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Home > Special Features > Trust the Tale and the Teller...

Trust the Tale and the Teller:
Why You Should Read Zane Grey

by Marian Kester Coombs, ZGWS

Zane Grey is renowned for his thrilling plots, his unforgettable gunmen and his incomparably satisfying action. But there are deeper and more abiding reasons to read this master storyteller.

The young Grey had grown up alight with family pride at the historic adventures and bravery of his Zane ancestors, Ebenezer, Betty, Jonathan and Isaac. It is fair to say that the "fire in his belly" to write was kindled by love of his own people's past and the urgent desire to cast it into some lastingly beautiful form. After a gestation period of almost three decades, Grey's vision of his family's place in the creation of America's past came to fruition in the cycle Betty Zane, The Spirit of the Border and The Last Trail. Thus pride in the selfless altruism of his ancestors was the motivation for his entire career as a writer.

Zane Grey's family feeling thereafter gradually extended to the entire American people as a strong fellow-feeling, an ardent identification with the best in those waves of immigrants who sought both elbow-room and a renewed relationship with the natural world in their flight from the Old. Yet his Americanism never became jingoistic; unlike many writers, he resisted the mindless exhortations of the "Great War" and indeed was bitterly critical of the war's national soul-destruction in a way that often bordered on that era's hysterical definition of "sedition" (see The Call of the Canyon, The Vanishing American, 30,000 on the Hoof, and Rogue River Feud, among others). Grey traced what he viewed as America's tragic loss of innocence to the experience of wartime propaganda, censorship, corruption and social dislocation.

A sympathetic imagination, keen ear for dialogue and inborn instinct for a great story made Zane Grey a natural "maker of the sagas of the folk," as critic T.K. Whipple has called him. All of his books, from the most whimsical baseball story to the most precise blow-by-blow account of a game-fishing expedition, are based on real people and actual events, some of which involved the author himself. Tales told in the brakes of the Tonto or the Hole-in-the-Rock region of Utah were preserved by Grey as lovingly as the chronicle of the Zanes had been, and peopled with characters as strange and unforgettable as the land that shaped them. "Where do I find these romances?" he wrote in his diary in 1923. "I see [them], and I believe them. Somewhere, some time, they happened."

Several distinct stereotypes adhere to the image of the Western writer, and persist because, like all stereotypes, they bear a grain of truth. Zane Grey, however, conforms to none of them. He was not an armchair Westerner, fantasizing about "roughing it" from some Eastern drawing room: He spent months every year from 1906 until his death thirty-three years later hiking, riding, hunting, fishing, exploring and listening throughout the high-plains, desert and mountain West, coming to know these vast lands with uncommon intimacy.

The action in a Grey novel does not unfold in some generic, all-purpose West: The reader always know exactly where he is, historically, geographically and geologically. Grey was a maximalist, always giving the reader more than he had to. The effect he strove for is "virtual reality" ahead of its time --- and one that allows free rein to the reader's own imaginative ability to recreate the scene. Open any page at random and be drawn into word-painting that rivals the canvases of Bierstadt, Moran, Russell and Remington:

"The last snowstorm of June threatened all one morning, hung menacing over the yellow crags, in dull lead clouds waiting for the wind. Then like ships heaving anchor to a single command they sailed down off the heights; and the cedar forest became the center of a blinding, eddying storm. The flakes were as large as feathers, moist, almost warm. The low cedars changed to mounds of white; the sheep became drooping curves of snow. . . . Though the storm had been long in coming, it was brief in passing. Wind-driven toward the desert, it moaned its last in the cedars, and swept away, a sheeted pall. Out over the canyon it floated, trailing long veils of white that thinned out, darkened, and failed far above the golden desert. The winding columns of snow merged into straight lines of leaden rain; the rain flowed into vapory mist, and the mist cleared in the gold-red glare of endless level and slope. No moisture reached the parched desert." (from The Heritage of the Desert, 1910)

Zane Grey heroes are not strong, silent, boy-men who shy away from "growed wimmin," but sensitive youths often painfully unsure of their ability to make their way manfully in the world, and highly susceptible to the charms of difficult, spirited girls. Grey's heroines are a wildly varied bunch --- any one of whom the anti-Marilyns of Hollyweird would kill to get a chance to play, although those charmless bimbas would scarcely be capable of doing such characters justice --- ranging from waifs with surprising strength like Molly Dunn in The Drift Fence , Reddie Bayne in The Trail Driver and Allie Lee in The U.P. Trail, to vain young beauties riding for a fall like Ruth Virey in Stairs of Sand and Gloriana Traft in The Drift Fence, to tough, resourceful Western women like Sue Melberne in Wild Horse Mesa, Lucinda Baker in 30,000 on the Hoof (a veritable Frauenliebe und -leben unto herself) and Lucy Bostil in Wildfire, to doomed camp-followers like the tragic Beauty Stanton in The U.P. Trail. But the archetypal Grey hero and heroine remained his own great-great uncle Jonathan and great-great-aunt Betty Zane.

Grey novels neither patronize nor demonize American Indians. Grey had great sympathy for the plight of the Navajos, Piutes,Yaquis and other tribes (he proudly claimed Indian blood through his Zane ancestors); indeed, most of the wisdom he and thereby his heroes acquired from Western experiences he identified with the teachings of traditional native cultures.

Yet another stereotype of the Western genre is the black-hatted villain sworn to destroy all that decent folk hold dear. But Grey's outlaws are tormented men, hungry for the society of those decent folk whom they may never rejoin, yet perversely unwilling to betray their own destinies to buy some short-lived comfort. Kells, eminence noire of The Border Legion, is far more complex a character than modern fiction's Grinning Mask of Total Evil, but he is also, of course, the fossil of an age when indecent acts could actually propel a man beyond the pale, both of society and of his own soul.

Grey's bedrock theme is not boy-gets-girl or the triumph of Good over Evil but an individual's exquisitely difficult discovery of the real man or real woman within, "to know the happiness that dwells in the wilderness alone." As Madeline "Majesty" Hammond grasps it in The Light of Western Stars, "at last she knew what she needed --- to be alone, to brood for long hours, to gaze out on lonely, silent, darkening stretches, to watch the stars, to face her soul, to find her real self." Only the inhuman, abhuman "waste" of the desert, the sheer sublime scale of the Western landscape shorn of civilized comforts and the constant self-referential tintinnabulation of human voices, can bring one face to face with his or her true nature --- manhood, womanhood as nature intended, burnt pure layer by layer of all artifice.

Grey's seekers succeed in achieving self-knowledge, as did he himself. Of course, only extraordinary individuals can bear to see themselves as they really are. Most of mankind can "bear very little reality," in T.S. Eliot's phrase. Most of us are like the ill-fated visitors to "Solaris," the sentient oceanic planet imagined by sf writer Stanlislav Lem, who one by one succumb to terrifying succubi conjured forth by Solaris from their own unconscious minds. "Chelovyek lyubit chelovyek -- Man wants Man," shrugs one of the planet's victims. "Man has not gone into space to find Otherness, but to hold up another mirror to himself."

Of course the urge to extinguish consciousness and lose one's self back into the natural world is at best paradoxical for a writer. A Zane Grey novel maintains a delicate balance between evoking vivid, often overwhelming images of the natural grandeur whose magnitude negates the protagonists' false selves, on one hand, and allowing for moments of reflection and epiphany in the course of whatever onrushing story seems irresistibly to be telling itself, on the other. Grey's art is not so much emotion recollected in tranquility as tranquility recollected with emotion. This paradox of thought vs. felt experience is well expressed by the hero of The Hash Knife Outfit, a Missouri farmboy turned Westerner who finally catches himself "not thinking of anything at all. It was . . . pure happiness, and he feared an analysis would dispel it." In The Vanishing American, Grey writes that the Navajo sheperd Nophaie "loved the flock, but did not know that. His task was lonely, but he did not realize it."

On a more practical level of the paradox, the engineer hero of The U.P. Trail is acutely aware that the great railway he has risked his life for will shatter the natural harmony he reveres into human hells like Benton: "This strident, businesslike, quick-step music and the sight of the men and women attracted thereby made Neale realize that Benton had arisen in a day and would die out in a night; its life would be swift, vile, and deadly." Neale's trapper friend Slingerland has blazed a trail for countless others into the wilderness he loves, knowing that in the end "the grass of the plains would be burned, the forests blackened, the fountains dried up in the valleys, and the wild creatures of the mountains driven and hunted and exterminated."

As with the spirit lost in rapt contemplation of immensity that is rudely and inevitably recalled to self-awareness, the tragic yet necessary winning and loss of the West is not a soluble problem, and Grey does not pretend to offer a "solution" to history. Cowboy artist Charlie Russell once wrote, "Time has made me a stranger in my own country. The West is still a great country, but the picture and story part of it has been plowed under"; and he attempted with brushstrokes what Grey did with words, to memorialize what was irreversibly passing. Anthropologist Desmond Morris theorized in The Naked Ape that man's newfound and belated ability to mourn the impending extinction of wildlife is due to our employment of "rare animals as symbols of [our] own impending doom," and certainly the Western world's newfound and belated ability to mourn its careless smashing of native cultures is due to the same disturbing presentiment that similar ruin may lie in store for the people and civilization of the West.

Zane Grey's philosophy as a writer is summed up in his own words: "To my mind, romance is only another name for idealism; . . . the spirit, not the letter, of life." Not surprisingly, the spiritual vision sells. Most of Grey's books are still in print. More films have been made from his works (one hundred four) than from the works of any other single author; Turner Network Television recently filmed a fourth remake of Rider of the Purple Sage. He had titles on the best-seller lists every year from 1910 through the late 20s, titles that continue to sell decades after his death in 1939. This kind of success naturally attracted two parasitic species that are all too familiar to us in the contemporary world: the cabal of elitist urban critics, or "crickets," as Mark Twain called them, who hated his wildly popular books because they hate the popular soul (which they deride as "kitsch"), and the Internal Revenue Service, which hounded Grey for questionably-owed back taxes as soon as his estate became worth cannibalizing, and nearly drove him under during the Depression --- a triumph, of sorts, for the bureaucrats. After any especially vicious attack by a "cricket," Grey would become physically ill and unable to write for days --- a triumph, of sorts, for the crickets.

But Zane Grey, like the aptly-named "Western," lives on --- a triumph for the decent folk. His contagious love of what is fine and true and good, kindled in childhood by family legend, is the secret of these magnificent Westerns which deserve to be read as long as there is an America.

ZGWS member Marian Kester Coombs lives in Crofton, Maryland, with her husband Fran, who is , currently a consultant for Rasmussen Reports. The Coombses have two grown daughters.

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Historical images of Zane Grey used with permission of Dr. Loren Grey
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Historical photos of Zane Grey used with permission of Dr. Loren Grey