The University of Wyoming’s marketing campaign, “The World Needs More Cowboys,” caused a stir when it released last July. Now the slogan is the homecoming theme and it emblazons UW campus buses, the football stadium, T-shirts, and billboards statewide. I’ve been trying to decide which side of the controversy I’m on. Is it sexist and exclusionary or an innovative spin on Wyoming’s long-standing Cowboy state image? The question started me thinking about how Owen Wister portrayed Wyoming cowboys in his 1902 novel, “The Virginian: Horseman of the Plains.”
Wister was the eastern writer whose novel celebrated Wyoming ranch life and especially one particular cowboy, the novel’s namesake, the Virginian. For Wister’s early 20th century audience and readers who followed, the Virginian epitomized the look, the character and the romantic notions that shaped the way cowboys were depicted later in fiction. The novel captured readers’ imaginations right away; it was reprinted 15 times in its first year of publication. Literary scholars still consider it the seminal western classic. Later Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour and others adopted features of Wister’s plot, creating the popular formula western.
Then Hollywood spun their own versions in western movies with such heroes as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and a slew of other cowboy stars from Gary Cooper, to John Wayne, to Clint Eastwood. Not to mention numerous popular television series like Gunsmoke and Bonanza that inspired a generation of fans.
But over time positive connotations of “cowboy” eroded. The Marlboro Man sold cigarettes. The Spaghetti Western cowboys were ruthless and violent. For some people, to “cowboy” became an insult.
The original manuscript of The Virginian is preserved in The University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. In UW Library’s Special Collections, you can find early editions of the novel and others written by Wister.
However, few students would recognize the name today, even though they might support Wister’s notion of what a cowboy represents. According to western literary scholar Richard Etulain, the Virginian is “self-reliant, individualistic, and freedom loving.” His rough edges are softened by the influence of Molly Wood, the eastern “schoolmarm” he sets out to win.
The resulting hero is as intelligent as he is physically attractive. His integrity and fairness are demonstrated repeatedly. He bests the villain Trampas and upholds justice even when his friend, Steve, must be hanged for cattle rustling. He respects women and accepts that Molly is in many ways smarter than he is. He succeeds on his own merits. At the beginning of the novel he cowboys on a ranch owned by Judge Henry; by the novel’s mid-point he is foreman there; by novels end he and Molly have their own successful ranch.
Did the creators of UW’s marketing campaign consult Wister’s novel? Probably not. The cowboy image he represents so permeates American culture they didn’t need to.
In Wyoming where I live, real cowboys don’t always live up to the Virginian’s high standards, but we like to think they mostly do. The updated image UW promotes when it asserts that the world needs more of them revives the iconic cowboy image Wister created while taking a chance on making that hero relevant in 21st century terms. At first the slogan made me wonder: Really, does the world need more cowboys? Then I saw the promotional video and began to see the point.
Cowboys it says, “are every sex, shape, color, and creed.” They possess qualities like, “restless curiosity, daring, and optimism.” UW cowboys “don’t just sweep you off your feet and ride off into the sunset.” Backing this soundtrack are multiple rapid-fire images of diverse students from differing ethnic backgrounds, many of them women and minorities. They represent varied professions and pursuits such as dance, art, engineering, and athletics.
While it may be a stretch for some to embrace this contemporary spin on the cowboy, I’m thinking Owen Wister could relate. When the Harvard-educated, widely-traveled Wister came to Wyoming from Boston to escape a monotonous desk job, Wyoming rejuvenated him. He resolved to “preserve in writing” the West he was experiencing. Little did Wister know he would be transforming the unsung cattle herder into an iconic hero who has inspired literature, film, and actual lives ever since.
Perhaps UW’s marketing plan will not only catch the imagination of prospective college students, but also make us think about how we define heroes. It may be time to remember the admirable qualities of an old-fashioned cowboy hero and bring him into the 21st century. The world could use more cowboys like that.