Historical Markers
Owen Wister Historical Marker
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Owen Wister

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
5203 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
October 7, 2001

Behind the Marker

Owen Wister wearing western wear and sitting in a chair.
Philadelphian Owen Wister dressed in western garb, circa 1890.
There's something funny about archetypes. No law says they have to ride in from expected ranges. Take, for instance, the American image of the Western hero: tall, handsome and thin, he’s a man of decisive action but few words, a chivalrous defender of virtue, a righter of wrongs, a loner and wanderer with a steadfast code; his aim is as true with his six gun as it is with his moral compass. So, where did that all come from? From the mind—and pen—of a privileged son of Philadelphia.
But, then, Owen Wister was no stay-at-home city slicker. He loved the West. It was his alternate universe, his antidote to the predictable world he came from, and for more than two decades, he would return regularly to its great expanse, and through a series of popular stories, culminating with his landmark 1902 novel, The Virginian, he would leave as much of his stamp on it as it left on him. Artfully bending fact, Wister shaped our idea of the West and our beloved marker national myth of a cowboy.
Head and shoulders drawing
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Sarah Butler Wister, Fanny Kemble Butler's daughter and Owen Wister's...
Given his beginnings, Wister seemed far more destined for the effete existence of the silver spoon–fed tenderfoot. Born in 1860 in the then-fashionable Germantown section of Philadelphia, he grew up in a world of sophistication, culture, and impeccable social standing. His father, a physician, came from a prosperous line of merchants.  His mother, the daughter of the famed Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble was a formidable artistic presence herself. A pianist, translator of French literature, frequent contributor to taste-making magazines like The Atlantic, she also was hostess of a salon frequented by the likes of Henry James. Both parents cast long shadows that would profoundly affect their only child. Wister’s mother encouraged her son’s interest in music, literature, and language, while his father steered him toward more practical pursuits.
Wister, however, grew up largely away from his parents at private boarding schools on both sides of the Atlantic before enrolling at Harvard, where he excelled. He, graduated summa cum laude in 1882 with a degree in music. At Harvard, Wister began to envision himself as a writer. There he wrote a novel that the Harvard Lampoon serialized and a comic opera produced by the Hasty Pudding Club, the university’s famed theatrical society. Beyond the ivied walls, his byline also began appearing in national literary magazines, while within them, he made an important friend in future President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Virginian, A Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister Virginian, frontispiece
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Frontispiece, The Virginian, A Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister. New York:...
After college, Wister went to Paris to study music composition and theory, but frail health and his father’s insistence that he enter a profession brought Wister back to the United States within two years. He then took entry-level jobs at a bank and then a law firm. Wister disliked this work intensely. He wanted to write stories, and the internal conflict with both his father and his jobs sent him spiraling. He suffered such severe headaches, vertigo, and hallucinations that his doctor prescribed a Western sojourn. Wister liked the idea. His friend Roosevelt had also gone west on doctors’ orders, and he had returned invigorated and full of tales and observations that he then published as personal memoir.
Wister spent the summer of 1885 at a friend’s ranch in Wyoming, near Glenrock, not far from Medicine Bow. There he was enthralled by the starkness of the plains, the rugged individualism of the men he was meeting, and the riding and physical labors that suited him. I don’t wonder," he confided in his journal, that "a man never comes back [East] after he has once been here a few years."
Sheet music cover
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Sheet Music cover, “Ten Thousand Cattle Straying,” words and lyrics...
But Wister did go back East, that fall  to attend Harvard Law School, as his father wished. After resettling in Philadelphia to practice law, however, he kept returning to Wyoming and filling his journal with tales of his adventures, the people he met, and the vistas he saw. That journal turned into an invaluable resource.
One night in 1891, Wister was dining at the exclusive Philadelphia Club when conversation turned to why only pulp writers  and not more serious authors  found the West such a suitable setting for fiction. Wister took action. He proceeded directly to a room upstairs and wrote his first Western story, "Hank’s Woman," which he quickly sold to Harper’s Weekly. The mature Western may have just been in its infancy, but it had, at last, been born.
Wister kept supplying Western tales to Harper’s, and within two years was confident enough of his success to exchange a life in the law for that of the full-time writer, setting about to mold what he had seen and heard on the ranges, in the saloons, and around the mining camps into immensely popular stories populated by cowboys, Indians, cattle rustlers, prospectors, schoolmarms, and greenhorns. The more he wrote, the more popular his work became. Following two collections of his Western stories, he published his first Western novel, Lin McLean, in 1898. In 1902, he published The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, which he dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt, his old friend now living in the White House. 
Movie poster
Film poster, The Virginian, Paramount Pictures, 1929.

The Virginian sold more than 200,000 copies in the first year, and, over time, spawned a small industry.  Never out of print since publication, it inspired a successful stage play, five film versions between 1914 and 2000, including the landmark oater in which Gary Cooper delivered one of the genre’s unforgettably defining lines  marker "When you call me that, Smile!"
Wister’s episodic novel was a watershed achievement. His main characters all became iconic building blocks of the modern Western genre: the unnamed, heroic ranch foreman, a virtual white knight in spurs; the beautiful schoolteacher from the East that Wister named after his wife, Molly; and Trampas, the villainous leader of a gang of rustlers. More than that, Wister’s clever dialogue and realistic take on gunplay, horsemanship, ranch and trail life, frontier love, and the inevitable final shootout either established or furthered the conventions that blazed a fictional trail directly through True Grit, The Shootist, Shane,markerZane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, Louis L'Amour’s Hondo, and markerJames A. Michener's Centennial to such modern classics as Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses
Oil on canvas of Quay, standing, facing right, wearing a suit.
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Matthew Stanley Quay, by William A. Greaves, 1896.  

Wister knew that his story of the harsh, unforgiving Wyoming territory had raised the bar on Western fiction and, through his title character, symbolized something that even the West couldn’t rein in: "the American genius," as Wister wrote to his friend, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, shortly after The Virginian appeared.
Wister’s mother, however, thought the book and its subject coarsely beneath him. He responded by producing, four years later, an only modestly received novel-of-manners, Lady Baltimore, set in socially conscious Charleston, S.C., where Wister had relocated with his wife and children in 1902 for a stay of several years.   

In the early 1900s, Wister’s career idled. Struggling to settle on a theme for his next novel, he sought guidance from old friend and recently defeated presidential candidate, Teddy Roosevelt. After discussing several possible subjects, Roosevelt suggested Wister write about "Gilded Age" Philadelphia and its passage to a new social order. Reutilizing the technique of "slight disguise" from his novel Lady Baltimore, Wister set his new story Romney, in "Monopolis" and gave fictional names to real places and people. The epitome of the powerful and corrupt city boss, city boss Mark Beaver, for example, was a thinly veiled allusion to Pennsylvania Republican Senator markerMatt Quay.
In Romney, Wister intended to address the dilemmas of materialism, the upper classes’ responsibilities to the nation and its people, and the impact of money’s control over the political process. In introducing the reader to Monopolis, Wister illuminated the state of affairs in his hometown of Philadelphia:
"In town, all was well with the bank account.  Why complain if the water gave typhoid fever?  Why quarrel with the gas, or the paving, or the drainage? Why examine too closely into somebody’s profits in a municipal contract?  You might make enemies.  These might hurt your business. marker Be moderate."
Wister as an older man
Owen Wister, 1937.
Wister wrote diligently 1912 through the summer of 1913, then ended the project abruptly when his wife, Mary Channing Wister, died on August 24, 1913.  He returned to it only briefly over the succeeding few years, then abandoned it entirely. Romney remained in pieces among his papers until the fragments were finally compiled and published in 2001. The unfinished Romney remains one of the best fictional representations of nineteenth-century Philadelphia.
Wister continued to write until his death at his summer home in Rhode Island in 1938 but penned little fiction. He focused instead on political essays and presidential biographies, including one on Teddy Roosevelt.  He also travelled extensively in Europe and ran unsuccessfully for City Council in Philadelphia.
If Wister seemed to have turned his back on the West and Wyoming after publication of The Virginian, Wyoming had not abandoned Wister. The year after he died, the state renamed an 11,490-foot peak in Grand Teton National Park in his honor.
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