Travelling Out West
Episode 6 of Words To That Effect (listen here) looked at some of the influences of neurasthenia, a nervous ailment that was ultimately as cultural as it was medical. For men living in large Eastern U.S. cities, one of the frequently advised cures for neurasthenia was a trip out West. The location provided a change of scene, a connection with nature, and the opportunity to take part in what were seen as manly, rugged activities: hunting, ranching, fishing, horse-riding. Numerous men went out west for health reasons and many of them wrote about their experiences, helping to create a popular conception of the west: a world of cowboys and Indians, herds of cattle and open plains, a strenuous life filled with danger but rewarding for those who worked hard.
Owen Wister was certainly one of the most influential of those who headed out west. He travelled to Wyoming a number of times in the 1880s and 1890s, having been advised by physician Silas Weir Mitchell to take the trip to cure his neurasthenia. This began a lifelong interest in the life of the cowboy, or “cowpuncher”, and the American west. His novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) was hugely popular and it laid the foundations of the western genre. It sold extremely well and was critically acclaimed in its time, and would be re-imagined in theatre, television, and film adaptations across the coming decades.
The west, in novels like The Virginian and many others, was an area defined as much by a set of often intangible features and values as by its geographical location. It was in many ways simply the antithesis of the modern American city, and a supposedly historic location where the cowpuncher lived a more intense and purer life, one which required endurance and strength but had its rewards. For Owen Wister the era of the cowboy was a vanished world coming to a close by the end of the nineteenth century. The horseman, Wister informs the reader in his introduction, “rides in his historic yesterday”.
The Fictional West
The problem with this historic “west”, however, was that it didn’t really exist. Certainly not in the way it was portrayed in western novels. It was, in most cases, as fictional as the characters of any novel. But that didn’t mean the general public wasn’t clamouring to read about this supposedly historical moment in which heroic cowboys rode across the sagebrush. Eastern men, if they could not afford to travel west as a cure for their nervousness, could still read the tales of those who had. And for those living in the west it provided an opportunity to set up businesses catering for those who could travel. A whole industry of “dude ranches” – tourist ranches where people could stay on a ranch and help out with everyday activities – sprang up across the west (and they are still big business). And, of course, these ranches were happy to cater to tourists’ expectations of the west, expectations which were largely fictional to begin with. In the end, the geographical, cultural, and literary west were never easy to disentangle.
Want more on Wister and neurasthenia but in audio form? Episode 6 – Neurasthenia, Cowboys, and Feminists – is here
You can also read about some of the cures for neurasthenia in this article. Some were a little dubious, to say the least.
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