"Dusk mantled the forest. A faint night wind arose, mournful and sweet. Lucy threaded her way back toward the clearing. And the peace of the wilderness seemed to have permeated her soul. She was just one little atom in a vast world of struggling humans, like a little pine sapling, lifting itself among millions of its kind toward the light. But that lifting was the great and the beautiful secret." from Under the Tonto Rim by Zane Grey
Having said how the books of Zane Grey inspired me toward life values and my own writing, I thought I'd go a bit farther with the why of it. Some say his view of life was too idyllic, not the way of the West as it was. His words often flow more like poetry than prose. He is praised for the descriptions of the land but belittled for the idyllic view of the relationships between men and women.
When I read his words now (and I own all his westerns, some so old and battered that they are lucky to hold together), it takes me a little to get into them and then it happens as I fall into the flow of the words and images. Once again I begin to feel their energy as it inspires me regarding the land and relationships between humans.
Clearly they have influenced my own value set. The snippet from The Call of the Canyon speaks to a philosophy I have often espoused.
"Carley saw two forces in life-- the destructive and constructive. On the one side greed, selfishness, materialism: on the other generosity, sacrifice and idealism. Which of them built for the future? She saw men as wolves, sharks, snakes, vermin, and opposed to them men as lions and eagles. She saw women who did not inspire men to fare forth to seek, to imagine, to dream, to hope, to work, to fight. She began to have a glimmering of what a woman might be."As I looked at his books more critically to write about them here, the first big thing I saw explains why he was such an influence on my writing. He didn't consider himself to be a western writer but to be a writer of historical romances. That explains why women were so important in his stories of the West.
Although the women are strong, if not in the beginning, they become thus, I suspect feminists might hate the books which tend to see women as responsible for a lot of what goes wrong in a culture when they adopt materialism, immodest dress, and lack of responsibility in how they use their beauty. On the other hand, they are seen as what will inspire a man to his best. As he portrays them, they are either the downfall or the salvation of a culture; and they can make or ruin a man.
A book like Under the Tonto Rim has an Arizona hero who is a wild-bee hunter. The heroine has come to the valley as a welfare worker to help families learn better ways to live. She does this by living in a cabin tent at the home of one of the families. The hero is the typical romance hero-- tall, muscular, a woodsman and used to living wild. He needs some taming as she also has to come to value the wild. There is a bad guy, but it's really about the beauty of that area and the rural community.
In his stories, Grey wrote about community events that my father used to talk of seeing where his parents would attend community barn dances in South Dakota and the dancing went on until dawn. The children were put into the loft to sleep but they could watch their parents dancing below.
Grey writes of a culture that isn't seen most places any more. The value set though was part of many western communities in the time he wrote with his first book being published in 1903. He wrote 90 books many of which were published after his death in 1939.
Probably a fiction writer of today couldn't write as he did with his poetic phrasing, the condemnation of modern culture, his characterizations of minorities (and boy was he not politically correct even for his time), the desire to go back to nature, and have his level of financial success.
Writers have to fit their times, and his time was open to his style and way of thinking. People wanted to be inspired, to reach to higher values. Critics thought otherwise about his writing, and he wrote how that bothered him.
"Those critics who crucify me do not guess the littlest part of my sincerity. They must be burned in a blaze. I cannot learn from them."If his many fans back then had known how he truly [lived his life in terms of the other women], would they have turned on him? Well in those days private lives for celebrities (and he was a celebrity of his time) were more possible. The quotes from his writing reveal black periods which makes me wonder if he was undiagnosed bi-polar, something that wouldn't have been possible to understand in that era.
"I will see this game of life out to its bitter end."
Knowing some of this now, the depression he must have suffered, it's amazing the positive feeling that his books project. Some say his wife, Dolly, was a big factor as she was his editor, promoter, mother figure, and perhaps even sometimes co-writer especially where it came to the women. I don't know though because if he had many lovers, he might've understood women better than one would suppose for a man who was supposed to be this great outdoorsman where fishing and hunting were his greatest treasure."I see so much more than I used to see. The effect has been to depress and sadden and hurt me terribly."
He wrote quite a few books where either a man or woman came to the West, engaged in hard labor and found their soul and deepest core strengthened. It was clearly a belief he had that hard work, nature, time on rivers and in mountains, those were all necessary to living fully. It appears that for him though one woman for a lifetime was not sufficient, and we can ask why, what drove him and how it was reflected in his books. I decided to order the biography, that is reviewed above, as I'd like to understand more about the life behind those books.
Photos all from my trips under the Mogollon Rim and on Tonto Creek