Under the town of El-Bahnasa, west of the Nile and 160 miles upriver from Cairo, lie the ruins and the garbage dump of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus. The Muslims had governed the area for 1,200 years, and they had not bothered to search among the ruins. These were finally investigated in 1896 by British archaeologists, when what used to be called Great Britain had seized Egypt from the Ottoman Empire.
The old city had been a regional capital, depending for its agriculture on a canal and not on the regular flooding of the Nile. When the Arabs conquered Egypt, they let the canal fill up with sand, and Oxyrhynchus was no more.
But the sand and the dry climate preserved what otherwise would have rotted away. Therefore you can find in the precious rubbish all kinds of things pertaining to business and government: account books, legal records, licenses, and so forth, and sometimes—because the people reused their papyrus whenever they could—you may find a census report on one side and a passage from the Gospel of Matthew on the other. Only a very small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of scraps have been transcribed.
Every week I go to our local Oxyrhynchus, otherwise called our town’s “transfer station,” to dump our garbage, and to discard, each in its proper bin, materials to be recycled: plastics, corrugated cardboard, paper, aluminum cans, and glass. Inside the building, people leave other things to be picked up by anyone who may want them: toys, small appliances, tools, old clothes, and books.
I have in the past two years culled out more than 100 good books that otherwise would be ground to mulch. These include complete hardcover sets of the works of George Eliot, Somerset Maugham, and Washington Irving. That last one is poignant indeed. I live but a few hours’ drive from the Hudson Valley that Irving loved so well, he the initial and essentially American fabulist, and his works are to be sent to sleep with their fathers in the earth, and be known no more.
Does our local school possess those works? To ask it is to raise a sad laugh. If we were a people who wanted our children to read the books of Washington Irving, they would never have been sent to the rubbish heap in the first place. Our family library of 9,000 books has often been stocked for nothing; and you may read, inside many a fine book’s cover, the stamp of some El-Bahnasa Library or El-Bahnasa Public School that used to own it.
Sometimes the books I find were owned by private persons. It is easy to guess what happens. The owners die, and the heirs clean out their houses. They take what they wish, and then they sell the lot of unwanted furniture, bric-a-brac, Americana, and classics to an estate buyer, and that is how books, the lowliest of things, end up in an antique store, where they will sit for many years even if they are priced at a dollar or two or three.
The Virginian is a story of violence, told without a morbid fascination for blood, and a story of romance, told without a morbid fascination for skin.
I have before me now an excellent piece of Americana that I found the other day and bought for $4—rather on the high end, I confess. It is a hardcover edition of The Virginian by Owen Wister. The Ottoman scholars of our time, college professors of English, will chuckle and shrug, and say something dismissive about the author’s racism or sexism or his foolish romantic treatment of the American West; anything rather than dare to encounter an America that did exist, that was in various ways much more barbaric but also more glorious and civilized than our own, and that makes us look like dwarfs and cripples, resenting the giants whose strides we cannot match, and whose eyes, full of the wisdom of hard experience, would in a moment have fathomed the puddles of our souls.
Have I just engaged in a little antiquarianism, forgivable in an old man, but not to be taken too seriously? Perhaps. If so, I would be following Wister’s trail.
He himself went west as a young man and wrote about what he saw and knew. “He will never come again,” says Wister of the cow-puncher, the horseman, “the last romantic figure upon our soil.” The horseman had made the west fit for civilization, and civilization made the west unfit for the horseman. It may have been inevitable, but it came at manhood’s cost. “The cow-puncher’s ungoverned hours,” says Wister, “did not unman him. If he gave his word, he kept it; Wall Street would have found him behind the times. Nor did he talk lewdly to women; Newport would have thought him old-fashioned.”
The horseman was no saint. He led a rough life, largely an irreligious one, as Wister paints it, and he was no stranger to saloons, sprees of gambling, and women who worked at the world’s oldest profession. But he was real, and “whatever he did, he did with his might.”
The Virginian is a story of violence, told without a morbid fascination for blood, and a story of romance, told without a morbid fascination for skin. My copy was owned not by a man but by a woman, an Irene Rossiter, who signed her name on the first leaf. She must have loved the book dearly, because inside it she has saved two newspaper clippings about Owen Wister, one from a local New Hampshire paper I cannot identify, and an obituary from The New York Herald Tribune, Friday, July 24, 1938, the day after Wister’s death.
“Owen Wister,” says the unnamed writer for the Associated Press, “was a curious mixture of conservatism, imbued by his upbringing and his education, and progressivism, obtained through his wide and varied circle of friends and associates and his many contacts with life throughout the world. His writing showed that mixture in an outspokenness which was at times tempered by a strong sense of propriety.”
He was a very close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, to whom he dedicated The Virginian in words that are now inconceivable: “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.”
Wister detested Woodrow Wilson and was a ferocious critic of his old friend’s cousin and his New Deal. He says, in The Virginian, with a wry glance at Caesar, that “all America is divided into two classes—the quality and the equality,” and that it was “through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man,” for “true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing.” In this sense, he believed most passionately in the mythic romance of America.
In 1912 he wrote, in a short re-dedication of his novel, “If this book be anything more than an American story, it is an expression of American faith.” Wall Street and the Labor Unions are stocked full of enemies to democracy, he says, with the former more to blame, because they have engendered the latter. “But I believe the pillars will not fall,” he says, “and that, with mistakes at times, but with wisdom in the main, we people will prove ourselves equal to the severest test to which political man has yet subjected himself—the test of Democracy.”
Such a faith lies in the ruins with the book. The Virginian at least deserves a better fate.