Wister, Owen

Owen Wister (July 14, 1860-July 21, 1938) was a lifelong friend of Theodore Roosevelt’s and a novelist best known for his writings about the American West.

Wister was the son of physician Owen Jones Wister and Sarah Butler Wister. He was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, schooled in Europe and New England, and graduated from Harvard College (1882). Although his father wanted him to be a banker, Wister instead studied music composition in Paris. Poor health interfered and he returned to the United States. He spent time on a ranch near Douglas, Wyoming, trying to recover. He became enamored with the West and returned annually for the next fifteen summers exploring various aspects of cowboy culture. In 1888 he graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as an attorney for two years in Philadelphia.

Roosevelt and Wister met at Harvard, where they were both members of the Porcellian Club. In 1891, Roosevelt suggested that Wister write about western cowboy life. His stories were published by Harper’s Weekly. They were widely-read and popular. Some were illustrated by Frederic Remington. The success of his tales convinced Wister to become a full-time writer. In 1902, he published his best-selling book, The Virginian. For many decades it was considered the quintessential western novel. Wister thanked Roosevelt by dedicating it to him: “Some of these pages you have seen, some you have praised, one stands new-written because you blamed it; and all, my dear critic, beg leave to remind you of their author’s changeless admiration.” In 1903, Wister wrote the stage adaptation for The Virginian and much later it became the basis for an NBC television show of the same name that aired from 1962 through 1971. While Wister would write nearly two dozen books—both fiction and nonfiction—none were ever as famous or as commercially successful as The Virginian.

The two friends had much in common. In addition to both being authors, Wister was an associate member of the Boone and Crockett Club. He ran for elected office (councilman) in Philadelphia in 1908. In 1912, Wister’s wife, Mary Channing Wister, died in childbirth (they had been married since 1898 and had six children). Wister supported many of Theodore Roosevelt’s actions, including having Booker T. Washington to dinner, running on the third-party ticket in 1912, and working for preparedness before American entry into World War I.

In 1930, Wister published Theodore Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, a book of reminiscences about their youthful adventures and the friends and family in Roosevelt’s circle. In that book, Wister recounted President Roosevelt’s vexed response to his exasperating eldest daughter, “I can be President of the United States—or—I can attend to Alice! I cannot possibly do both!”

Wister died in 1938. His fame today rests still on The Virginian and the effect it had on American western mythology and western novels.