The Virginian was a tremendous success, selling 1.5 million copies during Wister’s lifetime, and became a template for countless Western novels and movies to follow.
Despite his newfound fame, Wister found subsequent literary success elusive. Like most authors, he did not want to become a one-hit wonder. Once he was back in Philadelphia–a city that he personally despised but never left–he probably let his insecurities and melancholia get the better of him.
Especially when grappling with the ghosts of his Butler ancestors.
His next book, Lady Baltimore of 1906, was an novel about South Carolina, the family seat of Wister’s Butler ancestors. Named after a type of cake featured in the book, Lady Baltimore was Wister’s attempt at social history, but many critics found that the narrative descended into social snobbery. Unlike The Virginian, there was comparatively little adventure and action. While the unnamed Wyoming cowboy was stoic and chivalric in his quest to win the hand of school teacher Molly Wood, the protagonist in Lady Baltimore –a Yankee named Augustus–was a comparatively insipid character on a rather different mission: to find royal lineage in his family, at the request of his imperious Aunt Carola back in New York. Along the way, Augustus was smitten by Eliza La Heu of Kings Port (a stand-in for Charleston). A member of the plantation gentry, the effervescently beautiful Eliza had been reduced to working at a store, but her aristocratic manners (and empty bank account) stood in stark contrast to Gilded Age nouveau riche New Yorkers, exemplified by the character Hortense Rieppe (the consummate vulgarian in Wister’s plot).
Yet it was Wister’s treatment of race in Lady Baltimore that shocked many readers of the day, even in the pre-Civil Rights era. In Wister’s plot, the ultimate insult was that the South Carolinian John Mayrant, described by a contemporary reviewer from The Terre Haute Saturday Spectator as a “fine type of a thoroughbred, high-minded, proud southern young fellow,” has to work under an African-American boss at the customs house. Mayrant and his relatives are unable to bear this insult to their dignity, and as a result, the reviewer continues, Mayrant must resign from his post, “without raising a scene, if he is true to his instincts as a southerner and a gentleman.”
President Theodore Roosevelt read Lady Baltimore and was reluctant to criticize his friend in public. As a progressive at home and an imperialist abroad, Roosevelt had Social Darwinist views of his own, quite common among men of his class. The early 1900s was also a nadir in American race relations. The Republicans were still the party of Lincoln and hence of most African-Americans, but in the years since Union troops withdrew from the former Confederacy in 1877, Southern politicians did everything in their power to disenfranchise black voters and restore the plantation system in all but name. After reading his friend’s latest literary effort, the president privately wrote Wister to express admiration for his portrayal of Southern womanhood (after all, Roosevelt’s mother was the Southern belle Martha “Mitty” Bulloch, who refused to let her husband Theodore Roosevelt Sr. fight in the Union Army) and also to scold him for the novel’s descriptions of Northerners (“swine devils”) and African-Americans (“some of the laziest and dirtiest monkeys where we live”).
One chapter in particular, “The Girl Behind the Counter II,” must have irked the publicity-conscious president. In it, Eliza La Heu rants to Augustus about how the President of the United States (unnamed, but Theodore Roosevelt in 1906) had invited a black man (in real life, Booker T. Washington) to the White House for a formal dinner. The actual dinner, which took place in October 1901, was controversial among both blacks and whites at the time. One white Southern newspaper editor vented that it was, “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” Senator Ben Tillman of Lady Baltimore’s South Carolina used even more violent language upon hearing of the dinner, threatening the deaths of a thousand blacks in the South…so that they would “learn their place again.”
At the same time, many African-Americans activists felt that Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, was an accommodationist stooge. Harvard graduate William Monroe Trotter, who in a decade would famously confront another president (Woodrow Wilson) about his re-segregation of the US civil service, wrote of Washington: “a hypocrite who supports social segregation between blacks and whites while he himself dines at the White House.”
The matter became a sore subject for President Roosevelt, who never spoke of the dinner publicly afterward. Yet he declared that, “I’ll not lose my self-respect by fearing to have a man like Booker T. Washington to dinner, even if it costs me every political friend I’ve got.”
Now, five years later, Owen Wister had brought up the whole affair again– from the Southern point-of-view–in a dialogue between Augustus and Eliza La Heu:
‘If you mean that a gentleman cannot invite any respectable member of any race he pleases to dine privately in his house–‘
‘His house,’ she was glowing now with it. ‘I think he is—I think he is–to have one of them–and even if he likes it, not to remember–I cannot speak about him!’ she wound up; ‘I should say unbecoming things.’ She had walked out, during these words, form behind the counter, and as she stood there in the middle of the long room you might have thought she was about to lead a cavalry charge. Then, admirably, she put it all under, and spoke on with perfect self-control. ‘Why, can’t somebody explain to him? If I knew him, I would go to him myself, and I would say, ‘Mr. President, we need not discuss our different tastes as to dinner company. Nor need we discuss how much you benefit the colored race by an act which makes every member of it immediately think that he is fit to dine with any kind in the world. But you are staying in a house which is partly our house, ours, the South’s, for we, too, pay taxes, you know. And since you also know our deep feeling– you may even call it a prejudice, if it so pleases you–do you not think that, so long as you are residing in that house, you should not gratuitously shock our deep feeling?’ She swept a magnificent low curtsy at the air.
All a besotted Augustus could do was gush admiringly: “By Jove, Miss La Heu, you put it so that it’s rather hard to answer!”
Booker T. Washington meets President Roosevelt. PBS documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”
Small wonder that the sitting President of the United States took the time to write a 5,000 word letter of “advice” to Wister regarding this book.
For the Butler-Wister clan, it was a historical irony indeed. Wister’s own grandmother Fanny Kemble–who had fearlessly excoriated the slave system half a century earlier in Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839–would probably have been horrified to read Lady Baltimore. To her, no one could have been more of a “swine-devil” than her slaveholding, libertine husband Pierce Butler II, who lived high on the hog from the unpaid labor of others.
Lady Baltimore sold well, but no where close to the blockbuster figures of The Virginian. Owen Wister himself was never able to muster up the strength to write another major book. He continued to churn out minor works and articles, often in the paneled cocoon of the Philadelphia Club’s library. Among them was Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880-1919.
Yet as the 1900s progressed, Theodore Roosevelt grew more progressive and outspoken–lobbying for women’s suffrage and a graduated income tax in his 1912 Bull Moose party presidential run–while his friend Wister– who lived off family money and the royalties from The Virginian–grew ever more gloomy and conservative. One historian speculates that Roosevelt’s criticism of Lady Baltimore, however private, deflated the perpetually insecure Wister’s fragile ego. He toiled away at the manuscript of a novel about Philadelphia that he called Romney, but was never able to finish it.
Perhaps because it was about a subject Owen Wister loved to loathe: his native city.
The city is a shame. They’re proud of it, yet take no care of it. . . . The bad gas, the bad water, the nasty street-cars that tinkle torpidly through streets paved with big cobble-stones all seem to them quite right. . . . Their school buildings are filthy. I heard a teacher who spoke ungrammatically and pronounced like a gutter-snipe teaching the children English. . . . Isn’t it strange that such nice people should tolerate such a nasty state of things?
Before he died in 1938, Wister severed his family’s last ties with the Old South by selling the final remnants of his ancestor Senator Pierce Butler’s Georgia land–for a paltry $25,000.
Stephen W. Berry, ‘The Butler Family,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, September 3, 2014, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/butler-family, accessed November 18, 2015.
Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.385.
Malcolm Bell Jr. Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), p.541.
Clarence Lusane, The Black History of the White House. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers (January 23, 2013), p. 255.
James M. O’Neill, “Owen Wister’s Lost Tale of Phila Published,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 4, 2001, http://articles.philly.com/2001-10-04/news/25305723_1_owen-wister-romney-philadelphia-area-locales, accessed December 1, 2015.
Owen Wister, Lady Baltimore (New York: Hurst and Company, 1906), pp.90-91.
The Terre Haute Saturday Spectator, August 26, 1906. From Yesterdish.com. http://www.yesterdish.com/2013/12/08/lady-baltimore-cake/, accessed December 1, 2015.