Philadelphia’s Cowboy Creation Story

The Philadelphia Club, 13th and Walnut Streets, 1913. (PhillyHistory.org)

In 1891, the fictional cowboy mounted his steed at 13th and Walnut Streets and never looked back. He galloped a circuitous route to the publishing houses of New York, then headed out to Hollywood and the American imagination.

What was the cowboy doing at such an unlikely urban crossroads? There, in the Philadelphia Club (as unlikely a place for a cowboy as anyone might ever imagine) Owen Wister, fresh back from his latest Western exploit, held forth in the club’s dining room with his drinking buddy Walter Furness.

Wister might just as well have been telling tall tales about a European Grand Tour, had he traveled eastward rather than westward. But in the Fall of 1885, Wister, a summa cum laude Harvard graduate set to begin law school, was plagued by headaches, vertigo, and the “occasional hallucination.” Fearing a nervous breakdown, Wister’s father sought out advice from family friend, the physician/author S. Weir Mitchell. “An extended visit to Europe for relaxation” would usually be Dr. Mitchell’s prescription. But in this case, he recommended that the anxious 25-year-old go West and live outdoors. “See more new people,” he told Wister, “learn to sympathize with your fellow man a little more than you are inclined to. … There are lots of humble folks in the fields you’d be the better for knowing.”

After a series of eye-opening trips to Wyoming and the Yellowstone from 1885 to 1891, Wister, now a full-fledged witness of the American West, returned to share glimpses of his newfound narrative riches. In time, he would come to advocate the idea that the American West, as opposed to the East, was the rightful center of the nation’s heart and soul. And the cowboy, its manifestation in flesh and blood, would be animated first in short stories, then, in 1902, in a best-selling novel, The Virginian.

The Virginian, first edition (1902)

Owen Wister at a campfire in 1891. The Owen Wister papers. (American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming)

But in order to make such a leap, Wister would require an epiphany. This blue-blooded Philadelphian needed to convince himself, his family and friends, that he was the one who could actually pull this off and become America’s Rudyard Kipling.

At the Philadelphia Club that Fall evening in 1891, Wister and Furness, ate and drank (and drank) and as the evening wore on and the tales got taller, it occurred to Wister that he could write the stories that would bring the cowboy to life as the quintessential American.

Years later, he recalled the moment: “Fresh from Wyoming and its wild glories, I sat in the club dining room with a man as enam­oured of the West as I was. . . .  From oysters to coffee we compared experiences. Why wasn’t some Kipling saving the sage-brush for American literature, before the sage-brush and all that it signified went the way of California forty-niner, went the way of the Mississippi steam-boat, went the way of everything? . . . What was fiction doing, fiction, the only thing that has always outlived fact?”

Wister sipped his claret and staked out the plan. Then he blurted: “Walter, I’m going to try it myself! … I’m going to start this minute.” He headed “up to the library; and by midnight or so, a good slice of [the short story] “Hank’s Woman” was down in the rough.”

Success would require a bit more critical help from Dr. Mitchell. According to historian John Jennings, two of Wister’s manuscripts “gathered dust until Mitchell urged Wister to send them to Henry Mills Alden at Harper and Brothers, promising to provide a letter of introduction. Alden accepted the manuscripts and Wister was launched as a minor western author.”

Eleven years later, with The Virginian hot off the presses, Wister would become America’s major Western author. And the cowboy, originally “a rough, violent, one-dimensional drifter” would transition into a national hero.

[Sources: John Jennings, The Cowboy Legend Owen Wister’s Virginian and the Canadian-American Frontier (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2012); Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902); J. C. Furnas, “Transatlantic Twins: Rudyard Kipling and Owen Wister,” The American Scholar, Vol. 64, No. 4 (Autumn 1995), pp. 599-606; Neal Lambert, “Owen Wister’s “Hank’s Woman”: The Writer and His Comment,” Western American Literature, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 1969, pp. 39-50.]

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