On this day in 1860, American aristocrat Owen Wister was born. He was born on the “storied Belfield estate in Germantown.” His father was a wealthy physician and his mother was the daughter of the famous actor Fanny Kemble. When he wasn’t attending school in Switzerland and England, he would hire poor people to lie in puddles so he never got his shoes wet—shoes made of the skin of poor immigrant children. Okay, that wasn’t actually true. But he was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt. Of course, being rich, once the Great Depression hit, Wister was totally against the policies of Roesevelt’s cousin, who was President at that time. If you learn one thing from reading me it should be this: bad economic times are great if you had a lot of money. Wister had a lot of money.
So why on this day is the birthday post about just another American aristocrat? Well, partly is is because last year I did Woody Guthrie. And I could have done Ingmar Bergman, but I just don’t feel up to it. It may be a cliche, but he was a great filmmaker, and he deserves a lot of attention. And I think I have a cold. A cold! And it is supposed to be 99° today! My plan is to go back to bed as soon as I’m done with this. Anyway, so we were talking about American aristocrat Owen Wister and how when times got hard for the American people, he was angry that FDR tried to do anything to ameliorate the suffering of millions of Americans.
But the main reason that I’m writing about Owen Wister is because he is considered the father of the Western. He got that name for writing The Virginian in 1902. It’s an episodic novel with pretty much what we have come to expect. The Virginian character is a kind of natural aristocrat, who of course, ends up as an actual aristocrat by the end of the novel. He falls in love and marries a school teacher, Molly Stark Wood. (Wister’s wife’s nickname was Molly.) And generally, he fights for life, liberty, and the American way against the Tramps who are just evil because, well, they aren’t natural aristocrats.
Interestingly, Wister never wrote another western. He did work with diabetic playwright Kirke La Shelle to bring it to the stage. And it has been made into at least six movies. You’ve got to give it to the man though, according to Wikipedia, the book was reprinted fourteen times in eight months. In addition to not writing another western novel, he didn’t much write anything. There was a ten year period where he was writing novels. And had he been struggling financially, he probably would have pumped out other rambling novels about life in Wyoming with noble men and pretty and pure school teachers. But who needs to do that when you can be sipping brandy and soda at The Philadelphia Club?
Wister died in 1938 at the age of 78. He was tragically killed when the four servants carrying him, dropped from exhaustion. I mean, he was tragically crushed to death when a wall made of money collapsed on him. I mean, he died of starvation after his food tester was tragically killed moonlighting as a puddle-coverer for a rich fat man. The truth is, I don’t know how he died. But he was 78. And that’s one good thing you can say about American aristocrats: they eventually die.
Happy birthday American aristocrat Owen Wister, pioneer of the most tedious of American genre fiction!