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 Bowl. We were also six hours late, 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. His 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."
And so we catch our first glimpse of the Virginian in Owen Wister's seminal novel, the novel that distilled and named the essence of a great American icon and gave shape to the genre that followed: the Western. No time in history has ever been such a subject of romance, idealism, and longing as the conquering of the American West. It was a fantastic time, its essence unknown in all the centuries previous, and it was never obvious whether the breathtaking savagery of the western wilderness created the astonishing heroes, or whether the heroes, taking the unprecedented opportunity now available to them, created the West.
The Virginian embodies them all. He is a man of consummate skill, steel nerve, good-natured playfulness, and deep passion. Whatever he attempts, conducted by Wister's pen, he is a wholly integrated and consistant character; you can guess almost before he acts what he will do, but through Wister's suspenseful telling, you remain surprised by the manner in which he carries it off. The novel is a progression of The Virginian's acts, each more startling and appropriate than the last.
The other characters, serving as foils to demonstrate the Virginian's attributes, nevertheless display the same kind of integration, each so driven by a central theme that a lesser author would have left them caricatures instead of characters. Wister, however, does not.
As a novel, though, the book does have a few flaws: it is told from a first-person viewpoint with the author as a character, so he occasionally takes advantage of this to make editorial asides. The asides are suitable to the theme of the book -- the heroic nature of the Man of the West -- but they detract somewhat from the progression of the story. Still, I couldn't help but enjoy the nature of Wister's philosophizing:
There can be now doubt of this:--
All America is divided into two classes,--the quality and the equality. The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until our women bear nothing but kings.
It was through the Declaration of Idnependence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty fo find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, "Let the best man win, whoever he is." Let the best man win! That is America's word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing. If anybody cannot see this, so much the worse for his eyesight.
If, in your investigation of the great classics of literature, you missed this novel by Owen Wister, repair the situation immediately!
Crossposted to the Objectivism Metablog