Are Any.Of.The Orginal Cast.Members From.Top.Gun Also.Being.In.Second.Movie The Virginian, A Classic Western Revisited

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The Virginian, A Classic Western Revisited

“When you call me that, smile.” -The Virginian

The Virginian was published in 1902 by Evan Wister (1860-1938). The novel was critically acclaimed and a huge bestseller, eventually spawning five films, a successful play and a television series. An immediate success, it sold over 20 thousand copies in the first month, an amazing number for that time. It went on to sell over 200,000 copies in its first year, and over a million and a half before Wister’s death. This little classic has never been out of print. Beyond the multiple works that bear his name, the Virginian inspired hundreds of stories about the Old West. What made this novel so appealing?

Critics give The Virginian credit for establishing the legendary Old West storylines and stereotypical characters of the genre. Sergio Leone’s famous hero had no name, and the Virginian’s name was never mentioned either. He is a laconic cowboy who lives by his code and is very capable in any task, including fighting with fists, guns or words. The book’s lament about a dying way of life has been recounted endlessly. Like the Lone Pigeon character Jake Spoon, the Virginian hangs his friend after becoming an outlaw. The build-up to the climactic shootout was repeated countless times.

Can the book’s continued popularity be attributed to just being the first? There were many romans in the coins before the Virginian, but they were pretty shoddy. Wister produced the first literary example of the genre. A new story is a fresh story, and it certainly helped generate exceptional sales in the early 20th century, but more involvement was needed for decent sales to last over a hundred years, and for the story to be told on stage, in theaters, and on television.

There are three qualities that make The Virginian timeless. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story, it appeals to both sexes, and it realistically depicts life on the frontier.

The narrator, Wister himself, is a city dweller from Philadelphia, on an adventure in the Wild West. The love interest, a schoolboy from the East, cannot understand the code of the West. Even the Virginian is a transplant. Not only is this a new story, but also a story told by fresh eyes, wide open in awe of everything about them. This harsh new world is described by people from another part of the planet – a part with civilization, comfortable social norms and order enforced by the police. The Virginian is partly autobiographical, and Wister uses his contemporary diaries to inject a sense of wonder into the story. Wister loved the Old West, and he makes us, his readers, love it too.

Runaway bestsellers are read by both sexes. The main plot of The Virginian follows classic western lines, aimed at men. More importantly, Wister describes the membership of men in a male-dominated culture. The antics, good-natured ribbing, displays of athletic prowess and foul language will be recognized by any man who played a team sport or served in the military—at least those who participated before women invaded these exclusively male domains. For men, Virginian’s world feels familiar and comfortable.

Wister also features two storylines that appeal to women. Molly Stark Wood, the heroine Mormont, struggles in a foreign land and culture. She is from a strong family that prides itself on education, and is horrified by violence and randomness and vigilantism. How she overcomes her fears to discipline her corner of the raw frontier shows a female courage rarely encountered in top-tier Westerns. In most of these lesser stories, women need a brave knight to protect them. Molly can manage on her own, thank you very much. How she fares adds spice to The Virginian.

Additionally, The Virginian is a love story. The hero doesn’t ride off into the sunset, he marries the heroine. And he goes to Vermont to meet her family. The clash of cultures is reversed when the Virginian takes tea and hangs out with unfit Oriental women.

Wister wrote fiction, but he experienced the Old West of the nineteenth century and wrote from personal experience. Many events in the book came from his diaries. This gives the story an air of authenticity that lesser works lack. Probably only The Virginian and Roughing It, by Mark Twain, give us actual observer accounts of the Wild West. The lifestyle, tools and ethos of the time are correct in both books – even if slightly exaggerated (again, in both books) for entertainment purposes. When we read historical fiction, realism allows us to live in a different time.

The Virginian is more complicated than just being the first of the breed. It’s a good story, well told, with clever subplots. The century-old literary style can make The Virginian a bit difficult, but once you get into the plot, you forget about the more formal writing style. This is a novel that will still sell in the twenty-second century.

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