|By Larry LeMasters
All western collectors have heard the name Zane Grey. When he died in 1939, he was a household name in America. As the author of nearly 60 western novels, Grey became one of the early and major forces that helped shape the myths of America’s Old West, giving America an idealized version of its lost frontier. As of 2012, 112 Hollywood movies have been made based on Zane Grey novels and short stories.
Grey’s work is also collected by many collectors who have never read one of his westerns. As famous as he was for western novels, Grey also wrote two hunting books, six children’s books, two baseball books, and eight fishing books. Many of these non-fictions books became bestsellers.
Some people wonder what makes a man an authority on so many diverse subjects. With Zane Grey, love of outdoor adventure lay at the heart of all of his successes. Grey nurtured interests in baseball, fishing, traveling, and writing. All of his interests became fodder for his writing.
Zane Gray was born Pearl Zane Grey in 1872. It is rumored that he received the name “Pearl” when, in 1872, Queen Victoria’s mourning clothes were described in newspapers as “pearl gray.” After Zane’s birth, his father, Lewis M. Gray, changed the spelling of the family name to “Grey.”
Grey suffered from a violent disposition all of his life. As a child, he frequently fought violent brawls with nearly anyone who wanted to fight. It is thought that the severe beatings his father gave him accounted for some of his own violent nature. Throughout adulthood, Grey continually suffered bouts of depression and anger. He described his anger as, “A hyena lying in ambush – that is my black spell.”
Grey wrote his first fictional story, Jim of the Cave, when he was 15 years old. His father considered writing a waste of time, so he tore the manuscript to shreds and beat Grey for having written it.
Grey was forced into dentistry, his father’s profession, but was fortunate to land a full baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1896 with a degree in dentistry.
He struggled with the idea of either becoming a writer or a baseball player. Practical concepts that his father had beaten into him as a youth won out, and Grey became a dentist in New York. While building a lack-luster dentistry trade, Grey played minor league baseball for several teams, including the Newark, N.J. Colts.
Fortunately for America, Grey resumed writing in the evenings. His first three novels told of the heroism of his ancestors during the American Revolutionary War. All were rejected by Harper & Brother’s editor Ripley Hitchcock. In 1909, Grey submitted another book to Hitchcock – The Last of the Plainsmen. Hitchcock rejected this book also, stating, “I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction.”
Grey felt dejected, but, financially buoyed by his wife, Dolly, and her family’s money, he continued to write. In 1910, he wrote his first Western novel, The Heritage of the Desert, in just four months. It became a best seller, and his fortune and fame as a writer was guaranteed.
Grey’s greatest novel and best-selling book, Riders of the Purple Sage, came in 1912. Many Western critics agree that it played a significant role in shaping the formula of the popular Western genre. Riders of the Purple Sage gave the literary world “Lassiter.” Jim Lassiter is a hired gunman, a killer of Mormons, who wears black and stands alone as a symbolic anti-hero of the Old West.
Lassiter’s characterization directly led to characters such as Shane, Zorro and Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name characters. Lassiter firmly establishes the behavior of Old West gunmen by letting his tired horse drink before he drinks and treating the female protagonist, Jane, honorably.
Grey wrote for another 27 years, becoming one of America’s first millionaire authors, and “new” books of his, unpublished ones piled up during his lifetime, continued to be published for nearly 70 years following his death, but the highlight of his Western writing career came in 1912 with the publishing of Riders of the Purple Sage. The novel ranks as No. 6 on the 25 Best Western Novels as chosen by the Western Writers of America
Though he made his name and his fortune as an author of Western novels, many consider Grey’s best writing has to do with fishing, especially his Bible on fishing – Zane Grey on Fishing.
Free from the conventions of the Western genre and the expectations of his fans and publishers, Grey was able to blend his talent for narrative with his keen eye for detail and humor, allowing fishermen, both weekend and professional, to enjoy the arm-chair lure of the water.
Grey was an avid fisherman all of his life, and his love of fishing swam out of his many books on the subject. Collectors and dealers are aware that many of Grey’s fishing books are among his most valuable. Recently, on eBay, a first edition (one of only 10 published by Harper’s) of his Tales of Southern Rivers, considered “very rare,” was offered for $8,900.
Collecting Grey normally comes down to collecting books; although, there are other items that Grey endorsed, such as the KA-BAR T29 pocket fisherman’s knife. There is even a Jerry Garcia poster from his 1969 group New Riders of the Purple Sage that adds a bit of charm to any Zane Grey collection.
Many collectors look for only first editions of Grey’s works while others collect every hardback copy of Grey’s that they can find. Grey’s books have been reprinted many times, including in paperback, so it is easy to find different editions of the same book.
As a result of the many Hollywood movies based on Grey’s books, collectors love to find movie posters of his books, especially ones with Grey’s name on the poster.
Novice collectors who want to read his books can find them in any second-hand book store. Collectors search estate sales and auction houses for first edition copies with a first edition copy of Riders of the Purple Sage bringing a king’s ransom.
In life and in death, Zane Grey defined the American West.