Book Review: Riders of the Purple Sage (1912)

Romance and hard riding in the Mormon Badlands
by Zane Grey

Riders of the Purple SageThe definitive Zane Grey work of Western fiction, Riders of the Purple Sage, differs from other Westerns you’ll read. For one thing the times of the writing are long ago in the rear view mirror. Zane Grey (1872-1939) wrote as the 20th century was just beginning (Riders is copyrighted in 1912). It’s my understanding from reading statements by Ayn Rand (1905-1982) that the new century was greeted with immense hope and optimism by virtually everyone in the West (Western Civilization). Little were they aware of what was to come.

Zane Grey became a popular American writer on the edge of the abyss that humanity fell into with the rise of collectivism and fascism in governments both at home and abroad. Riders is his first and best bestseller. Thus, literary primetiime for this fascinatingly complex character—who as a young man was a dentist and a minor-league baseball player—would have been those wrenching years of World War I followed by Prohibition and the Great Depression. The people were certainly in need of imaginative escape, and he was happy to oblige.

Some—at least a gentleman named Frank Gruber, whose statement appears on my paperback book jacket—have called Riders of the Purple Sage the “greatest Western ever written.” I’m not going to go that far—I prefer Elmore Leonard’s work—but I will acknowledge that Grey’s style, depiction of setting, and characterization are in a place by themselves. Having read a few of his books, I can confidently state that if the author’s name were hidden from view, I’d recognize Mr. Grey’s prose within a paragraph or two.

For one thing, any description of settings is almost always written in conjunction with a person’s action or character or from the actor’s perspective in the story. Thus, as an author, Grey learned early on to avoid abstract renderings of nature without reference to people or plot. And they flow. Let me give but one (this is where one of the protagonists, a rider and ranch hand named Venters, has encountered the bad guys and, with a wounded young girl, must find a place to rest and plan his next moves):

Down, down, down, Venters strode, more and more feeling the weight of his burden as he descended, and still the valley lay below him. As all other cañons and coves and valleys had deceived him, so had this deep, nesting oval. At length he passed beyond the slope of weathered stone that spread fan-shaped from the arch, and encountered a grassy terrace running to the right and about on a level with the tips of the oaks and cottonwoods below. Scattered here and there upon this shelf were clumps of aspens, and he walked through them into a glade that surpassed, in beauty and adaptability for a wild home, any place he had ever seen. Silver spruces bordered the base of a precipitous wall that rose loftily. Caves indented its surface, and there were no detached ledges or weathered sections that might dislodge a stone. This level ground, beyond the spruces, dropped down into a little ravine. This was one dense line of slender aspens from which came the low splashing of water. And the terrace, lying open to the west, afforded unobstructed view of the valley of green tree-tops.

Makes you want to move right in and stay a while. You can see how Grey loads his sentences, yet stops short of overloading them, and keeps the syllable counts reasonably low. Further, you see how these passages in places explicitly connect to plot and person—”adaptability for a wild home”—moving the story forward. They are marvelous to read, and much more marvelous to take one’s time to read, even read out loud.

Checking the Wikipedia article on Grey, one is astounded that several critics seemed to regard it as their holy mission to dump on his way of writing. Aside from the normal resentments of a successful man by envious mediocrities, one sees perhaps the beginnings of that academic dichotomy brewing: in philosophy and scholarship in the humanities the chickens had to be coming home to roost in those times. Sort of a Kant-induced “Those who can do while those who can’t teach… incomprehensible crap. “

Back to the story. Yes, it’s a good Western. The plot is all right, a lot of it wrapped up with those silly Mormons, and the will of a woman who has inherited from her father a large spread… which one of the silly Mormon leaders wants to make his. He also wants this woman to be his, to submit to the religion and to him. That’s the underlying conflict in the book, from which the riding, the rustling, the gunplay, the wondering about love, and the wandering amongst the purple sage all proceed.

As I’ve noted in some movie reviews—An Affair to Remember and Picnic come to mind—I have a mild fascination with how Americans decades ago handled sexuality in the context of romance. When you examine the sordid scourge of the American Puritan Ethic as it has played out through the laws of the coercive state (notably the Comstock Laws at the end of the 19th century), inflicting a horrible body of ignorance and repression on everyone within reach of the Official Psychos in Charge, one sees a constant tug of war: Is sex something we can be open and positive about, or, to quote a former Catholic priest[1], “Sex is dirty and awful, save it for the ones you love.”?

Here’s a relevant passage from the leading woman’s, Jane Withersteen’s, perspective:

Then if there were anything that a good woman could do to win a man and still preserve her self-respect, it was something that escaped the natural subtlety of a woman determined to allure. Jane’s vanity, that after all was not great, was soon satisfied with Lassiter’s silent admiration. And her honest desire to lead him from his dark, blood-stained path would never have blinded her to what she owed herself. But the driving passion of her [relentlessly patriarchal and domineering] religion, and its call to save Mormons’ lives, one life in particular, bore Jane Withersteen close to an infringement of her womanhood. In the beginning she had reasoned that her appeal to Lassiter must be through the senses. With whatever means she possessed in the way of adornment she enhanced her beauty. And she stooped to artifices that she knew were unworthy of her…

Grey seems to me on the one hand saying Jane is lustful for Lassiter, yet on the other hand she is only hot for him because of the “driving passion of her religion.” And the reader is made painfully aware of the consistent irrationality and cruelty of male representatives of that religion. What is your problem, girl? With a religion like that you don’t need enemies. Why not let go and choose your guy? Or at least spare the reader this false agonization over not living up to the religion’s ludicrous edicts and posturings. In the big picture, though, will Grey give us in Jane an early illustration of the liberated woman?! You be the judge.

You can also read the euphemisms abounding when sexual characteristics are being described. Venters doesn’t note that the young woman in his care (that he first thought was a man) has breasts or curvaceous hips, rather it’s “… her outline, her little hands and feet, her big eyes and tremulous lips, and especially a something that Venters felt as a subtle essence rather than saw, proclaimed her sex.” From our view a century hence, it seems they do go on so. But we have to give ground, be nonjudgmental, considering the SunFLOWersocial and intellectual context of the times.

Grey is excellent, and Riders is probably his best. Happy trails.

[1] Referring to the late Father William Kienzle, author of The Rosary Murders, from his biography Judged by Love.

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