Grey’s Launches the Western Genre

Zane Grey combined the excitement of the frontier and a stirring human-interest story to capture an ongoing fascination with life in the nineteenth century American West.

Summary of Event

The exploration, taming, and settlement of the American West is one of the most exciting phases of U.S. history. The saga began with the Louisiana Purchase—the U.S. acquisition of French territory in North America for fifteen million dollars in 1803. The purchase doubled the size of the United States; however, the northern and western boundaries of the territory acquired were vague, and the purchase actually paved the way for settlement of North America west to the Pacific Ocean. Riders of the Purple Sage (Grey, Z.)
Literature;Western genre
Western genre;fiction
[kw]Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage Launches the Western Genre (1912)[Greys Riders of the Purple Sage Launches the Western Genre (1912)]
[kw]Riders of the Purple Sage Launches the Western Genre, Grey’s (1912)
[kw]Western Genre, Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage Launches the (1912)
[kw]Genre, Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage Launches the Western (1912)[Genre, Greys Riders of the Purple Sage Launches the Western (1912)]
Riders of the Purple Sage (Grey, Z.)
Literature;Western genre
Western genre;fiction
[g]United States;1912: Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage Launches the Western Genre[02930]
[c]Literature;1912: Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage Launches the Western Genre[02930]
Grey, Zane
Remington, Frederic
L’Amour, Louis
Faust, Frederick

This vast region offered numerous challenges to the bold and adventurous. Many indigenous tribes roamed the Great Plains, following enormous buffalo herds. Both the tribes and the buffalo had to be reduced and controlled before the American settlement could succeed. In his novels, Zane Grey vividly described these and other challenges.

Zane Grey.

(Library of Congress)

President Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, and he soon authorized an expedition to explore the territory and to cultivate friendly relationships with the indigenous tribes. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were approved by Congress to lead the expedition, which began its ascent of the Missouri River on May 14, 1804. Lewis and Clark made successful contact with several indigenous tribes, including the Mandan Sioux, Blackfoot, and Shoshone; the aid of these tribes was vital to the success of the expedition. After arriving within sight of the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis. Their work had proved the value of the Louisiana Purchase and also proved the feasibility of an overland route to the Pacific. Although the expedition had touched only the northern edge of the vast frontier, Lewis and Clark’s experiences were extremely valuable to the later settlements that would be portrayed so vividly in the novels of Zane Grey.

Throughout the nineteenth century, many attempts were made to give Americans a clear perception of life on the western frontier. One of the most successful such attempts was made by Frederic Remington. Beginning in 1880, Remington made many journeys into the western territories, witnessing Indian battles and the slaughtering of buffalo herds. His stories and drawings soon began appearing in Harper’s Monthly, Century, and other magazines and newspapers.

Into this historical setting came Zane Grey, whose novels depicted the adventure, hardships, and rewards of life on the frontier. Born Pearl Zane Grey in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1872, Grey graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and became a dentist in New York City in 1898. He soon began writing stories about the frontier. Grey’s first novel was Betty Zane, Betty Zane (Grey) based on the journal of one of his ancestors on the Ohio frontier. After this book was published in 1904, Grey ended his dental career and became a full-time writer.

Grey’s second novel was The Spirit of the Border, Spirit of the Border, The (Grey) also based on the journal of Betty Zane. Published in 1905, this adventure story was a best-seller. The most popular of Grey’s novels, and one of the earliest about the Far West, was Riders of the Purple Sage, published in 1912. This publication completed the process that Grey began eight years earlier. He almost single-handedly had created a new style in American literature: the Western novel. It came at a time when firsthand accounts of the West were abundant, when the stories of Frederic Remington were still being published and the frontier theory of historian Frederick Jackson Turner was still being debated.

Riders of the Purple Sage is based on the conflict in Utah between the Mormons and the region’s other settlers during the 1870’s. One of the leading characters is Jane Withersteen, a young Mormon woman who has inherited her father’s vast wealth. The book’s basic conflict revolves around her struggle to remain loyal to her Mormon beliefs while at the same time trying to change the attitudes of Mormon men toward their women and toward non-Mormons.

Like most of Grey’s Western novels, Riders of the Purple Sage is a result of the author’s many trips through the area involved. His vivid description of the rugged terrain and miles of sagebrush in southern Utah creates an extremely realistic geographic setting. Grey also appreciated the value of horses to the successful conquering of the West. The two horses immortalized in Riders of the Purple Sage, Black Star and Night, were based on real horses that Grey found and bought in Arizona.

Grey’s abundant traveling and contact with people from many backgrounds gave him the ability to portray human nature and human emotions in a realistic way. In Riders of the Purple Sage and his other Western novels, he used that ability to depict the conflicts involved in carving a way of life from a rugged frontier setting.


Beginning with Riders of the Purple Sage, Zane Grey’s output of successful Western novels was amazing. From 1915 to 1924, one of his books was in the top ten of the best-seller list nine times. This streak began with The Lone Star Ranger in 1915. In 1918, his The U.P. Trail was number one on the list. At a time when at least 100,000 copies of a book had to be sold for the book to be on the best-seller list, Grey’s The Man of the Forest (1920) topped the list with more than 700,000 copies sold. The best-selling of Grey’s novels, however, is Riders of the Purple Sage, which has sold more than one million copies in hardback editions alone.

Grey was writing as prolifically at the time of his death in 1939 as he had at any time in his career. Of his total of eighty-nine books, fifty-six were Western novels. Four were other sorts of novels; the remainder were books of short stories, books on hunting and fishing, juvenile books, and books of baseball stories.

The impact of Grey’s novels was multiplied many times when they began to be serialized in magazines and newspapers. A total of fifty of his novels were serialized in national magazines; the New York Daily News, with a circulation of more than two million, serialized the last three Zane Grey novels. By 1970, Grey’s books had sold more than 100 million copies. They had also been the basis for more than one hundred films, including several in which Grey himself appeared.

The tremendous popularity of Grey’s Western novels, in all sections of the country and with all age groups, inspired other writers to enter the field. Most sought to follow Grey’s example of historical and geographic accuracy. One of the earliest to enter the field, but one who did not have the same zeal for accuracy, was Frederick Faust. Faust, a prolific writer, became a successful author in 1917, and he was soon writing Western novels under the pen name of Max Brand. His first major work was The Untamed, Untamed, The (Brand) which was serialized in All-Story Weekly, a pulp magazine, beginning in December, 1918.

Faust wrote The Untamed in the phenomenal time of ten days. He did so after reading Riders of the Purple Sage at the request of pulp editor Robert Davis. Davis was a westerner who had lived on the frontier. He regretted an earlier decision not to serialize Zane Grey’s most famous novel, and he was looking for a new writer comparable to Grey. It was Davis who gave Faust the more suitable name for a writer of Westerns, Max Brand.

Although Faust was influenced by Grey’s style, there is a vast difference between Zane Grey Westerns and Max Brand Westerns. Faust never explored the West as Grey did. Grey’s West was real, and his stories about it were realistic. The West of Brand was imaginary and lacked that realistic touch. Like many of Grey’s novels, however, many of Brand’s were made into Western films, the most famous of which was the 1939 classic Destry Rides Again.

Another early Western novelist was Ernest Haycox. Although he never gained the popularity of Grey or Brand, he is sometimes linked with them under the label of the “Big Three” of early Western writers.

A later and very colorful author about the West was Louis L’Amour. Born about the time that Grey began his writing career, L’Amour refined the methods and principles of his famous predecessor. L’Amour received his education by traveling around the world and by reading hundreds of books, including many about the West. In his autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man (1989), Education of a Wandering Man (L’Amour) L’Amour specifically mentions reading two of Grey’s books. Although he did not copy Grey’s style of writing, L’Amour did emulate Grey’s zeal for knowledge of his subject. In his autobiography, L’Amour states that a writer about the West must have a more accurate knowledge of his subject than a writer on almost any other topic. He also takes issue with the notion that a good Western can be written in a few days. These ideas placed L’Amour much more in the company of Grey than in the company of Faust, who never explored the West and who wrote The Untamed in ten days.

Even more than Grey, L’Amour became famous for historical accuracy and detailed descriptions of geography and wildlife. Like Grey, he supported strong family ties and his novels featured sensitive portrayals of Indians and Mexicans. L’Amour’s first Western novel was Westward the Tide, published in 1950. In 1960, he began the celebrated saga of the Sackett family in The Daybreakers. Among L’Amour’s other well-known Westerns are Hondo (1953) and The First Fast Draw (1959). L’Amour, like the earlier Western authors, saw several of his novels made into films.

Zane Grey established a tradition for accuracy and excellence as he created the Western novel. In launching a genre that would prove a staple of popular fiction and film throughout the twentieth century, he left a lasting mark on American culture. Riders of the Purple Sage (Grey, Z.)
Literature;Western genre
Western genre;fiction

Further Reading

  • Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. Detailed and moving account of the effects of American westward expansion on indigenous tribes. Features many direct quotes from witnesses and from participants in the events. An interesting view of the historical West from a perspective different from that offered by most popular fiction.
  • Easton, Robert. Max Brand: The Big Westerner. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970. Biography of Frederick Faust emphasizes the influences that led him into a career as a writer. Presents a good evaluation of Faust’s most famous Western, Destry Rides Again (1930). Also describes Faust’s Dr. Kildare stories. Includes a complete Faust bibliography.
  • Gruber, Frank. Zane Grey. New York: World Publishing, 1970. Excellent biography includes photographs, a complete bibliography of Grey’s books and major articles, and a list of Grey’s books that were made into films.
  • Karr, Jean. Zane Grey: Man of the West. New York: Greenberg, 1949. Biography presents interesting accounts of Grey’s childhood and later travels. Includes photographs and a complete annotated bibliography of Grey’s writings.
  • L’Amour, Louis. Education of a Wandering Man. New York: Bantam Books, 1989. Autobiography emphasizes the importance of books to L’Amour’s education and describes his own writing as a natural result of his traveling, working, and reading. Introduction by Daniel J. Boorstin provides an interesting description of L’Amour’s reading habits. Includes photographs.
  • May, Stephen J. Zane Grey: Romancing the West. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997. Presents an overview of Grey’s life and analyzes some of his major works, including Riders of the Purple Sage.
  • Pauly, Thomas H. Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Comprehensive biography draws on previously unavailable personal correspondence and journals in exploring Grey’s life. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Remington, Frederic. Selected Writings. Secaucus, N.J.: Castle Books, 1981. Collection of real-life stories about the West, vividly illustrated with drawings of the author. Provides excellent insight into the real West and its indigenous tribes.

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