One of Wister's early fictional characters was a cowboy called Lin McLean. Western writer Dane Coolidge observed that a copy of the collected stories, Lin McLean, could be found in almost any bunkhouse across the West in the first decades of the twentieth century. Its hero, an early version of Wister's Virginian, had the same boyish charm and natural nobility.
Though he comes from Eastern stock, he's a son of the plains, a man of homespun character, mostly unschooled, but both fiercely egalitarian and gentlemanly. An excellent horseman, good with a gun, handsome and gallant in his courtship of women, he is respected by all. Generous to a fault, he also takes under his wing a boy who has run away from a home that we'd describe today as thoroughly dysfunctional.
|Harper's Monthly, 1895|
While the book is chiefly a portrayal of an admirable young man, its storyline has to do with the winning of a young woman's hand - two women, actually. Each of them betrays him, one for lack of principle and the other for principles too highly refined.
Altogether, the book is an enjoyable and entertaining read that, besides its occasional quaintness, is fully enjoyable more than 100 years after its writing. Wister has a gift for both humor and poignancy. While the realities of cowboying, homesteading, and working with cattle hardly get a mention, his depiction of the Old West ranges easily from farce to sentiment to the starkly grim.
|Little Laramie River, 1905|
McLean's visit to Denver at Christmas suggests something of Dickens' London, and the account of a funeral comes as close as anything to black humor. As a precursor to The Virginian, these stories raised many issues that get fuller treatment in the later novel.
There are even glimpses of the Virginian himself, who gets brief walk-ons, with references to his own longstanding courtship of the schoolmarm from Vermont. With both men, Wister did more than anyone to invent the cowboy hero as he came to be known by everyone, from the bunkhouse to the parlor and eventually to the movie screen.
Lin McLean was adapted to film by John Ford in 1918 and retitled, A Woman's Fool, starring Harry Carey. The novel is available free online here and here, and at Abebooks.
Picture credits: wikimedia.org
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