Authors: Owen Wister

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist

July 14, 1860

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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. {$I[AN]9810001482} {$I[A]Wister, Owen} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Wister, Owen} {$I[tim]1860;Wister, Owen}

Owen Wister.

By L. C. Page and company, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Dragon of Wantley, 1892 The Virginian, 1902 Lady Baltimore, 1906 Padre Ignacio, 1911 Short Fiction: Red Men and White, 1895 Lin McLean, 1897 The Jimmyjohn Boss, and Other Stories, 1900 Philosophy 4, 1903 Safe in the Arms of Croesus, 1928 When West Was West, 1928 Nonfiction: Ulysses S. Grant, 1900 The Seven Ages of Washington, 1907 Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919, 1930 Owen Wister Out West, 1958 Miscellaneous: Romney, and Other New Works About Philadelphia, wr. 1912-1914, pb. 2001 (essays and unfinished novel; James A. Butler, editor) Bibliography Cobbs, John L. Owen Wister. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Makes a strong case for Wister’s importance as a writer and contains an informative survey of his work. Estleman, Loren D. The Wister Trace: Classic Novels of the American Frontier. New York: Jameson Books, 1987. Discusses frontier or Western fiction as a genre. Etulain, Richard W. Owen Wister. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1973. Offers a good, brief analysis of Wister’s career as a western writer. Payne, Darwin. Owen Wister: Chronicler of the West, Gentleman of the East. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. A good biography of Wister, which draws on the large collection of Wister’s papers at the Library of Congress. White, G. Edward. The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience: The West of Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister. 1968. Reprint. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989. Excellent on Wister’s days in the West and the influence of that experience on The Virginian and his other writings about the region.

Categories: Authors