Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Zane Grey and Images of the American West

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Zane Grey and Images of the American West

Article excerpt

The western novels by Zane Grey have been a source of imagery about the American West for almost the entire twentieth century. The plots and characterizations of Grey's popular novels set in the American West have been thoroughly examined, but it is less clear how his work acquired a fundamental role in the creation of western imagery. With the ability to influence much of the public, mass media dominate the molding of popular culture. A medium that repeatedly projects a set of simple ideas can define the amorphous perceptual lenses through which people view a landscape and fuse them into a clear, uniformly perceived place image. Movies and television now often clarify place perceptions, but literature traditionally played a key role.

Speculation about the meaning of the American West, a landscape that occupies center stage in American folklore, is more profitable with an understanding of the evolution of the ideas that are attached to the place. This article explains how Grey's distinctive combination of spatial, temporal, landscape, and social elements crystallized the enduring idea of a mythical West and qualified him as a place-defining novelist (Shortridge 1991). My mapping and analysis of Grey's settings lead me to contend that he shaped popular attitudes about the extent of the boundaries of the West and the location of its core. Furthermore, the temporal settings of these novels proved integral to continuing popular acceptance of the western myth. I also illustrate how Grey's evocative portrayal of the landscape and social characteristics of the region is representative of western imagery. I discuss modern ramifications of Grey's imagery in each section, and a review of the western myth making that preceded Grey and his unparalleled record of popularity provides the context for understanding his power of place definition.

DEVELOPMENT OF WESTERN MYTHS

The image of a region as large as the West is complex. Its most central and enduring theme is that of the frontier, a vast and stunning landscape where brave cowboys, rugged individualism, and dream fulfillment are the rule. Some of the common elements of popular western literature, especially pastoral innocence and deadly violence, may be traced to James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales" (Hart 1950). Dime novels by E. Z. C. Judson (alias Ned Buntline) and others created new heroes: Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill were bolder and younger than Leatherstocking and used horses and repeating rifles to battle the harsh elements of the Great Plains (Smith 1950).

Novelists were not alone in shaping western myths. Newspapers extensively covered Billy the Kid's adventures and the shootout at the O.K. Corral (Estleman 1987). The Indian-killing and heroine-rescuing exploits of cowboys were adapted straight from dime novels into the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, which ran from the 1870s to the 1910s (Riegel 1947). The first wave of painters to popularize the West was epitomized by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. Their sweeping canvases of outstanding natural features depicted the region as an unspoiled and magnificent wonderland (Kinsey 1992). People, if even present, were reduced to insignificant figures standing in awe of nature. By the end of the nineteenth century, Frederic Remington and Charles Russell portrayed the landscape as spectacular but beginning to come under the control of mountain men, cowboys, and Indians.

Even though the cowboy had become popular by the end of the nineteenth century, he did not supersede all other western heroes, and he was not always portrayed as a hero (Boatright 1980). When dime novels acquired a trashy reputation toward the end of the nineteenth century, eastern publishers searched for a writer who could address the colorful characters of the West more seriously (Athearn 1986). The search culminated in 1902 with Owen Wister, "a Pennsylvanian who sat in South Carolina to write a book about a Virginian living in Wyoming" (Marsden 1978, 207). …

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