Now folks, I’d like to start by directing your attention to the West. Just look at those plains, ready and waiting to be settled by those worthy Americans. Ever heard of Manifest Destiny? The belief that it was the duty of American citizens to expand westward, imparting their ideas of freedom on all citizens capable of self-government (well except the Natives)? If you folks look closely, I’m sure you’ll be able to spot some Manifest Destiny hidden inside this weeks novel.
The Virginian, written in 1902 by Owen Wister is a tale about a cowboy, “The Virginian”, and the life he leads. Within The Virginian are three characters–the Virginian, the narrator and Molly Wood–who travel throughout the novel for various reasons, and, as this is a blog about travel in American literature, I want to find out what the reasons are.
The Virginian: Originally from Virginia, the Virginian traveled west to the frontier in search of a job. Upon finding a job at Sunk Creek Ranch, the Virginian worked for Judge Henry, eventually becoming the foreman. For his job, the Virginian had to travel from Sunk Creek to surrounding ranches, such as Bear Creek, or travel east to places like Nebraska, to deliver cattle. The Virginian even had to travel 263 miles to reach the “town” at Medicine Bow station (Wister 8), whether to meet the Easterner for his first visit, or to marry Molly Wood. Before settling down at Sunk Creek however, the Virginian was known to have traveled through “Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, Idaho and Montana” (Wister 38).
The Narrator: Also known as the Easterner, the narrator traveled to Judge Henry’s ranch for a vacation. Originally labelled the “tenderfoot,” the Easterner quickly learned the ways of a horse and soon became a good friend of the Virginian’s. He continued to vacation at Sunk Creek, however he made separate stops along the way to meetup with the Virginian, such as in Omaha where the pair agreed to meet while the Virginian was traveling for work (Wister 108).
Molly Wood: Originally from Bennington, Vermont, Molly travels to Wyoming in response to a job opening. Wanting to escape from the pressure of her family, Molly takes the place as the schoolmarm at the newly built school in Bear Creek. After her family suffered a financial blow, Molly worked as a piano teacher and a seamstress (Wister 68) and was constantly pressured into marrying Sam Bannett for his money. Not wanting to live as Mrs. Bannett, Molly accepted the position in Bear Creek and prepared herself for an adventure.
All three characters traveled from the east to the west, leaving behind civilized cities for the wild unknown of the frontier. The reason that the characters in The Virginian travel westward is to fulfill their Manifest Destiny. As the west was not yet settled, it was seen as a place where a person could gain independence and the chance to start a new life–something that Molly and the Virginian succeeded in doing. Westward expansion was so popular that The Virginian is considered to be the first western novel and it sold 50, 000 copies in the first two months of publication. Due to its popularity, it was later made into a television series. The travel that the Virginian does throughout the novel is so extensive that maps have been created to help visualize his routes. These maps depict the Virginian’s travels to town, his travels across the mountains to visit Molly and his travels to the foothills to hang thieves.
Travel was an important part of the Virginian’s life because of the vastness of the land where he worked. There were no highways connecting ranches or towns, only dusty trails worn thin by horse hooves as riders traveled great distances to reach their destinations.
A good horse is hard to find, which is why Shorty’s horse Pedro is such an important part of The Virginian. Pedro was trained to come when called, easy to tack-up (saddled) and never bucked (Wister 216). Folks, when you are traveling across open lands for days at a time, a good horse is a necessity. If your horse is constantly spooking or running away than he could harm himself or you. If a horse is constantly fighting with his rider, then both the horse and rider will run out of valuable energy, causing their trips to take longer and be far less enjoyable.
For long trips, or trips that involve the transportation of good, a wagon is needed. Typically two horses, known as a “team” are used in this situation. A team of horses are typically paired together using a two-horse hitch method, where the horses must be matched both in size and conformation (body structure of the horse) to make the weight distribution fair for both horses. Some owners prefer when the horses match in colour and markings as well, however this is not a necessity. The pair, Buck and Muggins, which the Virginian used to drive the Easterner to Sunk Creek for his first visit were a two-horse team and they were needed to help transport the Easterner’s clothing trunk (Wister 41).
Side Note: Travel by train did occur in The Virginian, however as it was not a main source of travel it will be covered in a later post. Primarily the train was used to travel from different states, such as how Molly boarded a train in Vermont to reach the station in Medicine Bow. This station was the same one which the Easterner traveled to at the beginning of the novel.
Next Stop: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
“Hitches.” Caballus Driving Society. 8 November 2012. <http://www.cs.uic.edu/~clitberg/cds/hitch.htm>.
Humphreys, Sara. American Literature Literary Periods. Trent University, Oshawa. 2012 October. Lecture.
“Manifest Destiny: An Introduction.” PBS: U.S. Mexican War. 26 November 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/prelude/md_introduction.html>.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. “Manifest Destiny.” History. Ed. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty. Houghton Miffin Harcourt Publishing Company: 1991. 8 November 2012. .
Wister, Owen. The Virginian. United States of America: Signet Classics. June 2010.