Arizona Ames and Other American Portraits by Zane Grey
by Thomas McNulty
As a Chicago boy growing up in the swinging Sixties, when nostalgia was a fashionable trend, someone gave me an old Zane Grey paperback. It was Riders of the Purple Sage, and I delved into the book numerous times, thumbing the pages. Occasionally, there was something in the prose that appeared like magical incantations; a descriptive passage that rang true like a guitar chord. The magic lingered in my mind. Here was language with the emotional effect of music, or the resonance of a great motion picture, and it thrilled me: “A sharp clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.” That first line set in motion a remarkable tale that was impossible to put down. Years later, as a fledging college student, I learned that line is considered among the great opening declarations in American letters, and that Riders of the Purple Sage is considered a classic of Western genre writing. I experienced a sense of pride in realizing I was already familiar with such a revered book. I began collecting the Walter Black editions. I bought old and new paperback editions as I encountered them. I kept them. Today, I return to Zane Grey far more than any other Western writer.
Zane Grey loved the landscape. He wrote with a poet’s eye but always complemented by his uncanny understanding of human nature. He understood that we are all a part of the landscape we inhabit, and he celebrated his love of the land with adventure tales set in the wild country that he loved so much. From the forests and hills of the Tonto Basin, across the Colorado Rockies; deep in the verdant valleys and forests of tall pines, down winding creeks and across roaring rivers; along the majestic beauty of the Ohio River and down into the glimmering heat-drenched deserts; there Zane Grey had his characters live and struggle and succeed and fail and sometimes die.
At the center of these tales are his characters, and all of Grey’s stories are character driven. I point to Arizona Ames, one of my many favorites. Ames refers to himself as “Just a grub-line ridin’ cowpuncher who cain’t hold a job…” (p 217) but who possesses the virtues and capabilities inherent in our dream of the quintessential American man. Early in the novel, Ames kills the man that had taken advantage of his twin sister, Nesta, and subsequently fled his beloved Tonto Basin where over the course of a decade has earned his reputation as both a capable ranch hand and lethal gunslinger. At the heart of the story is the fact that Ames, being afraid of devoting himself to a woman, continuously ends up on a lonely trail. With his beloved twin sister and her children unseen for years, Ames takes the side of the underdog time and again. His reputation precedes him wherever he goes.
Arizona Ames is not seamless. The plot jumps about, and the central incidents are disconnected. However, Ames himself is immeasurably alluring, and like so many of Grey’s characters we find ourselves rooting for him, hoping that he’ll find the happiness that he deserves. Ames is a man running from his past and haunted by his actions. “But I am only a wanderin’ cowboy,” he says at one point, “I have nothin’ except a horse – an’ this blood-stained gun.” (P. 227.) He pushes women away, and rides on, righting wrongs as he he goes. When he finally meets Esther it’s a decade into his wanderings and he’s now in his early 30s. As for Esther, she thinks “…he was the finest-looking man she had ever seen, obviously a cowboy, or most certainly a rider. Tall, lithe, booted, spurred, belted, with gun swinging low, gray-clad, his head drooping, with face hidden under a wide sombrero that had once been white…” (p.235)
Ames is the quintessential Zane Grey hero, blood-brother to most of the protagonists in his Westerns, possessing of a singular morality, an unspoken code of honor, decent and honorable. Grey created with his literature a series of American portraiture that is perhaps idealized to fit his vision of the American West, and far removed from the industrial revolution that was changing the landscape before his very eyes. Grey was born in 1872, and the changes in American life he experienced by the time his first story was published in 1903 were profound.
Grey was prolific, and once Riders of the Purple Sage became a best-seller, he was constantly in demand. He rarely deviated from his standard formulae and characterizations, but he was skilled at infusing his prose with likable characters, and enough action to keep readers on the edge of their seats. He became a celebrity, and his legend grew. Zane Grey was a man’s man; a hunter, fisherman, baseball player, film actor, explorer and world traveler. He appears to have been always moving, always writing, with fishing being perhaps his favorite activity next to pursuing women. The books are amazing: Code of the West, Forlorn River, Knights of the Range, The Light of Western Stars, The Lost Wagon Train, The Man of the Forest, The Mysterious Rider, Raiders of Spanish Peaks, Thunder Mountain, Wildfire and so many more. He published over 60 books before his death in 1939.
Certain of his books stand out as examples of great American fiction, although it is the rare critic who will agree with me. Desert of Wheat is a modern tale, set during World War I and published in 1919. Grey strikes an anti-union pose with his depiction of the IWW – Industrial Workers of the World – in addition to discussing ethnic prejudice against Germans. Later scenes set on the battlefront of France during the war are fully realized, and he keeps his romantic notions intact. Desert of Wheat is underrated and quite an accomplishment for a writer best known for his Horse Operas. Grey proved that he could write a contemporary novel the equivalent of anything Sinclair Lewis or Theodore Dreiser would produce.
Frontpiece from the 1935 signed edition of Thunder Mountain
Wanderer of the Wasteland is a riveting story about Adam who flees his life to seek refuge in the desert where he wanders for years, meeting strange characters, and coming to grips with his past. Grey ponders man’s often violent nature, relationship with women, and offers a conclusion that is truly a “surprise ending.” Another, The Rainbow Bridge is the sequel to Riders of the Purple Sage and among the few of his novels that scholars agree has literary value. Greys work is too often dismissed as winsome fabrications, but I’ll argue that Grey captured the spirit of those Westerners who forged ahead to tame the land. The critics were hard on Grey from the onset, and remain critical of his work. Critic Jonathan Miles, writing in his The New York Times review of Thomas H. Pauly’s 2006 biography on Grey, falsely stated that “Grey was a profoundly bad writer who combined mawkish sentimentality with geographic fabulism.” Miles is miles off-base, and misses the point that Grey’s sentimentality is part of what strikes a chord with readers. There is nothing wrong with sentimentality. Grey expressed those moments beautifully. If anything, Grey was a profoundly intuitive and insightful writer who framed his stories with tales of heartache and loss, creating portraits that might have been culled from any family album.
I agree that some modern readers will struggle with Grey’s use of phonetic spellings to mimic a drawl or accent, and the melodrama is at times clichéd, and the dialogue simplistic. These are, however, not valid reasons to dismiss his work. I suspect part of the problem lies in the cultural changes that make Internet haters all feel empowered to say something negative rather than positive. This has always been the weakness of American literary critics, of which Jonathan Miles represents the common hack. Zane Grey’s readers and fans exist because he fulfills a need, and he told great stories. It really is that simple.
The Heritage of the Desert is a personal favorite, and a novel that many fans agree is among Grey’s best. The tale of Jack Hare, and his trials and tribulations is melodramatic, rambling, and often epic; it involves land grabbers, Indians and Mormons, is vividly drawn, and packed full of excitement. Yet another, The Lone Star Ranger is well known among Grey’s fans and clearly the inspiration for the character created by Fran Striker and George W. Trendle for radio in 1933, and who, as you know, was later epitomized on television and in films by Clayton Moore. Grey’s The Lone Star Ranger was published in 1915 to immediate success. It’s a good book, but the unexpurgated manuscript, published in 2008 by Leisure Paperbacks as Last of the Duanes, is a masterpiece.
There are so many other examples of Grey’s fine novels, that readers today will have no difficulty in finding either modern paperback reprints or e-books on Kindle. Although Westerns were Grey’s bread and better, he ventured into non-fiction with books like Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon, Tales of Southern Rivers, Tales of Fishing Virgin Seas, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado-New Zealand, Tales of Fresh Water Fishing, and Tales of Tahitian Waters all which added to Grey’s popularity. A few juvenile novels, especially those dealing with baseball, round out Grey’s enormous literary output. The Shortstop and The Young Pitcher evoke Grey’s love for baseball. He was a minor league player prior to becoming a novelist, and this fact, too, adds another layer to the depth of his extraordinary life.
I believe what is lacking here is a comprehensive, academic appreciation of Grey’s novels. The critics may not like him – they never have – but readers are always connecting with Zane Grey because his appeal is universal. The rule I follow, and that was a driving force behind my Errol Flynn biography (which took me ten years of research and writing) is that one should not write about historical figures unless you truly appreciate their contribution. Write about what you know and what you love. That’s what Zane Grey did. It’s also vitally important to understand the era in which Grey lived, and that our cultural history shapes us all, like it or not. We cannot distance ourselves from the landscape we inhabit, and Zane Grey was a product of his time.
His influence is far-reaching. Commencing in December 1946 and released sporadically through the early 1970s, Zane Grey’s Western Magazine published original stories by new authors and the occasional reprint of a Zane Grey Story. Grey’s stories continue to influence both writers and filmmakers, and many of his books have never gone out of print.
In 2009, when I was in Hollywood to attend Errol Flynn’s centennial at filmmaker Jack Marino’s home, my wife and I made a side-trip to Catalina Island. It was a foggy morning, and as the boat rocked across the sea I waited for a glimpse of the island where Zane Grey had made his hideaway. At length, the island appeared to rise from the mist; a primordial sight of steep hills and deep underbrush, wild and somehow forbidding. When the sun burned away the fog the heat set in, and we wandered the shops and small streets of Avalon. Finally, I set my gaze on the white pueblo wall visible on the hillside, and we made the trek on foot through a blanket of heat to the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, his former home turned tourist destination. It was easy to understand why he chose this hilltop location for the home that was completed in 1926. The view of Avalon Bay is breathtaking, and from here Grey could indulge his love of deep sea fishing.
I lingered awhile and wandered the halls and verandas. It was a quiet day, with little activity in the hotel. I had a sense that this place offered serenity to Grey, and given his self-induced hectic lifestyle, I realized that this island patio overlooking the sea must surely be the place where Grey’s spirit wandered today. Just a swiftly, I realized I was wrong, for while Zane Grey’s presence could surely be felt, his was a spirit that acknowledged no boundaries. He was there, perhaps but briefly, and then in a swirl of a salt-tinged sea-breeze and sunlight, he was gone.
Copyright © 2017 by Thomas McNulty
All book and magazine cover scans are from the author’s collection.
Arizona Ames quotations and page numbers are from the Walter Black edition.
Click HERE to visit Zane Grey's West Society Web Page