How did I first become interested in Western romance? I could answer that question in two words—but first let me give you some background. In my growing up years, my dad subscribed to some great men’s magazines, like TRUE and SPORTS AFIELD. They were filled with action and adventure, and I read them from cover to cover. I even enjoyed the ads, especially the ad that showed a long line of books with titles like RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE and LIGHT OF THE WESTERN STARS and a banner that read: “GET THE ENTIRE THE ZANE GREY COLLECTION!”
By the time I fell under Zane Grey’s spell, that author had long since ridden into life’s sunset. But his books were still bestsellers, and our local library had an entire shelf of them. I was in sixth grade when I started reading them. Not sure how many I got through, but I do remember how they fired my young imagination with vistas of raw beauty and rugged characters who were bigger than life.
Pearl Zane Grey was born in 1872 in Zanesville, Ohio, where he grew up reading adventure stories and dime novels. He wanted to be a writer, but his father, a dentist with a violent temper, had other ideas. When Zane wrote his first story at fifteen, his father tore it up and beat him. Eventually the young man bowed to his father’s wishes, became a dentist and married a girl from a wealthy family. At night, to relieve the tedium of his day job, he wrote stories. His first efforts were awkward, but with the help of his wife Dolly, who edited his work and most likely financed the publication of his first novel, he slowly began to find success.
Grey had inherited his father’s turbulent nature. He was given to spells of anger and sank into despair when his work was rejected. Restless to a fault, he was a deplorable husband and father, often staying away for months, traveling, hunting and fishing, and spending time with mistresses, while Dolly managed the household and raised their three children. Dolly tolerated her husband’s lifestyle as she proofed his work and handled the business end of his growing literary career. Their letters indicate that there was genuine love and respect between them.
Grey’s early books were about the American Revolution. After a hunting trip to Arizona he began to write the Westerns that would make him famous. On his wilderness trips he took photographs and wrote copious notes. Treacherous river crossings, unpredictable beasts, bone-chilling cold, searing heat, parching thirst, bad water, irascible tempers, and heroic cooperation all became real to him. From the beginning, vivid description was the strongest aspect of his writing. Grey’s first Western, THE HERITAGE OF THE DESERT, became a bestseller. Two years later he produced his best known book, RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE, his all-time best seller and one of the most successful Western novels ever. After that he became a household name. In 1918 he moved his family from Pennsylvania to California, where he started his own movie production company. He lived there on and off until his death in 1939 at the age of 67.
Grey became one of the first millionaire authors. He connected with millions of readers worldwide and inspired many Western writers who followed him. Zane Grey was a major force in shaping the myths of the Old West and he helped transition the written Western into other media. He was the author of over 90 books, some published posthumously and/or based on serials originally published in magazines. His total book sales exceed 40 million From 1917–1926, Grey was in the top ten best-seller list nine times, which required sales of over 100,000 copies each time. Even after his death, his publisher had a stockpile of manuscripts and continued to publish a new title each year until 1963.
Another great writer, Erle Stanley Gardner, would say that Grey “had the knack of tying his characters into the land, and the land into the story…Somehow you got the impression that the bigness of the country generated a bigness of character.”
What sparked your early interest in the West? Do you have a favorite author? A favorite story or film?
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