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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Owen Wister (1860–1938)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Mary Leland Hunt
 
THE FICTION of Owen Wister has delightfully saved from oblivion a picturesque period of frontier life in America. Mr. Wister was born in Philadelphia in 1860. Three years of his boyhood were spent abroad. At Harvard he became interested in music as well as in literature, and after his graduation he went to Paris to study composition. Family affairs soon brought him home. He was then compelled to seek health in Wyoming and Arizona. There he found, to use his own words, “Saturday eternal, where you slept out-of-doors, rode a horse, roped steers, and wore deadly weapons.” With recovered health, he entered the Harvard Law School, and after completing his work there, settled down to the practice of law in Philadelphia. But frontier life had laid its spell upon him and year after year he returned to its mountains and its plains. It was not until 1891, however, after the final push to authorship had been given by Mérimée’s ‘Carmen,’ that his saturation ran over in the form of fiction. From that time law began to yield to literature.  1
  In 1896 eight magazine stories were collected in ‘Red Men and White.’ This was followed by ‘Lin McLean,’ ‘The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories,’ and, in 1902, ‘The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains,’ Owen Wister’s finest single achievement. In 1911 appeared ‘Members of the Family,’ another collection of frontier stories, as the title suggests. The illuminating preface to this volume tells us that much of the material in the author’s carefully kept diaries has not yet been used. Besides this homogeneous group, Mr. Wister’s most important fiction is to be found in ‘Philosophy 4,’ a swift and delightful tale of undergraduate life at Harvard, and ‘Lady Baltimore,’ the true heroine of which is not the girl, not even the cake that gives the novel its name, but Charleston, “the most lovely, the most wistful town in American.” In the realm of satire, ‘How Doth the Simple Spelling Bee’ deals severely with those who would interfere with the habits of the English language. In ‘The Seven Ages of Washington’ and in ‘U. S. Grant’ Mr. Wister has turned his enthusiastic patriotism into the channels of national biography. His latest book, ‘The Pentecost of Calamity’ (1915), is an attack upon Prussianism, which found a host of responsive readers. He has also contributed much, both of prose and verse, to the magazines.  2
  But Owen Wister’s golden gift to American literature is his handling of frontier life between 1874 and 1890. To this splendid indigenous material he brought not only an open mind and an unusual sense of humor but also a broad culture and a restrained artistry. He is himself one of the characters, an outsider, a tenderfoot, who uses the first person and who can openly love his Lin McLean and his nameless Virginian. Though his range covers most of the country west of the Missouri, Wyoming and Arizona are his chosen field, and Wyoming more than Arizona, and most of all, the cattle country and the cattle people. The outdoor life that he depicts is bathed in an enormous sunlight, a virgin air, and is fragrant with the wild clean odor of the sage-brush. The scenery embraces unfooted mountains, vast plains blanketed with tawny dust, and alkali crowded with antelope. Besides cowboys, there are soldiers, Indians, a few women, hard or gentle, a bishop who is first a man, nomads whose home is the saddle-blanket. The rude life tests manhood in unusual ways. The gentle Virginian must help lynch his one-time friend in order to maintain such justice as can exist in territorial Wyoming. The weak go under, and therefore, beneath the laughter and the daring deeds, the ground-swell of tragedy is often felt. Those who survive earn hard, squander hard, drink and swear hard; they are careless of morals and of life; they are childlike, democratic, yet not easy of approach. Owen Wister has made these men live for us,—their courage, their comradeship, their male reticence and their male gossip, and their faithfulness to the given word. He has reproduced their humorous exaggeration of speech and their sinister jokes that can “raise both a laugh and a silence.”  3
 
 
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