Grey, Zane (1875-1939)

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Grey, Zane (1875-1939)

Author Zane Grey had a significant and lasting influence on American culture. Considered the creator of the modern Western novel, his work shaped the imagery of the West in the popular imagination. Many evaluations of the genre concentrate on the literary attributes of its writers. These literary considerations tend to outweigh the cultural resonance of the Western's popular appeal and often lead to the underrating of Grey's work in particular. As well as his ability to establish place and evoke the landscape of the mythical West, Grey endowed his work with a sense of popular history. He also negotiated cultural tensions that revolve around such issues as the coming of modernity, marriage, religion, and the returning veterans of World War I, which appealed to an exceptionally broad range of readers. He was serialized in the Ladies Home Journal as well as Colliers Country Gentleman and McCalls, and numerous books of his were translated into films, some made by his own company. He insisted that these were shot on location, thus introducing, through the cinema, a very particular visual depiction of the West that still endures. Arizona is now known to tourists as Zane Grey country.

Grey was born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1875. He studied dentistry at Pennsylvania University, and then practiced in New York, where he published his first novel Betty Zane under his real name, Pearl Grey. His first books, set in Ohio, were based on family history of the pioneer period, and followed in the tradition of James Fennimore Cooper. However, although filled with adventure, they did not really convey the sense of the Wild West in a cohesive or effective form. Then, in 1907, at the Campfire Club in New York, Grey met Charles Jesse "Buffalo" Jones, a conservationist who labored to save the buffalo from extinction. He joined Jones as a writer and photographer on a trip to Arizona and across the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon, and during these travels met and lived with Native Americans, cowboys, and Texas rangers; thereafter his writing evolved into authentic and convincing descriptions of the West. He wrote his first account of his travels in Last of the Plainsmen (1908), but did not become successful until the publication of The Heritage of the Desert (1910), which established his individual style. In the prefatory note to Last of the Plainsmen, Grey writes, "As a boy I read of Boone with a throbbing heart, and the silent moccasined, vengeful Wetzel I loved. I pored over the deeds of vengeful men—Custer and Carson, those heroes of the plains. And as a man I came to see the wonder, the tragedy of their lives, and to write about them."

Grey's novels use the frontier west of the 98th Meridian to create a new landscape for the West. This rugged and exacting territory, inhabited by extremes of good and evil, legitimates violence, yet offers redemption. It also provided Grey with a fictional space through which to address the anxieties of the period in which he was writing, and to offer the prospect of escape from them. The Heritage of the Desert opens with intense religious imagery projected on to the desert landscape and leads into a dramatic romantic adventure. The eastern hero is nursed back to health by a Mormon, and falls in love with his half Navajo, half Spanish adopted daughter. The girl needs to be rescued from an impending marriage to the villain, a circumstance that culminates in a climactic shoot out. It was, however, with Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) that Zane Grey made his name. Originally rejected by the publishers because of its harsh treatment of Mormon culture, the novel went on to sell two million copies. Grey continued to travel throughout his career and incorporated his experience of landscape and knowledge of oral history directly into his fiction. He published 54 novels in his lifetime, and more were released posthumously. For the most part, they have very simple adventure plots, but are structured into thrilling and romantic episodes sustained by their evocative settings.

At the height of his popularity between 1917 and 1924, Grey's novels made Bookman's top ten bestseller list every year. The U.P. Trail (1918) and The Man of the Forest (1920), the two major bestsellers, illustrate the appeal of Grey's work. The U.P. Trail is based very specifically on the history of the Union Pacific Railroad between 1864 and 1869, and incorporates the endurance of the pony express rider and the introduction of the telegraph to the West. The background to the narrative accords with popular memory. The Man of the Forest is set in 1885, within living memory, and the story follows the integration of a woodsman into the community of the West through his romance with a spirited eastern girl. She finds her full potential in the West and is ready to build a homestead in "Paradise Park." Novels such as The Desert of Wheat (1919), The Call of the Canyon (1924), The Vanishing American (1925), Under Tonto Rim (1926), and The Shepherd of Guadaloupe (1930) are set contemporaneously and deal with modern issues and recent changes. They therefore establish the ethos of the West as a living idea rather than a lost ideal.

The formula that Grey established for the modern Western is one of moral regeneration or redemption, with heroic individuals proving themselves by living up to basic code of American values. His characters live by a "Code of the West" that differentiates between hero and villain, and leads to inevitable confrontation. He presented the Western hero in a manner that would become a central convention. He pays much attention to details of dress, appearance, and stance of his heroic characters. In Riders of the Purple Sage, for example, Lassiter is the mysterious gunfighter delineated by his fast draw, his costume, his honor, and his shady past. Here Grey introduced the professional gunman as a hero, but in the majority of his Westerns the older heroes are ready to be re-incorporated into society or commit themselves to very independent heroines. In most cases these women also come to recognize higher moral values through their experience in the West.

Although women are largely absent in the action of the Western, Grey's novels often feature a female protagonist, or pioneer characters. Heroines true to romantic formula are introduced at a stage where they have lost their social identity, which is restored in the course of the narrative through their own test of character in the Western landscape and not merely by the hero. In Riders of the Purple Sage Jane Withersteen attempts to stand up to the patriarchal Mormon power structure in which she has been orphaned. Part of the oppression she faces is the terrorism of a gang of outlaws, especially "The Masked Rider" who is revealed to be a girl brought up in the immoral culture of men. Grey is often accused of priggishness in his depiction of his heroes, and this tendency is also found in his heroines. He perfected two extremes of heroine: the cold, flirtatious, eastern sophisticate who reveals her deep and passionate love for the hero, and the practical, unladylike western girl, whose seeming promiscuity proves to be a blind.

These simplistic characters, and his constant appeal to religious symbolism and heightened moral codes, lead Grey's stories very easily into the realm of melodrama and sentimentality in which the stories address particular fantasies of freedom away from the corruption and constraints of city life. His characters frequently confront the dilemmas of modern life, as does the flapper heroine of Code of the West (1934) who chooses marriage to the hero because she recognizes his worth. More pointedly, a similarly drawn heroine in The Call of the Canyon (1924) marries a shell-shocked World War I veteran and chooses the harsher, but more essentially American West in which to raise a family. The Western landscape, with its promise of abundant riches, offers the protagonists a chance to re-make their lives according to higher moral values, in contrast to their old life and that of those around them.

Grey is often accused of being either ambivalent or complacent about the Native Americans who feature in his stories. For The Vanishing American (1925) he adopted the melancholy stance of Fennimore Cooper regarding the inevitably doomed fate of Native American culture; while the nobility of the Indian is part of the Western myth, he cannot win against the dishonesty of the white man. Regret at the passing of the buffalo herds and other species of wildlife and their habitats can also be detected in Grey's writings, and The Vanishing American gives evidence of Grey's grounding in other contemporary concerns, such as corruption in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is exposed by the narrative.

After 1925, Grey no longer appeared on the bestseller list, but his influence continued during the 1940s and 1950s through films based on his books, as well as through Zane Grey's Western Magazine and television's Zane Grey Theatre (1956-61). However, the Western film as a high budget production went into decline after 1930 until the formula was successfully reworked in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). Although based on an Ernest Haycox story, the film—shot in Arizona and famously featuring Monument Valley—was a perfect expression of Zane Grey's articulation of the West. The revitalized formula, of which Ford was the master, explored the psychological depth of its characters at a time when the morality and romance of the 1920s Westerns seemed old-fashioned and melodramatic to Depression audiences with more complex concerns. Grey continued to publish fiction until his death in 1939, and sold his version of the winning of the West to an international audience, sustaining a myth that remains embedded in popular culture.

—Nickianne Moody

Further Reading:

Blake, K. S. "Zane Grey and Images of the American West." Geographical Review. Vol. 85, No. 2, April 1995.

Cawelti, J. G. Adventure, Mystery and Romance. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Gruber, F. Zane Grey. Cleveland, World, 1970.

Jackson, Carlton. Zane Grey. Boston, Twayne, 1989.

Kimball, Arthur G. Ace of Hearts: The Westerns of Zane Grey. Forth Worth, Texas Christian University Press, 1993.

May, Stephen. Zane Grey: Romancing the West. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1997.

Ronald, Ann. Zane Grey. Boise, Idaho, Boise State University Press, 1975.

Scott, Kenneth William. Zane Grey, Born to the West: A Reference Guide. Boston, G. K. Hall, 1979.