Self-respecting guys don’t read Westerns. In fact, unless you look carefully, no one seems to read them. The cowboy novel rates lower even than pornography in the scale of cultural visibility. W.H. Smith (true to their origins: they won a monopoly at railway stations in 1848 in return for an undertaking to purify the nation’s reading matter) recently banished their modest selection of top-shelf skin magazines. If, by some perverse fatwa, Westerns were similarly proscribed, no action would be required by our moral guardians. W.H. Smith have sections devoted to Horror, Romance, War, Teen Fiction and Science Fiction – but Westerns, as the cowpoke would put it, are scarcer than hen’s teeth.
Cultural prejudice against the genre extends to the medium which it has made peculiarly its own. It has been reckoned that 90 per cent of American films dealing with American historical themes are Westerns. Many costume dramas have won Academy Awards since they were set up in 1927; no true Western had won an Oscar for Best Picture until Unforgiven in 1992. (Less momentously, perhaps, Unforgiven was the first and I believe still the only Western to be written about in the LRB.) And, to be picky about it, Eastwood’s film was for most of its narrative less Western than anti-Western – an exercise in the subversion of the clichés, conventions, stock situations, idiom and stereotypes built up since the Great Train Robbery exploded on the screen in 1903.
Zane Grey, who holds the dubious title of ‘Greatest Western novelist’, was, for a season, the most popular writer in the English-speaking world. At his zenith, his American sales were reckoned to be second only to those of the Bible. He was the only novelist, in the years 1915-30, to get Western titles into the American annual bestseller lists. No one knows the exact figure, but his total lifetime and posthumous sales are calculated at around 250 million copies, which puts him in the stratosphere with Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner.
What can be precisely reckoned is that more films – 108 – have been made of Zane Grey’s 58 stories than of any other novelist’s work. As the disparity implies, many of Grey’s stories were filmed two and three times over in the Twenties and early Thirties (often frugally recycling location and chase footage). None of the 108 film adaptations survives as a work of artistic distinction, with the possible exception of Western Union (1941), one of Fritz Lang’s rare forays into the genre. Otherwise the Zane Grey ciné-oeuvre is a wasteland. And if any single factor contributed to the author’s cultural extinction, it was the gold-rush exploitation of his work in the interwar years. His sales slumped in the Thirties with the over-exposure of his wares in Hollywood’s window.
Zane Grey was born in 1872 as ‘Pearl Gray’ – a name which he later changed for the same reasons that Marion Morrison became ‘Duke’ John Wayne and Izzy Demsky became Kirk Douglas. There was another motive. Grey’s birthplace was Zanesville in Ohio – a town founded by and named after his grandfather. Some of his early works, before he found a richer vein further west, piously celebrate the era of pioneer settlement in the Ohio Valley. Those glory days in which Grey’s ancestors had played their part were passing, but still remembered, when Pearl came on the scene. His father was a dentist. A gifted athlete, Zane won a baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. He might have become a professional sportsman but, graduating in 1896 with a degree in dentistry, sensibly decided to follow the paternal path to prosperity in the mouths of his fellow citizens.
Grey set up in practice in New York in 1898, but his career took a new turn with his marriage in 1905 to Lina (‘Dolly’) Roth, a clever and energetic woman who had majored in English at Hunter College. Dolly persuaded her husband to give up dentistry for authorship and shrewdly proposed that he apply himself to Western themes. This was the period when the popularity of Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) was at its zenith, boosted by the New York stage adaptation, starring Dustin Farnum.
Grey took over Wister’s notion that the West was ‘the great playground of young men’ and nature’s chosen testing ground for the American race, where those fittest to survive and carry American civilisation forward would emerge. As is often noted, Wister’s conception of the cow-puncher (‘the last romantic figure upon our soil’, as he called him) is a version of Scott’s medieval knight. Like Wister, Grey would use his novels to endorse what he called ‘the great virtues’: manliness, chivalry, bravery.
Grey also took over from Wister what was to be the main liability of the Western as a literary form, its ingrained prudishness. The most famous words in the novel, play and film (1929 and 1946) versions of The Virginian – ‘when you call me that, smile’ – are rendered mysterious by the fact that in none of them is ‘that’ (presumably ‘son of a bitch’) specified. In deference to his patron, Theodore Roosevelt, Wister elsewhere toned down a description of a horse having its eye gouged out by the sadistic Balaam. For his part, Grey patented the ludicrous practice of the hero not killing his opponent, but shooting his gun out of his hand (a convention hilariously spoofed by Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles).
Wister was Grey’s main quarry. But The Virginian (like the proto-Westerns of Harte and Twain) had principally targeted a smallish, middle-class readership. The Western, as democratised by Grey, was to find its rootage in the literate, but unliterary, masses. This new constituency had already been identified and was beginning to be exploited. In 1904, B(ertha) M(uzzy) Bower began serialising her ‘Chip of the Flying U’ series in Street & Smith’s Popular Magazine. In 1907, Clarence E. Mulford began a magazine series loosely chronicling the ‘Bar-20 Crew’, prominent among whom was the cow-puncher Hopalong Cassidy. ‘Hopalong’ attained folk-hero status in the following decades and stories featuring him were turned out in large numbers until the Forties. They were aided by films (and in the Forties and Fifties a TV series) starring William Boyd – a star who in the geriatric last stages of his career had barely a hop left in him.
At the crucial stage of Zane Grey’s career, 1905-8, Lina took charge as her husband’s literary agent, editor and financial patron. Using his wife’s savings, Grey gave up dentistry and moved to a cottage in rural Pennsylvania to concentrate on his writing. He made his first momentous trip to Arizona in 1907 and produced a memoir of the experience, The Last of the Plainsmen (1908). Fame was still years ahead, but already evident is Grey’s main strength as a writer, his regional authenticity (unlike, for example, Jack Schaefer, who wrote Shane never having been further west than Cleveland).
After some false starts in juvenile fiction Grey moved on to Westerns for adults with The Heritage of the Desert (1910), first published as a serial in the Popular Magazine (this apprenticeship in weekly and monthly periodicals, with their instalment climaxes, was to have a lastingly deleterious effect on Grey’s narratives, which always read jerkily in book form). The hero of The Heritage of the Desert, Jack Hare, is an Easterner, a ‘lunger’, who has come west to recover from tuberculosis. The plot hinges on Zane Grey’s favourite mechanism, the maiden in bondage. The part-Navajo heroine Mescal is abducted by polygamous Mormons and rescued by the hero, restored to manly health by the clean Western air. Mormons figure prominently in Grey’s early fiction, typically as sexually predatory villains. Hollywood, chronically nervous of affronting powerful minorities (Native Americans don’t qualify) and well aware that there are movie-theatres in Salt Lake City, routinely substituted Redskins or Mexicans (‘Greasers’, as Grey calls them, with a contemptuousness which has not worn well).
Grey hit the jackpot with Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), the first of his chart-topping titles. As often happens with an innovative work, he had difficulty finding a publisher. The book was eventually taken by the New York firm Harper, after the commissioning editor consulted his wife on the matter (it would be interesting to know if she ever met Dolly Grey). Riders of the Purple Sage has one of the best, and most imitated, openings in Western fiction. The narrative is set in 1871-2 (the time of the author’s birth) and as usual features a maiden in bondage. Jane Withersteen is heiress to a vast ranch among the purple sage of the Utah-Arizona border. She is a Mormon (somewhat lukewarm, it turns out) and is under siege from the lecherous and covetous ‘Elder’ Tull, who wants to make her one of his harem of wives. The action opens with a young ‘rider’ (a cow-puncher) about to be whipped by Tull, for the offence of being liked by Jane (a relatively mild punishment: Mormons, it is hinted, routinely castrate ‘Gentiles’ who hang around their women). Enter a lone rider, dressed in black, packing two black Colt pistols by his side. His name is ‘Lassiter’. The stranger faces down Tull and his men and rescues Bern Venters from the Mormon lash.
With Lassiter an archetype was born: the lone-wolf cowboy and gunman searching for something that he may never find (in this case, an abducted sister), middle-aged, world-weary but alert, hard and lean as whipcord, a man of few words, invincible in gunplay, and a dispenser of Solomonic justice. As portrayed first by Tom Mix, then by Randolph Scott, the Lassiter type descends directly to Clint Eastwood. The last scene in Unforgiven (even down to the whipping) is the first scene of Riders of the Purple Sage. All that’s been added is a sadism which would have appalled Grey.
It was Grey’s good fortune to have coincided with the rise of Hollywood – an industry which had based itself for copyright reasons in the West, with easy access to unspoiled locations and lots of horses. Hollywood’s Westerns created an appetite for Grey’s stories and his stories in turn fed Hollywood’s voracious needs. Over the decade 1915-24, Zane Grey dominated the American bestseller lists and became a rich man. In between dashing off stories (the most onerous aspect of his lifestyle) he devoted himself to big-game hunting, ocean fishing, travel and exploration. He based himself on Catalina, the island (now a nature reserve) off the Southern California coast, handily close to Hollywood. He also had a mansion in Altadena and hunting lodges in Arizona and Oregon.
Phenomenal though his earnings were, it seems that he ran through them as quickly as they poured in. By the mid-Thirties, his popularity had waned (his work, in addition to being over-exposed, did not lend itself to the ‘singing cowboy’ style associated with new stars like Gene Autry). Ignoring cardiac symptoms, he continued to over-exert himself. The heart, Grey maintained, was only a muscle and needed exercise. He was wrong and died of a heart attack in 1939. His last words were, reportedly: ‘Don’t ever leave me, Dolly!’ The Zane Grey estate, under the watchful eye of the author’s son, Dr Loren Grey, has kept intrusive biographers at bay and assiduously cultivates the literary property. Since Grey’s death, some twenty-five new titles have been released – excavated, it is said, from the author’s literary remains.
Within the confines of the genre, Grey’s bestselling novels are refreshingly diverse. Lone Star Ranger (1915) features Buck Duane, ‘the last of the gunfighters’, on the run from the Texas Rangers. Wildfire (1917) is the first of Grey’s ‘horse’ novels (the narrative is named after a majestic stallion). The UP Trail (1918) tells the story of the Union Pacific Railroad, as it crossed the West in the last decades of the 19th century. Desert of Wheat (1919) is set in the wheat-growing state of Washington, in the North-West. The action takes place in 1917 and the novel expresses Grey’s loathing of trade unionism, particularly the ‘Wobblies’. Westerns are traditionally conservative in their political philosophy (one can draw fanciful conclusions from the fact that Hitler was addicted to the ersatz Westerns of Kurt May, and even as President of the US, Ronald Reagan looked as if he’d just walked off the Death Valley set). The Man of the Forest (1921) is one of the more ‘scenic’ of Grey’s novels, set in the White Mountains of Arizona. The Mysterious Rider (1921) is a lyrical reworking of the Perdita theme, set in Colorado. The heavily researched To the Last Man (1922) deals with the Graham-Tewksbury feud in Texas and Arizona. The Wanderer of the Wasteland (1923) is a long and ambitious reworking of the Cain and Abel myth set, as the title implies, in the desert. The Call of the Canyon (1924) pits the values of the effete East against the rugged West. Whatever his limitations, Grey cannot be said to have lacked regional range.
What, then, was his achievement, beyond making a good living for himself and subsidising some conspicuously expensive hobbies? Above all, he was a great educator, giving millions of city-bound Eastern readers, for whom he mainly catered, a sense of the grand vastness of an America they would never visit. Novels could perform this function even more effectively than films. It was impossible, for instance, for Hollywood to re-create the great buffalo stampedes which form the centrepiece of The Thundering Herd (1925), since – as the novel vividly chronicles – those herds were exterminated in the 1870s. Hollywood – as in Red River – has to make do with that poor substitute, the cattle stampede.
His main technical achievement was to have found a way past the dead ends represented by the primitive dime novel, on the one side, and Wisterian gentility, on the other. He was essentially a transitional figure, a John the Baptist to better and intrinsically more interesting writers of Westerns, who could not have done what they did had he not shown the way: Max Brand (penname of Frederick Faust – ‘the Jewish cowboy’, as he called himself). Ernest Haycox, T.T. Flynn, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, T.V. Olsen. (Pieces by these authors are included in Jon Tuska’s 1995 collection, The Western Story: A Chronological Treasury.) Good as the best works of these writers are, and despite the recent successes of ‘literary’ writers who have used the genre (notably Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy), the Western still awaits its Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, or even its Georgette Heyer: that is, the writer capable of lifting its clichés into art. Elmore Leonard might have done it, had he not decided to switch to crime thrillers.