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The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Memory: Civil War Memory and American Nostalgia
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Memory
Text 1. Winslow Homer
Text 2. Hamlin Garland
Text 3. Joel Chandler Harris
Text 4. Jane Addams
Text 5. Robert G. Ingersoll
Text 6. Re-Union and the Railroad
Text 7. Visions of the West
Text 8. Owen Wister
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Reading Guide
Owen Wister
Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, 1902, Introduction, Ch. 1-3

Wister was born in Philadelphia in 1860. Educated in this country and abroad, he graduated from Harvard in 1882 and took a law degree there in 1888. He practiced law in Philadelphia before embarking upon a career as a writer. In the early 1880s poor health prompted him, like Theodore Roosevelt, to seek renewal in West. On the basis of his visits there he began to write short stories, which eventually led to The Virginian. Even if you have never heard of it, The Virginian will seem familiar, for it established the template of the western. Its characters and situations reverberate through every horse opera you have ever seen. Set in Wyoming between 1874 and 1890 but published in 1902, it demonstrates the progress the nation had made toward reunion. Readers would have recognized the stereotype Wister deployed—the Virginian as cool, haughty, natural aristocrat—hardly an all-American type. Yet when relocated to the wide-open West and transformed from cavalier to cowboy, the novel's proud and prickly Southern protagonist, old enough to have fought for the Confederacy, could not only be embraced as a hero but hailed as an avatar of the American character. 17 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. Compare Wister's portrayal of the western landscape with those of Bierstadt?
  2. How does Wister portray the society of the West?
  3. How is the urban East represented in The Virginian, and what role does it play?
  4. Describe the Virginian's character. What is "Southern" about him? How does Wister transform the Virginian into an exemplar of the American character?
  5. Harris, Garland, and Wister each assert that his protagonist embodies the national character. Compare the protagonists to each other and to Frederick Jackson Turner's definition (see above) of the American character.
  6. How does The Virginian look back and look ahead?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  In the aftermath of the Civil War, how did Americans look back and look forward?
  •  During this period, how did Americans promote the re-union of the nation?
  •  How did they reconceptualize their sense of national identity?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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Revised: May 2005