Authors: Zane Grey

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist


American-born novelist Pearl Zane Gray was born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1872, to farmer and dentist Lewis and Alice (Zane) Gray. His mother traced her ancestry to a Danish Quaker who arrived in America with William Penn in 1682. She gave the name Pearl to her son, largely because of an admiration for Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, whose favorite color was pearl gray. After years of ribbing, Zane eventually dropped the “Pearl” altogether and changed “Gray” to the more English spelling.{$I[A]Grey, Zane}{$S[A]Gray, Pearl Zane;Grey, Zane}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Grey, Zane}

He attended Zanesville schools, graduating from Moore High School and going on to the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship. He studied dentistry, graduating with a D.D.S. degree in 1896.

From 1898 to 1904, he was a dentist in New York City. An avid fisherman all his life, he made frequent fishing trips to the Delaware River near Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, where he met his future wife, Lena Elise Roth, called Dolly. They married in 1905 and had two sons and a daughter.

He began writing while in New York, publishing an article, “A Day in Delaware,” in Recreation magazine in 1902. In 1903 he completed a historical novel, Betty Zane, based on an ancestor’s journal. It told of the Zane family’s role in settling the Ohio valley. He published it himself, to some critical success. Encouraged by this and his wife’s support, he moved to a cottage in Lackawaxen, to write full time.

In 1908 he traveled west in the company of frontiersman Colonel Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones. Along the way, Jones told him tales of the Old West. The West seemed to be the ideal setting for the kind of romantic stories Zane wanted to write. The frontier conditions were perfect for the struggles of the heroes he envisioned. With this exposure to the West, he wrote The Last of the Plainsmen, about Jones. It was rejected by Harper and Brothers, but they accepted his next Western novel, The Heritage of the Desert.

Harper also published Riders of the Purple Sage, selling a million copies and 800,000 reprints. The book’s success and Grey’s popularity with readers made him one of the most successful writers of his time. Twenty-five of his books sold seventeen million copies in twenty years, and except for the Bible and McGuffy’s Readers, they sold better than any others in U.S. history. Many were made into films.

Grey’s popularity with readers was not always matched with critics. They called his work formulaic, melodramatic, sentimental, and stylistically awkward and stilted. They deplored his use of nineteenth century romance idiom and said he seemed unduly influenced by his childhood literary favorites, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826). They did, however, credit him for the authenticity and color of his Western settings and his stories’ promotion of traditional American values and concern for popular social change.

Grey wrote about most aspects of the American West, not just cowboys and Indians. His stories examined the animosity between cattlemen and sheepherders, the variegated Western vistas, cattle drives, gunslingers, range wars, the impact of the railroad and the telegraph on the way of life. He visited the places he wrote about and researched their history, giving authenticity and color to his books. Of his many books, the three most widely read since his death are Riders of the Purple Sage, The U.P. Trail, and The Vanishing American.

Riders of the Purple Sage sold millions of copies and was filmed four times: in 1918, with actor William Farnum; in 1925, with Tom Mix; in 1931, with George O’Brien; and in 1996, with Ed Harris (for television). Though some critics felt the book has too much scenery description, archaic diction and stilted dialogue, and is bigoted in its anti-Mormon sentiment, the gunman character Lassiter is considered one of Grey’s most interesting creations, the semi-outlaw hero.

The U.P. Trail, about the transcontinental railroad, was praised for its historical detail. Some critics found its plot melodramatic and found contradiction in its celebration of the railroad as a great achievement while condemning its detrimental consequences for American Indians. (Grey was sympathetic to Indians, claiming an Indian heritage through his great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth McCullough Zane.)

The Vanishing American has an Indian protagonist and describes the life of reservation Indians forced to deal with corrupt missionaries and Indian agents. Originally, its romance between the Indian hero and a white woman ended with their marriage. However, his publishers insisted he have the hero die before he can marry the woman. In 1982, an unexpurgated reprint returned the original ending.

Other less-known but worthy books include The Lone Star Ranger, which gives an unusual insight into a gunman’s psychology; To the Last Man, a sheepherder-cattleman feud as the basis for a Romeo-Juliet plot; Knights of the Range, with rare portrayals of an African American cowboy and Mexican women, albeit in disparagingly stereotypical way. (To the Last Man, filmed in 1933 and starring Randolph Scott, was Shirley Temple’s acting debut and also included a nude swimming scene.)

An avid fisherman, Grey also wrote nearly a dozen books about fishing. Some of his big-game fishing experiences are said to have inspired his friend Ernest Hemingway to write The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Grey, however, is best remembered for his Western novels. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the work of another writer of Westerns, Louis L’Amour, began to surpass him in sales. Though Grey’s characters may seem stereotypical today, their struggles with moral issues and their personal weaknesses make engrossing reading for the fan of the Western tale, of which there are more with each new generation.

BibliographyFarley, G. M. Zane Grey, A Documented Portrait: The Man, the Bibliography, the Filmography. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Portals Press, 1986. Slender biography includes bibliography.Flora, Joseph M. “Grey, Zane.” In Twentieth Century American Literature, edited by James Vinson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Contains a comprehensive listing of Grey’s novels and other works plus a brief essay discussing aspects of his career and critical evaluations of his writing style.“Grey, Zane.” In Twentieth Century Authors, edited by Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1942. Interesting biographical details and career statistics.Jackson, Carlton. “Grey, Zane.” In American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Vol. 9. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Detailed essay about Grey’s personal life.Nesbitt, John D. “Grey, Zane.” In Twentieth Century Western Writers, edited by James Vinson. Detroit: Gale, 1982. Lists Grey’s novels with original American and English publishers. Essay critiques several novels’ strengths and weaknesses.Pauly, Thomas H. Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005. The first full-length biography of Grey, essential for research into the man and his work.
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