Before Zane Grey was a pulp-Western superstar, he was a dentist, and before he was a dentist he was a pretty fair ballplayer—good enough to turn down several professional offers in order to come to Penn on what amounted to a baseball scholarship. His name was Pearl Zane Gray back then (he would later change the spelling to Grey), and his live arm and strong bat lustered his wobbly career as a dental student.

The Young Pitcher, one of several baseball books he churned out, is highly autobiographical—the potato-pitching scene really happened—and undoubtedly the best-selling novel ever set on the Penn campus, thinly disguised though it was. It paints a lively portrait of fin de siècle Penn, and of baseball in its raw, still-evolving youth. (Aficionados of the game today would get a kick out of such pitching terms as “jump ball,” “drop ball,” and “in curve.”)

It is not a prose masterpiece; nothing that Zane Grey wrote was. But it’s bursting with Horatio Alger pluck, befitting a man who started with nothing and, through hard work, a little luck, and a passion for his subject matter became the most commercially successful writer of his era.

By the time The Young Pitcher was published in 1911, Grey had achieved enough success that he could drop dentistry, which he had been reluctantly practicing in Manhattan. He was living in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware River, where he spent his days writing and fishing—not necessarily in that order. The year before, he had published The Heritage of the Desert, his first Western novel, whose hero is a consumptive Easterner who has headed west in search of a new life and a better climate for his TB. (One wonders if he had in mind the story of his fellow Philadelphia-trained dentist, Doc Holliday [see sidebar].)

The Heritage of the Desert would tap a rich vein in the American psyche, and the novel he was already working on, Riders of the Purple Sage, would hit a mother lode. And they were just the start. Between 1910 and 1921, eight of Grey’s books sold more than 700,000 copies apiece. By the time he died in 1939, he had written some 90 books, two-thirds of them Westerns, and the manuscripts kept trickling out of his estate long after his death. (His George Washington, Frontiersman, wasn’t published until 1994.) Over the years his books have sold tens of millions of copies in two dozen languages. And they still sell. An astonishing 110 movies have been made from his novels, while Zane Grey Theatre, hosted by Dick Powell, brought Grey’s spirit to prime-time from 1956-1962.

Yet his success as a writer came in spite of a glaring lack of craft.

“[A]lmost any passage in any one of Zane Grey’s books makes it cruelly obvious that the man failed to master even the most basic unit of his craft: the prose sentence,” writes Larry McMurtry in an essay titled “Pulpmaster.” “It’s not evident from the prose that Zane Grey even noticed sentences—he was scribbling them off too fast …” Try this, from The Heritage of the Desert:

For an instant Hare’s brain reeled, and Mescal’s broken murmurings were meaningless. Then his faculties grew steady and acute; he held the girl as if he intended never to let her go. Mescal clung to him with a wildness that gave him anxiety for her reason; there was something almost fierce in the tension of her arms, in the blind groping for his face.

“Mescal! It’s Jack, safe and well,” he said. “Let me look at you.”

At the sound of his voice all her rigid strength changed to a yielding weakness …

But if it’s easy to snicker at him for being a Writer of the Purple Prose, it’s also missing the point. The fact that his “cactus opera” (to borrow The New Yorker’s phrase) often erupts in breathless bursts of melodrama doesn’t mean it has no merit; just that its merits are somewhat artless. Grey was an outdoorsman, not a craftsman; he seldom bothered to rework his rough drafts, preferring to let his wife, Dolly, take care of that unpleasantness while he went off and fished. (After he and his family moved to California, he became one of the world’s great sport-fishermen, sailing around the globe and setting records for everything from bluefin tuna to tiger shark.) When Dolly didn’t make-over his work, editors often rejected it.

For all his lack of craft, Grey seems to have been in touch with something primal—a sort of arch-storyteller whose soap-operatic tales resonated with the public in a way that more sophisticated literature wouldn’t. He was also wildly in love with his subject matter, and had the constitution and the desire to channel rivers of words—more than nine million of them, by one estimate—onto the page. Perhaps, as Larry McMurtry suggests, “it will soon be discovered that there is even a gene for pulp fiction—or, if not a whole gene, at least an errant particle that induces in its victims a kind of lifelong, low-grade logorrhea.”

The same defiant energies that made Pearl Gray take on bullying sophomores would lead Zane Grey to imagine the mythic West in book after book after book. His timing was perfect. Another Pennsylvanian, Owen Wister, had already helped create that mythos in The Virginian, published in 1902. Grey seized it and galloped with it across the plains, deserts, and mountains of the West.

“Novels by Zane Grey crystallized a set of symbols for the American West in the minds of his millions of readers,” wrote Kevin S. Blake in a Geographical Review essay titled “Zane Grey and Images of the American West.” “He infused the frontier myth with vivid imagery of a sublime and beautiful landscape inhabited by heroic cowboys, deadly gunmen, polygamous Mormons, and noble Indians. He also localized the myth in and along the southern margin of the Colorado Plateau, so that this landscape became the quintessential West. By extending his version into the 1930s, Grey encouraged the belief that the Wild West persisted well into the twentieth century.”

His effect on the nation’s self-image can be gleaned from a 1952 “Talk of the Town” item in The New Yorker. The State Department had “just asked Mrs. Grey’s permission to translate ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’ into Annamese,” the magazine noted, “so that it can be distributed in Indo-China for propaganda purposes.”

page 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 02/27/04

Dentist of the Purple Sage
By Samuel Hughes
Illustration by David Hollenbach

page 1 > 2 > 3 > 4