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Zane Grey, often called the ”father of the Western,” holds an important place in American popular culture. A pioneer of the Western novel, Grey played a major role in creating the myth of the American cowboy. This myth promotes the independent, virile male in a rugged, demanding environment, praising the virtues of the primitive West over the cultivated East. Though they have been criticized as formulaic, Grey’s works won him immense popularity. More than almost any modern American novelist, Zane Grey caught the imaginations of several generations of readers. From 1910 until 1925, his books appeared regularly on best-seller lists, and even today, in both hardcover and paperback, his fiction remains popular. His novels have been translated into so many languages and published in so many editions that exact sales figures are virtually impossible to ascertain, although estimates suggest that well over 130 million copies of his books have been sold during the past seventy-five years.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Dentist with a Dream
Born in Zanesville, Ohio, on January 31, 1872, Pearl Zane Grey’s boyhood was spent fishing and playing baseball, reading classics and dime novels, and scribbling his own short stories. At the University of Pennsylvania he played baseball and halfheartedly studied dentistry while he dreamed of a career as a writer. Graduating in 1896, he started a dental practice in New York City. From 1898 to 1904 he struggled to establish his practice, and it was during this period that he began writing articles on outdoor life for popular magazines, such as Field and Stream.
Tales of his Ancestors
His first attempt at realizing his dream was Betty Zane (1903), a fictional account of Grey’s own Ohio ancestors. Betty Zane, and Grey’s two subsequent efforts, were historical romances. Grey couldn’t find a publisher, so he published the works at his own expense. Meanwhile, he had found his own romance with Lina Elise Roth, who unreservedly believed in his talent. With Lina’s support, Grey closed his dental practice in 1904 to devote his time to writing.
A Trip to the Wild West
Grey received little encouragement for his writing, save from his wife, and he continued to gather rejection slips. Just as it seemed he would have to return to dentistry, he met ”Buffalo” Jones, who suggested that Grey accompany him back to his Arizona ranch to observe the West firsthand and to write about Jones’s efforts to crossbreed cattle with buffalo. Enthusiastically, Grey agreed, and he became entranced with Western life. He crossed the desert on horseback to the Grand Canyon, and along the way he participated in such unfamiliar activities as chasing buffalo, capturing wild horses, killing mountain lions, and exploring Indian ruins. He penned and published a nonfiction account of that 1907 visit called The Last of the Plainsmen.
The Romantic West
Grey had found his subject in the American West as a result of his visit to Arizona. He then recast his Western adventures in fictional form. Grey’s own taste in literature was for the romantic, and he realized that the West was still close enough to frontier conditions for him to use it as a splendid testing ground of a man’s worth. His first proper novel of the West, The Heritage of the Desert (1910), met only moderate sales. It tells the story of the rise to manhood of an Eastern misfit, John Hare. Hare’s encounters with sandstorms and stampedes, and his battles with rustlers and gunmen, educate him in the ways of the West. He learns the Darwinian lesson that only the fittest survive, that he must kill or be killed, and thus he assimilates what Grey calls ”the heritage of the desert.” The novel ends peacefully with a vision of future happiness with the woman he loves. Grey had found in this work the elements of adventure, suspense, and history that he would continue to use to make himself the most popular writer of his time.
The Formula Works
This simple initiation formula, in which an Easterner grows from innocence to experience and to ultimate success in the West, is repeated variously in all of Grey’s novels. Perhaps his most popular version of this formula can be found in Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), when Lassiter, a prototypical gunman with a mysterious past, rides into the life of Jane Withersteen, a woman beset by troubles. A series of violent confrontations with forces of evil teach Jane that she must fight, while Lassiter learns from her the influence of love. Although the crucial initiation is Jane’s, for she absorbs the Darwinian lesson so important in Grey’s thinking, the softening of Lassiter exemplifies the romantic side of Zane Grey’s version of the West. Riders of the Purple Sage ensured that Grey’s struggles to establish himself as a writer were at an end. From then on he easily outdistanced other American writers in sales and popular, although not critical, appreciation.
The West through New Eyes
For the next decade, while he continued relying on his standard formula for inspiration, Grey infused his writing with creative energy and vigor. Each best seller tells a story that follows a similar pattern of initiation, but with modifications, transformations, and through fresh eyes. For example, the protagonist who matures after encountering the masculine West is a wealthy Eastern woman in The Light of Western Stars (1914). Grey’s pages swarm with character types and themes in American life that writers had previously ignored and in some cases have yet to receive adequate literary attention. He told stories about Mormons, Mexicans, buffalo hunters, forest rangers, fishermen, the railroad, the telegraph, labor radicalism, and the list could be extended even further.
In his Western novels, Grey broke free from the nineteenth-century dime novel approach to adventure stories, making several important innovations. Grey created the figure of the mysterious outlaw or gunfighter enlisted to fight on the side of good. He wrote Western stories, particularly The Light of Western Stars, from a woman’s point of view. He examined the love between an Indian chief and a white girl in The Vanishing American (1925). Finally, he established the motif of the Western environment as a test of character.
Grey’s later novels began to lose their popular appeal. Hastily conceived and mechanically written, the plots grew more repetitious and the characters shallower. Nonetheless, his works continued to sell. Even after his death in 1939, his publishers kept bringing out his unfinished manuscripts, and today Grey still ranks among the best-selling popular novelists of all time.
Works in Literary Context
Despite flagrant excesses of style and awkward language, Grey gave people what they wanted. Opening one of his 63 novels, or attending one of the 105 feature films based on his stories, his enthusiasts approached an imaginative frontier. There they could find an affirmation of traditional values. They could share in a successful initiation process. They could escape from the pressures of the twentieth century. Rather than teach his readers about modern life, Grey tantalized them with the possibilities of romance, providing along the way some of the finest descriptions of nature in Western writing.
Grey embellished with his own richly pictorial imagination an adaptation of the ”easterner goes West to learn about life” pattern of Owen Wister’s best-selling The Virginian (1902). Grey used vivid descriptions of Western landscapes and popular, formulaic plots to establish the ”Western” as a distinct literary genre. Critics agree that Grey’s depiction of the Western landscape was one of the strongest elements of his writing. ”He portrays it as an acid test of those elemental traits of character which he admires,” writes T. K. Whipple in Study Out the Land: Essays. ”It kills off the weaklings, and among the strong it makes the bad worse and the good better. Nature to him is somewhat as God is to a Calvinist—ruthlessly favoring the elect and damning the damned.”
Critics now believe that Grey should be read as a romantic rather than a realistic writer. He gained his knowledge of the West through firsthand experience, making many trips there, and performed extensive research on historical background, especially for The U.P. Trail (1918), his history of the transcontinental railroad. However, he was more interested in portraying heroic figures pitted against forces of evil or nature to triumph or perish, rather than fully dimensional characters.
There are many romantic elements in Grey’s works. The grand scale of scenery and action in Grey’s stories can be considered the first of these. The action, too, is appropriately intense yet extravagant and vividly portrayed. Another typically romantic characteristic of Grey’s books is his nostalgia for an earlier, simpler, and morally more vital time, which grows out of a disenchantment with modern middle-class culture. Grey’s heroes are more than merely doers of mighty deeds that rebuke the weaklings of the present. There is a more highly developed philosophical discontent behind their actions. Grey’s Eastern characters represent the decadence and failure of bourgeois cultural aspirations that can only be cured by a return to a more natural moral system. These inclinations in his work link him to the tradition of the English romantic poets, as well as romantic modernists, such as D. H. Lawrence.
Works in Critical Context
Grey never received the critical acclaim his popular audience felt he deserved. Many critics attacked the lack of realism in his novels, pointing out that his stories were melodramatic and nostalgic, that he fumbled love scenes to an embarrassing degree, that his plots were often unbelievable, and that his characters were never complete. Other critics, apologizing for his faults, attempted to illustrate his literary attributes and contributions. Recently, critics have become receptive to the works of Zane Grey, suggesting that he excelled as a writer of romance, a peculiar literary genre outside the rules and criteria of realism.
The Heritage of the Desert
Grey’s first Western romance, The Heritage of the Desert, introduced the thematic pattern that he used repeatedly throughout his career, the ”rite of passage.” This pattern focused on the innocent initiated into a new world, the outsider who must face conflict and emerge as a hero or heroine with a new understanding of life. For Grey, the West, with its distinctive moral and symbolic landscape, offered a unique setting for the development of this theme. The harsh realities of the country and the violence of a lawless society provided a field of action wherein his protagonists, usually high-bred Eastern-ers, would learn to confront their environment and discover their basic human values. Despite the critical debates as to his place in the literary world, there is no doubt that Zane Grey was a first-rate storyteller. His novels have reached an estimated fifty-one million readers, and many movies have been adapted from his works. Through his colorful descriptions and romantic images, Grey brought the Old West to life for millions of readers. Danney Goble states in the Journal of Arizona History. ”Within a few years the plots and characters would become standard. But Grey’s combination of brutal violence and saccharine romance—a heady mixture all but unknown to his predecessors in the writing of frontier fiction—established his claim to a gold mine which he exploited time and again.”
Riders of the Purple Sage
Many critics believe Riders of the Purple Sage is Grey’s best novel, mainly because he loosened the restraints of his formula and allowed the story to grow at its own pace. Grey affirmed the idealistic principle behind his writing when he acknowledged that his fiction spoke to ”the spirit, not the letter, of life.” Certainly this is true of Riders of the Purple Sage, where one finds violence mixed with romantic interludes and panoramic scenery. Designed for readers who sought the pleasures of escaping into romance rather than for those who wanted to read about the realities of Western life, Riders of the Purple Sage presents a fictional frontier where might finally is synonymous with right and where idyllic dreams do come true.
- Cawelti, Jahon G. The Six-Gun Mystique. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1971.
- Farley, G. M. Zane Grey, a Documented Portrait: The Man, the References:, the Filmography. New Orleans: Portals Press, 1985.
- Gay, Carol. Zane Grey, Story-Teller. Columbus: State Library of Ohio, 1979.
- Gruber, Frank. Zane Grey: A Biography. Tulsa: World Publishing, 1970.
- Kant, Candace C. Zane Grey’s Arizona. Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland Press, 1984.
- Kimball, Arthur G. Ace of Hearts: The Westerns of Zane Grey. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1993.
- May, Stephen J. Zane Grey: Romancing the West. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997.
- Ronald, Ann. Zane Grey. Boise: Boise State University, 1975.
- Warren, Don. A Bibliographical Checklist of the Writings of Zane Grey. Collinsville, Conn.: Country Lane Books, 1986.
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