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There's more to author than 'The Virginian'

Sunday, April 07, 2002

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

One of the most popular Western novels was written by a Philadelphia aristocrat who numbered Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt among his friends.

He was Owen Wister. His novel "The Virginian" marks its 100th birthday this month.

The book spawned a Broadway play and five film versions. The first was a silent movie by Cecil B. DeMille; the most recent was a made-for-TV version directed by its star, Bill Pullman.

"When you call me that, smile," said the taciturn title character after a nasty insult, uttering one of the classic lines of cowboy lore.

The first sound version, shot in 1929, starred Gary Cooper as the Virginian, establishing Cooper as the strong, silent type he played in many films.

But "The Virginian" isn't Wister's best work, says James Butler, the Wilkinsburg native who happened upon the manuscript of "Romney," Wister's unfinished novel of Philadelphia life.

"This would have been a far better novel," says Butler, chairman of the English department at La Salle University in Philly.

He found the novel in Wister's papers in the Library of Congress. Parts of it were scribbled in pencil on small sheets of paper, while other sections were typed.

Cobbling the pieces together, Butler edited the work and wrote the introduction. Last year, the Penn State University Press published "Romney," adding new luster to the overlooked literary aspirations of Wister.

The completed portion is set in 1880s Philadelphia and takes up the familiar American theme of old money vs. the nouveau riche.

Wister was definitely old money, a member of a family who predated William Penn's arrival. Such places as Wister House, Wister Woods and Wister Avenue around Philadelphia are testaments to the family's enduring presence.

The novelist died in 1938 at 78.

Butler's specialty is William Wordsworth and English romanticism, but his interest in the late 19th century began on Singer Place in Wilkinsburg, where he grew up.

Across the street from his former home is the Singer Mansion, a castle-like sandstone building erected around 1865 by a 19th-century iron baron.

"It's a big, hulking building that I could see from my bedroom window," Butler said. "I confess to having trespassed a few times and looked in the windows. It's always been in my memory."

After visiting Grumblethorpe, a historic Philadelphia house once owned by Wister, the Wordsworth scholar decided to research an American writer and began his study of the Philadelphian.

Wister met Roosevelt while the two attended Harvard University, and they remained lifelong friends, as Wister wrote in his 1930 memoir, "Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship 1880-1919."

Like Roosevelt, Wister found relief from the pressures of Eastern life by spending time in the West, particularly Wyoming, said Butler.

He turned his experiences into short sketches, then expanded on them for the novel that launched his literary career. Although he practiced law, Wister was an accomplished pianist and composer as well as a writer.

In the 1930s, he began an extensive correspondence with Ernest Hemingway. The two compared notes on "what it meant to be a 'real man,' " Butler said.

"It was Roosevelt who virtually commanded Wister to write a novel about Philadelphia," Butler said. "The two were discussing their future after Roosevelt lost the 1912 presidential election, and Roosevelt came up with the idea."

Wister planned to cover the late 19th century and early 20th century, but his wife died in childbirth as he was working on the early years of his story. Her death left him unable to finish it, Butler said, and the manuscript was ignored until the 1990s.

Wister had written about 50,000 words when he stopped. The narrator was based on Wister's fellow novelist and friend, Henry James, and the book contains other characters based on real Philadelphians.

Butler called it a classic roman a clef.

"The book took a lot of editing and piecing together, but it was great fun," said Butler, who hinted that the work was a nice break from Wordsworth scholarship. Several Wister relatives gave him valuable information on family life.

Butler graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1963 and has taught at La Salle since 1971.

"Romney" is available from Penn State University Press for $29.95 in hardcover.

"One Community, One Book" project continues to draw interest. New entries are "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut and "Sent for You Yesterday" by John Edgar Wideman.

Mea culpa: Aldous Huxley wrote "Brave New World," as I well know, but I typed George Orwell in the March 24 column.

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