Friday, August 29, 2008

The Virginian

Several weeks ago, in a flash of nostalgia, I purchased a copy of Owen Wister's The Virginian.

"The Virginian" was assigned reading when I went to high school back in the Jurassic period. It was tucked into a packet along with "Animal Farm," "Kon-Tiki," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Julius Caesar," and several other works I can't recall. Even back in those days, it was an odd choice ("Kon-Tiki" was another) and I regarded the eclectic nature of the stack as a sign that some school administrator had a sense of humor. "What are you reading?" someone would ask and the reply would be "Oh, Dickens, Shakespeare, Orwell, and Wister."


Still, as a high school student I had enjoyed the book. Although I couldn't remember its ending, I recalled that it had a easy gait, reminiscent of a gentle horse, and that its hero, who is always simply called The Virginian, is quietly heroic.

Anyway, I wanted to see if the book is as good as I recalled. "The Virginian" is not in the same league as "A Tale of Two Cities" but it is quite good. There is one cringe-inducing section where the hero sings a song in what appears to be black dialect, but the overall message of the book is noble. The hero is courageous, the villain (Trampas - great name for a villain) is devoid of virtue, and the love affair between The Virginian and the local "school marm" raises interesting questions about class differences. A large part of the book grapples with the question of whether he is good enough for her and near the end moves to the question of whether she is good enough for him.

The reason why I mention this strange choice of a long-ago literature class is my suspicion that the book was assigned not as an example of great writing, but to encourage good character.

I wonder if any high school literature books are selected on that basis today.


Kurt Harden said...

High school literature is selected based upon the following criteria:

Is there an "ism" angle (feminism, unionism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, activism, homosexualism)?

If so, add it to the list.

I've tested the theory. Brave New World was the only exception.

Michael Wade said...

I've noticed some of the more recent reading lists and find them to be politically correct. You're right: "Brave New World" does seem to be the only exception.

"The Virginian" wouldn't stand a chance.