Zane Grey. They might not have read a Zane Grey western, or read any western for that matter! But, it is hard to imagine any reader of books, any kind of books, not knowing of the western author Zane Grey. How? How would they know? After all, he did die of heart failure in 1939.
Well, perhaps it is the odd first name of “Zane?” (Though his actual first name was “Pearl”!) Perhaps, it is commonly thought that Zane Grey wrote the first “big” western? (Which he didn’t, that belongs to Owen Wister’s 1902 The Virginian.”) Perhaps people know of him because – from 1915 to 1924 a Zane Grey book was in the top ten best seller list every year except for 1916, but that was so long ago! Perhaps they know of him because he was so prolific? Zane Grey produced a total of 89 books. These included 56 novels set in the West, one book in the East, three Ohio River-country books, two novelettes, three collections of short stories, two hunting books, six juvenile books, two books of baseball, and eight books on fishing. It’s possible they know him because his books and stories have spawned some 100 movies and his name led the once popular TV series Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater in the 1950s and early 1960s. After all, the TV show is still run, all 149 episodes, here and there, on cable TV nostalgia channels and many eventual big stars rode through these episodes. Did you know there was actually an opera on “Riders?” No, not just a “horse opera,” but a complete serious, song fest, musical opera-opera! (See below link and you MUST watch the trailer!)
Yes, all that will keep an author’s name “alive,” Still, one might argue that all those publications and shows were ages ago (except the opera). Or…or, is it perhaps…readers of all books recall the name of Zane Grey simple because he wrote…Riders of the Purple Sage? Translated into 20 languages. “Riders” was considered by scholars to have played a significant role in shaping the formula of the popular Western genre.
“Riders” was first published by Harper & Collins in 1912. I read it while in the Army overseas in the 1970s. I felt reading it was a rite of a passage as I was, you might say, addicted to Western lore. The writing style of all authors was different in that era, a bit dense compared to the 70s and today. But I found it inspiring, (though I was also always thrown by “the blind horse” thing – you’ll have to read the book to get the pun). The book jumped western literary fences beyond the “gunfight-in-the-saloon-over-a-card-game,” motif, and it took on various topics like religion. Marianne Wiggins wrote in Book Forum, “Riders is a love story (several love stories, actually), bursting with pre-Freudian, eroticism. No wonder it sold like hotcakes.” Okay! But for me, early on, it influenced me to think of and write westerns with a much broader canvas in time, place and culture.
“Riders” takes place in Southern Utah canyon country, 1871 with the influx of Mormon settlers from 1847 to 1857 serving as a backdrop for the plot. The tale is really about four main characters, Elder Tull, Bern Venters, Jane Withersteen, and Jim Lassiter. Jane Withersteen, is a Mormon. Elder Tull finds her attractive and wealthy. Elder Tull is a classic polygamist with two wives already, wishes to have Jane for a third wife, along with her estate. Jane associates with “gentiles” (non-Mormons), such as a little girl named Fay Larkin, a man she’s hired named Bern Venters. And of significance, she consorts with another hired man named…Lassiter. The story involves cattle-rustling, horse-theft, kidnapping and gunfights. GradeSaver review stated, “Rather than creating a simple book that ended with a moral story like that of a fairy tale, the author wrote a lengthy story that twists and turns along various plot shifts and is so complex it actually shifts into two separate narratives towards the end.”
Lassiter is a gunfighter on a mysterious mission which brings him to the locale of Cottonwoods and Miss Withersteen. Jim Lassiter’s been roaming town to town in search for the man who drove his sister to suicide. This marked the appearance of an important, western personality. The name Lassiter. Reviewer and critic Marian Kester has concluded that “The hero Lassiter, is clearly the prototype for hundreds of novelistic and cinematic imitators.” Various reviewers of western history have called him, an “immortal hero,” and “a legend.” One need only search on the term “Lassiter, Westerns” and see the genetic effects. I am not sure all the offspring Lassiter stories relate directly back to the “Rider’s” original character. Also interestingly and a bit lost in time, Zane Grey’s son, Loren Grey, or “Loren Zane Grey” wrote several sequel Lassiter books, I believe to be 12 books in total best I could find, (see link with books and covers below), and suspected to be helped by ghostwriters?
Of course, such success leads to movies. The book has been adopted to film 5 times. The first film was a silent film on up to a 1996 TV movie. If you are counting shells for your movie revolver, here’s a rundown-
RPS (1918), starring William Farnum and Mary Mersch
RPS (1925), starring Tom Mix and Mabel Ballin
RPS (1931), starring George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill
RPS (1941), starring George Montgomery and Mary Howard
RPS (1996), starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan
The poster for the 1996 version is at the very top. Reviewers seemed to like the 1996 TV movie best of all, with praise for the actors, music, cinematography and screenplay sticking with the original book. Decades had past between my reading of the book and watching the movie, but I thought the movie was well-worth watching.
But we cannot finish the subject without mentioning the opera! “Riders of the Purple Sage is performed by seven principal singers, a chorus of 16 men, seven supernumeraries, 53 musicians, and one conductor. Those 84 performers are backed by a small army of stage hands, props and make up artists, artisans from the costume and scenic shops…as well as the artistic team, designers, coaches, and staff it takes to mount a new work. Arizona Opera is a 46 year-old opera company that took a shot at adding its voice to the 500 year-old art form. The risk was immense and the reviews were unanimous. Audiences responded passionately to a new work in English about the American frontier.” You simply have to watch the below video of a trailer of the opera. Do not miss it!
- Folks! Please look at this opera page with a must-see trailer. Click here
- Interesting obituary of the son Loren. Click here
- Loren Grey’s subsequent Lassiter book series & covers in order Click here
- The Zane Grey Life Story Click here
- Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater, click here