ZANE GREY’S HERITAGE OF THE DESERT

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

ZANE GREY’S HERITAGE OF THE DESERT

 

Dec. 28, 2011

CLUB NEWS

Since I’m stumbling into this Book of the Month Club thing, I must confess I have no idea how many of you are actually trying to secure copies of these books and are reading them.  Nor do I have any idea as to how many of you are actually reading the club-related blogs.    True, I have received a number of responses — all positive so far—, but that’s all I have to go on.  Naturally, I’d love to hear from you.

ZANE GREY

As some of you know, I wrote my Vanderbilt doctoral dissertation on the frontier writer Zane Grey.  Four years later, I began editing and publishing Zane Grey’s West (it ran from 1979 – ‘91); in 1983, I co-founded the Zane Grey’s West Society; I have continued as Executive Director ever since.

Since many of you may not be acquainted with Zane Grey, permit me to sketch out his significance:

            THE TITAN

ZANE GREY

(1872 – 1939)

Zane Grey towers over the first half of the twentieth century like no other.  During that period he was not only the highest-paid author in the world, he was also the top-selling author, his readership estimated to top 500,000,000.  Frank Gruber feels that Grey dominated the entire twentieth century, his popularity as great overseas as in America.

He also dominated the magazine world during the Golden Age of Print.  Never before (and never since) were so many great magazines all publishing at once.  And should Country Gentleman, Field and Stream, Munsey’s, Argosy, American, Cosmopolitan, McCall’s, McClure’s, Pictorial Review, Popular, Ladies’ Home Journal, or Colliers be serializing a Grey novel, newsstand sales would skyrocket, hence no author was paid as much for a serial as he.

No author, before or since, has even come close to his dominance of the Silver Screen.  Almost unbelievably, over 131 movies have been made from his books, and the leading actors and actresses of the age starred in them.  On movie marquees (in size and lights), Grey’s name far outranked those of the stars.

Two television series based on his books have been aired, one lasting six years.

He is considered to be the Father of the Western.  Before him, there was not even a perception that there ever was such a period as “The Old West.”  And later western bards such as Louis L’Amour had to admit that Grey was the last western writer to write while the frontier still existed.  Alice Payne Hackett, in her 70 Years of Best Sellers: 1895 – 1965 (Bowker, 1967), noted that, of the 25 top-selling westerns of all time, 15 of them were by Grey.

No western author is represented by so many comic book and Big Little Book titles as he.

So why has his popularity lasted for over a century now, when most of his contemporaries have long since been forgotten?  Why is it that even today as many women read him as men?  Perhaps because his female protagonists are even more fully realized than their male counterparts.  Perhaps because to him, the settings were more important than the characters (he was the first author to insist that his books be filmed on location).  Perhaps because Grey painted with descriptive words and passages in the same way that Moran or Bierstadt painted with a brush.  It is these marvelous descriptive passages that elevate Grey into the pantheon of great artists.  Perhaps because values worth living by were central to Grey.  His tales play out on epic stages such as did the Norse heroes of the Nibelungen Lied, the Arthurian tales, Beowulf, or Shakespearean dramas such as Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear.  Perhaps because he knew the people first-hand that he chronicled.  Perhaps because Grey was at heart a naturalist, and chronicled, in his fiction and nonfiction, the wildlife he encountered.  George Reiger (the dean of contemporary sports writing) maintains that Grey may someday be remembered more for his True Life outdoor adventure stories and books than for his fiction.  Perhaps because the animals in his books were developed as fully as his humans (featured in masterpieces such as Don, The Wolf Tracker, Tappan’s Burro, and The Thundering Herd).  Perhaps because he may very well be the greatest fisherman of all time (he and his entourage capturing all but two of the deep-sea fishing records of the world).  Perhaps because of his leading role in conservation, in his concern for an environment that was already vanishing.  Perhaps because he was a semi-pro baseball player who could easily have walked into Cooperstown had he stayed in baseball.  And last—but anything but least—perhaps because he had the wisdom to marry Lina [Dolly] Roth Grey (one of the most remarkable women of her time), and an equal player in the unparalleled success story that is Zane Grey.

By

                                                                                     Joe L. Wheeler, Ph.D.

©2005

THE HERITAGE OF THE DESERT

I have chosen this book as our January 2012 book of the month for a number of reasons.  Before he wrote Heritage, he’d first written Betty Zane (1903), The Spirit of the Border (1906), The Last of the Plainsmen (1908), The Last Trail (1909), and The Short Stop (1909), but of them, three were eastern Ohio Valley frontier novels, one a baseball novel, and one a hybrid biography/True Life Adventure.  Heritage was the first western he ever set in what we today consider to be the mythical Old West: the Southwest.

In January of 1906, Zane Grey and his bride Dolly disembarked from the train at the then new El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  This was their first stop on their honeymoon.  When the clouds lifted that evening and the sunset transformed the abyss into an inferno, Zane and Dolly were speechless: the spectacle was too overwhelming for mere words.  Grey would spend the rest of his life vainly trying to capture that scene and the West in words.

Grey returned in 1907 and 1908 to lasso mountain lions on the Grand Canyon’s Kaibab Plateau with Buffalo Jones (“The Last of the Plainsmen”), but not until November of 1909 did Grey finally sit down, pencil in hand, to write his first great western, a book he hoped would have the epic scale of Wallace’s Ben Hur.  As Mescal (his first title) took form, he became more and more excited—the outside world, for him, all but ceased to exist.  On January 22, 1910, meals were all. but forgotten as his pencil raced across the page.

Heritage was Grey’s first great book.  It sold well from the first and has consistently held its own through the years.  August Naab was, in real life, Jim Emett, a Mormon pioneer who lived at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River.  Grey lassoed mountain lions with Emett and Buffalo Jones in 1907 and 1908.  I think you will agree with me that August Naab is one of the most magnificent characters in all western literature.  In the novel, Naab is portrayed as an apostle of non-violence who is gradually forced by circumstances to alter his code.  The book also features a theme Grey dealt with often: Regeneration.  Grey felt that the West either transforms weaklings into strong men or it destroys them.  In the pages of this novel, you will experience with Grey a West that is so new to him you feel its vibrancy in every page.  In fact, some critics claim the book is one-of-a-kind because never again was the West to be this fresh to him.

I don’t want to deprive you of your own conclusions so I’ll let you take it from here.  Some questions yu may ask yourself are these: What kind of a heroine is Mescal?  Is she fully developed as a character?  Multidimensional?  What about the element of Good Samaritanism in the novel?  When Grey wrote the novel, magazines ruled supreme, and those who could write spell-binding serializations were paid extremely well.  In those pre-TV days, family life centered around the fireplace, kitchen stove, or front porch.  Since pictures were few, readers gravitated to writers like Grey who could paint pictures with words rather than with a brush.  That way, each of them could paint pictures unique to them in their minds.  I will be most interested in your reactions to this novel.

The book ought to be relatively easy to find on the web.  Two sources you might check are Don Gallagher (1425 Broadway, Denver, CO 80210) and Eric Mayer’s Bluebird Books (8201 S. Santa Fe Dr., #245, Littleton, CO 80120).  Harpers published the First Edition; Grosset & Dunlap followed with hardback reprints which normally included four illustrations.  Most other hardbacks do not feature illustrations.  The same is true for the many trade paper editions.  Just make certain your book is unabridged.