Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Grey, [Pearl] Zane
from Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature

Few American novelists have been as enthusiastically received by a popular audience as G., who held a remarkably diverse readership with his tales of Western adventure and heroism. His career as a novelist coincided with the formalist and new critical schools of literary scholarship, perspectives that privileged philosophically complex and elusive works of literature. G.'s hardboiled, typically uncomplicated stories found little favor among members of this scholarly community. With the recent rise of cultural criticism, however, the WESTERN has emerged as a genre of tremendous importance to the American imagination. G.'s work is being reconsidered on these grounds, because of its remarkable resonance with a national culture that continually returns to the West as a mythopoetic region of mind.

G. came to reading and writing early, consuming both popular and classic literature as a boy and writing imitative short stories. He studied dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania, but after graduating in 1896, he continued to dream of a writing career. He completed Billy Zane in 1903, a novel that recast in fictional form the lives of his own Ohio ancestors. Although he was romantic by nature, G. firmly believed in the principle of natural selection. Billy Zane begins with the basic romance formula of James Fenimore COOPER's Leather-Stocking tales, but it places the main character into a Darwinian register, creating a new hero that retains his basic virtue but is also dark and mysterious.

In order to acquire the necessary materials for fiction, G. traveled west to spend time on a ranch in Arizona. He learned the working particulars of ranch life, and he became enthralled with the mythic potential of the American West. He published a nonfictional account of his Western journey entitled The Last of the Plainsmen (1908) and he turned again to fiction with The Heritage of the Desert (1910). The latter work established the pattern that much of G.'s novels would later employ: the bildungsroman, the initiation story, the coming of age tale. This motif was employed in G.'s most popular and well-received novel, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). Here, a mysterious gunman Lassiter and the independent Jane Withersteen battle human greed and brutality in the mountains of Utah. Withersteen is the most dynamic of the two characters, as she in part embodies Darwinian theory by matching violence with violence. But her relationship and reconciliation with Lassiter reflects the fundamental paradox in G.'s themes. Lassiter's naturalism softens as the mystery of his past is revealed, as he finds community, romance, and love through the typical plot resolution of the domestic novel. Riders of the Purple Sage, clearly a high optative romance, appealed to an audience that craved escape and preferred clean and complete plot resolution. But in this appeal lies the novel's significance as myth, since the work clearly demonstrates the power of the West as an imaginary space where dominant American values are realized in fictional form.

These same generic patterns and mythical undercurrents appear in The Light of the Western Stars (1914), The Lone Star Ranger (1915), The Border Legion (1916), The U. P. Trail (1918), and The Wanderer of the Wasteland (1923). All of these works place the perennial conflicts between virtue and vice, malevolence and decency, brutality and kindness, within the context of the romance tradition of James Fenimore Cooper. But these narratives present more modern versions of the myth, portraying a violence consistent with the tenets of literary NATURALISM. Critics have pointed to the diverse impulses of romance and “anti-romance” as a basic and unsuccessfully resolved contradiction in G.'s fiction. It is perhaps true that the author's desire to resolve plots with a happy sentimentality undercuts the pathos and power of his naturalist theme. But this tension is precisely what makes G.'s Westerns fascinating to cultural critics and historians, since his novels emerge as revealing examples of American cultural perception and popular imagination.


Bibliography Gay, C., Z. G.: Story-Teller (1979) Gruber, F., Z. G. (1970) Jackson, C., Z. G. (1973) Karr, J., Z. G.: Man of the West (1949) Ronald, A., Z. G. (1975)

Steven Frye

© 2005 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

Related Articles


Full text Article Grey, (Pearl) Zane (1872 - 1939)
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

Born in Zanesville, Ohio, Grey graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1896 with a degree in dentistry. He practised...

See more from Credo