BLOG #13, SERIES #3
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB
ZANE GREY’S WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND
March 28, 2012
Ordinarily, I will not plan to feature a given author more than once a year, or in close proximity to a previous listing, but for a very special reason I am making an exception for April’s Book of the Month. The obvious reason is last week’s blog on Death Valley National Park. You may remember that our January book was Zane Grey’s Heritage of the Desert—(the December 28, 2011 blog). But since Grey’s greatest desert novel—perhaps the greatest desert novel ever written—was set in California’s Death Valley, the coincidence was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
Immediately after the close of World War I (contemporaries called it simply “The Great War”), Zane Grey assumed the role of a desert rat himself as he immersed himself into the desert world so that his next novel might ring true. From my Master Chronology I have documented this period according to locale (based on letter postmarks and diary entries):
January 1, 1919 Zane Grey in Palm Springs, California
January 3, 1919 Exploring desert between Chuckwalla and Chocolate Mountains
January 4, 1919 In vicinity of Yuma, Arizona
January 5, 1919 Exploring Picture Canyon, Mecca, Brawley, El Centro, and Holtville, California
January 6, 1919 In sand dune waste between El Centro and Yuma
January 7, 1919 Meets famed frontiersman, Charlie Meadows
January 8, 1919 Yuma Midland, in vicinity of Picacho, for some time
February 23 – mid March, 1919 Exploring California/Arizona desert country
March 21, 1919 Train to Death Valley Junction
March 22, 1919 Travel from Junction to Death Valley
March 23-26, 1919 Walking across Death Valley with a desert wanderer
March 27-28, 1919 Walks 12 of the 34 miles back to Death Valley Junction
Grey and his wife Dolly had first fallen in love with the Southwest desert country during their 1906 honeymoon. Beginning in 1907, Grey, in expedition after expedition, both on foot and horseback, internalized what was still frontier country. This is why Wanderer had such a long fuse to it.
In my 1975 Vanderbilt doctoral dissertation, I summed up the significance of Wanderer of the Wasteland in these words:
Although Wanderer of the Wasteland had been written in 1919, it was not published until 1923 (eighth on the 1923 best seller list). Wanderer of the Wasteland is one of Grey’s finest desert epics. The protagonist, Adam Larey, (alias Wansfell, The Eagle, Tanquitch) is a heroic super-human on the scale of Michelangelo’s “David.” In terms of emotional drain, the book probably took more out of Grey than anything else he ever wrote. The following entries come from his diaries: January 19, 1919. “Today after years of plan [sic], and months of thought, and weeks of travel, reading, I began the novel that I have determined to be great.” January 26. “Dolly read the first chapter, and her praise made me exultant and happy, and full of inspiration.” February 13. “I feel that I can write best in the silence and solitude of the night, when everyone has retired. There is a bigness, a glory about the approach of the Wasteland Wanderer novel . . . It grows upon me day by day.” March 1. “Finished the seventh chapter . . . . But this week I go to the desert again, and after that to Death Valley. Then I will be able to write with a living flame—this novel obsesses me. It is wonderful, beautiful, terrible.” May 22. “I write swiftly, passionately. I am approaching the climax, and have to rise to tremendous heights. I feel the surge of emotion—a dread—a terror—a pain, as if this ordeal were physical.” May 29. “IT IS MIDNIGHT. I HAVE JUST FINISHED MY NOVEL WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND. Twelve hours today—28 pages—and I sweat blood!. . . . I do not know what it is that I have written. But I have never worked so hard on any book, never suffered so much or so long. 838 pages. 170,000 words.”
The book includes some of the finest desert description: terrain, fauna, plant life, etc., that he ever wrote. The theme partially is the Old Testament Cain-Abel love-hate relationship, partly the redemptive power of suffering, and partly the desert crucible which will either destroy or ennoble those who submit themselves to its fires. Magdalene Virey, considering the short period she lives in the book’s pages, is nevertheless a memorable character. Altogether, it took Grey ten years to gather all the material for the story. Then, as he began to write, several trips to the Southern California-Arizona border country and two trips to Death Valley helped give him the fresh inspiration he needed. Later, Grey observed:
When the novel came out in book form I said I was willing to stand or fall by it. I was. I am still. I had high hopes for this novel of the wastelands. A few of them were realized, yet most prominent critics who reviewed the book damned it with faint praise. They all struck the same note. They could not see the beauty, the wonder, the tragedy and soul of the desert, the truth of the waste places of the earth and their equally ennobling and debasing effect upon man. It was not that there was not enough of my ten years’ absorption of the desert to convince the critics of these things. It was that they did not know anything about the desert—that they could not believe in the heroism and idealism of man.33
When he finished, Harpers asked him to cut 100 pages out of the book. . . “All in my interest, they said! Did you ever hear of such callowness? Just to save a little money they would cut my book to nothing. . . . There are some aspects of this literary game that are sickening.”34 Eventually Grey shortened it some, supposedly by about 3,000 words. To him, it was like cutting off his own flesh. His 1919 diary entries during this period reveal how carefully he researched his subject. Nothing was too insignificant to count.
33Zane Grey, “My Answer to the Critics,” unpublished manuscript (in possession of the Zane Grey Family), p. 5.
34Zane Grey, letter to Dolly Grey, June 26, 1922, unpublished (in possession of the Zane Grey family).
From Zane Grey’s Impact on American Life and Letters (pp. 174-6).
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So total was this immersion that, in the years that followed, Dolly often addressed him in letters as “Wansfell the Wanderer.” In fact, during her own epic journeys across the U.S. by auto during the 1920s, whenever a desert wanderer stepped onto a road (most all unpaved) ahead of her, she’d think for a moment it was her husband. [Rarely did they travel together].
After the book was published, so many readers asked him to write a sequel that he finally did so [he wrote very few]: Stairs of Sand.
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Get prepared for a great read! It is easy to find this book on the web.