Ask anyone to name a western writer and chances are the first name to come to mind will be Zane Grey (1872-1939). Considered to be the father of the modern American western novel, Grey was beloved by two generations of readers. His strength as a writer was in his descriptions of the Old West as only he remembered it.
During his career as a writer, Zane Grey produced a total of 89 books. These included 56 novels set in the West, one set in the East, three Ohio River-country novels, two novelettes, three collections of short stories, two hunting books, six juvenile books, two books of baseball stories, and eight fishing books. From 1915 to 1924 a Grey book was in the top ten on the best seller list every year except 1916. Riders of the Purple Sage, published in 1912, is considered by most readers of Western novels as the best of its kind and also holds the record as his highest selling book. Called the people's author, Grey was published in hard cover, serialized in magazines, and reissued in paperback editions. Hollywood turned 46 of his books into movies beginning in 1912 and continuing into the present, with a new version of Riders of the Purple Sage for television. The television series, The Zane Grey Western Theatre, lasted from 1956 through 1960 and produced 145 episodes. His novels have been translated into 20 languages and are huge sellers in Europe and South America.
Pearl Zane Gray was the fourth of five children born to Lewis M. Gray and his wife Josephine Alice Zane Gray. His sisters Ella and Ida and his brother Lewis Ellsworth were older. Zane was closest to his brother Romer, who was only three years younger. His mother chose Pearl as his first name because she admired Queen Victoria and heard that pearl gray was her favorite color. The name caused him no end of trouble. When he became a professional writer he dropped Pearl and changed the spelling of his last name to Grey. Zanesville, the Ohio town where he was born, was named after his mother's family who founded the town. His family was not wealthy. His father made a living as a dentist and part time preacher, and fully intended that his second son would follow in his footsteps. He was a strict parent, and kept his children in line with the switch if necessary. Grey's main interests were fishing and baseball. As a teenager, girls became a focal point. Schoolwork ranked a distant fourth. He was later to regret this when he seriously began to write.
About the time he discovered fishing and baseball, Grey was introduced to books. He read Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and George Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, many times, as well as the Frank Castlemon books Frank in the Mountains and Frank at Don Carlos' Rancho. He also read Our Western Border and learned the history of Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, and his own ancestors Colonel Zane, Betty Zane and Isaac Zane who married the Wyandotte Indian princess Myeera after she saved him from burning at the stake. These literary influences determined the direction that his early writing would take.
Grey's father had definite ideas about what was a suitable career for his son and tore up his first story when he found it hidden in a cave. He made Grey learn the dental business as his assistant on Saturdays. Later, Grey won a baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. His ability to sketch got him through his histology class and raised his grade level enough to get him on the baseball team. His pitching ability got him through dental school, not his grades.
Because New York City was the center of the writing and publishing world, Grey opened his dental office at 100 West 74th Street in 1896. It was at this time that he changed the spelling of his surname. Reluctantly, he practiced dentistry and wrote at night. He joined the Orange Athletic Club in East Orange, New Jersey, and played on their baseball team. The team was better than some professional teams, and Grey had a number of professional offers. He refused because his main ambition was to become a writer. His brother Romer, also a dentist, joined him in New York. Romer became a professional baseball player and the brothers remained close. The two were fishing and taking photographs on the Delaware River near Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, one afternoon in 1900 when Grey photographed the seventeen year old girl who would later become his wife. Lina Elise Roth was the daughter of a successful New York doctor who had recently died. She and her mother were spending the summer at the Delaware House. Even though she was eleven years younger and had not yet completed her education, the two became close friends. Grey gave her the nickname of Dolly, which she retained for the rest of her life. They were married five years later and went on to have three children: Romer, Betty, and Loren.
First Works Published
Grey's first story, A Day on the Delaware, was published in 1902. It dealt with a day spent fishing on the Delaware River with his brother Romer. He was paid only ten dollars, but was so proud that he gave copies of the story to his patients. Grey completed his first novel, Betty Zane, during the winter of 1902-1903. Dolly corrected the manuscript and rewrote it in longhand. When every publisher to whom he submitted the work rejected it, Dolly paid to have it published. The book sold well in New York, but never made its publishing costs back. His second novel, the Spirit of the Border, written in 1904-1905, with much help and encouragement from Dolly, was finally sold to a publisher.
The turning point in Grey's life came when he met Buffalo Jones and persuaded Jones to take him to his Arizona ranch. His wife financed this trip with the last of her inheritance The result was a story about Jones called Last of the Plainsmen, which was promptly rejected by Harper's. The Outing Publishing Company accepted it with no advance. Grey depended on articles he sold to sporting magazines and loans from his brother Romer to feed the family. Finally, Harper's accepted The Heritage of the Desert and Popular Magazine agreed to serialize it. After years of struggle, Grey's determination paid off. His novel was a success. The Heritage of the Desert was the prototype of all the Zane Grey westerns to follow, including the Eastern tenderfoot, wild horses, the Mormons, Indians, outlaws, cattlemen, sheepherders, and cowboys.
Riders of the Purple Sage
Grey's next novel, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), was one of his most complex and most enduring. Lassiter was the archetype of the western gunslinger-on the surface a killer, but underneath a good man motivated by injustice. Jane Withersteen, his heroine, was more complex than his usual women characters. She was twenty-eight, wealthy in her own right, and loyal to her Morman faith. The Mormon elders tried to force Jane to marry. Lassiter wanted to find out what happened to his sister. The two unite to fight the evil Elder Tull and Bishop Dyer. Morality is ambiguous in this novel, as outlaws are depicted as kind and churchmen revealed to be unbending and cruel. The story plays out against wonderfully described scenery and contains one of the most exciting horse races ever described in a novel. Harper's was reluctant to publish it for fear of offending members of the Mormon Church. Grey pled his case and Harper's relented. It became the most successful western novel ever published. The Rainbow Trail, which continued the story, was almost as popular.
With the success of his novels, Grey was becoming financially secure. He was now able to indulge in his favorite hobby, fishing. Grey enjoyed fishing in the Florida Keys, New Zealand, and Australia. He suffered from periods of deep depression. Being alone in a natural setting seemed to provide comfort and enabled him to continue writing. Thus, Grey and his wife were separated for months at a time. There was speculation that the marriage was in trouble, but that was never true. Their letters and diaries show that they remained devoted to each other.
Responded to Critics
Grey was always sensitive to the opinions of the critics. He had been accused of creating formulaic plots, drawing morally naïve and stereotypical characters, writing bad dialogue, and using verbose descriptions of scenery in the middle of an action scene. In an unpublished essay, My Answer to the Critics, Grey refered to his work as romances rather than novels. In the foreword to his novel To the Last Man, Grey wrote, "I have loved the West for its vastness, its contrasts, its beauty and color and life, for its wildness and violence, and for the fact that I have seen how it developed great men and women who died unknown and unsung. Romance is only another name for idealism; and I contend that life without ideals is not worth living." He carefully researched the historical background of his material and faithfully depicted the minutiae of ordinary Western life. He was one of the first authors to write about the polygamy in the Mormon Church, the Mexicans, the Indians, African American cowboys, and interracial marriage. When Loren Grey republished The Maverick Queen in 1981, it was discovered that some of his earlier work may have been toned down. Kit Bandon, the leading female character, was obviously a prostitute and much more swearing was written into the original version. He dealt with rape in 30.000 on the Hoof where an Indian rapes a white woman for revenge. The love of a white woman for an Indian is the subject of The Vanishing American. In the 1920 version Nophaie dies after a journey to the sacred bridge to seek God. In the 1982 version, which is the one Grey originally wrote, the two marry. In this novel he shows disgust for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the ineptitude of the missionaries who have little understanding of the Indians they are trying to convert.
In later years the Greys bought a large estate in Altadena, California, a house on Catalina Island, a ranch in Riverside county, a hunting lodge and ranch on the rim of the Tonto, in Arizona; and a fishing lodge at Wihnckle Bar, Oregon. Grey was at his Altadena estate when he died of a heart attack on October 23, 1939, as he practiced casting his fishing line from a rod installed on his front porch.
Further Reading on Zane Grey
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale Group, 1999.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale Group, 1981.
Gruber, Frank, Zane Grey, World Publishing Company, 1970.
Jackson, Carlton, Zane Grey, Twain Publishers, 1989.
Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.
Western American Literature, Vol. X111, No. 1, Spring, 1978.