Philadelphia's Owen Wister

While researching my new book, Literary Philadelphia (The History Press)--due out at the end of the year--I looked into the life of Owen Wister. He was the author of the western novel The Virginian.

Wister was the only child of a physician father and an actress mother. His mother happened to be the daughter of English actress, Fanny Kemble. The Wister family had strong Philadelphia patrician roots and young Wister was sent to exclusive boarding schools in New England and Switzerland.

He entered Harvard in 1878 where he achieved top honors in musical composition and dramatic writing. Perhaps it was his success in writing the libretto for Hasty Pudding's comic opera Dido and Aeneas that made him want to become a composer.

He wanted to go to Paris and write music in a garret but in order to do that he needed his father's approval and financial support. Starving in Paris without financial support from home was not an option for Wister, despite the fact that many ex-patriot American artists went to Paris on a shoestring budget. When the almost penniless Ernest Hemingway went to Paris, for instance, he survived by killing and roasting the pigeons he caught outside his window.

Wister's mother had heavy artistic leanings, but his father was a practical man and not keen at all on his son's ambition to study musical composition in The City of Light. Wister's father was a grounded family physician who wanted his son to enter an equally grounded profession. In the end he gave his consent and even provided his son with the financial support he needed.

Now there was nothing standing in the way of Wister becoming a great composer. The only thing he had to do is start building a legacy as great as Chopin's from scratch. provided, of course, that he could turn his dream into reality. For most artists, achievements like this rarely occur in a straight, unencumbered path without crooked detours and unexpected pitfalls.

Samuel Butler's famous saying, "Thus do we build castles in the air when flushed with wine and conquest," certainly applied to Wister because his Parisian musical ambitions eventually hit rock bottom. In 1883 he opted to return to Philadelphia after resigning to himself that he was no Chopin and that he had best become....a Philadelphia lawyer.

So he returned to his father's home and took a junior position in a law firm--something that for many young men would have been a fine solution. In Wister's case it led to intense dissatisfaction, restlessness and stress.

While working at the law firm, he tried his hand at another artistic endeavor, co-authoring a novel with a friend. But then, just as he was about to enter Harvard Law School, his interior world fell apart.

Psychoanalytical experts say that he had a nervous breakdown. He also suffered from vertigo, paranoia, blinding headaches and hallucinations.

His father, understandably alarmed, urged him to come home at once so, the much weakened Wister complied. By now he had developed Bell's Palsy. Bell's Palsy can happen overnight and it can last several weeks.

The numbers of poets, novelists and artists who have had nervous breakdowns are legion. Many have sought refuge in hideaways, sanatoriums and warm climates after coming apart internally.

In Philadelphia, Wister consulted Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a member of the Franklin Inn Club on Camac Street, and friend of writer Agnes Repplier's. Mitchell diagnosed Wister with a severe case of neurasthenia and suggested a trip to a Wyoming ranch. Mitchell had developed a system for treating nervous men. That system was to send them to the west where they could rope cattle, hunt, ride horses and engage in male bonding rituals.

In his 1871 book, Wear and Tear: Or Hints for the Overworked, Mitchell encouraged nervous men to go west in order to reinforce their masculinity and to test their willpower. "Under great nervous stress," Mitchell wrote, "The strong man becomes like the average woman."

Had Wister been born today, his attending physician would never have suggested that he travel west for his health, but be put on a regime of psychotropic meds that would have deadened his energy and creative talents "like a patient etherized upon a table."

Weir Mitchell's 'go West' cure for men was a staple of 19th Century life. For Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins, who was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts for removing the loincloth of a male model in front of female students, and who was then ostracized by Philadelphia society, going west was more than rehabilitative. It saved his life.

"For some days I have been quite cast down being cut deliberately on the street by those who have every occasion to know me." Eakins wrote in a letter to his sister.

Eakins sought his western cure in the Dakotas and when he returned he was "built up miraculously," according to Walt Whitman.

Whitman himself sought his own western cure in 1879 and documented that journey in Specimen Days (1882).

Even 'Rough Rider' Teddy Roosevelt returned from his western cure without what his detractors called his "former effeminate looks" and "high voice that often provided comparison to Oscar Wilde."

These were different times, indeed.

After three weeks in Wyoming herding cattle, wrestling steer, riding horses, swimming and bathing nude in icy, outdoor creeks and sleeping in a tent, Wister, felt like a new man. "I am beginning to be able to feel I'm something of an animal and not a stinking brain alone," he wrote to Dr. White.

Dr. Mitchell also had his prescribed 'rest cures' for women. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote about Mitchell in The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) was once a patient of Mitchell's but the treatment was quite different for females. Instead of open skies, camp fires at night and swims in local creeks, nervous women were encouraged to seek seclusion, were overfed, and received massage treatments and electrotherapy.

Historians have come to categorize Mitchell's rest cure therapy as nothing more than 19th century misogyny. Wister was so entranced by the beauty he experienced in Wyoming that he came to idolize the cowboy, which in turn would form the basis for his classic novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, about a Wyoming cattleman that would go on to become one of the country's first mass market bestsellers.

In the book, The History of Men: Essays on the History of American and British Masculinities by Michael S. Kimmel, Kimmel writes, "To Wister, the west was 'manly, egalitarian, self reliant, and Aryan'"--it was the true America. Far from the feminizing, immigrant infected cities where, "masculine women devoured white men's chances to demonstrate manhood."

Wister never forgot his ranch experience out west and would spend the next 15 years traveling to Wyoming during the summer months. He would visit ranches, cow camps and remote cavalry outposts while getting to know the gamblers and ranch hands. These sojourns provided him with stories that he began publishing in Harper's Weekly. He started work on The Virginian, and its publication in 1902 changed his life forever. The book sold 200,000 copies in one year and was adopted for Broadway. It went on to be the basis for five movies and a television series.

The book provided the general outline for the classic western novel. The stock characters included: the green, naïve East Coast narrator; the local virginal schoolmarm; the mean, "savage" Indian; the tobacco chewing cattle rustler; the wise camp cook who solved problems; the inexperienced, shy, callow kid; and the dreaded "white man" villain.

Since its publication, The Virginian has never been out of print, despite the character stereotypes mentioned above.

It didn't take long for Wister to become more famous than his friend, novelist Henry James. Wister revered James and thought of him as "a real novelist." In a curious twist of fate, the recognition that he had sought for his musical compositions in Paris was now not only his but in triplicate, yet fame made him decidedly unhappy because he looked on his fans as "the semi-literate public." He wanted Henry James' fan base, not "the repugnant masses" who he regarded as unread and uneducated.

After writing and publishing The Virginian, Wister was never totally happy with East Coast cities, especially Philadelphia. He complained of "the rabble of excessive democracy, populist politicians, unassimilated immigrants and tourists." In Philadelphia he tried to make a decent life for himself by dabbling in many things including politics and writing non-fiction, like the story of his friendship with Teddy Roosevelt, Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship.

His journals and letters, edited by Frances Kimble Wister, were published in 1958.