"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

The color purple

Riders of the Purple Sage (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1912) is probably the most famous frontier tale of them all. It has achieved a wider audience than even Wister's The Virginian and for many people stands as the Western novel.
The most famous Western novel of them all
Zane Grey

Pearl Zane Gray (1872 – 1939) was born in Zanesville, Ohio, a city founded by his great-grandfather Ebenezer Zane. Soon after his birth his father, a dentist, changed the name to Grey. As a boy, Pearl (he adopted the second name Zane later) loved baseball and fishing, and was an avid reader of James Fenimore Cooper and dime novels. He wrote his first story, Jim of the Cave, when he was fifteen. His father disapproved, tore it to shreds and beat him. The boy extracted teeth as his father’s assistant until the state regulators intervened. Zane went to the University of Pennsylvania to study dentistry on a baseball scholarship but was only an average student at best. He started writing poetry. He was shy and teetotal.
He was a fine pitcher and hitter
After graduating, Grey established his dental practice in New York City under the name of Dr. Zane Grey in 1896. In 1905, he married Lina Roth, better known as "Dolly". He was often unfaithful to Dolly and he suffered all his life from depression, anger and mood swings. He wrote: “A hyena lying in ambush—that is my black spell! I conquered one mood only to fall prey to the next...I wandered about like a lost soul or a man who was conscious of imminent death."

Grey’s first published work was Betty Zane (1903). His style was often poor and his grammar inadequate, and Dolly did much proofreading and correcting. Grey read Owen Wister’s 1902 Western novel The Virginian and studied its style and structure in detail. He started traveling in the West, taking photographs and making detailed notes. "Surely, of all the gifts that have come to me from contact with the West, this one of sheer love of wildness, beauty, color, grandeur, has been the greatest, the most significant for my work.” Grey’s first Western, The Heritage of the Desert, was written in four months in 1910. It sold very well.
Best-seller. Still.
Riders of the Purple Sage was published in 1912. It was a huge best-seller and made Grey’s name.

The story

You probably know the story. In fact, though, there are two parallel stories (though unlike parallel lines, they occasionally intersect): everyone thinks of Riders as the tale of the mysterious gun-man in black, Lassiter, who comes into the life of beautiful cattle rancher Jane Withersteen, champions her cause and steals her heart. But in fact a greater part of the book is devoted to the other story – how Jane’s rider (or cowboy) Bern Venters shoots the famous ‘masked rider’, sidekick of rustler Oldring, and discovers he has shot a girl. He nurses her back to health in a hidden cañon, falls in love with her and they eventually live happily ever after.

The style

Today, quite frankly, much of this makes pretty difficult reading. A century on from publication, the style is melodramatic (Victoria may have been dead but Victorian melodrama wasn’t), prolix and sentimental to a degree hardly acceptable to modern readers. It’s what you might call purple sage prose. He certainly loves the color purple and the word appears on many of the pages, used to describe the sage, mountains, land, sky and anything else to which might be attributed color. I must say, I have traveled quite extensively around southern Utah and northern Arizona and Nevada and I didn't see much purple. The predominant colors seemed to be gray and orange. Sage is only purple when it blooms anyway. But I guess Riders of the Gray Sage wouldn't have been all that romantic.

Dashes and exclamation points pepper the page as characters breathlessly open their hearts and spill out their emotions. Bess:

"I was happy – I shall be very happy. Oh, you’re so good that – that it kills me! If I think, I can’t believe it. I grow sick with wondering why. I’m only a – let me say it – a lost, nameless girl of the rustlers. Oldring’s girl, they called me. That you should save me – be so good and kind – want to make me happy – why, it’s beyond belief."

And so on, almost ad infinitum. It’s overwrought and these days rather indigestible.

When his rough Westerners speak, Grey’s reading of Wister becomes regrettably apparent for they sound hokey and the vernacular is forced:

"I jest saw about all of it, Miss Withersteen, an’ I’ll be glad to tell you if you’ll only hev patience with me,” said Judkins earnestly. “You see, I’ve been pecooliarly interested, an’ nat’rully I’m some excited. An’ I talk a lot thet mebbe ain’t necessary, but I can’t help thet".

Worst of all is the baby talk of the child Fay.

“Muvver sended for oo,” cried Fay, as Jane kissed her, “an’ oo never tome.”

People descry things rather than notice them and inversion is overused (“No unusual circumstance was it for Oldring and some of his men to visit Cottonwoods in the broad light of day.”)

Well, it was 1912 and we mustn’t judge too harshly.

The advantage, stylistically, is that (thanks to Dolly and the Harper editors) the English is correct and clear. Grey could handle, for example, the difference between the verbs lay and lie, or raise and rise, which many modern American writers can’t, and he doesn’t use the preposition like as a replacement for the conjunction as, as many modern writers and speakers do (or like many writers do, to put it in the modern parlance).

Grey is uncompromising in his anti-Mormonism. The Mormons are very clearly the bad guys. Under the hypocritical cover of their religion, they steal, spy, covet, lust, kidnap and kill. Sometimes all on the same day. The Elder Tull and the Bishop Dyer, in particular, are very nasty and, in the best Western tradition, deserve the come-uppance that they will inevitably get under the guns of the good guys.

Movie versions of the book were mealy-mouthed about this and most excised the Mormon element of the story. The 1990s TV version with Ed Harris, for example, carefully avoids even the word Mormon, in the most PC way.

When Zane Grey was growing up, the Mormons, to many people, were anti-American. The Utah War was a relatively recent memory. Theocracy and polygamy were considered unconstitutional, immoral and essentially unAmerican. In addition, Grey had a faintly anti-clerical side and held broadly pantheistic beliefs. Utah Mormons made suitable opponents for decent, brave, simple American Westerners to combat.

Lassiter is described as “a hater and killer of Mormons”. He has devoted his life to avenging the corruption and abduction of his sister Millie by the sect. The Mormons have blinded his horse. The shooting of Dyer, though we only hear about it at one remove, described by Judkins, is a gripping moment when the evil hypocrite (whom Lassiter refers to as "the fat party") gets shot full of holes in his courthouse. “Proselyter,” Lassiter admonishes him as the Bishop clutches the bullet holes in his body in a vain attempt to stanch the blood, “I reckon you’d better call quick on thet God who reveals Hisself to you on earth, because He won’t be visitin’ the place you’re goin’ to!”

Black and white

However, the non-Mormons are pure. The ‘Gentiles', as they are called, are all honest, decent upright people and the riders are brave and noble. The child Fay is absolutely angelic. Bess is virginal – and I love the way that she and Bern have separate caves in the hidden valley!

There is no room for wishy-washiness (or subtlety) here. The bad guys are bad all the way through and the good ones close to perfect. Jane is in between, it is true, because she is a Mormon but good. But she progresses to goodness as she gradually leaves Mormonism behind.

A sequel to Riders of the Purple Sage, which tells of what happened to Jane and Lassiter and their adopted daughter Fay, was published in 1915 with the title The Rainbow Trail.

Impact on the Western

The impact of Riders of the Purple Sage on the Western genre was immense. It is impossible to imagine the movie Shane (or its source novel) for example, without reference to Riders. The lone, mysterious gunman (often dressed in black) riding in from nowhere and righting the wrongs in a community became a standard point of reference. Hondo is Lassiter - with Apaches instead of Mormons.

The glorification of western landscape is another feature. Grey translated his annotated travels and love of the outdoors into glowing (at times cloying) descriptions of the cañons, valleys and mountains of the beautifully wild West. You sense that a writer like Louis L’Amour was greatly influenced by Grey (though far more economical in his writing). Western movies too reveled in settings. We think in particular of John Ford and Monument Valley (also in southern Utah, by the way) but so many Westerns cared passionately about landscape, and the visual, photographic aspect of such movies is often fundamental. Have a look at Escape from Fort Bravo, Pale Rider (shot by Surtees père and fils respectively) or Silverado, just as a few examples of many, and you will see what I mean.
Mix unusually serious as Lassiter
The importance of the horse, also, is a seminal Riders theme. Jane’s thoroughbreds and the skill of the riders are written about glowingly. The race between Bern on Wrangle pursuing jockey Jerry Carn leaping at full gallop between the blacks Night and Black Star as they hurtle across the sage is one of the genuinely thrilling parts of the book. Actually, these mounts seem to have overdrive, or a fifth gear: I always thought the gait of a horse could be a walk, trot, canter or gallop. But the way Grey describes it, a run comes after a gallop and is even faster. When Jane presents the blacks to Bern and Bess to ride away to happiness on, it is a symbol of her giving up the past and her Mormon-inherited wealth and finding true love with Lassiter.

Particular elements of the story were taken up and used by the future Western. Cattle stampedes, of course, became a staple of the Western movie. Water rights, horse stealing and the discovery of gold all feature largely. In Chapter V the rustlers ride into their hidden lair through a waterfall. Watchers of Johnny Guitar or Randy Rides Alone will recognize that!

Riders of the Purple Sage was made into a movie five times. There was a silent starring William Farnum in 1918 (only six years after publication of the novel) and another, ‘lighter’ silent with Tom Mix in 1925. The first talkie version was in 1931, starring George O’Brien, and ten years later George Montgomery led another. A TV movie starring Ed Harris came out in 1996.
Talkie version
It is interesting that in all cases the headline star played Lassiter. He has emerged clearly as the hero of the tale. Sometimes Bern Venters (who takes up far more pages than Grey’s Lassiter) hardly gets a look in. In the various movies he was billed second, eighth, fifth, ninth and third.

It does make a good movie. Long novels have to be radically slimmed down for the screen but luckily Riders had pages and pages of soppy love and descriptions of nature that could be immediately discarded, and the novel’s action, which is genuinely good, would remain for the film.
Ed Harris as Lassiter
I have read Riders of the Purple Sage twice, once years ago and a re-read before writing this review, but I must say I am unlikely to read it again. It’s pretty heavy going, a lot of it.

But I’d watch a movie version again. The Ed Harris one is the best so far.

Mormons have in fact received various treatments at the hands of Hollywood. For example, in John Ford’s underrated Wagonmaster in 1950 Mormons were cheery wagon-trainers led by Ward Bond who stopped every three miles for a folksy dance. In 1983 there was a very pro-Mormon film, Savage Journey, in which the LDS were the good guys persecuted by the Gentiles, and in September Dawn in 2007 the Mormons were brutal bigots led by Jon Voight and Terence Stamp who massacred innocent settlers. Both of the latter two movies, however, were bad. Dean Jagger was Brigham Young in the Henry Hathaway-directed 1940 picture. There may have been others films about Mormons. 

The novel Riders of the Purple Sage is in the public domain, by the way, and if you want to read it you can get it at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1300/1300-h/1300-h.htm



  1. Excellent post (though, personally, I think the novel is a corker and loved every word of it). It is, perhaps, the most significant novel in the development of the genre.

    1. It's certainly the best selling and probably most famous Western novel, and highly signicicant in the sense of influential on the genre (Max Brand, Louis L'Amour and others were clearly admirers), though myself I would not say it was the the best!

  2. The novel's attitude toward Mormons reminds me of Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet--pretty typical for the 1890-1919 period. In the Ed Harris remake, though, the bad guys are generic religious fanatics, not specifically Mormons. Anyway, I enjoy your reviews of western literature generally. Hard to find informed commentary on a genre that generally doesn't enjoy the popularity it once did.

    1. Yes, the genre seems to have fallen a bit out of favor, though of course pulp paperback Westerns are still to be found! Richard Etulain draws a distinction between "western novels" and "the Western", the former being superior from a literary p.o.v. and the latter, a descendant of the dime novel, more sensational and generic. If you accept this, you can say that the western novel is alive and well - Larry McMurtry, for example, in recent times.

  3. Riders of the Purple Sage was about the abuse of power in organized religion, something Zane Grey fervently believed. Mormons would call the villain's behavior unrighteous dominion and condemn the bad guys. However, Grey wrote often about Mormons and for every bad Mormon, there was a good one. In Riders, for example, the heroine Jane was the best kind of Mormon you can find. To understand Riders, you need to read the entire Mormon Trilogy involving Heritage of the Desert, Riders of the Purple Sage and Rainbow Trail. In the first you see Grey treating Mormonism kindly showing his belief that religion can be a powerful tool for the good. Riders is about the abuse of power in organized religion. The Rainbow Trail shows Grey's own views of Mormonism changing through the years and his belief that it was evolving into a positive new religion without polygamy which is what ultimately happened. I love a quote from this last novel something to the effect of "well, at least Mormons marry their concubines." Interesting give that Grey himself traveled with a veritable harem of your women. consider joining Zane Grey's West Socieety at zgws,irg or go to the Society's Facebook page.

    1. Thank you for this interesting comment.
      I haven't read Heritage of the Desert or The Rainbow Trail. I'm not sure I can face them, honestly! I find Grey pretty hard work.
      But I'll take your word for it that they are more positive on Mormonism.

  4. I just finished ROTPS, and to be honest, I was relieved when it was over. It's a good yarn, but the writing style was tough to get through. The overdramatization, the copious use of exclamation marks, and (for me) the insanely frequent use of the word "sage" made this a difficult book to get through. Ah reckon that if you averaged it all out, the word "sage" appears at least once on every page. Not to mention the color purple and Grey's fondness for "heaving breasts". I'm glad I read this book, and I do recognize it a classic of the western genre, but if I was alive in 1912 I might have enjoyed it more.