The Virginian on Religion

“How many religions are there?”

“All over the earth?”

“Yu’ can begin with ourselves.  Right hyeh at home I know there’s Romanists, and Episcopals–“

“Two kinds!” I put in.  “At least two of Episcopals.”

“That’s three. Then Methodists and Baptists, and–“

“Three Methodists!”

“Well, you do the countin’.”

I accordingly did it, feeling my revolving memory slip cogs all the way round.  “Anyway there are safely fifteen.”

“Fifteen.”  He held this fact a moment.  “And they don’t worship a whole heap o’ different gods like the ancients did?”

“Oh, no!”

“It’s just the same one?”

“The same one.”

The Virginian folded his hands over the horn of his saddle, and leaned forward upon them in contemplation of the wide, beautiful landscape. “One God and fifteen religions,” was his reflection.  “That’s a right smart of religions for just one God.”

“…Do you think there ought to be fifteen varieties of good people?” His voice, while it now had an edge that could cut anything it came against, was still not raised.  “There ain’t fifteen.  There ain’t two.  There’s one kind.  And when I meet it, I respect it. It is not praying or preaching that has ever caught me and made me ashamed of myself, but one or two people I have knowed that never said a superior word to me.  They thought more o’ me than I deserved, and that made me behave better than I naturally wanted to…”

He had looked away again to the hills behind Sunk Creek ranch, to which our walking horses had now almost brought us.

“As for parsons”  – the gesture of his arm was a disclaiming one – “I reckon some parsons have a right to tell yu’ to be good.  The bishop of this hyeh Territory has a right.  But I’ll tell you this:  a middlin’ doctor is a pore thing, and middlin’ lawyer is a pore thing; but keep me from a middlin’ man of God.”

Once again he had reduced it, but I did not laugh this time.
I thought there should in truth be heavy damages for malpractice on human souls…

The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister, Chapter XVIII “Would you be a Parson?”

I found this book when looking for fiction for our Virginia Studies homeschool reading list.  This doesn’t exactly qualify because The Virginian, left Virginia at the age of 14.  He had too many older brothers telling him what to do.  When the book begins he is 27, and has traveled throughout the west, and absorbed a great deal of wisdom.  He hasn’t exactly settled down, but is gainfully employed in Wyoming as a cattle drover when he meets Molly, a Vermont twenty-something who moves out West to avoid marriage.

Narrated by an unnamed Easterner who is nicknamed “the tenderfoot,” The Virginian:  A Horseman of the Plains is considered to be the first true Western, forging a path for a genre that would eventually include Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour.  This book also established many familiar, really iconic themes identified with Westerns.  We’ve seen them in every good Western movie from High Noon to Silverado:   the sudden silence of saloon confrontations, the conflict between wilderness justice and legal niceties, the attraction of Western energy, hard work, raw honesty, and simple morality to North Eastern manners, privilege, polish, and dissembling; and vice versa.

Owen Wister’s novel celebrated a centennial and was recently republished so finding a copy at our public library was easy.  It seemed such a departure from what we are reading on our Ambleside Online Booklist that I thought it might provide mental refreshment and it did!  The illustrations by Thom Ross are apt.  One only wishes there were more of them.

The book blends interesting snippets of revealing dialogue (like the astute portion quoted above) and a series of humorous stories through which the plot slowly weaves; a hen that sits on rocks, potatoes, and puppies; a prank where all the babies are switched at a county dance; a tense situation solved by a tall-tale-telling competition, and a less than sincere conversion stunningly played to humble a sinfully prideful visiting preacher.

The Virginian

While I was looking for a little escapism, it was not complete.  As The Virginian courts North Easterner Molly Wood, the reading she assigns him is amazingly similar to the Ambleside Online offerings:  “We have sent your books,” the mother wrote; “everybody has contributed from their store, — Shakespeare, Tennyson, Browning, Longfellow; and a number of novels by Scott, Thackeray, George Eliot, Hawthorne, and lesser writers; some volumes of Emerson; and Jane Austen complete, because you admire her so particularly.”

The Virginian did not read Emma or Pride and Prejudice.  He did read George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, and disliked it.  He found great wisdom and insight in Ivan Turgenev’s  Fathers and Children.  He kept a dog-eared copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth in his pocket, and discussed Shakespeare’s Henry V.  This doesn’t count what Molly read aloud to him when he lay fevered and wounded.  

I like The Virginian.  I like that he comes from Virginia, from whence most good things come.  I like that he has excellent manners, has an innate sense about people, pays attention to the beauty that surrounds him, works very hard, has a sense of humor, and defends the reputations of women.  He is the kind of man I would like my daughter to meet, when she gets a little older…so I’ll be looking for copy to keep.

Here is an article from Harvard Magazine about Owen Wister.

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