the West has resonated throughout American culture for generations.


REFERENCES


Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class: E. Digby Baltzell ISBN-13: 978-0887387890 Amazon

(2016)

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