Yesterday I talked about how the Virginian (in case you are wondering by this point, he is never named otherwise) is more prototype than stereotype. I illustrated a bit what it is he typifies—and of course you can guess that it is The Western Ideal Man—but I didn’t directly address that ideal or the finer points of the Virginian’s character. Because, while stereotypical, or protostereotypical, Wister’s portrayal of the Virginian is not un-nuanced.
Who is the Virginian? At the beginning of the novel, the narrator describes for us:
a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures. His broad, soft hat was pushed back; a loose-knotted, dull-scarlet handkerchief sagged from his throat; and one casual thumb was hooked in the cartridge-belt that slanted across his hips. He had plainly come many miles from somewhere across the vast horizon, as the dust upon him showed. His boots were white with it. His overalls were gray with it. The weather-beaten bloom of his face shone through it duskily, as the ripe peaches look upon their trees in a dry season. But no dinginess of travel or shabbiness of attire could tarnish the splendor that radiated from his youth and strength.
No question of what he looks like; I can see him on the train platform now. And what he acts like? As the narrator observes him, he is giving a man he calls Uncle Hughey a hard time about going off to get married, chaffing him gently and giving the narrator a decent entertainment, all the while looking absolutely grave. But when Uncle Hughey leaves, this gravity is enough to make the narrator worry that he might be “invited to dance on the platfor mto the music of shots nicely aimed.” The narrator is, of course, at this point a complete tenderfoot, and little better than a child in judging Western matters. But when the Virginian approaches him (he has, in fact, been sent to collect him), “in his eye, in his face, in his step, in the whole man, there dominated a something potent to be felt, I should think, by man or woman.”
The Judge sent me afteh you, seh,” he now explained, in his civil Southern voice; and he handed me a letter from my host. Had I not witnessed his facetious performances with Uncle Hughey, I should have judged him wholly ungifted with such powers. There was nothing external about him but what seemed the signs of a nature as grave as you could meet. But I had witnessed; and therefore supposing that I knew him in spite of his appearance, that I was, so to speak, in his secret and could give him a sort of wink, I adopted at once a method of easiness. It was so pleasant to be easy wtih a large stranger, who instead of shooting at your heeds had very civilly handed you a letter.
“You’re from old Virginia, I take it?” I began.
He answered slowly, “Then you have taken it correct, seh.”
A slight chill passed over my easiness, but I went cheerily on with a further inquiry. “Find many oddities out here like Uncle Hughey?”
“Yes, seh, there is a right smart of oddities around. They come in on every train.”
The narrator, who has arrived by the most recent one, “[a]t this point…dropped [his] method of easiness.”
And here I am totally off-track. I wanted to tell you what the Virginian really was like, but I have just tried to show you again, all sideways. I wanted to explain his idea of honor, and what makes a man a good man, and whether being a good man is enough. I’ll have to try again tomorrow—this is important too, after all. It’s the narrator’s first encounter with the Virginian! And I want to tell you all about the narrator too.
But I have already gone on, or at least, let myself go on with Wister. So from a completely different angle: what kind of opening is this to The First Western? It’s actually not quite the opening; before the train arrives at the station at Medicine Bow, it’s sitting on a track outside the town. The narrator watches several men try to rope an unbroken horse, all failing until one climbs into the corrall “with the undulations of a tiger, smooth and easy, as if his muscles flowed beneath his skin. The others had all visibly whirled the rope, some of them even shoulder high. I did not see his arm lift or move. He appeared to hold the rope down low, by his leg. But like a sudden snake I saw the noose go out its length and fall true; and the thing was done.” This man, the narrator will realize quite soon after the above-quoted conversation, is the Virginian.
But now I’ve done it; it’s all here. The Virginian looks the part. He talks the part. But before all that, he works, at a task that requires skill, patience, calm, and controlled physicality—that is, the qualities of a man, and not of a boy. He does a thing well, and this will turn out to be one of the most important qualities of a man in the West. It is one thing to have no bad in a person; it is a better thing to have some good in a person; but even better, and to some extent this is really the minimum required for a moral existence in this wild country, is to be good and to do good, to do anything that must be done well.