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'The Virginian' Teaches the Merit of a Man

by Benjamin Percy
Sep 17, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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My father was 50, mustached, and as deeply tan as a piece of jerky. The book was just as weather-beaten. He handed it to me and said, "Reading this will make a man out of you."

He had said the same when whipping fastball after fastball at me, teaching me to stand tough in the batter's box. Have to admit, I greeted The Virginian with as much enthusiasm as a knuckleball to the teeth.

But he pestered me and I began it. And once I began, the pages fluttered by so swiftly they made a breeze on my face. Then, more than anything, I wanted to tug on my metaphorical chaps and spur my horse forward at such a speed his hooves would rise off the pasture and we would be flying — 150 years into the past — when poker games inevitably went sour, when the six-shooter was the tool to fix all problems, when "days [looked] alike, and often [lost] their very names in the quiet depths of Cattle Land."

I don't know how to say it any better than this: The book made me ridiculously happy.

Published in 1902, Owen Wister's The Virginian is the first fully realized Western. The mythical cowboy figure — the man of few words, the man who gets the girl and brings justice to the frontier, the man we know from countless films and pulp novels — first appears here.

He is the Virginian, a nameless and "slim young giant," who has "plainly come many miles from ... across the vast horizon." If you imagine a yellowed map of the United States, and if you imagine a red arrow moving across it — accompanied by old-time piano music — tracing the passage of the thousands who heard the call "Go West!" and went, you have the Virginian's journey to Wyoming.

Immediately I felt a profound jealousy for the way the Virginian lights off for the territories, where every breath is "pure as water and strong as wine," and where he earns a reputation as a horseman.

By God, I wanted that!

I was 18 at the time, a legal adult — but a man? Could I be called that in earnest?

Owen Wister, like some great and terrible Moses draped in leather and carrying a buffalo gun, taught me to re-examine what it meant to be a man. It meant more than earning a diploma or getting married or buying a house. It meant living simply, respecting women, holding congress with nature. It meant making decisions informed by a moral code so that you were never the one to start trouble, but oh, could you finish it. In our world of hydrogenated soybean oil and sport utility vehicles and Pottery Barn and grubless lawns, the novel is a welcome shot to the arm, a much needed antidote to all the plastic and phoniness.

Reading The Virginian helps me better appreciate honor and nature and life and testosterone, in the same way the Bible helps so many better appreciate God.

When trying to explain to his beloved why he must gunplay with a no-good rotten scoundrel of a cattle-thief, the Virginian says, "Can't yu' see how it must be about a man?" In many ways this is the novel's central concern — the merit of a man — and for a long time I have wandered in the Virginian's incompatible world, comparing myself to him. Quick draw, talented horseman, resilient drinker, feared by men and cherished by women. I like to think of us — together — hunting buffalo or warming beans over a campfire. Whenever I crack open the book, it almost seems possible — I am almost there.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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