Zane Grey – A Biography of a Western Literary Genius

Zane_GreyZane Grey was born in Zanesville, Ohio, on the 31st January, 1872 to Alice Josephine Zane and Lewis M. Gray. He was his parents 4th out of 5 children and was given the name Pearl Zane Gray, in honour of Queen Victoria’s pearl grey mourning clothes. Zane dropped the Pearl as soon as he was able to and his father changed the spelling of the family’s last name from Gray to Grey, and in this way became known as Zane Grey.

Zane’s Youth

Zanesville, Ohio had been founded by the author’s maternal great grandfather, Ebenezer Zane, who was an American Revolutionary War patriot. Zane had a great respect and admiration for his ancestors that fought in the war, and they influenced his first three novels.

In addition to writing, his love of reading developed from his early childhood and he spent lots of time reading adventure stories and dime novels, with Robinson Crusoe and Buffalo Bill being two of his favourites. He also loved history and was inspired by the Ohio frontier book Our Western Border, to write his first novel, Jim of the Cave, at age 15. When Zane presented it to his father it was torn up, and he also received a proper beating for his efforts.

Zane’s father was a strict man and this was not the first time that he had physically disciplined the boy. This probably was what led to him becoming very aggressive and fighting regularly at school. As a result, he was very anti-social and was ostracized by his peers.

Grey found comfort and friendship in an elderly man who also lived in the community, Muddy Miser, who his father outspokenly expressed his disapproval of. Despite his father’s opposition to their relationship Zane spent a lot of his time with Miser, who was always supportive of his dream to become a writer. He also found an escape in his athletic abilities and spent a lot of time fishing and playing baseball.

In 1889, the family moved to Columbus, Ohio, as a result of a financial setback due to a poor investment that his father made. In their new home, Lewis attempted to restart his dental practice. The 17-year-old had been taught a few of the occupational skills from his father, and made house calls performing minor extractions. This was stopped by the state board as soon as they realised what was happening. During this time Zane also worked part-time as an usher in a movie theatre, and continued playing baseball during summer at the Columbus Capitals.

University and Zane’s Early Career

These summer games presented the opportunity for him to get several college offers, and he eventually accepted one at the University of Pennsylvania. He chose to study dentistry, because it was the safest choice. He continued to excel in baseball while playing for his school, and also enjoyed swimming and creative writing. He only maintained a minimum average academically, however, and continued to be very anti-social.

Zane graduated from university in 1896 and chose to move to New York City, to open his own dental practice. Even though the area was fiercely competitive, he wanted to stay where he had easy access to publishers. The amount of time he had to write was very limited and his busy lifestyle began taking a toll on him, both financially and emotionally. As a distraction from the monotony of his life, he continued playing baseball with the Orange Athletic Club in New Jersey.

Family Life and Writing

In 1900, Zane met Lina ‘Dolly’ Roth, who was 17 at the time and studying to become a teacher. While he was courting her he still continued seeing other women, being honest about his inability to be faithful. In spite of this flaw in his personality, she agreed to marry him and in 1905 they tied the knot. Together they moved to a farmhouse in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania.

Dolly received a substantial inheritance which Zane used as security to retire from dentistry and become a full-time author. Even though he loved writing, he lacked the ability to finish his work well. Dolly began to proofread and edit the pieces that he produced, and many of them were now accepted by publishers. In addition to being his wife and editor, she also fulfilled the position as his manager. Her exceptional business sense helped the couple to thrive.

In spite of his success and supportive wife, Zane was plagued with deep emotional problems such as mood swings, intense anger and depression. He frequently took trips away from home, and in 1907 extended these to start exploring the American west. He brought a camera with him and religiously took notes about all his observations and adventures. These experiences became the foundation of many of his novels. Being in the wilderness and going through the same things as his heroes made this a reality for him. He used his love and understanding of the area to bring the stories to life for his readers.

In 1910, while Dolly was pregnant with the first of their three children, Zane wrote his first western in four months. The Heritage of the Desert was published by Harper & Brothers and quickly became a best seller. In 1912, Riders of the Purple Sage, his most popular book, was released. Harper & Brothers agreed to publish all his books, thereafter, and had illustrations added to make them more appealing.

In 1918, the family moved to Altadena, California and bought a well-known mansion, ‘Millionaire’s Row,’ which was the first fireproof house in the city. The author was smitten by the area and wrote extensively about the way in which it made him feel.

Zane continued to fish using it as a means to ease his emotional pain, and put him in the mood to write. He explained how the sea soothed him. As a writer he would have dry spells, and continued his travels during them. When he was able to write again, he would throw himself into it completely, often doing in excess of 100,000 words per month.

In spite of his continuously growing popularity, he was regularly put down by many critics who claimed that his books were unrealistic, incredibly violent and had no respect for the values of the culture. As a result of Zane’s depression and negative self-beliefs, these criticisms affected him greatly.

In the 1920s, his explorations started taking him further away from his comfort zone, and he made trips to the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia. In 1923, Wonderer of the Wasteland was published and many people instantly recognised it as an autobiography, without it ever being revealed that this was so.

The 1930s brought with it the Great Depression and a blow to the publishing industry. Zane had income from royalties coming in, so his family did not fare badly at the time. This was also when many of his books were made into films.

Death and Moving Beyond

On October 23rd, 1939 Zane Grey died of heart failure, at his home in Altadena. He passed on as one of the first authors to become a millionaire. He was laid to rest in the Lackawaxen and Union Cemetery in Pennsylvania. Harper and Brothers continued to publish one of his books annually, even after his death, up until 1963.

Zane did not limit the genre that he wrote in to only westerns, but also published hunting, children’s, baseball and fishing books. His accomplishments in writing are phenomenal, with 90 books published and over 40 million book sales. During the years of 1917-1926 alone, 9 of his books made it to the Top Ten Best Sellers List. This means that they had already sold in excess of 100,000 copies each. Many of his novels have been turned into films and t.v. shows, delighting western fans in more ways than one.

There are many landmarks, and buildings, that have been dedicated to honouring his memory. These include:

• The National Road-Zane Grey Museum in the town of his birth Zanesville, Ohio,
• The Zane Grey Tourist Park in Bermagui, Australia,
• His former home in Lackawaxen is now the Zane Grey Museum
• ‘Millionaire’s Row’ is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Through his life’s works Zane Grey created a legacy that lives on in the hearts of western fans, throughout the world.