'Virginian' author's lost novel published

Sunday, January 27, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- Friends and literary critics wondered why Owen Wister, the author of "The Virginian" who helped create the heroic cowboy of the American Western, didn't write a novel about his native city.

"The Philadelphian," perhaps.

After all, Wister was the consummate blue blood. His ancestor, Dr. Edward Jones, arrived in the Philadelphia area two months before William Penn.

Wister had talked about writing a novel centered on Philadelphia, which he would call "Monopolis," but it seemingly never materialized.

Now, a La Salle University professor has found that Wister did write about Philadelphia; Wister titled the novel "Romney," the name of the hero, and never finished the book. James A. Butler came upon the 48,000-word, 13-chapter manuscript amid 26,000 folders of Wister materials in the Library of Congress.

"It was very exciting," Laura Haines Belman, Wister's great niece, said of Butler's discovery. Though the family donated the materials, she said, "Nobody in the family really knew what was in it. He persevered."

Butler, curator of La Salle's Wister Family Special Collection, edited the "Romney" chapters, which were published by Penn State University Press.

Wister's fame came from his tales based on the Western travels he took as a cure for nerves. He attended Harvard University, where he made friends with Theodore Roosevelt, and he related that he decided to write about the Wild West over oysters, coffee and claret in the plush and paneled Philadelphia Club.

"The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains," was dedicated to Roosevelt and illustrated in some editions by Frederic Remington. The 1902 book about the foreman of a Wyoming ranch who kills a ranch hand in a gunfight, helped develop the image of the strong, quiet-spoken Western hero. The book went through 40 printings in nine years after its publication and inspired five films and a 1960s television series.

Sidetracked by wife's death

In "Romney," Wister portrays scenes of the Philadelphia area in the 1880s, including the Bryn Mawr train station, Bellevue Hotel and Independence Square. The novel breaks off just before the birth of the intended hero, Romney.

Wister stopped work on the book Aug. 24, 1913, when his wife, Mary Channing Wister, 44, died giving birth to their sixth child. He wrote in his journal the following year that he had tried to go back to the work but had "no heart, no strength, no seclusion."

Butler said Wister intended to show a city changing from an old to a new order, with a hero able to succeed because of his abilities and despite his lack of social standing.

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