Book of the Month – Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage”

BLOG #23, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #20
ZANE GREY’S RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE
June 5, 2013

Zane Grey (1872 – 1939), creator of the Romantic West, was the most famous and highest-paid author in the world during the first half of the Twentieth Century. He was the last western writer to write while the American frontier still existed. Over 119 movies have been made from his books, and two television series. He was the first American author to insist that movie producers film his books on location, reason being that he felt locations, to a significant extent, influence behavior and even contribute to character development, both positively and negatively. Interestingly enough, Grey has always attracted as many female readers as he has male readers.

THE GREATEST WESTERN EVER WRITTEN
RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE
ONE-HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY
(1912 – 2012)

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Grey’s second western (after Heritage of the Desert) begins with one of the most memorable opening paragraphs in American fiction and ends with one of the most memorable conclusions in all literature.

According to Lawrence Clark Powell, “The character of the deadly yet noble gunman, Lassiter, approaches the epic folk-hero in its powerful simplification, and was memorably personified by the old-time movie actor William S. Hart–slit-eyed, steel-muscled, and claw-fingered on the draw. The final scene . . . is perhaps the finest moment in all western fiction, approached only by the Virginian’s ‘When you call me that, smile.’” –“Books Determine,” Westways, August, 1992.

Digby Diehl of the Los Angeles Times noted that “By the tine Grey died in 1939, he had two generations of writers hot on his western trail, such as Ernest Haycox, Max Brand, A. B. Guthries, Sam Peeples, and Louis L’Amour. But none of them ever wrote a sentence like ‘A sharp clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.’ This, of course, was the beginning of Riders of the Purple Sage, hailed in many circles as the best western novel ever published. –“Zane Grey’s Tales of the West,” Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1972.

T. V. Olsen pointed out that Riders of the Purple Sage . . . sold two million copies, a then unprecedented sale and ranked with Pollyanna and Tarzan of the Apes as one of the ten leading best-sellers of the decade 1910-1920. A masterpiece of romantic adventure, it combined a suspenseful, well-knit plot with firm, totally dimensional characterization, a gut-ripping pace with awesome spectacle. At times its prose soared to a truly epic strength that, for all the high spots in his early works, Grey never achieved again. –“Pantheism and the Purple Sage,” The Roundup, November 1966.

Nor could western scholar G. M. Farley forget him: “What man while reading Riders of the Purple Sage hasn’t seen in Lassiter some of the characteristics of himself? These rough-hewn characters appeal to something basic in the reader; they touch the fountain-head, and the reader becomes identifiable with them. He can almost feel the trigger against his finger, the buck of the booming gun against his hand. For that moment he escapes the office, the home, the everyday strife, and is transported. It is not just the fast action that thrills him; he is there.” –“An Approach to Zane Grey,” Zane Grey Collector, Vol II, #4.

Nor could John Parsons forget him: “Lassiter of the Purple Sage specialized in carrying his black-butted guns ‘low down.’ By a rapid but undefined movement, he was able to swing ‘the big black gun sheaths around to the fore.’ Ordinarily a two-gun man, he buckled on two more revolvers when going out to face the foe in quantity. Think of the fire-power, even if only two at a time were fired. So far as I know Lassiter was the first four-gun man in print. . . . Zane Grey successfully exploited a vanished cult of gunfighters, seldom contemporaneously documented, whose resuscitation fired the imagination of millions of readers.” –“Gunplay in Zane Grey,” The Westerners, (New York: Posse Brand Books, 1961).

Lassiter doesn’t even have to actually use his guns to be memorable. Case in point, his first appearance in the book: “Lassiter’s face’ had all the characteristics of the range riders–the leanness, the red burn of the sun, and the set changelessness that came from years of silence and solitude. But it was not these that held her; rather the intensity of his gaze, a strained weariness, a piercing wistfulness of keen, gray sight, as if the man was forever looking for that which he never found. Jane’s [Withersteen, the heroine] subtle woman’s intuition, even in that brief instant, felt a sadness, a hungering, a secret.” (p. 8).

Another gunman, Venters, and Bess Oldering, the Masked Rider, hold sway over half the book.

Grey loved horses. Indeed, Frank Gruber maintained that the novel contains the most magnificent horse race in all western fiction.

The novel was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s favorite book.

* * * * *

The book is available in multitudes of editions, both hardback and paper. Just make sure your copy is unabridged.

But, for all you book-lovers who cherish heirloom classics whose value can only go up through the years, the Zane Grey’s West Society recently published a magnificent Centennial Edition. Ordering information follows.

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This book was a labor of love by the Society. Many people were involved, with Roseanne Vrugtman deserving special mention as she did all the work of cleaning up the manuscript and formatting it to properly match the original first edition. Multiple folks were involved in proofreading, editing, and several members authored additional content articles for the book. Joe Wheeler wrote on the importance of Riders to American Literature, Todd Newport wrote on Grey’s love of the outdoors, Chuck Pfeiffer and Zen Ervin wrote an article on the geography of Riders, Bob Lentz discussed the movies made from the novel, and Marian Coombs provided a biography of Grey.

This book was printed in 2012, the anniversary year of Riders, and will be shipped in January 2013. We went to extreme lengths to try to make the book as close a replica of the original 1912 Harper’s First Edition as possible. The actual text of the novel was formatted in such a manner that it exactly matches the original, so now if you are doing research, you can use this book as if it were the original first edition. The book cover is bound in linen, like the original, even though we could not find an exact match to the color. We stamped the text on the front cover using a purple backing with gold text on top of it, just like the original. We scanned the original paste down image that was on the front cover and tried to match that, even though those paste down images did not survive the years very well, and every example we found had issues. We used a slightly ivory color paper, hoping to make it look more vintage. –Zane Grey Review, December 2012, p. 3.

One of the rarest of all Zane Grey dust jackets was used for the Centennial Edition’s reproduction dj. Where rare Zane Grey First Editions are concerned, original vintage dust jackets sometimes bring five times as much as the book itself at auctions.

Just in: The printer: Frederick Printing/Denver Bookbinding was just honored by the Printing Industry of America’s 2013 Print Excellence Silver Award (for demonstrating superior craftsmanship, digital print, hardbound book) for the Centennial Edition of Riders of the Purple Sage.

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This rare edition had a print-run of only 300 copies. Most likely, they’ll all be sold by the end of the Zane Grey’s West Society’s 31st annual convention (to be held in Provo, Utah June 16-19, 2013). Last year’s convention was held in the Black Hills; the year before in Williamsburg, Virginia; in 2014, in Durango, Colorado.

Price for the Centennial Edition is $70 plus shipping. However, if you contact our Secretary Treasurer, at

Sheryle Hodapp
15 Deer Oaks Drive
Pleasanton, CA 94588
Telephone: 925-485-1325
email: sheryle@zgws.org

and first join The Society as a member (our annual dues are only $35, and include our splendid quarterly magazines; we’ve only raised dues once in 31 years, by all serving pro-bono), rather than the regular $70 for the Centennial Edition, you will be entitled to the Society member price of $48 plus shipping, thus your membership will end up costing you only $13 for the year if you’re able to land a copy before they’re sold out.

We’d love to have you join our extended family of Zanies. Perhaps you’d even like to join us at Provo! Contact Sheryle Hodapp for details.

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.