English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Earl of Derby, once began a novel with the line, "It was a dark and stormy night." This was rather fortunate for him, because without it he might not have been remembered. After all, it's better to be notorious than to be forgotten. And notorious he has become, remembered as the author of one of the worst lines in literature.
Except that it's really not that bad. When you think about it, "It was a dark and stormy night" is a fine expression, and the only reason it's passe is that it's been used beyond moderation. We can't blame the source of clichés for the fact that they've become so; in fact, it's an honor to have one's words immortalized, even cheaply.
So we come in due time toThe Virginian. It is really the first Western novel, and it has spawned many of the clichés that are now the stock-in-trade of writers of Western novels and directors of Western movies. But this makes Owen Wister's book more great than it otherwise would be, not less.
The story follows the Virginian, who's never named, and his adventures in the ranchland of Wyoming. He drives cattle, woos the pretty schoolteacher Molly Wood, is forced to participate in the hanging of a cattle rustler, and makes enemies with Trampas, a no good cowboy who can't stand the sight of the handsome, gentle, manly Virginian.
In some ways this is primarily a love story. Though there's plenty of action and adventure, the Virginian's deeds are motivated as often as not by his romance with Wood. He's truly a knight of the plains, defending the girl's honor even before they're actually courting, and going to great lengths to protect her from slander.
Wister's book features the first walk-down gun duel in literature, and it's a great moment. There are also some fantastic one-liners, like the Virginian's retort when Trampas calls him a bad name: "When you call me that, smile!" If you're a fan of Westerns at all, you need to read this book.
It's not perfect (few books are). Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, and it can drag a bit in places. But as the first in a revered genre of United States fiction, it is a monumental achievement and continues to be entertaining today, as well as a testatment to a time when chivalry and honor were considered greater virtues than celebrity and sex-appeal.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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