July 14, 2010

Wister: Grotesque and horrible

The relatively-forgotten writer Owen Wister was born on July 14, 1860 in Germantown outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1885, a cousin suggested he go west for health; his western experience had a profound impact and he became a storyteller of the American frontier. After the turn of the century, his major novel was The Virginian (1902), a cowboy novel dedicated to the author's friend Theodore Roosevelt.

Earlier, he was the editor of the National Lampoon at Harvard. Some of his earliest prose pieces were a bit on the whimsical side, including The Dragon of Wantley (1892). In its second edition, Wister included a few critical notices: "Grotesque and horrible;" "Some excellent moral lessons;" "If it has any lesson to teach we have been unable to find it;" and, my favorite, "One wonders why writer and artist should put so much labor on a production which seems to have so little reason for existence."

Wister also wrote a couple biographies, including one of Ulysses S. Grant and another of George Washington. In the latter, titled The Seven Ages of Washington, Wister criticized earlier biographies who censored or altered quotes from America's first President (almost certainly a reference specifically to Jared Sparks). Instead, he happily noted that contemporary historians were depicting Washington, flaws and all. "To-day we can see the live and human Washington, full length... and we gain a progenitor of flesh and blood."

*Image above from the Library of Congress.

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