Writer of the Purple Prose

Zane Grey went West, fell in love with the desert and redefined the modern cowboy novel

The tips of the cottonwoods and the oaks waved to the east, and the rings of aspens along the terraces twinkled their myriad of bright faces in fleet and glancing gleam. A low roar rose from the leaves of the forest, and the spruces swished in the rising wind. It came in gusts, with light breezes between. As it increased in strength the lulls shortened in length till there was a strong and steady blow all the time, and violent puffs at intervals, and sudden whirling currents. The clouds spread over the valley, rolling swiftly and low, and twilight faded into a sweeping darkness. Then the singing of the wind in the caves drowned the swift roar of rustling leaves; then the song swelled to a mourning, moaning wail; then with the gathering power of the wind the wail changed to a shriek.

That's what it is like all right when a storm hits the high country. Zane Grey, who wrote this description in his best-known book, Riders of the Purple Sage, would likely have been pleasantly surprised that more than a half-century after his death scholars are taking him seriously. During his lifetime (1872-1939), most critics panned his novels for their purple prose even as the public ate them up.

Though he didn't write the first modern western novel (that distinction is often given to Owen Wister's The Virginian), Grey has been credited with establishing the shape of the 20th-century western novel.

Who was Zane Grey? Born Pearl Zane Gray, he was weaned on the stories of romantic writers such as Daniel Defoe, James Fenimore Cooper and Robert Louis Stevenson. He played first-team baseball at the University of Pennsylvania, then followed his father into dentistry. But always he wanted to write.

When he discovered the West, he had found the place he wanted to write about. Riders of the Purple Sage, 1912, was a huge hit, and he followed it with more than 70 others over the years, in addition to books about other subjects. Married to a strong woman, Lina Elise "Dolly" Roth, who acted as his editor and agent, Grey also became a world-famous big-game fisherman. By the time of his death in 1939 from a heart attack at age 67, Grey had written 89 books.

Today, Grey's Old West is dismissed as a place that never existed. And yet the Old West—fiction or fact—continues to exert a powerful hold on the American psyche.

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