Romney by James A. Butler
And Other New Works About Philadelphia

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Owen Wister is known to most Americans as the creator of the heroic cowboy in The Virginian (1902). Despite his success as a Western novelist, Wister's failure to write about his native city of Philadelphia has been lamented by many for the loss of a literary "might-have-been." If only, sighed Wister's contemporary Elizabeth Robins Pennell in 1914, the novelist could understand that Philadelphia was as good a subject as the Wild West. Hence the surprise when James Butler uncovered a substantial fragment of a Philadelphia novel, which Wister intended to call Romney. Here, published for the first time, is the complete fragment of Romney together with two of his other unpublished Philadelphia works. Even in its incomplete state-nearly fifty thousand words-Romney is Wister's longest piece of fiction after The Virginian and Lady Baltimore. Writing at the express command of his friend Theodore Roosevelt, Wister set Romney in Philadelphia (called Monopolis in the novel) during the 1880s, when, as he saw it, the city was passing from the old to a new order. The hero of the story, Romney, is a man of "no social position" who nonetheless rises to the top because he has superior ability. It is thus a novel about the possibilities for meaningful social change in a democracy. Although, alas, the story breaks off before the birth of Romney, Wister gives us much to savor in the existing thirteen chapters. We are treated to delightful scenes at the Bryn Mawr train station, the Bellevue Hotel, and Independence Square, which yield brilliant insights into life on the Main Line, the power of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the insidious effects of political corruption.Wister's acute analysis in Romney of what differentiates Philadelphia and Boston upper classes is remarkably similar to, but anticipates by more than half a century, the classic study by E. Digby Baltzell in Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979). Like Baltzell, Wister analyzes the urban aristocracy of Boston and Philadelphia, finding in Boston a Puritan drive for achievement and civic service but in Philadelphia a Quaker preference for toleration and moderation, all too often leading to acquiescence and stagnation.Romney is undoubtedly the best fictional portrayal of "Gilded Age" Philadelphia, brilliantly capturing Wister's vision of old-money, aristocratic society gasping its last before the onrushing vulgarity of the nouveaux riches. It is a novel of manners that does for Philadelphia what Edith Wharton and John Marquand have done for New York and Boston.
 

About James A. Butler

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A Philadelphian and grandson of the actress Fanny Kemble, Owen Wister was educated in private schools in the United States and abroad and graduated from Harvard University with highest honors in music. After suffering a nervous breakdown, he traveled to Wyoming to recover his health. He then made frequent trips back to the West. His only well-known novel, The Virginian (1902), a bestseller for years, is a pioneer western about a man Wister considered to be the "last heroic figure" of America. It was dedicated to his lifelong friend Theodore Roosevelt, another outdoorsman and lover of the West, whom he had met when they were both students at Harvard. Although often ignored as serious literature, Wister's novel with its archetypal hero has widely influenced popular western novels and films. Two of Wister's reprinted books are Lin McLean (1898) and Lady Baltimore (1906). James A. Butler is Professor of English at La Salle University, where he is also Curator of the Wister Family Special Collection. He is Associate Editor of The Cornell Wordsworth Series.
 
Published September 1, 2001 by Penn State University Press. 320 pages
Genres: Literature & Fiction, History. Fiction

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In his introduction, Butler (English/LaSalle) contends that Wister’s third novel, which biographers have mistakenly called Monopolis (after Wister’s name for his fictional Philadelphia), was intended to be Wister’s reply to friend Theodore Roosevelt’s objection about the xenophobic cynicism in Wi...

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