Thursday, February 04, 2016

Book Notes: The Virginian in Alberta

There has been a lot of history published in recent years, much of it by University of Calgary Press, on the ranching frontier in Alberta in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Now adding to that library is a thick essay by John Jennings, pedigreed Albertan, Canadian equestrian, Canoe Museum stalwart, and retired Trent University prof: The Cowboy Legend: Owen Wister's Virginian and the Canadian-American Frontier.

Its idea is that the namesake and inspiration of Wister's 1902 novel The Virginian, which did much to fix the myth of the noble western cowboy in American culture, was Everett Johnson, who soon moved north from Wyoming to Alberta to become one of the giants of the Alberta ranching culture at its peak, and, indeed, a friend of Jennings's own father.

Jennings admits some difficulties. "I have almost no physical proof that Owen Wister ever laid eyes on Johnson," he writes, and Wister was evasive about the model for his hero even when specifically asked about Johnson.  But his case is pretty strong, nevertheless, and in the end that issue is less important to him than how Johnson's own story enables him both to explore Alberta ranching history and compare the evolution of ranching culture and society on either side of the international border:
A major argument of this book will be that, although the two western cattle frontiers were remarkably similar in many ways, the very different legal institutions, in both criminal and land law, caused them to develop in very different ways.
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