“When you call me that, smile!” Who hasn’t said or heard that grim admonition, or some adaptation of it? This line, placed onto the tongue of the Virginian in Owen Wister’s novel of that title, is the distillation of the cowboy myth in Western America. Many of us are still trying to live up to it today.
Wister published The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains in 1902. Downstream from it are all the novels, movies, and TV shows that either adopted Wister’s title outright or just appropriated his characters and values. Thus a dude from Philadelphia taught us how to think about cowboys.
The Virginian set the type of the cowboy in memory because he was a natural aristocrat. He behaved like a gentleman—defending the honor of women, suffering hardship without complaint, fighting for what he knew was right—not because he had genteel upbringing, but because it was in his blood.
All this stuff of the mythic cowboy Wister had worked out a few years earlier, in 1895, in an article for Harper’s magazine. The Western painter, Frederic Remington, encouraged Wister to write it. Its title is “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher.”
The word “evolution” in Wister’s title is key, because as he sees things, genetics were the making of the cowboy. He opens with a scene where a rough-looking range rider and an aristocratic English lord are riding together in the same railroad coach. They despise one another on sight, not realizing, as Wister observes, that they are alike. The English lord ends up on a ranch in Texas, where he takes to the saddle and fits right in with the wild riders of the plains.
This is because the English lord and the Texas cowboys have in common the racial virtues of the Anglo-Saxon. Put them on horseback, and they are transformed into chivalric knights. “No doubt Sir Launcelot bore himself with a grace and breeding of which our unpolished fellow of the cattle trail has only the latent possibility,” writes Wister, “but in personal daring and in skill as to the horse, the knight and the cowboy are nothing but the same Saxon of different environments.”
Cowboys resembled the knights of old in other ways: they wore armor (leather chaps), and they practiced heraldry (adopting distinctive forms of dress, riding for ranches known by their brands).
Historians point out that much of what made cowboys cowboys, from ways of speaking to ways of handling cattle, was of Hispanic origin. Wister explains that the Anglo-Saxons may have gotten their horses and cattle and ways from the Mexicans, but the Saxons “improved on” them and took over the range. The Saxons could do this because they were, naturally, a superior race.
This presents us with something disturbing about the cowboy myth as developed by Wister: it is deeply and openly racist. In order to ennoble his prairie knights of the saddle, he finds it necessary to denigrate other peoples. Wister insults not only Mexicans but also Poles, Swedes, French, Italians, Germans, and Jews. These other folk are fit only, at best, for farming, being unsuited for the rigors of the range.
I know a few Norwegian ranchers in Greenwood County, Kansas, some Ukrainian ranchers in Billings County, North Dakota, and in fact, plenty of ethnic immigrant ranchers from all over the plains who might wish to have a word with Wister. They should get Wister and Remington both in a room and adjust their attitudes. Something like, “When you call me a Norwegian, smile!”