Last reviewed: June 2018
July 14, 1860
July 21, 1938
North Kingstown, Rhode Island
Owen Wister, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 14, 1860, began his career with a serious interest in music and only later became interested in writing. After being educated in private schools in the United States and abroad, he attended Harvard University, where he was graduated with highest honors in music in 1882. He then spent two years abroad, studying composition in Paris until ill health forced his return to the United States. Following a period as a bank employee in New York City, he suffered a nervous breakdown and traveled to Wyoming to recuperate in the healthful atmosphere of a Western cattle ranch. He associated with the large cattle barons who were then engaged in a struggle with smaller ranchers that culminated in the Johnson County Range War of 1892. What Wister saw and heard formed the background for his novel The Virginian. From 1885 to 1888 he attended the Harvard Law School. After graduation he was admitted to the bar and practiced law in Philadelphia. Owen Wister.
His growing fondness for the West led Wister to make other trips to Wyoming during the early 1890’s, and he incorporated incidents and experiences into short stories that won immediate recognition. Two short stories based on Western life, “Hank’s Woman” (1891) and “How Lin McLean Went West” (1891), published in Harper’s Magazine, were his first literary works to attract a wide audience. Such volumes as Red Men and White and The Jimmyjohn Boss, and Other Stories followed. In the meantime, Wister married Mary Channing, of Philadelphia, in 1898.
Wister’s only well-known novel, The Virginian, achieved a high degree of popular success when it appeared in 1902. Drawing on Wister’s experiences in Wyoming, it combined the confrontation of good and evil on the range with a classic love story. The book became the basis for several movies and helped establish the “western” as a distinct field in American literature. Wister dedicated the book to his close friend Theodore Roosevelt, another outdoorsman and lover of the West. Frederic Remington, the famous painter of life in the West, illustrated an edition of The Virginian. Wister continued to write, and he explored other themes than the West, but his other works were never widely accepted. Philosophy 4, for example, was a story about life at Harvard University, with limited appeal to general readers. Lady Baltimore was his one venture in the field of historical romance.
In the years after World War I, Wister wrote little. His last book was Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at North Kingstown, Rhode Island, on July 21, 1938.