Thursday, February 10, 2011

Owen Wister, Lin McLean (1898)

Owen Wiste
This forgotten book is doing double duty as also a preview of Wyoming Week here at BITS, which starts on Monday.  As a favorite western destination of the young writer Owen Wister, Wyoming was the setting for his bestseller western, The Virginian (1902). Before that, it had already appeared in Wister's dispatches for Harper's Monthly Magazine, which found readers eager to read about life on the frontier.

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
A series of short stories strung together into a novel, Wister's book is really a romance in a western setting. It is still the time of the open range and frontier towns of Wyoming in the 1880s, an era already regarded as long past, just a decade later at the time of Wister's writing. There are no gunfights or outlaws.

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:

Coming up: Wyoming Week


  1. I had no knowledge of Lin Maclean. Now I'm going to have to do a bit of research on that.

  2. Lin McLean, huh. I didn't know. Free? I'm there. But from your solid review I would have paid for this novel.

  3. I might be your only Wyoming follower. (not many live here) I am very interested in your choices next week. I have read a lot of Whisters stuff and enjoy his humor and portrayal of early Wyoming. Wish he would have written more westerns.
    The early part of The Virginian is set in tiny Medicine Bow Wyoming where one of my sons and family live. We spend time in the nearby mountains, fishing, hiking and just messing around every summer. The area is spectacular.
    Great old photo of the Laramie River—it runs through town about a mile from where we live.

  4. Wow -- from Wyoming and can't spell Wister's name. I will blame it on old fingers and say nothing more.

  5. Remember the TV show. Was it Doug McClure?

  6. Charles, search on Lin McLean at Google Images, and you'll find Frederic Remington's illustration of him.

    Cheyenne, he's not well known. I believe he turns up briefly again in THE VIRGINIAN.

    David, thanks.

    OGR, Wister seems to have lost interest in the West after the success of THE VIRGINIAN. Seems peculiar.

    Patti, Doug McClure played the TV version of Trampas, the villain of the novel, repatriated for 1960s TV.

  7. Some years ago, when Levi Strauss withdrew its Saddleman Award, given for lifetime contribution to western literature, I was on a committee to create a new award. We called it the Owen Wister Award, and it remains the highest honor bestowed by Western Writers of America. It left us uneasy. While Wister did write the prototypical western, The Virginian, he is not a particularly good novelist, nor did he have much reputation in nonfiction. Yet the committee wrestled with all sorts of names before settling for that one, and it is not bad.

  8. Richard, I agree. Wister really opened literary doors to the West, even if he did not contribute more than a classic popular novel himself.