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Zane Grey

Zane Grey is considered one of America’s most prolific writers and a pioneer of the Western as a literary genre.

When Zane Grey’s first successful novel, “Heritage of the Desert,” was published in 1910, Arizona was still considered a territory.  Outside of its urban enclaves—Tucson and Phoenix—it was a land of few frills.  Leisure activities bore little similarity to the sophisticated entertainment industry that permeates today’s society.  Silent films were in their infancy, radio and television were unknown,  People satisfied themselves with simple pleasures, one of which was reading.  And the 17 million books Grey sold in his lifetime speak to the popularity of the Western novel.
Grey, who was born in 1872 in Zanesville, Ohio, a town that bore his ancestor’s name, was an unlikely candidate to write about the West.  His early interest was baseball—he played semi-professionally and attended the University of Pennsylvania on an athletic scholarship. While at college, he studied dentistry at the behest of his father.  After graduation in 1896, he opened a practice in New York City.
Grey’s real interest, however, was not filling teeth but filling pages with words.  His first novel, “Betty Zane,” was written in 1903 and based on his family’s history.  Several publishers rejected the novel because they felt the book wouldn’t be of interest to people.  In frustration, Grey published it himself.
In 1902, with the publication of “The Virginian,” Pennsylvanian Owen Wister created an immensely popular genre—the Western novel.  The book’s success was not lost on Grey, who shared Wister’s interest in all things Western and was determined to follow his lead.
Grey was a 35-year-old newly married aspiring novelist when he stepped off a train in Flagstaff in 1906.  He had come with a friend to hunt mountain lions and was overwhelmed by the grandeur of its landscape.  An enduring love affair with Arizona began.  The territory was, in his novelist eye, the last frontier peopled by heroic cowboys, virtuous maidens, noble savages, sour-faced outlaws and straight-shooting lawmen.
Arizona was fodder for a fertile imagination, and Grey wrote of it with clarity and finely crafted detail.  While his characters were larger than life, the mountains, the red rock canyons, the thundering Colorado and the desert were depicted with breathtaking accuracy.
In 1918, Grey, then among the world’s best-selling authors, established a permanent home at Altadena, Calif.  To accommodate his frequent trips to Arizona, he built a hunting lodge on the Mogollon Rim near Payson.  Six months of the year he traveled through Arizona, Rouge River country in Oregon and the South Seas, where he indulged in his love of fishing.  The other half of the year he wrote.  He penned an astonishing 100,000 words per month, which translated into some 90 books written in his lifetime.  Although not all the books he wrote were published, 56 of them were. Twenty four were set in Arizona.
Grey’s novels became a great source for silent films and, later, for “talkies.”  He insisted that the movies be filmed at the locations depicted in the stories, and many were shot in Arizona.  When “Call of the Canyon,” which was filmed in Oak Creek Canyon, opened at Flagstaff’s Orpheum Theater in March 1924, ticket demand was so great it was rerun several times.
If naivety influenced the romantic shape of Grey’s characters, it influenced his dealings with people as well.  As a contemporary noted, the novelist lived in a world of good and bad, and black and white, devoid of gray matter.
In 1930, Grey brought a group of friends to Flagstaff for a bear hunt, but learned that the season had been postponed.  He asked for a special out-of-season license, but his request was denied.  Claiming he had been “knifed in the back,” he wrote a scathing letter to the Arizona Sun.  The state, he said, had “sold out to commercialism,” the Tonto Rim was ruined by “automobiles” and the Grand Canyon had become a “tin can, gasoline joint.”  He left Arizona in a huff and never returned.  He died nine years later.
W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy author.

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