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WILLIAM R. HANDLEY Distinctions without Differences: Zane Grey and the Mormon Question The immensely popular work of Zane Grey had enormous influence on the development of the Western. Although his work is best known fot its formulaic elements such as the gunslinger, one of the cutiosities, from our contemporary standpoint, of his most influential and successful Western, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), is the peculiatity of his historical villain: the Mormon polygamist. Although early reviewers noted the historical distinctiveness of his antagonist, contemporary criticism of the novel has given it relatively little attention.1 Grey's first novel to deal with Mormons, The Heritage of the Desert (19 10), like the 1915 sequel to Riders, is contrastingly sympathetic toward and understanding ot Mormons, given his personal experience among them." The immediate cultural catalyst for Grey's reversion in Riders to a demonizing stereotype, which was arguably key to the novel's huge success, was an anti-Mormon magazine crusade in 191 1 that Grey was well aware of and that revived paranoia about polygamy. I will discuss this crusade in Section I, along with the cultural logic behind that immediate context: the history of Mormon and American tension that would make of that brief, revived fear of polygamy such a potent factor in the novel's reception. Far from being a substitutable figure in Grey's novel, the polygamous Mormon was a specific repository for Grey's readers , as it had been for decades for Americans, of the contradictions and anxieties inherent in Ametican beliefs about tacial and sexual identity (and the Others such identity is figured against) and of the relationship Alignai Quarwrh Volume 57, Nuniber i, Spring 2001 Copyright © 2001 by Arizona Board ot Regents ISSN 0004- 1 61 o William R. Handle)1 between the law and religious freedom. The Mormons figured negatively in these categories' relation to empire-building not simply as an Othet but as a "not-quite-Other," in the words of Terryl Givens. Indeed , the Mormon distinction, which made it a much demonized group in American politics and culture up to the time of Grey's novel, came eventually to make little différence as an effective Othet once the end of polygamy—and rumors of polygamy's continued practice—allowed the Mormons to become identifiably "white," in the period's moral and ethnic senses, and thus American, a process that merits comparison with the history of the Irish in America (Roediger 153—63; Ignatiev). Set forty years before it was published, Grey's novel records this transition : "I've known many good Mormons," says the hero Lassiter, "but some are blacker than hell" (131). As the wealth of explanatory criticism on the formula Western shows, its ideological and cultutal origins are far more complex than the simple formula itself. This essay argues that in the case of one of its founding practitioners, the Western formula's function—and a key to its popularity—is not simply to demonize an Other but also to resolve American contradictions about religious, sexual, and racial identity by casting the American hero and Mormon villains in distinct but eerily similar roles in which they enact a family drama, and in which the whiteness and womanhood of Grey's (virtuous) Mormon heroines are at stake. That family drama is in its largest cultural significance the drama ot America justifying to itself its own history of conquest, since the designs of Empire are to a large degree predicated upon the idea that the conquered are both Other (sexually, religiously, racially) and yet culturally "familiarized," or made ideologically serviceable and assimilable , for the conquerors. In the case of Zane Grey and the Mormon question, the ghosts of what America had transformed ate revived in a manner that will ensure their disappearance from the Western formula , once the Mormon distinction was no longer freighted with much difference. Grey wrote his novel at just the right moment, when nostalgia about the distinctiveness of Mormon polygamy began to replace paranoia about it; when, in othet words, Mormons were no longer seen to threaten "whiteness," "womanhood," "Christian civilization," or the American Empire. In the three sections below, I will explote the history of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-33
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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