There are several authors of our great American Western Myth. Certainly the fountainhead of it all was William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917), the great frontiersman, scout, Indian fighter, actor, showman and mythologist. We have written about Bill in these pages previously, and he remains one of the few historical personages whom we would have liked to have known personally.
But the myth of the West quickly evolved – dime novels (often written about western heroes currently alive when they were first written, such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp), the nascent film industry, and, of course, both literary and visual arts. We have looked at several Western artists in-depth, but up till now have not given the written word its due. And there is no better way to write this wrong than by starting with one of the most prolific – and successful – western writers of all time, Zane Grey (1872-1939).
Born Pearl Zane Grey, the young writer had a supportive mother and an abusive father. (His father was a dentist, so obviously he had a taste for inflicting pain on others.) This baleful influence would often leave Gray surly and distant. He would be plagued by intense moodiness or depression for most of his life, and one wonders if the root of his black mood was his oppressive father.
Fortunately, Zane was befriended by an older man named Muddy Miser, who encouraged Zane with his interests in baseball, fishing and the outdoors. He also was a great reader of Zane’s early writing … how many mentors like Muddy have made all the difference in an artist’s life, one wonders?
Zane and Muddy shared a taste for early Western fiction, and would devour pulp adventure novels about the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody. Zane’s first story was a Western, Jim of the Cave, written when he was only 15. His father found the story and tore it up before beating young Zane.
Like many abused children, Zane followed in his father’s footsteps, going into dentistry like his dad. He would assist his father on dental work, until the state board of Columbus, Ohio, where they were living at the time, intervened.
Young Zane went to the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, where he studied dentistry. He was something of a baseball star, and juggled aspirations of being a writer or sportsman. Upon graduation, he bunted and became a dentist, setting up shop as Dr. Zane Grey in New York City. (Oddly enough, another figure who shaped the image of the American West, Doc Holliday, was also a dentist.)
While on a canoeing trip in 1900, Zane met the 17-year-old Lina Roth, known as Dolly. It was, after his friendship with Muddy, the most important meeting of his life. Unhappy as a dentist, frustrated as a sportsman, Dolly copy-edited and encouraged his writing. Dolly was the secret of Zane’s success, and an extremely patient woman. Dolly found the money for Zane to self-publish his first novel after it was rejected by publishers, was a tireless editor and polisher, managed his extensive business affairs once he became successful, and, most generously, turned a blind eye to his many marital indiscretions.
Zane’s earliest novels include many Westerns, and it is clear from the beginning that he found his muse among the cacti. He was an avid traveler, hiker, fisherman and hunter, finding the raw material for his Western tales in the great outdoors.
Zane was never a darling with the critics – he was a successful popular novelist, and, to boot, wrote within a genre that had not yet gained critical respect. However, he was in incredibly successful author and one of his novels, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) has since been evaluated as something of a masterpiece.
If you are to read only one Zane Grey novel (and your correspondent recommends reading many!), then Purple Sage is the one to pick. It is the story of a woman, Jane Withersteen, who struggles to escape from Mormon influence in Old Western Utah. Zane is not a fan of religious fanaticism, and he sees polygamy and religious control as smokescreens for greed, lust and oppression.
It is with his protagonist, Lassiter, that Zane hits a deep and resonant cultural note. Lassiter – like Owen Wister’s Virginian – is a black-clad loner, soft-spoken, laconic, respectful of women and the weak, and quick on the draw. It is the template for Western heroes from Randolph Scott to Clint Eastwood.
There are five film version of Purple Sage (one even staring Tom Mix!), and it was in the movies that Zane found his greatest audience. Many of his Westerns were adapted into films, and was even the baisis for a television series, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (which ran from 1956 to 1961). Nearly every major Western film star has appeared in an adaptation of his work, including the focus of tomorrow’s post, Randolph Scott (1898-1987).
Riders of the Purple Sage is avaialbe for free download nearly anywhere on the Internet, including the invaluable www.ManyBooks.net. It, along with most of Zane Grey’s Western corpus, comes highly recommended.