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Owen Wister: When You Call Me That, Smile!

by Gerard J. St. John

Spring 2003, Vol. 66, No. 1

Medicine Bow, Wyoming, is just a speck on the Rocky Mountain plains. It has only 274 residents. Cattlemen no longer bring their livestock to Medicine Bow for shipment by rail. Cattle are now shipped by truck directly from the ranch. The railroad tracks still run through Medicine Bow. But the trains no longer stop. Instead, each train, as it rumbles by, blasts a high-decibel salute on its pneumatic horn. The fabled “Lincoln Highway” still runs through Medicine Bow. But motor vehicles no longer use the old Route 30. Motor vehicles today use the limited-access interstate highway I-80. Where the lonesome Lincoln Highway passes the south edge of Medicine Bow there is a pyramid-shaped mound of petrified wood, about seven feet high. It is an unlikely place to find a monument to a Philadelphia lawyer. The monument is for Owen Wister, the man who put Medicine Bow on the map.

In 1902, as the Philadelphia Bar Association celebrated its centennial anniversary, Philadelphia lawyer Owen Wister published the world’s first cowboy novel, The Virginian. Wister’s story begins in Medicine Bow. In fact, Medicine Bow is the only town specifically identified. The novel centers on a self-reliant cowboy known by his place of origin as “the Virginian.” Wister’s novel established a pattern for virtually all of the thousands of cowboy stories that followed. The Virginian has continuing clashes with a villainous cowhand who is set on destroying the highly ethical hero. There is also a subplot involving the Virginian’s romantic interest in a schoolteacher who had been raised in a very proper family in the East. At the climax, there is a shoot-out between the Virginian and the villain.

The most memorable scene occurs in a Medicine Bow saloon. The villain, anxious to get on with a poker game, addresses the Virginian as “you son-of-a-bitch.” In response, the Virginian draws his six-shooter, rests his gun-hand easily on the table, and says, “When you call me that, smile!”

The Virginian was a huge success. It was republished more than fifty times and sold millions of copies. Five times it was made into a movie; two were silent films. The first of the “sound” movies featured a young actor named Gary Cooper and launched him on his way to stardom. The Virginian was also produced as a stage show and later as a television series. It established Owen Wister’s reputation as a first-rate novelist.

Owen Wister was one of the “Germantown” Wisters whose forebears immigrated to America from Heidelberg in the early 1700s. They established an import business and married into the prosperous Logan and Fisher families. On his mother’s side, Owen was descended from the world-famous actress Fanny Kemble and from Pierce Butler, who represented South Carolina at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The family home, “Butler Place,” was located in the Ogontz section of Philadelphia. Wister’s family pedigree was pretty much what one would expect of a Philadelphia lawyer in the nineteenth century.

An older cousin, William Rotch Wister, previously pursued a career in the law. “Rotch” was admitted to the bar in 1849, eleven years before Owen Wister was born. He lived on the Belfield Estate, the present site of La Salle University. He served as solicitor and director for many substantial financial institutions in Philadelphia, including the Philadelphia Contributionship and the National Bank of Germantown. Rotch was also an avid proponent of cricket and was a founding member of the Germantown Cricket Club. It seems only natural that Owen would want to follow in the footsteps of his older cousin, especially since Owen was attracted to and eventually married Rotch’s daughter, Mary Channing Wister. But Owen Wister followed another dream. He set out to be a musical composer. He studied music first at Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude, and then for two years in Europe.

In 1885, Owen Wister returned to America and enrolled in Harvard Law School. While in law school, Wister was a frequent visitor at the residence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was then a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. In 1888, Wister graduated from Harvard Law School and returned to Philadelphia. Through his family connections, he had the opportunity to serve an apprenticeship in the law office of Francis Rawle and Robert Ralston, at 402 Walnut Street.

Francis Rawle was a grandson of William Rawle, the first Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Admitted to the bar in 1871, Francis Rawle was a “Legend of the Philadelphia Bar” in his own right. In 1878, he was one of the seventy-five lawyers who founded the American Bar Association at a meeting in Saratoga Springs, New York. Rawle was elected its first treasurer. In 1902, he was elected president of the ABA. He revised three editions of Bouvier’s Law Dictionary. Francis was the Rawle who, in 1917, formed the partnership known as Rawle & Henderson. Francis Rawle was an ideal preceptor for an aspiring young lawyer with the educational and social background of Owen Wister.

Wister’s work in the office of Rawle and Ralston was pretty much what one would expect of a new lawyer fresh out of law school. He assisted Ralston with the preparation of a new textbook. He represented a penniless widow in her efforts to acquire the assets of her recently deceased spouse. He handled small collection matters. He assisted Francis Rawle in bringing an unsuccessful trademark action, and then wrote the brief on appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Putnam Nail Co. v. Dulaney, 140 Pa. 205 (1891). It was basic stuff, the kind of work that has honed the skills of many young lawyers. But a young man whose close friends included the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes was not satisfied with such basic tasks.

Owen Wister found his work in the law office to be an “unpalatable grind.” He complained that Rawle was “throwing him the crumbs.” Wister sought the advice of Holmes, who had not particularly enjoyed the private practice of law. Holmes advised Wister to persevere with the law for a few more years before making a final decision. But Owen Wister had had enough. He sought a different career.

In 1892, Harper’s retained Owen Wister, not to represent it but to write short stories about the American West. Wister had been taking summer vacations hunting in Wyoming and other parts of the unsettled Rockies. He kept a journal of each trip. The journals provided the bases for his short stories. Wister pictured himself as an American Kipling, set on preserving in literature the culture of a short-lived American frontier. In 1902, Wister tied together several of his short stories and converted them into a cohesive novel. The result was The Virginian. The book was dedicated to Wister’s Harvard friend Theodore Roosevelt. Wister later wrote eleven other books, including a biography of Roosevelt, but none of them enjoyed the success of his landmark cowboy story.

People today are surprised to learn that Owen Wister was a lawyer. Six years of his life have been disregarded because of his spectacular success in another endeavor. Biographical summaries make only passing reference to Wister’s legal career. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica describes Wister as a “novelist” and devotes only one sentence to his lawyering.

The selective disregard of Wister’s time as a lawyer is unfortunate. Owen Wister paid his dues to the legal profession. He attended and graduated from Harvard Law School. He served an apprenticeship of more than a year with a renowned Philadelphia lawyer, Francis Rawle. He was admitted to the bar in 1889, and practiced law for two years, including an appearance in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Moreover, he continued to maintain a desk in Francis Rawle’s law office at 328 Chestnut Street for another twenty years. Owen Wister is entitled to be called a Philadelphia lawyer. But when you call him that, smile.