The American Heritage Center has completed a project to digitize the collection of famed Western author, Owen Wister. The collection includes journals, manuscripts, photographs, articles, publications, and correspondence. These materials deal primarily with Wister’s interest in and travels to the American West, which began in 1885 when he, on doctor’s orders, traveled to Wyoming to spend a summer at a friend’s ranch. This trip spurred his interest in the American West. Between 1885 and 1891, Wister made five trips to the West, which were documented through the diaries he kept at the time. The diaries later provided material for his Western novels. With the exception of some third-party manuscripts and published material, the entire collection has been digitized.
Wister is best known for his novel, The Virginian, published in 1902. This book, which first appeared as a serial in Harper’s Weekly, is considered by many to be the prototypical Western novel. The Virginian is based upon material gathered on his Western trips. According to Wister, the novel’s main character was a composite of several people he met and knew in his travels. The book was a wildly popular bestseller, being reprinted numerous times and translated into many languages. In 1904, Wister and Kirk La Shell co-produced the original stage version of The Virginian, which had a successful ten-year run. The first motion picture version of The Virginian premiered in 1914.
Anyone interested in the genesis of this novel can now view Wister’s journals online, along with, in some cases, transcripts of the journals (click on journals’ descriptions to view digitized copies). The collection also contains a handwritten manuscript of the first two pages of chapter one of The Virginian, and annotated galley proofs of chapters 15-18.
The collection also contains over 400 photographs, mostly from Wister’s travels in the West. Most of the photographs were taken by Wister himself, and mostly document the places he visited in the West. Like his journals, they were a source of material for his Western literary works. The photographs are also a visual record of the Western landscape between 1885 and 1900, and reveal much about living conditions in the region during those years. All of the images were digitized from film duplicates of original (and often deteriorated) nitrate negatives or from very old mounted prints that exhibit a high degree of wear and fading. While the images are not of excellent quality, they depict Wyoming and the West as Wister himself experienced it.
The digitization of this collection was made possible by a generous donation from Lawrence M. Woods.
–Ben Goldman, Digital Programs Manager