But with the success of Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912, he was really coming from the back of the pack. There were 20-30 other western novelists by that time. Some of them had already published several novels with established publishing houses.
Melodrama. Elisabeth observed that Grey’s novels are heavy on the drama, if not melodrama. I’d definitely agree with this. Of all the early writers I’ve read from this period, the melodrama is the defining feature of his storytelling.
And his kind of melodrama seems particularly heavy-handed. To be fair, it is youthful and maybe idealistic, but in the way that young people can be way over-serious. He writes from what seems to me an adolescent view of the world – big emotions and big scenes, but no irony.
Humor. There are ways of heightening drama, like with understatement or humor, which to me are inseparable from a western frame of mind. The talk of characters in a novel by someone who understands the West is often laugh-out-loud funny, even when the situation is dire.
That ironic perspective comes with the territory. In my admittedly limited reading of Grey, I have yet to see him highlight the drama with humor. Instead, he amps up the angst.
Owen Wister, who arguably did the most to get the genre going, understood this. The Virginian (1902) is full of humor – some of it farcical and clumsy. Yet the playfulness of the Virginian is an essential part of his character. And it intensifies the dramatic scenes, such as the hanging of the horse thieves or the gun duel with Trampas.
|Zane Grey in Australia, 1939
Grey’s first novels were rejected by an otherwise friendly editor at Harper’s, who told him he’d never be a novelist. I’m guessing he was reacting to Grey’s overwrought and artless style of storytelling.
It’s worth remembering that Grey got his start as a published writer with articles about hunting and fishing for sporting magazines. This became the first audience for his fiction. Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), the bestseller that launched his career, was serialized in Field and Stream.
Patti Abbott reports that her grandfather-in-law, like a lot of grandfathers I’m willing to bet, liked how “nothing fancy” gets in the way of Grey’s stories. His is, for sure, an unadorned style. And when he happens to pause for something fancy, like a description of the scenery, it’s easy to skip ahead to where the action picks up again.
|Zane Grey, 1895
Sport and a pastime. Richard Wheeler reports that Grey’s grandniece considered Grey to be the best male writer of women characters in western fiction. And it’s true that in The Drift Fence the central character is an independent young woman. (You immediately start drawing comparisons to Mattie Ross in True Grit.)
Outside of B. M. Bower (who was female), it's rare to find an early western writer who used a female as a point of view character. It would be interesting if this was the ingredient that made his narratives so popular, but I’d be surprised if the evidence supports the theory.
One can wonder if his portrayal of women had anything to do with his relationship to them in his personal life, which Richard Wheeler alludes to in his comment. Though married with children, the stay-at-home family man was not Grey’s style either.
He had more than a few amorous adventures, one of them resulting in a paternity suit while he was still a student at Penn on a baseball scholarship. In later life, he made little secret of keeping mistresses.
Romance has a role to play in most early western novels, following in the footsteps of the Virginian and Molly as they do. Andy Adams’ refusal to include the subject in his novels is the exception to the rule. A reading of several Grey novels might reveal a portrayal of it that had a special appeal for readers.
Maybe someone has done that already. When and if I give Grey another go, I’ll look into it. Until then, I’m not much closer than I have been to understanding what made Grey such a big deal.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Sam Brown, The Big Lonely