Bounty Hunter

John Sutherland

  • Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
    Oxford, 265 pp, £4.99, May 1995, ISBN 0 19 282443 0
  • The Man of the Forest: The Authorised Version by Zane Grey
    Nebraska, 383 pp, $15.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 8032 7062 3
  • The Thundering Herd: The Authorised Version by Zane Grey
    Nebraska, 400 pp, $16.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 8032 7065 8

Self-respecting guys don’t read Westerns. In fact, unless you look carefully, no one seems to read them. The cowboy novel rates lower even than pornography in the scale of cultural visibility. W.H. Smith (true to their origins: they won a monopoly at railway stations in 1848 in return for an undertaking to purify the nation’s reading matter) recently banished their modest selection of top-shelf skin magazines. If, by some perverse fatwa, Westerns were similarly proscribed, no action would be required by our moral guardians. W.H. Smith have sections devoted to Horror, Romance, War, Teen Fiction and Science Fiction – but Westerns, as the cowpoke would put it, are scarcer than hen’s teeth.

Cultural prejudice against the genre extends to the medium which it has made peculiarly its own. It has been reckoned that 90 per cent of American films dealing with American historical themes are Westerns. Many costume dramas have won Academy Awards since they were set up in 1927; no true Western had won an Oscar for Best Picture until Unforgiven in 1992. (Less momentously, perhaps, Unforgiven was the first and I believe still the only Western to be written about in the LRB.) And, to be picky about it, Eastwood’s film was for most of its narrative less Western than anti-Western – an exercise in the subversion of the clichés, conventions, stock situations, idiom and stereotypes built up since the Great Train Robbery exploded on the screen in 1903.

Zane Grey, who holds the dubious title of ‘Greatest Western novelist’, was, for a season, the most popular writer in the English-speaking world. At his zenith, his American sales were reckoned to be second only to those of the Bible. He was the only novelist, in the years 1915-30, to get Western titles into the American annual bestseller lists. No one knows the exact figure, but his total lifetime and posthumous sales are calculated at around 250 million copies, which puts him in the stratosphere with Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner.

What can be precisely reckoned is that more films – 108 – have been made of Zane Grey’s 58 stories than of any other novelist’s work. As the disparity implies, many of Grey’s stories were filmed two and three times over in the Twenties and early Thirties (often frugally recycling location and chase footage). None of the 108 film adaptations survives as a work of artistic distinction, with the possible exception of Western Union (1941), one of Fritz Lang’s rare forays into the genre. Otherwise the Zane Grey ciné-oeuvre is a wasteland. And if any single factor contributed to the author’s cultural extinction, it was the gold-rush exploitation of his work in the interwar years. His sales slumped in the Thirties with the over-exposure of his wares in Hollywood’s window.

Zane Grey was born in 1872 as ‘Pearl Gray’ – a name which he later changed for the same reasons that Marion Morrison became ‘Duke’ John Wayne and Izzy Demsky became Kirk Douglas. There was another motive. Grey’s birthplace was Zanesville in Ohio – a town founded by and named after his grandfather. Some of his early works, before he found a richer vein further west, piously celebrate the era of pioneer settlement in the Ohio Valley. Those glory days in which Grey’s ancestors had played their part were passing, but still remembered, when Pearl came on the scene. His father was a dentist. A gifted athlete, Zane won a baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. He might have become a professional sportsman but, graduating in 1896 with a degree in dentistry, sensibly decided to follow the paternal path to prosperity in the mouths of his fellow citizens.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in