The Cowboy and the Gaucho

Published in Reading The Viriginian in the New West, Edited by Melody Graulich and Stephen Tatum

reading_the_virginianAt the end of June, 1893, the not-yet-famous writer Owen Wister and his ever-difficult mother left Philadelphia for the Chicago World’s Fair. Wister has provided an image of their arrival at Grand Crossing. As they traveled the few paces to the Illinois Central train, there is Wister, carrying his mother’s bags, his mother marching with his hunting rifle over her shoulder, looking like, as he put it, “the Janissaries or something.” The image captures a good deal of their relationship, a relationship that Wister spent much of a lifetime trying to unwind. (Somewhere in the rear of the procession was the man with the rest of the luggage and Molly Moss, a member of Wister’s piano quartet.)

You could say that Owen Wister had gone West eight years earlier to escape the genteel prison of the East: his father’s expectations that he give up music for a proper career; his literary mother’s hypochondria and endless exactions on her only child. The West he came back with as a territory of the imagination formed out of what he had seen and experienced in a few months in Wyoming, but, more important, it was the theater for the working out of his own psychological and political drama.

Wister toured the exhibition halls of the fair, watched the fireworks at night, bumped into friends, listened to the classical music that he loved. Finding the need to write, he repaired to the Hunter’s Cabin on the Wooded Isle, an ersatz shanty that a couple of weeks earlier he and a few other members of the Boone and Crockett Club had christened with a celebratory dinner. In keeping with the surroundings, Teddy Roosevelt had wanted the drinks to be whiskey and beer, but Wister and the others had outvoted him: seated under the melancholy glass eyes of dead quadrupeds, the party drank champagne.