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G A R Y T O P P I N G Utah Historical Society Zane Grey: A Literary Reassessment Until very recently, Zane Grey suffered from the same neglect by literary critics as other popular Western writers. As a result of a few hostile book reviews early in his career, the critical establishment had written Grey off as unworthy of serious study. Beginning in 1970, that situation began to mend, and at present Grey has received more attention than all other popular Western writers combined.1 These recent studies are useful, but it seems to me that most are either less comprehensive or less sophisticated than they might be, and that there are still productive points of view that are unexplored. My thesis is that much of the unfavorable criticism that Grey has received 1Though not a literary critic (he was a writer of Westerns himself), Frank Gruber started the recent group of studies with his Zane Grey: A Biography (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1970). Other book-length studies include Carlton Jackson’s Zane Grey (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973); Ann Ronald’s Zane Grey (Boise: Boise State University Press, 1975); Joseph L. Wheeler, “Zane Grey’s Impact on American Life and Letters: A Study in the Popular Novel” (Ph.D. dissertation, George Peabody College for Teachers, 1975) ; and Gary Topping, “Zane Grey’s West: Essays in Intellectual History and Criticism” (Ph.D. dissertation, Uni­ versity of Utah, 1977). Articles include Richard W. Etulain, “A Dedication to the' Memory of Zane Grey 1872-1939” Arizona and the West 12 (Autumn 1970) : 217-20; Danney Goble, “ ‘The Days That Were No More’: A Look at Zane Grey’s West,” Journal of Arizona History 14 (Spring 1973): 63-75; Gary Topping, “Zane Grey’s West,” Journal of Popular Culture 7 (Winter 1973) : 681-89 and “Zane Grey: The Life and Times of a Writer,” Southwestern American Literature (forthcoming) ; and Daniel J. Wilson, “Nature in Western Popular Literature From the Dime Novel to Zane Grey,” North Dakota Quarterly 44 (Spring 1976) : 41-50. 52 Western American Literature has been motivated by an improper understanding and appreciation of Grey’s objectives as a writer, and that even the favorable critics, by failing to appreciate those objectives, have sold Grey short. This is not an attempt to defend Grey, as I hope my account of his literary shortcomings will show, but rather a demonstration that a serious study of his work will support a generally more favorable view than has yet appeared. It was Grey’s great misfortune, so far as his initial reception by the literary community is concerned, to have held philosophical and literary positions rooted in the nineteenth century. For such a writer to fall into the hands of a critical establishment that was primarily con­ cerned, as Alfred Kazin points out, with “establishing a taste for modern literature in America,”2the result could only be disaster. The reviewers’ fundamental criticism of Grey was the lack of realism in his books. Bookman, for example, called the heroine of The Light of Western Stars “unreal and absurd.” Burton Rascoe, review­ ing Wanderer of the Wasteland, asked incredulously, “do Mr. Grey’s readers believe in the existence of such people as Mr. Grey depicts; do they accept the code of conduct implicit in Mr. Grey’s novels?”3 The critical standards the reviewers were using for Cabell, Dreiser, and Lewis, in other words, left Zane Grey nowhere, and there the matter stood for several decades. In attempting an objective evaluation of Grey’s literary worth, one might as well begin with the frank admission that he did indeed possess some grave deficiencies. One of the most fundamental indict­ ments the literary critic must bring against Grey is the stifling predicta­ bility of his plots. Most of his plots are only slightly varying fictionalizations of Grey’s own experience of the West: an Eastern dude comes West and sheds the superficialities of his Eastern cultural background, finding physical health, moral strength, philosophical enlightenment, or true love. Once the names of the characters, the specific geographical setting, and the exact nature of the Easterner’s problems are established, often the only interest remaining is...


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