Geography of his Writings
Grey and Images of the American West
by Kevin S. Blake
Reprinted from GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
Vol. 85, No. 2, April 1995
Copyright ©1995 by the American Geographical Society of New York
Novels by Zane Grey crystallized a set of symbols for the American
West in the minds of his millions of readers. He infused the frontier
myth with vivid imagery of a sublime and beautiful landscape inhabited
by heroic cowboys, deadly gunmen, polygamous Mormons, and noble
Indians. He also localized the myth in and along the southern margin
of the Colorado Plateau, so that this landscape became the quintessential
West. By extending his version into the 1930s, Grey encouraged the
belief that the Wild West persisted well into the twentieth century.
Key words: American West, Grey [Zane], literary geography,
The western novels by Zane Grey have been a source of imagery about
the American West for almost the entire twentieth century. The plots
and characterizations of Grey's popular novels set in the American
West have been thoroughly examined, but it is less clear how his
work acquired a fundamental role in the creation of western imagery.
With the ability to influence much of the public, mass media dominate
the molding of popular culture. A medium that repeatedly projects
a set of simple ideas can define the amorphous perceptual lenses
through which people view a landscape and fuse them into a clear,
uniformly perceived place image. Movies and television now often
clarify place perceptions, but literature traditionally played a
about the meaning of the American West, a landscape that occupies
center stage in American folklore, is more profitable with an
understanding of the evolution of the ideas that are attached
to the place. This article explains how Grey's distinctive combination
of spatial, temporal, landscape, and social elements crystallized
the enduring idea of a mythical West and qualified him as a place-defining
novelist (Shortridge 1991). My mapping and analysis of Grey's
settings lead me to contend that he shaped popular attitudes about
the extent of the boundaries of the West and the location of its
core. Furthermore, the temporal settings of these novels proved
integral to continuing popular acceptance of the western myth.
I also illustrate how Grey's evocative portrayal of the landscape
and social characteristics of the region is' representative of
western imagery. I discuss modern ramifications of Grey's imagery
in each section, and a review of the western myth making that
preceded Grey and his unparalleled record of popularity provides
the context for understanding his power of place definition.
of Western Myths
The image of
a region as large as the West is complex. Its most central and enduring
theme is that of the frontier, a vast and stunning landscape where
brave cowboys, rugged individualism, and dream fulfillment are the
rule. Some of the common elements of popular western literature,
especially pastoral innocence and deadly violence, may be traced
to James Feminine Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales" (Hart
1950). Dime novels by E. Z. C. Judson (alias Ned Buntline) and others
created new heroes: Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill were bolder and
younger than Leatherstocking and used horses and repeating rifles
to battle the harsh elements of the Great Plains (Smith 1950). Novelists
were not alone in shaping western myths. Newspapers extensively
covered Billy the Kid's adventures and the shootout at the O.K.
Corral (Estleman 1987). The Indian-killing and heroine-rescuing
exploits of cowboys were adapted straight from dime novels into
the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, which ran from the 1870s to the
1910s (Riegel 1947). The first wave of painters to popularize the
West was epitomized by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. Their
sweeping canvases of outstanding natural features depicted the region
as an unspoiled and magnificent wonderland (Kinsey 1992). People,
if even present, were reduced to insignificant figures standing
in awe of nature. By the end of the nineteenth century, Frederic
Remington and Charles Russell portrayed the landscape as spectacular
but beginning to come under the control of mountain men, cowboys,
though the cowboy had become popular by the end of the nineteenth
century, he did not supersede all other western heroes, and he
was not always portrayed as a hero (Boatright 1980). When dime
novels acquired a trashy reputation toward the end of the nineteenth
century, eastern publishers searched for a writer who could address
the colorful characters of the West more seriously (Athearn 1986).
The search culminated in 1902 with Owen Wister, "a Pennsylvanian
who sat in South Carolina to write a book about a Virginian living
in Wyoming" (Marsden 1978, 207). His popular novel, "The
Virginian," praised the action and romance of the frontier
that, according to this tale and to Frederick Jackson Turner's
1893 frontier thesis, had just disappeared. Wister's innovative
combination of cowboys versus rustlers, the transforming power
of good woman's love, and the main-street shootout changed the
course of stories about the West, but the main significance of
"The Virginian" was that it paved the way for Zane Grey
Grey's Writing Career
Pearl Zane Gray
was born in 1872 in Zanesville, Ohio, and died in 1939 in Altadena,
California. In adulthood he dropped the first name and changed the
spelling of his surname to Grey. As a teenager he excelled at baseball
and fishing, hobbies that would later spark his first writing endeavors.
Attending the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship,
he reluctantly pursued dentistry, as had his father. After graduation
in 1896 Grey opened a dental practice in New York City, but fishing
on the upper Delaware River and playing club baseball were his favorite
pursuits. With publication of a fishing story in the journal Recreation
in 1902, Grey's dream of being an author sprang to life.
abandoned dental work to write a novel based on the heroism of
his ancestor Betty Zane, whose dash through a hail of bullets
with a tablecloth full of gunpowder rescued Fort Henry from an
attack by the British and Indians in 1782. Betty Zane
was published in 1903 but sold poorly. Two more novels of the
Ohio frontier, The Spirit of the Border and The Last
Trail, also sold slowly after they were published in 1906
and 1909 (Gruber 1970). These stories of revenge against renegade
whites and Indians were dramatic, but they were written in the
mold of Cooper. The public wanted fresh stories about the trans-Mississippi
West, so in 1907 Grey seized an opportunity to go on an expedition
to rope mountain lions in northern Arizona with an old plainsman,
Charles Jesse "Buffalo" Jones. Grey was struck by the
beauty, openness, and people of the intermountain West, and the
experiences of that journey became the basis of his first western
Heritage of the Desert, his first big success and first western,
was published in 1910 (Fig.1). It describes a sick easterner,
Jack Hare, who regains his health in the care of a stalwart Mormon
named August Naab. Jack falls in love with Mescal, Naab's adopted
half-Navajo-half-Spanish daughter, and eventually rescues her
after she flees to the Painted Desert to escape a disgraceful
marriage to Naab's outlaw son. From this time on, although he
continued to publish occasional fishing, hunting, and juvenile
tales, Grey devoted most of his writing to romance novels set
in the West. His effect on place images and his fame came almost
entirely from the fifty-five westerns that were initially published
by Harpers. All of his westerns have been reprinted countless
times and are still in print; Riders of the Purple Sage
is the legendary model for what American readers came to expect
from the genre (Gable 1973). The publisher initially rejected
the manuscript because of its harsh treatment of polygamy and
the Mormon hierarchy, but the reluctance was overcome after an
enthusiastic reading by the publisher's wife.
was unprecedented in its time and is impressive even by present-day
standards. His fame peaked from 1917 to 1924, when his books made
Bookman's top ten best-seller list every year; he topped the list
in 1918 and 1920 with The U.P. Trail and The Man
of the Forest. By 1936 more than twelve million copies of
Grey's books had been sold (Most 1947). On an estimate that there
were five readers for every book sold, Grey had been read by more
than 60 million people by the 1930s, one-half of the population
of the United States (Wellman 1939). Grey's cumulative worldwide
sales were estimated at 68 million in 1953, 100 million in 1975,
and 130 million in 1984 (Hutchinson 1980; Kant 1984).
Delimitation and Localization
scholars agree that the West begins around the ninety-eighth meridian,
which, perhaps not coincidentally, dovetails with Grey's interpretation
of the West's eastern margin. His exclusion of coastal California
from his West also matches a common perception of the region's western
boundary. Several subregions within the West had not developed any
place-defining literature before 1950, perhaps because the powerful,
enduring appeal of West as a regional label mentally unified the
distinctive geographies of the region (Shortridge 1991). I contend
that Grey's portrayal of all areas of the West as having the same
frontier elements accomplished this unification.
some of the action of his novels in nearly every western state,
but often with the same set of images (Fig. 2 and Table I at left).
As an example, one of his most popular books, Nevada,
set in eastern Arizona, was a sequel to Forlorn River,
set in northeastern California. Grey's readers received the message
that these two locales were part of the same region. Treks by
his characters also bonded far-flung locales into one perceptual
region. For example, the first pages of Wyoming relate
the journeys of the protagonists across Nebraska and the Black
Hills to a ranch in central Wyoming. Other novels feature significant
action in two or more settings that are too disparate and distant
from each other to map as one locale. Further evidence that Grey's
imagery delimits the West as one region with a uniform set of
mythical symbols is his occasional reference to the action or
characters of one book in another. His settings have an added
importance, in that they were based on real places, in contrast
to the inexplicit settings of some authors like Max Brand.
Although Grey demonstrated
that Old West adventures could be found throughout the West, he
concentrated his most powerful imagery in the Colorado Plateau
and its southern edge, the Mogollon Rim.
Nearly one-half of
his westerns were set there, and the same ratio of his best-selling
books were also placed there (Hackett 1967). His focus on Arizona
and southern Utah as the heart of his West was continued in the
numerous movies based on his tales that he insisted be shot on
location. Grey thus introduced Hollywood to Monument Valley in
the 1920s (Kant 1984). Of course, popular accounts of western
places that were unexplored by Grey certainly exist, so his views
have not totally dominated the spatial perception of the West.
Even so, I assert that many people still continue to view Grey's
Colorado Plateau as the quintessential West. The current popularity
of mystery writer Tony Hillerman, who also sets his stories in
the Four Corners region, strengthens Grey's earlier localization.
The compelling characters and vivid landscapes in Grey's Colorado Plateau novels have influenced tourism and vernacular images in this area. The region has not had to struggle to attract American or foreign tourists; the famous Grand Circle tour of several of the most popular national parks in the United States is through the heart of Grey's West. Tour books published by the American Automobile Association include Grey on the suggested reading list for Arizona. Residents of Payson, Arizona, call the area Zane Grey Country, and a promotion for the Canyonlands region in Utah features the phrase "the land of Zane Grey."
Typical of the
western genre, most of Grey's novels are set in the late nineteenth
century, but their chronology actually extends from the 1850s to
the 1930s. In choosing these settings, Grey contributed more than
have most writers to the idea that the frontier West is both a historical
and current reality, which explains why the temporal mythical West
is not rigidly defined. Current ties of his name with western places
indicate that the West he portrayed is perceived to be alive, which,
in turn, has arguably affected the national psyche.
of Grey's westerns are set in the twentieth century. He mixes
contemporary events such as World War I, revolutions in Mexico,
large-scale dam construction, and increasing automobile use with
traditional frontier elements. He suggests not only that the frontier
was intact in some places but also that it could be safely visited
because heroes resided there to protect innocent travelers. In
the forewords he wrote in 1915 for The Rainbow Trail
and The Lone Star Ranger he explicitly asserted that
the frontier character and wildness of the West persisted. Promotional
material on the original dust jackets for his westerns echoed
those sentiments by relating that his material came from his extensive
travel in out-of-the-way places of the West. In the twentieth-century
setting of Majesty's Rancho the West is diminished in
area but still challenging. The cowboy hero and college-student
heroine leave bustling Los Angeles to find frontier excitement
in a remote corner of southeastern Arizona. Early-1930s imagery
appears throughout: prohibition is almost over; Al Capone-style
gangsters rustle cattle with trucks at night; and there are much
cigarette smoking and use of slang and curse words.
Although the West is
predominantly an urban society, much of the public still believes
that the frontier has not been completely displaced, arguably
because Grey wrote of its survival into the twentieth century.
Tourism associations try to fulfill these expectations by funneling
travelers to places like Tombstone, Arizona, and Dodge City, Kansas,
where the Wild West supposedly lives on. The current use of Grey's
name in Oregon, Arizona, and Utah travel literature implies that
tourists believe his West still persists.
Grey's formula had
none of the sappiness over a disappearing frontier that characterized
the writing of Owen Wister, Frederic Remington, and Emerson Hough
(Bold 1987). Grey's interpretation that the idealized West endured,
if one looked in the right places, may have calmed public concerns
over losing the frontier. Availability of cheap land can act as
a safety valve for burgeoning populations dissatisfied with densely
settled areas, but once the frontier is settled there can be tremendous
political unrest and social upheaval in a country. Instead of
protesting the loss of a frontier, however, Americans celebrated
its existence nostalgically through the western genre.
the landscape as both setting and character with narratives of a
sublime and magnificent country that could clarify the difference
between good and evil characters (Kimball 1993). Furthermore, his
descriptions of western landscapes rank among the most striking
ever written and are still valued for their ability to capture the
character of places. Although some of his westerns, like Stairs
of Sand, have mechanistic plots and a simple-minded portrayal
of social traits, they all have a distinct sense of place. The memorable
qualities of his landscape imagery enhanced the popularity of western
places, but this resulted in problems of high visitation.
His heroes and heroines
often start out from typical backgrounds in the East but change
in the West. At first the landscape seems harsh to these characters,
but then it becomes familiar and finally benevolent. I find the
comment that to Grey "nature is benign if not innocent"
misleading (Byrkit 1992, 361). In Grey's West the heroes rise
to the challenges of nature and benefit from it, whereas the villains
degenerate in the face of a brutal land.
descriptions of scenery and his subordination of characters to
the landscape result in his readers' both respecting the places
he portrayed and desiring to visit them. He placed emphasis both
on appreciating natural beauty and on encouraging interaction
with the landscape, a duality epitomized today in the challenge
of balancing environmental protection and tourism in national
parks. Grey wrote as though a sacred but somehow approachable
spirit resided in the western landscape, as in this example from
The Rainbow Trail (1915, 335):
The Rainbow Bridge
was the one great natural phenomenon, the one grand spectacle,
which Shefford had ever seen that did not at first give vague
disappointment, a confounding of reality, a disenchantment of
contrast with what the mind had conceived.
But this thing was
glorious. It silenced him, yet did not awe or stun. His body and
brain, weary and dull from the toil of travel, received a singular
and revivifying freshness. He had a strange, mystic perception
of this rosy-hued stupendous arch of stone, as if in a former
life it had been a goal he could not reach.... Here at last, apparently,
was the rainbow of his boyish dreams and of his manhood?a rainbow
magnified even beyond those dreams, no longer transparent and
ethereal, but solidified, a thing of ages, sweeping up majestically
from the red walls, its iris-hued arch against the blue sky.
Grey was one
of the first writers to exploit much of the West's desert and
mountain landscape. His desert descriptions are varied and may
have produced an unclear picture of what to expect in the arid
West. The region is alternatively portrayed as a sandy wasteland,
as in Stairs of Sand, a place of wealth, as in Desert
Gold, a land that develops latent possibilities into greatness,
as in The Heritage of the Desert, a productive area,
as in The Desert of Wheat, and a colorful natural landscape,
as in Riders of the Purple Sage. In The Vanishing
American, he further popularized the desert by calling it
a "land of enchantment," a phrase New Mexico adopted
as its slogan in the 1930s. In Grey's West enterprising people
could always procure more water to make the desert bloom, an attitude
that persists in the expectation of many western urbanites to
fuel regional growth.
era westerns were mass produced and subject to certain rules of
standardization. Because those circumstances did not encourage unique
works of art, the main significance of westerns is the formula used
to crank them out (Cawelti 1980). Not all of Grey's westerns follow
an identical formula, especially stories like The Shepherd of
Guadaloupe that deal with returning World War I veterans, but
certain social characterizations are constant throughout his work.
His social commentary added to his place definition by reflecting
and influencing the popular image of the West's cultural heritage.
He characterized westerners with specific traits that as a group
set the standard for what is now a cherished part of western folklore.
Most of Grey's
westerns focus on a cattle culture imbued with individualism,
rustling, and justified violence. Even though cowboys were featured
in dime novels and The Virginian, critics agree that
Grey was the true creator of the cowboy novel (Milton 1980). His
technique was to romanticize the shooting accuracy and chivalry
of cowboys, but his heroes also could be dirty, sore, foul-mouthed,
and drunk. The heavy use of cowboy imagery in present-day advertising
indicates the widespread acceptance of Grey's approach: the Marlboro
Man is the archetype of these advertisements (Salter 1983).
popularized mineral prospectors, whom he portrayed as driven by
powerful forces into the wilderness where they became largerthan-life.
In Wanderer of the Wasteland Adam Larey, after apparently
murdering his brother, takes to prospecting in the Mojave Desert,
where he gains a reputation as a trustworthy avenger of evil by
killing thieves with his bare hands. Unable to abandon a life
of isolation, he becomes known as Wansfell the Wanderer and devotes
his life to befriending the unfortunate. As a result of the hero
worship lavished on cowboys and prospectors, their modern equivalents
may have received preferential treatment. For example, even though
the land may be owned by the federal government, ranchers have
mostly done whatever they wanted on the western grazing lands
they lease, and they expect to continue doing so (Marston 1991).
Ranchers are often observed to act tough and individualistic;
might this partly be role playing because of their perceived heritage?
Americans may accept these actions because ranchers are part of
the beloved western myth. Environmentalists may call for revisions
strengthening the fee payment and reclamation provisions of the
public rangeland grazing law and the 1872 mining law, but I contend
that the enduring cowboy and prospector romanticism partially
thwarts these demands.
One of Grey's
main contributions to the western novel and to ideas about acceptable
behavior in the West is his introduction of the professional gunman,
a role that was later embellished by Shane and Destry (Cawelti
1976). Grey's typical gunman is not vile, but rather a lone figure
who metes out deadly justice to rustlers and kidnappers. The most
memorable characterization is that of leather-clad Lassiter in
Riders of the Purple Sage (1912, 7-8):
Jane Withersteen wheeled
and saw a horseman, silhouetted against the western sky, coming
riding out of the sage. He had ridden down from the left, in the
golden glare of the sun, and had been unobserved till close at
hand. An answer to her prayer!
"Do you know him?
Does any one know him?" questioned Tull, hurriedly....
whispered one of Tull's companions. "He packs two black-butted
guns?low down?they're hard to see?black agin them black chaps."
whispered another. "Fellers, careful now about movin' your
gunplay in Grey's novels became one of his trademarks. He felt
he could not express the essence of the frontier West if he omitted
the fight or the blood. "Desert Gold" contains a memorable
orgy of violence involving the southwestern landscape in which
a Yaqui Indian forces a Mexican bandit to plunge off a volcanic
cliff into an expanse of cholla cacti, on which he is impaled.
Vivid imagery of this type has been parlayed into hundreds of
movies, books, television shows, and magazine stories. Grey's
progeny include western writers such as Luke Short, Max Brand,
Will Henry, Ernest Haycox, and Louis L'Amour (Malone and Etulain
1989). Edward Abbey (1994) acknowledged Grey as one of his favorite
modern novelists; the climax of Abbey's novel Good News
borrows the cliff-and-cactus drama from Desert Gold.
that were exotic to readers, such as Navajos and Mormons, were
a staple of Grey's westerns, and he dealt with them in a thoughtful
manner that was far ahead of his time. He usually portrayed Indians
as either noble and worthy of emulation or as victims of bad whites.
In Black Mesa a white trader illegally sells liquor to
Navajos and poisons their only source of water. The plot of The
Vanishing American exposes corruption in the U.S. Bureau
of Indian Affairs and has a Navajo hero with an athletic prowess
reminiscent of Jim Thorpe. Grey originally ended this novel with
a marriage of the Navajo and the white heroine, but after pressure
from his publisher he rewrote the ending?the hero dies of influenza.
The brisk sales of this novel in 1925 suggest that Grey's sympathetic
view of American Indians struck a popular chord, but it would
be even more characteristic of the increasingly sensitive views
of them since the 1960s.
Grey was one
of the first popular writers to discuss Mormon beliefs seriously
(Coan and Lillard 1967). He admired Mormon industriousness and
even stated that Jim Emmett, the Mormon manager of Lees Ferry,
was the man who influenced him the most (Stott 1978). But Grey
despised the church's treatment of women, especially polygamy.
After spending much time among Mormons Grey decided that the younger
church members were starting a trend away from polygamy, a shift
positively portrayed in The Rainbow Trail. Nevertheless,
he was ambivalent in The Man of the Forest, in which
the group is depicted both as suspected abductors of women and
as trustworthy outdoorsmen who value justice.
For Grey and
his readers the West is a place with restorative powers, an escape
from the banality and immorality of the older parts of the United
States. His heroes and heroines are disenchanted with the ostentation,
shallowness, and softness of the East. In The Call of the
Canyon a shell-shocked and gassed World War I veteran feels
unappreciated by eastern socialites and opts for a simple life
of hard, manual work in remote Oak Creek Canyon of Arizona. His
flapper girlfriend objects to the simplicity of the West, and
they separate when he accuses her of not being woman enough or
American enough to stay and help him reconstruct his broken life.
They reconcile only when she realizes her love of the wide-open
landscape and decides to devote her life to ranching and raising
a family in the West.
also promotes the region as a land of unbounded economic opportunity
(Vale and Vale 1989). Grey popularized this ideal too, often by
having his hard-working cowboys reap financial and romantic rewards
commensurate with their heroic deeds. The happy-ending syndrome
is taken to miraculous extremes in Desert Gold, in which
in a span of minutes a Yaqui Indian leads the hero to a gold mine,
the source of the only river in the region, and an old box containing
a letter that clears the reputation of his sweetheart.
The imagery in
Grey's novels is a definitive expression of the mainstream conception
of cultural characteristics in the West, what its ideal scenery
looks like, and where and when the Wild West existed. These novels
are a window into the values of a large segment of past and current
generations that enjoy the ritualistic winning of the West. The
adoption of western iconography as representative of the entire
country must also in some way result from Grey. The West defines
how Americans view their past, and this region, more than any other,
is the source of American identity, pride, and cherished heroes.
Grey is a place-defining
novelist for the West because of his immense and enduring popularity
and his embellishment of preexisting western images with graphic
portrayals of life in the West. The two new mass-market paperback
editions of his westerns released since 1990 may further extend
his influence. The use of his evocative writings in anthologies
that tout the appreciation of western wildlife and landscapes
also keeps Grey's imagery prominent. Nevertheless, his effect
on western images would have been transient had he not imparted
his own distinct sense of the areal and temporal extent of the
West of American imagination.
The legends of the
West satisfy important needs, but too much reliance on the myth
leads to unrealistic views of the West and to misguided behavior.
Grey was fairly accurate about the temporal and spatial settings
of the topics of which he wrote, but he focused on remote places
in a period of time when many aspects of the West, such as its
population and resource base, were far different from what they
are now. The better the myth is known, the better its effects
can be recognized and, if need be, clarified or revised. Grey's
mythical West is too popular and too central to the identity of
the West and the United States to be abandoned completely. The
goal is to flavor the real West with carefully chosen parts of
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West Society gratefully acknowledges Kevin Blake and the Geographical
Review for the kind use of this article.
is Kevin Blake, the author of this article?
Dr. Kevin Blake
is an Assistant Professor in the Kansas State University Department
of Geography, Manhattan, KS. Formerly at the University of Wyoming,
he earned a B.S. in business administration and a M.A. in geography
from the University of Kansas, and a Ph.D. in geography from Arizona
State University. He discovered Zane Grey through the interest of
his grandparents and subsequently completed his cultural geography
masters thesis on the topic of this article. Dr. Blake enjoys traveling
to the place settings of Grey's works, and he continues to study
and teach about landscape images of the West.
more information, access the following site at the University
Geography of his Writings
Historical images of Zane Grey used with permission of Dr. Loren Grey and Zane Grey, Inc.