Owen Wister, Chronicler of the West, Gentleman of the East. By Darwin Payne.
(Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. Pp. xiv+377.
The United States in the 189os presents the curious and somewhat
disquieting spectacle of a nation simultaneously experiencing a fin de
siacle world-weariness and feeling its oats-a split personality reflected
in the lives and works of Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, Frank Norris,
Harold Frederic, Clarence King, Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, and
Owen Wister, to name a few. Therefore, the news that Wister-best
known for his famous 1902 "cowboy" novel, The Virginian-presents a
biographer with difficult problems should not come as a surprise to
Darwin Payne attempts to deal with these problems by casting Wister
in the role of a misfit, arguing (sometimes tacitly, but more or less con-
tinuously throughout) that the subject's caste, education, and inclina-
tions might have fitted him to be an antebellum gentleman (he was
born in i86o), but did not prepare him for the commercial hurly burly,
social upheaval, and intellectual revisionism that characterized the
Gilded Age and the Gay Nineties.
Many of the facts Payne presents do not fit the strategy he attempts
to apply, however. In fact, Wister cashed in on his writing in a big way,
making himself a resounding commercial success. He also (through his
writing, largely) became a hero of the people-even while he produced
nasty articles about strikers and hobnobbed with his aristocratic friends.
He managed, finally, remarkable changes, amounting almost to trans-
formations, in his literary style, and in some of his attitudes and habits
of mind-made a thorough transition from the burlesque, comic-opera
romance of works such as The Dragon of Wantly (1892) to the starkly reso-
nating naturalism of stories like "At the Sign of the Last Chance" (1928).
When Upton Sinclair reproached him in 1931 for not keeping up with
the times, he responded scornfully-not because the reproaches were
true (as Payne tacitly implies), but because they were not true: he was a
revisionist, as his writing very clearly shows.
Briefly, Payne ignores the significance of Wister's commercial success,
disregards the meaning of his social popularity, and seems unaware of
the fact that his style and attitudes changed through time. The worst
trouble with Payne's book is that it tries to tell the writer's story without
taking account of his writing-a doubtful enterprise that invites the pe-
culiarly pointed question little Pip asks aboard the doomed Pequod:
"unscrew your navel, and what's the consequence?"
The University of Georgia
BEN M. VORPAHL
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 90, July 1986 - April, 1987. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117152/. Accessed March 3, 2015.