'The Virginian' Teaches the Merit of a Man

Benjamin Percy

hide captionBenjamin Percy is the author of two books of stories, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. When he isn't running through the woods in his loincloth, or loosing an arrow from his bow, he's playing trucks and trains with his 18-month-old son, Connor.

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My father was 50, mustached, and as deeply tan as a piece of jerky. The book was just as weather-beaten. He handed it to me and said, "Reading this will make a man out of you."

He had said the same when whipping fastball after fastball at me, teaching me to stand tough in the batter's box. Have to admit, I greeted The Virginian with as much enthusiasm as a knuckleball to the teeth.

But he pestered me and I began it. And once I began, the pages fluttered by so swiftly they made a breeze on my face. Then, more than anything, I wanted to tug on my metaphorical chaps and spur my horse forward at such a speed his hooves would rise off the pasture and we would be flying — 150 years into the past — when poker games inevitably went sour, when the six-shooter was the tool to fix all problems, when "days [looked] alike, and often [lost] their very names in the quiet depths of Cattle Land."

I don't know how to say it any better than this: The book made me ridiculously happy.

Published in 1902, Owen Wister's The Virginian is the first fully realized Western. The mythical cowboy figure — the man of few words, the man who gets the girl and brings justice to the frontier, the man we know from countless films and pulp novels — first appears here.

He is the Virginian, a nameless and "slim young giant," who has "plainly come many miles from ... across the vast horizon." If you imagine a yellowed map of the United States, and if you imagine a red arrow moving across it — accompanied by old-time piano music — tracing the passage of the thousands who heard the call "Go West!" and went, you have the Virginian's journey to Wyoming.

Immediately I felt a profound jealousy for the way the Virginian lights off for the territories, where every breath is "pure as water and strong as wine," and where he earns a reputation as a horseman.

By God, I wanted that!

I was 18 at the time, a legal adult — but a man? Could I be called that in earnest?

Owen Wister, like some great and terrible Moses draped in leather and carrying a buffalo gun, taught me to re-examine what it meant to be a man. It meant more than earning a diploma or getting married or buying a house. It meant living simply, respecting women, holding congress with nature. It meant making decisions informed by a moral code so that you were never the one to start trouble, but oh, could you finish it. In our world of hydrogenated soybean oil and sport utility vehicles and Pottery Barn and grubless lawns, the novel is a welcome shot to the arm, a much needed antidote to all the plastic and phoniness.

Reading The Virginian helps me better appreciate honor and nature and life and testosterone, in the same way the Bible helps so many better appreciate God.

When trying to explain to his beloved why he must gunplay with a no-good rotten scoundrel of a cattle-thief, the Virginian says, "Can't yu' see how it must be about a man?" In many ways this is the novel's central concern — the merit of a man — and for a long time I have wandered in the Virginian's incompatible world, comparing myself to him. Quick draw, talented horseman, resilient drinker, feared by men and cherished by women. I like to think of us — together — hunting buffalo or warming beans over a campfire. Whenever I crack open the book, it almost seems possible — I am almost there.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'The Virginian'

Chapter 1 — Enter the Man

Some notable sight was drawing the passengers, both men and women, to the window; and therefore I rose and crossed the car to see what it was. I saw near the track an enclosure, and round it some laughing men, and inside it some whirling dust, and amid the dust some horses, plunging, huddling, and dodging. They were cow ponies in a corral, and one of them would not be caught, no matter who threw the rope. We had plenty of time to watch this sport, for our train had stopped that the engine might take water at the tank before it pulled us up beside the station platform of Medicine Bow. We were also six hours ate, and starving for entertainment. The pony in the corral was wise, and rapid of limb. Have you seen a skillful boxer watch his antagonist with a quiet, incessant eye? Such an eye as this did the pony keep upon whatever man took the rope. The man might pretend to look at the weather, which was fine; or he might affect earnest conversation with a bystander: it was bootless. The pony saw through it. No feint hoodwinked him. This animal was thoroughly a man of the world. is undistracted eye stayed fixed upon the dissembling foe, and the gravity of his horse-expression made the matter one of high comedy. Then the rope would sail out at him, but he was already elsewhere; and if horses laugh, gayety must have abounded in that corral. Sometimes the pony took a turn alone; next he had slid in a flash among his brothers, and the whole of them like a school of playful fish whipped round the corral, kicking up the fine dust, and (I take it) roaring with laughter. Through the window-glass of our Pullman the thud of their mischievous hoofs reached us, and the strong, humorous curses of the cow-boys. Then for the first time I noticed a man who sat on the high gate of the corral, looking on. For he now climbed down with the undulations of a tiger, smooth and easy, as if his muscles flowed beneath his skin. The others had all visibly whirled the rope, some of them even shoulder high. I did not see his arm lift or move. He appeared to hold the rope down low, by his leg. But like a sudden snake I saw the noose go out its length and fall true; and the thing was done. As the captured pony walked in with a sweet, church-door expression, our train moved slowly on to the station, and a passenger remarked, "That man knows his business." But the passenger's dissertation upon roping I was obliged to lose, for Medicine Bow was my station. I bade my fellow-travellers good-by, and descended, a stranger, into the great cattle land. And here in less than ten minutes I learned news which made me feel a stranger indeed.

My baggage was lost; it had not come on my train; it was adrift somewhere back in the two thousand miles that lay behind me. And by way of comfort, the baggage-man remarked that passengers often got astray from their trunks, but the trunks mostly found them after a while. Having offered me this encouragement, he turned whistling to his affairs and left me planted in the baggage-room at Medicine Bow. I stood deserted among crates and boxes, blankly holding my check, fungus and forlorn. I stared out through the door at the sky and the plains; but I did not see the antelope shining among the sage-brush, nor the great sunset light of Wyoming. Annoyance blinded my eyes to all things save my grievance: I saw only a lost trunk. And I was muttering half-aloud, "What a forsaken hole this is!" when suddenly from outside on the platform came a slow voice: "Off to get married again? Oh, don't!"

The voice was Southern and gentle and drawling; and a second voice came in immediate answer, cracked and querulous.

"It ain't again. Who says it's again? Who told you, anyway?"

And the first voice responded caressingly: "Why, your Sunday clothes told me, Uncle Hughey. They are speakin' mighty loud o' nuptials."

"You don't worry me!" snapped Uncle Hughey, with shrill heat.

And the other gently continued, "Ain't them gloves the same yu' wore to your last weddin'?"

"You don't worry me! You don't worry me!" now screamed Uncle Hughey.

Already I had forgotten my trunk; care had left me; I was aware of the sunset, and had no desire but for more of this conversation. For it resembled none that I had heard in my life so far. I stepped to the door and looked out upon the station platform.

Lounging there at ease against the wall was a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures. His broad, soft hat was pushed back; a loose-knotted, dull-scarlet handkerchief sagged from his throat; and one casual thumb was hooked in the cartridge-belt that slanted across his hips. He had plainly come many miles from somewhere across the vast horizon, as the dust upon him showed. His boots were white with it. His overalls were gray with it. The weather-beaten bloom of his face shone through it duskily, as the ripe peaches look upon their trees in a dry season. But no dinginess of travel or shabbiness of attire could tarnish the splendor that radiated from his youth and strength. The old man upon whose temper his remarks were doing such deadly work was combed and curried to a finish, a bridegroom swept and garnished; but alas for age! Had I been the bride, I should have taken the giant, dust and all.

Books Featured In This Story

The Virginian
The Virginian

A Horseman of the Plains

by Owen Wister

Paperback, 384 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • The Virginian
  • A Horseman of the Plains
  • Owen Wister

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