By the Book: Two views of the West, a century apart

04/08/2011 11:01 AM |

“Go west, young man!” said Horace Greeley, eastern newspaperman. It was the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and supposedly good advice, particularly for young men. So off they went, two college friends from Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister, to discover and invent the American West. Teddy was the Rough Rider who became president and Owen Wister wrote a novel, ‘The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains,’ that still defines the masculine code of the cowboy.

“The Virginian” started as a series of letters that the homesick Owen was writing to his beloved mother. He was traveling in the West to recuperate from an unspecified illness he suffered after his father made him return from his musical studies in Paris to work as a bank clerk in New York. Apparently the fact that Franz Liszt thought the boy had talent did not impress Dr. Wister.

When Owen came back East to study law (another of his father’s failed attempts to make him a respectable breadwinner) he reworked some of the letters into publishable vignettes. Before he actually had to start practicing law, he strung a number of the vignettes together into a sprawling novel that features an unnamed tenderfoot narrator telling the story of an unnamed young man from Virginia who lynches cattle rustlers, wins the love of a blonde schoolmarm and outdraws the chief villain in a gunslinging duel.

The novel, dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt, was published in 1902 and reprinted 14 times in eight months. It has been the basis for at least five movies, the most famous version starring Gary Cooper in 1929, and a television series with Doug McClure. Owen Wister never had to clerk or practice law after the book came out.

Readers in Floyd Memorial Library’s book discussion group loved “The Virginian.” Mainly they admired the hero and his uncompromising moral sense. Only I was outraged by the denouement, when the heroine’s moral stance is thoroughly compromised. That’s just my feminist nit-picking, I suppose, and my feeling that the writing is dated — by that I mean that there is a measure of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and pro-plutocrat sentiment that has to be “understood” because of how long ago the book was written — was generally dismissed as not germane. I admit that some of the stories, like the baby switching, are really funny, some of the characters memorable, and some of the descriptions of the landscape quite lovely, but I am not an uncritical fan of this particular Horseman of the Plains. I think I might like the Gary Cooper version better.

Meanwhile, I actually went west, myself, all the way to Los Angeles, where I had never been before. I know Gertrude Stein was referring to another part of California when she said “there is no there there,” but I think it’s a perfect way to understand L.A.

While I was there, I went to a wonderful bookstore called Book Soup and heard Thelma Adams reading from her debut novel, ‘Playdate.’ This is a novel of the contemporary but no less dangerous West. Encinitas, a suburb of San Diego, is being threatened by raging wildfires fanned by the Santa Ana winds, while the children of two different families are trying to figure out their places in the social order, given that some of their parents are sleeping with more than each other.

This is a new and different way of looking at Western masculinity, from the standpoint of a stay-at-home house-husband who is practicing tantric-yoga sex with a neighbor whose husband is busy helping the house-husband’s entrepreneurial wife with a franchise idea worth millions of dollars. This novel has parts that are sidesplittingly funny, memorable characters and great descriptions of the weather and landscape, but it is definitely not dated, nor does it describe a West that I would want to inhabit any more than Owen Wister’s version.

Thelma Adams has been a film critic for many years, first at the New York Post and since 2000 at US Weekly, and her writing is witty, sexy and sharp as a tack. She grew up near Encinitas, but has long been relocated to the relative sanity and safety of the East Coast.

The East Coast, in particular Sag Harbor, is the setting of the 2011 Long Island Reads selection. The title is ‘Sag Harbor,’ the author is Colson Whitehead, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s a fine read, as are ‘The Janus Stone: A Ruth Galloway Mystery’ by Elly Griffiths and ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins, which is the first book in a trilogy aimed at young adults. I can’t wait to read the next two installments: ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘Mockingjay.’ “The Hunger Games” is soon to be a movie, made, no doubt, in the arid, windy canyons of greater Los Angeles.    

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.