Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Reading "The Virginian" in the New West by Melody Graulich, Stephen Tatum (2003)

A classic "companion" for The Virginian; comprised of a dozen essays on this brilliant classic.

The essays cover almost every question and topic you thought of during the reading and hit on the deliberate "omissions" too. As often with period fiction, finishing it leaves me with many questions regarding the historical background of both the author's writing time frame, and the stories time frame, unlike in say Ivanhoe, in this case they are the same time frame. Unlike Ivanhoe The Virginian is far more "preachy" more like Gone with the Wind; Wister is on a tear to describe "his peoples" (Harvard elite) take on the horrid state of decline of America at the time. Apparently this place has been declining since it was formed?!?

I have come to realize (with help of this reading) that just as all countries struggle to create an enduring identity as say the Noble Knights of the European countries America has embraced the independent Cowboy as our hero. With the help of the Virginian this American myth is embodied with the identical virtues of the Knights of old.

The first essay "Pictures (Facing) Words" is actually focused entirely on the 1st publications illustrations by Keller. Of all the essays in the book I would not have started with this one, not everyone has seen the pictures and not everyone has an art background. However the insights are highly detailed and reveling.
On page 33 the author outlines the basic formula; introduction, test, beat-down, recovery or awakening, and triumph. The formula is later referred to as the "orthodox structuring code" and Wister follows it faithfully.

In "Wister's Omniscience and Omissions" we learn that near the end of his life Wister writes that his camping days in Wyoming were the happiest days of his life.

In "White for Hundred Years" a discussion of the wholesale "rounding up, hunting down, and herding" into reservations of the Indians. A topic completely missing (among others) from The Virginian. 

"Indigenous Whiteness and Wister's Invisible Indians" Wister took up photography during his outwest adventures and we learn that while trying to photograph his mythological  "Indian" he was thwarted by the reality of Indians on reservations... which had nothing to do with free Indian life.

"Wister and the Great Railway Strike of 1894" In this essay we find out that in The Virginian Wister  portrays a more centrist or moderate political viewpoint when in fact he was very conservative. This was surprising because the right wingy speak is pretty hard to miss in The Virginian. In latter writings he rails against "vermin" or Unions. In addition to despising unionist he was a raciest and anti feminist too, but who wasn't?

In "Early Film Versions" the author makes a brilliant connection between The Virginian and King Arthur's Knights and the "Imagined "Medieval" virtues"  - honorable behavior, especially towards women.
In addition a unique link is made between "mixing up the children" before they are christened and mixing up calves before they are branded. To me I see the tables turned today; the mere thought of touching another couple's child sends shivers where steeling  is "just steeling" and is not currently punishable by death. Touching someone else's child, especially undressing and dressing them could in fact end your life as you know it.
"Early Film Versions" also makes several references to the not so subtle "Youth must die so that the adult may live" part of the story. Weather they knew it or not (I suspect they had inklings) America was coming out of it's wild youth, and in just a few short years would be thrust upon the world stage, a stage from which we have not left.

In "History, Gender & the Origins" the Johnson County War (1892) and its seed the "maverick" are disclosed, amazing! I hope indeed that John McCann is not a motherless calf... that is in fact what a maverick was back then. Well how big a deal could it have been? The maverick represented something like you taking a piece of junk mail from my front step; not really a problem except I DON'T WANT YOU TO DO IT, so the fat cats made a big deal out of it, up to and including murder in the form of vigilante justice.

And how about "What if Wister was a Woman?" This essay explores the hypothesis of that very question, and to tell you the truth it explains a lot about the tone, insights, thought patterns, and story lines, of this magnificent story.

A great companion.