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Home > Special Features > Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage

Zane Grey's
Riders of the Puple Sage

by Marian Kester Coombs, ZGWS

Riders of the Purple Sage, published in 1912, was Zane Grey's first best-selling novel of the many he was eventually to pen. It has never been out of print, is a solid entry in the canon of American literature and is considered one of the best Westerns ever written, if not the best of them all. Yet it is rarely read today by the general public, and still less read are the several dozen arguably greater books that Grey published up to his death in 1939 and that Harper & Brothers issued posthumously well into the 1950s. His once-hailed name had by the 1960s become a laughable cliche synonymous with the B Western genre and its cast of overplayed, underdeveloped characters --- taciturn gunslingers, stock villains, fainting females, noble or bloodthirsty savages --- all rolling dutifully along in the dusty ruts of interchangeable plot lines. "Serious" critics, ever mistrustful of the popular taste and loathing "idealism" of any (except the Soviet) sort, had of course never cared for Zane Grey. The coup de grace to his reputation was the scores of cheaply made Western films cranked out by Hollywood in the 1920s, '30s and '40s which traded on his titles and derived little else of substance from their namesakes.

Thus it was with some curiosity that one heard of Turner Network Television's remake of Riders of the Purple Sage, filmed near Moab, Utah, and aired in January 1997. But it is with considerable astonishment that one opens the novel itself and finds there beautiful writing, geologically precise nature description, diverse and memorable characters, a moving inner struggle to reconcile deeply held beliefs with odious social practice, and a rousingly exciting story that moves swiftly across hundreds of pages to an unforgettable ending.

Jane Withersteen is the proud young inheritor of her Mormon father's hard-won ranch-oasis in the Utah desert. "Her clear sight intensified the purple sage slope as it rolled before her. Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rock. Farther on . . . rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rose an upflinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and grey escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows."

As the book opens, Jane is under great pressure from the elders of the Mormon church to become one of the multiple wives of Elder Tull; to show they mean business, they have run down one of her Gentile cowboys, Venters, and are about to whip him and drive him from the territory. Into this scene rides Lassiter, famed and feared as a scourge of Mormons for motives unrevealed until later. Lassiter stays on as a rider for the increasingly harassed and isolated Jane, who tries to soften and disarm him by feigning she has fallen in love with him. Even as the dread evidence of Mormon revenge mounts --- the rustling and stampeding of her cattle, the defection of her hands and servants --- she strives to "melt his heart" toward Mormons. But her success nearly dooms them both.

As the showdown with the elders approaches, Lassiter rearms: "Where would any man be on this border without guns? . . I'd be under the sage with thousands of other men now livin' an' sure better men than me." They shoot it out with bands of Mormons, escape with an orphaned child on wind-swift horses toward the bewildering maze of Deception Pass, following a trail left by Venters and the mysterious girl he has inadvertently rescued from a rustler gang, and then . . . Suffice it to say that the millions who read Riders of the Purple Sage when it first appeared were exceedingly grateful for the sequel published three years later, The Rainbow Trail, and so will the modern reader be.

Riders is in some ways unlike many of Zane Grey's other books. The writing is less naturalistic, more formally "literary," and the (still controversial) anti-Mormon sentiments here are in contrast with the very sympathetic portrayal of Mormons in, for example, The Heritage of the Desert (1910). The hero Lassiter, while clearly the prototype for hundreds of novelistic and cinematic imitators, is also atypical of Grey, most of whose main male characters are disheartened young Easterners who flee or drift West in a final effort to attain manhood and selfhood. Once initiated into the harsh, elemental Western environment, they come to "know a happiness that dwells in the wilderness alone" and make something real of themselves at last. His heroines are usually spirited but discontented Eastern girls who undergo rites of passage every bit as rigorous as their masculine counterparts'.

Grey was a born storyteller; the first books he ever wrote were stirring novelizations of the exploits of his own pioneer ancestors, the Zanes of the Ohio Valley (Betty Zane, The Spirit of the Border and The Last Trail, in 1903, 1906 and 1909 respectively). One insightful critic likened him to a "maker of the sagas of the folk." Ridiculed by the nascent Modernists for his romanticism, Grey retorted, "To my mind, romance is only another name for idealism; . . . the spirit, not the letter, of life." The "letter," however, was also keenly observed: Grey researched, tramped, traversed and inhabited every region of the West he wrote about, often husbanding the seeds of a tale for years before bringing them to fruition. A biographer states that Grey wanted "his readers to feel the thrill of adventure as he felt it, to see each scene and to sense the atmosphere as vividly as if they were accompanying him on each expedition," and that says it.

Readers of today would do well to allow neither the animus of long-forgotten critics nor the misbegotten knock-offs of Hollywood to prejudice them against great stories, great writing and a great American author.

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.

Home > Special Features > Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage

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