Sunday, January 31, 2016

Today in History

Zane Grey (UPenn)
Today in 1872, Zane Grey* was born in Zanesville, Ohio. He was born as Pearl Zane Gray, the fourth of five children born to dentist Lewis Gray and Alice Josephine Zane. Zanesville, where he grew up, was founded by his mother's grandfather, Ebenezer Zane, a pioneer and Revolutionary War hero.

Zane Grey (he dropped "Pearl" as an adult and his family changed the spelling of their name to Grey after he was born) was fascinated by history. His first three novels were about heroic Revolutionary ancestors. He was also a pretty good baseball player, and got a baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied dentistry. He was more interested in writing, baseball, and fishing, but he felt that dentistry was the practical choice. Upon graduation, he opened a practice in New York City to be close to publishers, writing in the evenings. He did not have much success with it.

Zane married Lina "Dolly" Roth in 1905, a schoolteacher, after a stormy five year courtship. The couple moved to Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, near her family, and Zane gave up dentistry to focus on writing. Dolly became his proofreader, copy-editor, and business manager, while also raising three children. Although he loved Dolly, Zane was not a faithful husband; he was frequently away and had a succession of mistresses.

His first novel, Betty Zane, a historical romance based on an ancestor's life, was rejected by publishers and he self-published. At this point he might have given up writing if he had not met Colonel CJ "Buffalo" Jones at a NYC lecture in 1908. Jones gave him the opportunity to write his biography, taking him out West on a hunting trip and to gather material for the book, and Zane fell in love with the region. On his return home in 1909, Zane wrote about Buffalo Jones' adventures in his book Last of the Plainsmen, which did not sell well. But Zane had found his niche, and his next book and first true Western, Heritage of the Desert, was a bestseller. Zane continued to write, and two years later he published his most famous novel, Riders of the Purple Sage.

More than anyone else, Zane Grey launched the Western genre into mainstream popularity. He was a prolific writer, with more than 90 books, most of them Westerns. His works have been made into more than a hundred screen adaptations, including the 1996 version of Riders of the Purple Sage with Ed Harris.

I personally feel that his books don't age that well - they are rather stuffy and moralizing - but his influence on the genre and later authors, like Louis L'Amour, is tremendous.

*Links go to Amazon

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