The Virginian - The Bestseller...
Owen Wister was born on July 14th, 1860, in Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Wister was educated for a brief time at schools in Switzerland and Britain before studying at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was a member of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals and wrote its most successful show, ‘Dido and Aeneas’, the proceeds from which aided in the construction of their theater. Wister graduated from Harvard in 1882.
Wister began his literary work in 1882, publishing ‘The New Swiss Family Robinson’, a parody of the 1812 novel ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’. It was well received and praised by Mark Twain.
He now turned to expectations of a career in music and spent two years studying at a Paris conservatory. That avenue did not succeed and so he worked briefly at a bank in New York before studying law at Harvard Law school from where he graduated in 1888. He practiced with a Philadelphia firm but was never truly interested in pursuing that career. He was interested in politics, however, and was a staunch supporter of his school friend, U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt.
Wister had spent several summers in the American West, making his first trip to the Territory of Wyoming in 1885, planning to shoot big game, fish trout, meet the Indians, and spend nights in the wild. He was fascinated with the culture, lore and terrain of the region. Over the years as his various forays at careers panned out, he began to contemplate a career in writing. His early works were politely received but in reality, he was searching for a grand landscape on which to base his ideas.
It seemed to take some time in developing the obvious.
In 1898, he married his cousin, Mary Channing, and the union produced six children. Sadly, Mary died giving birth to the sixth child in 1913.
When he started writing, Wister inclined towards fiction set on the western frontier, his grand landscape. His most famous work remains the 1902 novel ‘The Virginian’, a complex mixture of people, places and events dramatized from experience, word of mouth, and his own imagination – ultimately creating the quintessential cowboy, who is a natural aristocrat, set against a highly mythologized version of the Johnson County War, and taking the side of the large landowners.
In 1904 Wister collaborated with Kirke La Shelle on turning ‘The Virginian’ into a play. It featured Dustin Farnum in the title role and ran successfully on stage. A decade later Farnum reprised the role in Cecil B. DeMille's film.
Wister was a member of several literary societies, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University.
Owen Wister died on July 21st, 1938 at his home in Saunderstown, Rhode Island.