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To ride through a classic Zane Grey Western like The Rainbow Trail rarely allows readers the luxury of walking or trotting, loping or pacing; rather, it almost always demands galloping, or at least cantering. Grey ranks among the most intense writers in any literature. Unlike many of his kin, such as Edgar Allan Poe and H. Rider Haggard, whose intensity rises primarily out of the psychological focus of their works, Grey’s own literary power rises primarily from a physical focus, including but not limited to action. Exclamation marks thunder through his Westerns; passions pulse through his heroes; landscapes are vast, ineffably beautiful; adventure, danger, violence, and love can loom immediately around any bend of canyon; life itself is mystical in essence, God to be experienced rather than known. Each of these Grey trademarks is present in The Rainbow Trail, a book that ranks high among the best Westerns ever written.
Grey’s parents, Dr. Lewis M. Gray, a dentist, and the former Josephine Zane, named him Pearl Zane Gray upon his birth in Zanesville, Ohio, on January 31, 1872. Grey’s father changed the spelling of the family’s last name when they moved to Columbus, apparently because of some financial difficulties he had created for himself. Later, for fairly obvious reasons, Pearl dropped his first name in favor of his middle one. However, despite being an almost humorless writer, another of his finest books, Wanderer of the Wasteland, includes the following inside joke in a description of a landscape: “so beautifully pearl gray in tint” (emphases mine).1
Whatever negatives the feminine original first name engendered—or perhaps in part because of them—Grey became an outdoorsman as a youth and was a good enough athlete to play college baseball at the University of Pennsylvania. Like George Armstrong Custer and many other vitally active men, Grey was at best an indifferent student. His father pushed Grey to follow him into dentistry, an occupation Grey loathed but nevertheless practiced for a few years in New York City. During a trip to Pennsylvania in 1900, Grey met his future wife, Lina Elise Roth, better known as Dolly. They married five years later, beginning a thirty-four-year marriage that survived Zane’s multiple and often strange affairs with other women, as documented by Thomas H. Pauly’s definitive biography, Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women. In fact, Zane and Dolly Grey’s marriage created one of the most intriguing literary partnerships of the twentieth century. In numerous ways, Dolly was both inspiration and stabilizer, and in more practical matters, from typing, editing, and rewriting to managing her husband’s career and various facets of the cottage industry that sprung up around it, she helped forge his huge success—as, apparently, did some of Grey’s other women.
Zane Grey was almost certainly manic depressive (bipolar), his moods ranging and raging from incredible highs to tumbling depressions. Yet like many such individuals then and now, he possessed extreme gifts. He basically self-medicated, though not with the usual alcohol or other substances, but via other addictions: writing, women, fishing, hunting, living a vigorous life outdoors. In a writing career of almost forty years, he has been credited with writing roughly ninety books (many published posthumously, many of those in truth written by “hired ghostwriters”).2 Well over fifty of these books are Westerns, and Grey additionally published a large number of articles. He also played a strong hand in the young film industry and its reliance on the Western. In addition to his writing, which more than one hundred films have been based upon, he formed Zane Grey Productions and produced several films of his own. He died on October 23, 1939, appropriately enough for an outdoorsman and romantic, of a heart attack, his second in two years, each suffered while he engaged in physical activity.
Running hard, both in date of publication and as sequel, on the rear hooves of Grey’s first full-bore success and best-known title, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), The Rainbow Trail (1915) features a frequent Grey brand of hero, the lost but searching “pilgrim,” as a John Wayne character likely would term tenderfoot John Shefford. From the Midwest like many Grey characters, Shefford grows into a true Westerner. Indeed, the novel is set in the sweeping country that director John Ford, along with Wayne and others, would make famous in numerous films beginning, ironically enough, in the very year Grey died, 1939, with the release of Stagecoach: the northeastern Arizona–southeastern Utah region in and around Monument Valley and the Painted Desert. But if Ford turned this region into a national icon, Grey blazed the trail.
One key to categorizing Rainbow Trail in terms of literature is that like so many of Grey’s books, it is a romance, which is the very term Grey uses to identify it in the foreword, as well as the term he uses for all of his books in his long-unpublished essay, “My Answer to the Critics.” If readers remain unaware of or misunderstand this intention and what it actually means, it will prove difficult or even impossible for them to understand or appreciate it, as, strangely enough, numerous critics who should have known better nonetheless have managed to do. Romances, in fact, provided the seedbed for the novel’s future growth and evolution as a literary form. As major critic of the Western John G. Cawelti notes, adding his own voice to that of twentieth-century literary critic Northrop Frye, in The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, “The Western is clearly an example of . . . romance.” Cawelti, in a statement that fits The Rainbow Trail’s main hero, Jim Shefford, promptly adds that romance incorporates “the movement of the hero from alienation to commitment.”3 Additionally, romance focuses on adventure and a quest, the idealization of characters, places, occurrences, and even ideas, on mysterious forces and even the supernatural. In essence, a romance allows an author to go beyond realism even while employing vast amounts of it. Moreover, it connects strongly to myth-making and demands heightened emotions, two features of The Rainbow Trail and Grey’s writing as a whole, whether fiction or nonfiction. As such, romance demands what the great British Romantic Thomas Coleridge famously termed “willful suspension of disbelief.”
One result of Grey’s repeatedly writing romances is that, strangely enough, it helps qualify the commonplace claim that he penned mere formula fiction; while Grey most certainly employs abundant formulaic elements, on the whole, his romances fit more as literary equivalents to music’s variations on a theme. Granted, Grey’s variations may not ascend to a sublimity analogous to classical music, but they do register somewhere comparable to the more complex songs of rock and roll, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Backstreets.” The Rainbow Trail, in fact, creates one of these variations. John Shefford’s quest proves at least three-pronged. Yes, love also being central to romance, he improbably seeks out Fay Larkin, an exotic young woman he has only heard about through hearsay from two friends, Bern and Elizabeth Venters. Ancillary to that, Shefford hopes to account for the legendary gunman Jim Lassiter and his female companion, Jane Withersteen, about whom the Venters have told him. But because the former pastor Shefford also finds himself adrift in a crisis of faith, his personal dark night of the soul, his quest also involves seeking a truer vision of God than he ever found in the pulpit he preached from. Consequently, this three-pronged quest ends up leading to the novel’s original title when it was serially published, The Desert Crucible. Not only must Shefford undergo the desert heat in order to be first tested and then reformed, but also by its metaphorically connected companions: the heat of love, the heat of adventure, the heat of doubt. Together they form his quest as well as him.
In The Rainbow Trail, consequently, as is typical in Grey’s books, the hero must loom nearly as large as the land. In fact, in some ways, since the land creates him, the hero and the land are one. Although in the foreword Grey termed The Rainbow Trail “an independent story,” it is nonetheless a sequel to Riders of the Purple Sage that provides “an answer to a question often asked.” Consequently, The Rainbow Trail poses a hero problem, since in it Grey needs to include the two heroes of the earlier book. Venters and Lassiter have already been reformed by the crucible, already lionized and completed. This is Shefford’s moment, and thus his book. So the two heroes of Riders of the Purple Sage must decrease that Shefford increase, as frequently indeed, the heroes of romance do fade and give way to the next in line. In the final analysis, while these and other of Grey’s heroic characters may not cast mythic shadows as long as that cast by James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo in The Prairie, at least some of their shadows emerge off to its side, thus extending the totality of its form.
Though certainly capable of overwrought descriptions, Grey is frequently over-criticized for his purple prose. For one thing, it is part and parcel of the romance form. Yet few observant people who spend much time away from cities and suburbs in the western United States would find much to criticize in a vast number of Grey’s natural descriptions. Even in its current battered condition, pockmarked with oil and coal-bed methane wells and blighted by McMansions, the American West likely remains the single greatest home of the larger-than-life landscapes that further enhance a romance. From his purple sage to his hellishly haunting Death Valley to, yes, his Rainbow Trail, Grey thrives on exotic but real landscapes. Place serves not just as the main inspiration for but also as the main character in many of his books, including The Rainbow Trail. . Grey maintains the following in “Nonnezoshe,” his essay about his own trip to Rainbow Bridge:
This rainbow bridge was the one great natural phenomenon, the one grand spectacle which I had never seen that did not at first give vague disappointment, a confounding of reality, a disenchantment of contrast with what the mind had conceived.
But this thing was glorious. It absolutely silenced me. . . . I had a strange, mystic perception that this rosy-hued, tremendous arch of stonewas a goal I had failed to reach in some other life, but had now found. Here was a rainbow magnified even beyond dreams, a thing nottransparent and ethereal, but solidified, a work of ages, sweeping up majestically from the red walls, its iris-hued arch against the blue sky.4
For all of their blood and thunder, then, Grey’s descriptions are more comparable to lightning, emitting as they do flashes of light on the ineffable he seeks to understand. Therefore, they actually prove to be understatement. He is the patron pilgrim saint of place, The Purple Sage, with “the” answer to life being that true knowing is unknowing, a mystical something that is no-thing but rather beyond thing-hood and sensed, felt, experienced via the portal of the concrete, particularly as it is represented by places that are exactly that: distinct places, not the rapidly multiplying everywheres of the twenty-first century.
Place, nonetheless, was far from the only real-life “natural” ingredient in Grey’s work. Zane Grey lived, to a degree, much of what he wrote into his Westerns. He was, of course, an accomplished outdoorsman, one who knew his rugged business, as both “Nonnezoshe” and The Rainbow Trail conclusively demonstrate. The numerous world records he held for fishing and his plethora of hunting successes, along with his many horseback camping tours, at once proved and provided much of his expertise. Yet ultimately he left Arizona for good in 1929 because he believed commercialism, in particular tourism, was ruining the state. In many ways, this man who looked back on a Golden Age that to his eyes had rapidly declined to silver to bronze to brass to clay was paradoxically prescient at the same time, especially regarding the destructive ways of what we now term an amenities tourist economy. Both in fiction and in life, Grey desperately loved and held hard to the savage, the wild, the elemental, and he bemoaned what he viewed as its exponential maiming.
Despite his own philandering, Grey particularly valued women and was critical of Mormon polygamy, which, as in Riders of the Purple Sage, serve as central concerns in The Rainbow Trail and thus to a large measure again place him ahead of his time. These issues, as much a part of Grey’s world as they continue to be to ours with the rise of various forms of feminism and the more recent sensationalizing of “fundamentalist” Mormons, Warren Jeffs, and polygamist enclaves, provide both books with significant plot and thematic elements, not to mention despicable but somewhat complex villains. The Rainbow Trail, however, reveals a greater ambiguity on Grey’s part regarding polygamy and the Mormons, even featuring a secondary level cowboy hero who is also a Mormon, Joe Lake, based on the real-life Joe Lee, a companion of Grey’s on his initial trip to Nonnezoshe. Much of this softening is due likely to Grey’s trip falling in 1913, a year after the first book’s publication.5
Finally, Grey further strode beyond most people of his time in the nature of his views about Native Americans, and other than in his decade-later The Vanishing American, his stance is most apparent in The Rainbow Trail. Here, the Paiute guide Nas ta Bega of Grey’s initial trip to Nonnezoshe becomes only slightly altered in tribe and capitalization as the Navajo Nas Ta Bega, both a spiritual and physical guide for Shefford. Most telling issue-wise is the story of this man’s sister, Glen Naspa, who is seduced and ruined by a white missionary, then dies. Grey despised the missionaries and subsequently withstood heavy fire for his stance on that issue. In addition, Nas Ta Bega orates several telling speeches about his sister and his people, moving (perhaps unfortunately) beyond personhood to a symbolic and even mythological status, ending up somewhere with or just below Cooper’s Uncas as the “last” of his immediate people.
In the end, then, for all of Grey’s romance, for all of what Mark Twain little doubt would call Grey’s excesses and “literary sins,” when properly contextualized and understood, Zane Grey curiously proves to be one of America’s trailblazing earth poets, one of its most honest “environmental” writers, one of its most powerful authors, period. The Rainbow Trail belongs among his best books in these regards, too. As he characteristically (and ironically enough, ultimately incorrectly) moralizes about Rainbow Bridge, or the romantic indigenous word “Nonnezoshe” of his essay title:
It was not for many eyes to see. The tourist, the leisurely traveler, the comfort-loving motorist would never behold it. Only by toil, sweat, endurance, and pain could any man ever look at Nonnezoshe. It seemed well to realize that the great things of life had to be earned.6
As for Grey’s writing itself, in all of its own toil, sweat, endurance, and pain, it is not merely purple prose about purple sage, but rather what T. S. Eliot famously terms a “bold raid on the inarticulate.” Grey strives mightily, wrestling like Jacob with God. In doing so, he has cast a long shadow of his own, influencing, whether directly or indirectly, numerous acclaimed later writers ranging from Ernest Hemingway and Larry McMurtry to Edward Abbey and Cormac McCarthy. Grey beckons them and us to strive with him and, in the process, to honor the wildness without, our own wildness within.
David Cremean is an Associate Professor of Humanities and English at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, as well as upcoming President of the Western Literature Association (2009). He earned a Ph.D. in English from Bowling Green State University. His scholarly writing focuses on Western American literature and film and his creative writing on the West and the outdoors.
1. Thomas H. Pauly, Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 25.
2. Zane Grey, Wanderer of the Wasteland (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1990),
3. David Fenimore, “‘A Bad Boy Grown Up’: The Wild Life behind Zane Grey’s Westerns,” in Exploring the American Literary West: International Perspectives, ed. David Rio (N.p.: University of the Basque Country, 2006), 65.
4. Zane Grey, “Nonnezoshe,” in Tales of Lonely Trails (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1922), 14–15.
5. Ibid., 3.
6. Ibid., 17.