The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Writers of the Purple Prose


In this blog we have looked at the lives and careers of famous Westerners,
be they on-screen fictional characters or the real McCoy. But we mustn’t forget
the writers, because they contributed to the Western – indeed they were in
several cases the originators of the genre. They go right back to Fenimore
Cooper, of course, though I won’t be writing a review of his literary output
because I find it incredibly long and even more boring. Franz Schubert asked
for Cooper to be read to him on his deathbed. It probably finished him off. I
agree with Mark Twain that
was guilty of verbose writing, poor plotting, glaring inconsistencies, overused
clichés, cardboard characterizations, and a host of similar
We’ve already discussed Owen Wister, one of the great
pioneers of the Western novel, and the other day I was droning on about Max Brand. I’ve also waxed if not lyrical then at least
enthusiastic about other wielders of the Western pen, such as Larry McMurtry,
Luke Short, Elmore Leonard, Ernest Haycox and others (click the links if you
are interested in this blog’s thoughts on them). Today, though, it’s the turn of Zane Grey.

Like Cooper
and Wister, Grey was not a Westerner. Pearl Zane Gray (1872 – 1939) was born in
Zanesville, Ohio, a city founded by his great-grandfather Ebenezer Zane. Soon
after his birth his father, a dentist, changed the name to Grey. As a boy,
Pearl (he adopted the second name Zane later) loved baseball and fishing,
and was an avid reader of James Fenimore Cooper and dime novels. He wrote his
first story, Jim of the Cave, when he
was fifteen. His father disapproved, tore it to shreds and beat him. Not the
greatest start to a literary career. But he did get some writing published as a young man –
not Western stories but articles on fishing in Field and Stream.

The boy
extracted teeth as his father’s assistant until the state regulators
intervened. Zane went to the University of Pennsylvania to study dentistry on a
baseball scholarship but was only an average student at best. He started
writing poetry. He was shy and teetotal.

He was a good pitcher and hitter

After graduating, Grey established his own dental
practice in New York City under the name of Dr. Zane Grey in 1896. In 1905, he
married Lina Roth, better known as “Dolly”. He was often
unfaithful to Dolly and it must have been hard for her as he suffered all his
life from depression, anger and mood swings. He wrote: “A hyena lying in
ambush—that is my black spell! I conquered one mood only to fall prey to the
next…I wandered about like a lost soul or a man who was conscious of imminent

first published work was Betty Zane (1903),
an historical novel about his ancestors. He could get no publisher interested
and he had it privately printed. This was followed by Spirit of the Border (1906) and The
Last Trail
(1909), which were also, in the clumsy modern jargon,
self-published. All three were financial flops. His style was often florid and
his grammar inadequate, and Dolly did much proofreading and correcting.

In 1907, the
campaigner to preserve the bison, Charles ‘Buffalo’ Jones, introduced Grey to
the Southwest. Grey was entranced and he modeled several of his characters
after Jones, including the central figure in The Last of the Plainsmen (1908). But Richard Etulain, the great
expert on Western writing, tells us:

After reading the manuscript, Ripley Hitchcock of Harper and Brothers
plunged in his editorial dagger. “I don’t see anything in this to convince me
you can write either narrative or fiction,” Hitchcock told Grey. The comment,
coming from a close friend of Buffalo Jones, was almost a death knell to Grey’s
writing career.

Buffalo Jones

Grey read Wister’s 1902 Western novel The Virginian and studied its style and structure in detail. He called his own
works ‘romances’ and tried to model them not only on Wister but on Walter Scott
and Robert Louis Stevenson, two of his favorite authors. From Scott he probably
got a penchant for length, and a sentimental treatment of history.

started traveling in the West, taking photographs and making detailed notes.
of all the gifts that have come to me from contact with the West, this one of
sheer love of wildness, beauty, color, grandeur, has been the greatest, the
most significant for my work.” And he added, in a comment that foreshadowed his
most famous book, “That wild, lonely, purple land of sage and rock took possession
of me.”

Unfortunately, his novels abound with such wordy
descriptions of landscape, often delivered as the views of his heroes. He made
copious notes on his travels and inserted them verbatim into his books, to the
detriment of the narrative.

Nevertheless, he did stress action and plot, and this
aspect eventually made his stories popular. He certainly had a storytelling power.
He had learned the tricks of the romance-novelist’s trade, ensuring that his chapters
abounded with cliff-hangers, mystery, conflict and climactic action.

Harpers finally accepted a Western novel from Grey, The
Heritage of the Desert
, in 1910, and it sold well. This was followed by a
trio of books aimed at children, two of which, The Young Forester and The
Young Lion Hunter
, were vaguely Western (another was a baseball story). But
of course it was in 1912 that Grey’s name was made.

Riders of the Purple Sage was published in that year. It was
a huge best-seller.

probably know the story. In fact, though, there are two parallel stories
(though unlike parallel lines, they occasionally intersect): everyone thinks of
Riders, because of the movie
versions, as the tale of the mysterious gun-man in black, Lassiter, who comes
into the life of beautiful cattle rancher Jane Withersteen, champions her cause
and steals her heart. But in fact a greater part of the book is devoted to the
other story – how Jane’s rider (or cowboy) Bern Venters shoots the famous
‘masked rider’, sidekick of rustler Oldring, and discovers he has shot a girl.
He nurses her back to health in a hidden cañon, falls in love with her and they
eventually live happily ever after.

quite frankly, much of Purple Sage makes
pretty difficult reading. More than a century on from publication, we find the
style melodramatic (Victoria may have been dead but Victorian melodrama
wasn’t), prolix and sentimental to a degree hardly acceptable. It’s what you might
call purple sage prose. Grey certainly loved the color purple and the word
appears on many of the pages, used to describe the sage, mountains, land, sky
and anything else to which might be attributed color. I must say, I have
traveled quite extensively around southern Utah and northern Arizona and
Nevada and I didn’t see much purple. The predominant colors seemed to be
gray and orange. Sage is only purple when it blooms anyway. But I guess Riders
of the Gray Sage
wouldn’t have been all that romantic.

Dashes and exclamation
points pepper the page as characters breathlessly open their hearts and spill
out their emotions. Bess:

was happy – I shall be very happy. Oh, you’re so good that – that it kills me!
If I think, I can’t believe it. I grow sick with wondering why. I’m only a – let me say
– a lost, nameless girl of the rustlers. Oldring’s girl, they called me. That you should save me – be so
good and kind – want to make me happy – why, it’s beyond belief.

And so
on, almost ad infinitum. It’s overwrought and these days rather indigestible.

When his
rough Westerners speak, Grey’s reading of Wister becomes regrettably apparent
for they sound hokey and the vernacular is forced:

jest saw about all of it, Miss Withersteen, an’ I’ll be glad to tell you if
you’ll only hev patience with me,” said Judkins earnestly. “You see, I’ve been
pecooliarly interested, an’ nat’rully I’m some excited. An’ I talk a lot thet
mebbe ain’t necessary, but I can’t help thet.

Worst of
all is the baby talk of the child Fay.

sended for oo,” cried Fay, as Jane kissed her, “an’ oo never tome”.

People descry things rather than see them
and inversion is overused (“No unusual circumstance was it for Oldring and some
of his men to visit Cottonwoods in the broad light of day.”)

Well, it
was 1912 and we mustn’t judge too harshly.

advantage, stylistically, is that (thanks to Dolly and the Harper editors) the
English is correct and clear. Grey could handle, for example, the difference
between the verbs lay and lie, or raise and rise, which
many modern American writers can’t, and he doesn’t use the preposition like as a replacement for the
conjunction as, as many modern
writers and speakers do (or like many
writers do, to put it in the modern parlance).

Grey is
uncompromising in his anti-Mormonism. The Mormons are very clearly the bad
guys. Under the hypocritical cover of their religion, they steal, spy, covet,
lust, kidnap and kill. Sometimes all on the same day. The Elder Tull and the
Bishop Dyer, in particular, are very nasty and, in the best Western tradition,
deserve the come-uppance that they will inevitably get under the guns of
the good guys.

versions of the book were mealy-mouthed about this and most excised the Mormon
element of the story. The 1990s TV version with Ed Harris, for example,
carefully avoids even the word Mormon, in the most PC way.

Zane Grey was growing up, the Mormons, to many people, were anti-American. The
Utah War was a relatively recent memory. Theocracy and polygamy were considered
unconstitutional, immoral and essentially unAmerican. In addition, Grey had a
faintly anti-clerical side and held broadly pantheistic beliefs. Utah Mormons
made suitable opponents for decent, brave, simple American Westerners to combat.

is described as “a hater and killer of Mormons”. He has devoted his life to
avenging the corruption and abduction of his sister Millie by the sect. The
Mormons have blinded his horse. The shooting of Dyer, though we only hear about
it at one remove, described by Judkins, is a gripping moment when the
evil hypocrite (whom Lassiter refers to as “the fat party”) gets shot
full of holes in his courthouse. “Proselyter,”
Lassiter admonishes him as the Bishop clutches the bullet holes in his body in a
vain attempt to stanch the blood, “I reckon you’d better call quick on thet God
who reveals Hisself to you on earth, because He won’t be visitin’ the place
you’re goin’ to!”

non-Mormons are pure. The ‘Gentiles’, as they are called, are all honest,
decent upright people and the riders are brave and noble. The child Fay is
absolutely angelic. Bess is virginal – and I love the way that she and Bern
have separate caves in the hidden valley!

There is
no room for wishy-washiness (or subtlety) here. The bad guys are bad all the
way through and the good ones close to perfect. Jane is in between, it is true,
because she is a Mormon but good. But she progresses to goodness as she
gradually leaves Mormonism behind.

A sequel to Riders of the Purple Sage, which tells of what happened
to Jane and Lassiter and their adopted daughter Fay, was published in 1915 with
the title The Rainbow Trail, though I’ve never read it.

impact of Riders of the Purple Sage on
the Western genre was immense. It is impossible to imagine the movie Shane
(or its source novel) for example, without reference to Riders. The lone, mysterious gunman
(often dressed in black) riding in from nowhere and righting the wrongs in a
community became a standard point of reference. Hondo is Lassiter – with Apaches instead of Mormons – and countless
other Western heroes, on the page or on the screen, are Lassiter too.

glorification of Western landscape was another influential feature. You sense
that a writer like Louis L’Amour was greatly influenced by Grey (though far
more economical in his writing). Western movies too reveled in the settings. We
think in particular of John Ford and Monument Valley (also in southern
Utah, by the way) but so many Westerns cared passionately about landscape, and
the visual, photographic aspect of such movies is often fundamental. Have a
look at Escape from Fort
, Pale Rider
(shot by
père and fils respectively) or Silverado,
just as a few examples of very many, and you will see what I mean.

The importance of the horse, also, is a seminal Riders theme. Jane’s thoroughbreds and the skill of the riders are written about
glowingly. The race between Bern on Wrangle pursuing jockey Jerry Carn leaping
at full gallop between the blacks Night and Black Star as they hurtle
across the sage is one of the genuinely thrilling parts of the book. Actually,
these mounts seem to have overdrive, or a fifth gear: I always thought the
gait of a horse could be a walk, trot, canter or gallop. But the way Grey
describes it, a run comes after a gallop and is even faster. When
Jane presents the blacks to Bern and Bess to ride away to happiness on, it is a
symbol of her giving up the past and her Mormon-inherited wealth and finding
true love with Lassiter.

Particular elements
of the story were taken up and used by the future Western. Cattle
stampedes, of course, became a staple of the Western movie. Water rights, horse
stealing and the discovery of gold all feature largely. In Chapter V the rustlers
ride into their hidden lair through a waterfall. Watchers of Johnny Guitar
or Randy Rides
will recognize that!

Riders of the Purple Sage was made into a movie five times.
There was a silent starring William Farnum in 1918 (only six years after
publication of the novel) and another, ‘lighter’ silent with Tom Mix in 1925.
The first talkie version was in 1931, starring George O’Brien, and ten years
later George Montgomery led another. A TV movie starring Ed Harris came out in

It is
interesting that in all cases the headline star played Lassiter. He has emerged
clearly as the hero of the tale. Sometimes Bern Venters (who takes up far more
pages than Grey’s Lassiter) hardly gets a look in. In the various movies he was
billed second, eighth, fifth, ninth and third.

It does
make a good movie. Long novels have to be radically slimmed down for the screen
but luckily Riders had pages and
pages of soppy love and descriptions of nature that could be immediately
discarded, and the novel’s action, which is genuinely good, would remain for
the film.

I have
read Riders of the Purple Sage twice,
once years ago and a re-read before writing my 2013 review of it, but I must
say I am unlikely to read it again. It’s pretty heavy going, a lot of it.

But I’d
watch a movie version again. The Ed Harris one is the best so far.

Purple Sage made Zane Grey the most famous
Western novelist of his time. From 1917 to 1925 Grey was never off the list of
best-sellers, a feat that has not been equaled, and he became one of the
first millionaire novelists. He never improved as a writer but he continued to
churn out a couple of Westerns a year. In doing so, as Professor Etulain puts
it, “he solidified the mold of what became known as the Western.” And we lovers
of the ‘formula Western’ should be grateful to him – even if we don’t read him
that much these days!

Many of his stories were made into Western movies, not only Purple Sage. We can go right back to Tom
Mix’s The Heart of Texas Ryan in
1917, and another version of The Last
is in development right now. Robbers’ Roost, The Vanishing American, Western Union, The Lone Star Ranger, The Light
of Western Stars
, and many more, the list is a long one. Paramount in
particular bought the rights to his books and hired Grey as consultant. The
studio produced a series of (heavily adapted) silent Western movies in the
1920s which they remade as talkies in the 30s directed by a young Henry Hathaway and starring Randolph Scott. On TV, the Zane Grey Theatre series had
a five-year run of 145 episodes from 1956 to ’61.

An older Zane

Zane Grey died
of heart failure on October 23, 1939, at his home in Altadena. The last Western
novel published in his lifetime was Knights
of the Range
but Zane Grey Westerns have continued to be published since. Harper
had a stockpile of his manuscripts and continued to publish a new title each
year until 1963. Then there were reissues, unabridged versions, and so on. He
has sold over 40 million books. He is still widely read.


9 Responses

  1. From my previous comment, Zane Grey wasn’t a favourite of mine, l can’t remember what book l tried to read way back in the 60s, maybe Riders of the Purple Sage, that’s such a great title. Also at that time Dell Comics were publishing a lot of Zane Grey titles, and they also did a series called Zane Grey’s Stories of the West, l much preferred these to the books.
    RKO also made a very good set of Zane Grey films with Tim Holt, Robert Mitchum and James Warren, all worth seeing, especially the Mitchum titles.
    I have never seen a Riders….. film, so must check out the Ed Harris version.

  2. I'm surprised you have never seen either the 1931 George O'Brien or 1941 George Montgomery versions, Mike, an old fellow 'B' enthusiast like you.

    I agree about Grey's writing, which I find too wordy, though I like the stories and adaptations thereof. (Bit like Dickens actually). I found disappointment back in the day reading Clarence E. Mulford too, expecting his characters to be like the Cassidy films, which they weren't. I probably ought to give them another go now.

    Enjoying this look at the writers, Jeff – great idea.

    1. Yes, Mulford and Boyd's Hopalong are as far apart as you could get!
      The great thing about written Westerns is that you get the whole spectrum, from lurid dime novel to literary masterpiece, and 'quality pulp' in between.

    2. I’m surprised to, years ago l had an NTSC tape of the George O’Brien version, but picture quality ruined the film, can’t remember if l even finished it to the end. The George Montgomery version has always eluded me. As no official release, l guess quality could be an issue with that as well.

  3. Jeff, I'm enjoying the fire out of these good write-ups on Western writers. We owe them much, so thank you to Zane Grey for giving the public something to read. In all fairness to Grey and his descriptions of the landscape. Most of his readers hadn't seen the land west of the Mississippi River, so he described it in length. Also, how much did wife Dolly contribute to the novels and Zane's BRAND? I think she made a huge contribution. For those who are interested, here is an article written by my late friend Dusty Richards. While you are there, go ahead and click on the article about George Montgomery and his real Western Colt revolver and its use for him in the reel Westerns.

    Mike and Jerry, really good comments that I'm enjoying. Mike your list of Western writers are some of my favorites, especially Frederick Dilley Glidden(1908-75), better known as Luke Short. Several top notch Western movies were made from his writings. Western Movies, starring Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Rod Cameron, Robert Taylor, and others. Jerry, I like Clarence Edward Mulford's(1883-1956) Hopalong Cassidy books and William Boyd's Hopalong Cassidy movies. In my mind, I separate the two.

    1. That comment about the Zane Grey 'brand' is a good one: there were so many spin-offs like comics, TV shows, etc., that Grey became far more than 'just' a writer.
      I am the world's biggest fan of Luke Short Westerns.

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