The Man Who Wrote the West


elizname2smallHow 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 zane-greybooks 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.  

zane-grey-book-coverGrey’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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31 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote the West”

  1. Eizabeth, I loved this post. Riders of the Purple Sage is my all-time favorite Western. Like yours, my father loved and collected Zane Grey’s novels. I read them at the same age you did. The descriptions and the characters’ internal struggles hooked me. Where Louis L’Amour wrote great action, I think Grey excelled at getting into his heroes’ hearts and minds, and he was born early enough to get stories first-hand from people who experienced the Old West.

    By the way, I think his real name was Pearl Grey Zane. He was named after the color worn when Queen Victoria was in mourning for Prince Albert, I believe. His own ancestors, Betty Zane, Jonathan, the Colonel and co., were the characters in his colonial novels. Apparently Betty actually did make that heroic run for gunpowder Grey describes in “Betty Zane”. I didn’t know that his own home life was so troubled.
    Grey was an amazing author. Thanks again for posting about him.


    Linda Lael Miller, Elizabeth Lowell, Granite Man,the Outlaw, Lavyrle Spencer-Forgiving

    Fav movie -Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
    TV show The Big Valley loved Heath & Audra

  3. Elizabeth, thanks for introducing me to the real Zane Grey. Rider is my favorite, too, and I’ve got a bunch on my tbr list.

    Laurie, Granite Man and Outlaw by Elizabeth Lowell are two of my favorites.

    My interest in the west was sparked by my grandmother’s stories, who grew up in North Dakota in the 1910s – and was used to seeing Sioux come to their farm for food and supplies, on occasion.

  4. Thanks for your extra insights, Jennie. I had the impression that Zane was his mother’s family name. Hmmm. Will have to check that out. But I can’t imagine why anybody would name their little boy “Pearl.”
    I loved Zane Gray’s description of the land. Still remember his wonderful descriptions of different cactus in his book, DESERT GOLD>

  5. I love Larry McMurtry, too, Laurie. He’s one of the greatest western writers of all time. And the other books and movies you mentioned are wonderful choices, too. I’m currently reading Linda Lael Miller’s MCKETTRICk’s LUCK. She’s the best.

  6. What an inspiration your grandmother’s stories must’ve been, Tracy. You must have some wonderful story material there.
    When I was growing up in Southern Utah (not saying when but it was a LONG time ago), we used to have Navajos come up to work in the sugar beet harvest. They would camp outside of town and come in to the stores, etc. dressed in their traditional clothes. What beautiful people.

  7. Elizabeth, very interesting blog! I’ve always been a fan of Zane Grey. He was an extremely talented writer. But, I think my love for westerns came from watching TV shows like Laramie, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and all those. They really entralled me and captured my imagination.

    I’m reading The Substitute Bride right now and loving how the hero has matured from the previous book. Didn’t know how you’d pull that off but you did. My hat’s off to you, girl!

  8. Hi Elizabeth – I never read Zane Grey or any of the other western authors growing up. Aside from my dad’s teachings of the old west and his vivid and colorful stories, which really piqued my interest, popular TV shows like Bonanza and The Lone Ranger got me hooked as a young girl.
    It’s always a treat to learn how we all came to this place, loving westerns!

  9. I’m a huge Louis L’Amour fan. I’ve read a lot of Zane Grey too and Max Brand but never got hooked on them as much as L’Amour.

    Grey’s wife turning his work into a valuable commodity reminded me of Charley Russell, famed Western artist. HIS WIFE took over the business side of his work and made him really rich. Charley tended to draw pictures and give them away or barter them for some minor item. His wife saw the money to be made and more or less insisted Charley draw and paint and leave EVERYTHING else to her.

    She made him rich.

    And if Zane was really all that cranky, she was probably glad to see him leave. “Uh, honey, go ahead and spend the fall with your girlfriend. The winter, too if you want. She gets lonely for you. Bye-bye.” 🙂

  10. Wasn’t it great growing up in the “Golden Age” of TV westerns, Linda. I think a lot of us fell in love with the West then. These days, it’s crime shows–CSI, etc. Entertaining but not magical.

    So glad you like the grownup Quint in SUBSTITUTE BRIDE. I was wondering what you’d think of him. He was such a pill in the first book. You’re a sweetie to let me know!

  11. And ditto the above for your love of those old TV westerns, Charlene. They were the best blend of romance, action and drama. My own favorite was High Chaparral, but I loved them all.

  12. Great comparison with Charley Russell and his wife, Mary. I never thought of that.
    And I agree with you that, as hard as ZG was to live with, Dolly was probably glad to have him gone. She had plenty of money and the freedom to do what she wanted. I never did find out what happened to their children, but I’m guessing they didn’t have much of a relationship with their father.

  13. Hi Elizabeth!

    I loved this post. Do you know I’ve never read Zane Grey. Now I want to and I will.

    I remember growing up to Zane Grey Theatre — do you remember that — am I giving away my age?

    I don’t watch TV anymore — my solution to my protest against all the drug ads — so to pick up a book will be great.

    Thanks Elizabeth.

  14. Hope you’ll love Zane Grey, Karen. I haven’t read him in years, but I do remember the Zane Grey theatre. In my research for this blog, I learned that more than 100 of his stories were adapted for movies and/or TV.
    Agree with you about the drug ads. They’re awful, and they’re everywhere!
    Happy reading.

  15. I did some checking and you’re right, Elizabeth, Zane was his mother’s family name. The Pearl came from the mourning color, but why anyone would name a poor unsuspecting baby boy that is beyond me. Sorry for the confusion.

  16. Elizabeth, you’ve whisked me into my past with your post. When I was in 5th through 8th grade I read several of Zane Grey. I not only loved, Riders of the Purple Sage, but Wonderer of the Waste Land. I need to go back and reread the last because I know I absolutely LOVE it, but can’t remember a single thing about it, except that the hero lived in a desert. Along those line I sort of remember a book called, The Whistler? Is that right? I’m not sure if it was by Grey or someone else.

    I loved many of the old TV shows, Bonanza, High Chaparral, The Rifleman. What would we have done without those guys? I was such a tomboy my sisters (I’m the youngest of five girls) nicknamed me Bowie, after Jim Bowie. I went by Bowie for years. LOL.

    Thanks for a great post!


  17. Hi Elizabeth, I’ve never read Zane Grey. I’m going to have to fix that gap in my education. If his books are half as wild as his life, I’ll love them.

    I’ve always loved western movies and television shows. This past weekend, my hubby and I rewwatched “Lonesome Dove” on AMC. That’s a classic. I like “Broken Trail” even better. Growing up, I was totally hooked on High Chapparal, Lancer and Bonanza. Does anyone else remember a short-lived show called “The Quest” with Kurt Russell and Tim Matheson? I like it a lot!

  18. My Dad was a huge Zane Gray fan and his books were some of the first westerns I read.
    My favorite western author is Louis L’Amour.

  19. Thanks for the additional research, Jennie. Now we both know for sure. And it’s nice to know where the Pearl came from. Evidently he went by that name till he grew up.

  20. Bowie? Now that’s cool, Caroline. With the modern practice of giving girls last names for first names, you could probably get away with it today.
    I remeber a radio show about “The Whistler,” but not a Zane Grey book. Very glad to hear I wasn’t the only little girl who read him.

  21. Vicki, the comments on this post have made me want to go back and read some of the Zane Grey books I missed the first time around. His stories really did shape the way the west is portrayed in film and fiction, even today.
    And I love Lonesome Dove. The book is even better than the film–maybe the greatest western book ever written, but that’s saying a lot.

  22. So you read Zane Grey growing up, too, Estella. I thought maybe I was the only one.
    And Louis L’Amour was one of the great ones. I need to read more of his books.

  23. At least, he wasn’t named Sue! LOL.

    Grey and L’Amour novels were my introduction to Westerns, my Dad shared them with me in my early teens. When we got our first TV set in 1954, the
    early Westerns found a home in our house. There
    isn’t a Western presentation, on TV or film, that
    we did not see! Do you get the impression that we
    liked Westerns!! I love them still!

    Pat Cochran

  24. You brought back memories. I too read my dad’s TRUE, SPORTS AFIELD, and FIELD AND STREAM. Started reading Zane Grey in high school. Discovered Tony Hillerman when we lived in Colorado and have just found Sandi Ault’s WILD books. A different take on the west, but the appreciation of them stems from a love of the old west instilled by Grey.
    About 8 years ago, while digging around in a junk store, I found a set of Zane Grey books still wrapped in parchment. It took a lot of digging and when I finished, I was filthy. But… I had about 45 books in new condition for $20.
    I have most of Louise L’amour’s books and have started with the Thurlo books. Gary Paulsen and Joseph Bruchac have written wonderful books dealing with the west and native americans. I have three cases of books on the west and native americans. This does not include the bookcase full of western romances. I recently ordered a book on mail order brides and orphan train children. Can’t wait to read them.

  25. Wow, Patricia, I am in awe of your book collection. The vintage Zane Greys sound wonderful. And I love Tony Hillerman–you’ve no doubt seen the PBS series based on his books with Adam Beach as Jim Chee.
    And it tickles me to know I wasn’t the only little girl who read her dad’s magazines. Nice to discover kindred spirits out there.

  26. I’m going to have to go back and take another look at Zane Grey, as someone else posted. “The Shopkeeper,” by James Best is a new Western, not a classic like a L’Amour or Grey, but hugely enjoyable. Steve Dancy is a Western hero women can love, what with being a former city slicker who has to battle it out in old West Nevada.

    And while it’s not a book, I can’t believe no one has mentioned “Bonanza!” Sanitized Western, I know, but still — I loved it!

  27. Hmmm. I’ll keep my eyes open for “The Shopkeeper”. It sounds like a good story.
    I loved Bonanza, too, Liz. True, it was sanitized but the dramas about family love, conflict and emotion would have worked in many settings. Thanks for your post.

  28. Hope you like it. (And I think “Bonanza” is on one of those oldies television stations, isn’t it? I may have to give it a look to see how it holds up.

    And I can’t believe I forgot this one! I suppose it’s more accurate to call it “historical fiction,”but it’s set during the Gold Rush in San Francisco. It’s “Calico Palace” by Gwen Bristow. Love, love, love it. I think it was published in about 1971 or so. My brother found me a hardbound copy of it in great condition a few years ago — I re-read it every year or so.

  29. Calico Palace? Now that one I’ve got to find. I just submitted a proposal set in post-gold-rush San Francisco. If Harlequin buys it, that’ll be a great read for me. Thanks for the suggestion, Liz.

  30. You are so welcome! I actually was all over the place, reading-wise, last night and pulled out a different Gwen Bristow book, “Tomorrow is Forever.” But “Calico Palace” remains an all-time favorite. And if you’re doing something post-gold-rush, it would be great reading for you. Good luck!

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