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Meyer, W.E.H. Jr. Zane Grey and the American, Hypervisual Tradition

West Fork Trail, AZ; Credit: Michael D. McCumber

Meyer Jr., W. E. H. (1989), Zane Grey and the American, Hypervisual Tradition. Journal of American Culture, 12: 59–69. doi: 10.1111/j.1542-734X.1989.1204_59.x

Her vaunted images of European scenery changed to operetta settings.

She had nothing with which to compare this illimitable space.

«Oh!-America!» was her unconscious tribute.
The Call of the Canyon

Zane Grey cannot be treated as simply a «popular» or «Western» author because his novels deal too intimately with the Sight-Geist of American literary tradition. From the Puritans to the present day, American art and life have defined themselves according to Emerson’s ecstatic «transparent eyeball» and the bold assumption that we had «listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe» because the New World explorer no longer wished to hear but to see for himself – what Emerson summed up as our «genius in America, with tyrannous eye» (Poet 238) and what Zane Grey likewise intuits in the eye-dealism of his fiction in the anti-verbal, anti-civilized hypervisuality, for example of Rogue River Feud:

Out there in what they call civilization I see and I think. Here I see, but don’t think. (148)

Grey’s novels, in fact, are all allegories of Hawthorne’s great Aesthetic American Adultery, of the hypervisual brand on every New-World human breast and cattle’s flank – of the traumatic but Sanative power of the Melvillean «A sharp eye for the White Whale» (Moby-Dick, 121). And because Grey’s novels not only vie with the greatest of American writers in extolling our «Democratic Vistas» but often excel Whitman’s or Wolfe’s «bright panoramas» or «distant soaring ranges» (Look Homeward, 522), this «popular» culturalist must be seen and taken seriously in his proper New-World context – the same passionate context and conviction that led a contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to laud the «fresh, green breast of the new world … that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes» (Gatsby 182).

All in all, Zane Grey has accepted as ambitious a «literary» challenge as any novelist of modern times – the elevation, reconstitution and conservation of his country’s highest ideals, it anti-verbal, hypervisual aspirations:

He saw thought and soul and nature – strong vision of life. (Riders 198)

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Posted by on 2017-10-12 in About Zane Grey

 

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Dreaming of Idaho: Illuminating the Literature of Idaho through Zane Grey’s Thunder Mountain.

Stoddart, R. A. (2016). Dreaming of Idaho: Illuminating the Literature of Idaho through Zane Grey’s Thunder Mountain. From The Selected Works of Rick A. Stoddart; University of Idaho

Odds are that most Idaho writers did not grow up dreaming of becoming an “Idaho” author. Smart money would assume they simply desired to write, and be prosperous in writing, and geographic location played no part in their decision to put pen to paper. However, readers often like to associate authors with geographic regions. This is because the work either contains elements of that region within its content or the author has some connection to the area through birth or place of residence. Idaho readers are no different in that regard, embracing writers such as Vardis Fisher or Mary Hallock Foote. While “Idaho author” may seem like a simple concept to define, it is actually a nuanced literary construction. For example, Ernest Hemingway is often considered an Idaho author but he is also claimed by many other states and places around the world. This essay will examine what goes into making a writer an Idaho author. This undertaking will use Western genre novel writer Zane Grey’s 1932 novel Thunder Mountain which is set in Idaho to examine this literary exploration. Thunder Mountain is a fictionalized telling of the Idaho mining camp of the same name.

What is our collective fascination with the fictions and truths of the West and by extension Idaho? Robert Penn Warren tapped into something true when writing about a character briefly seeking solace in the physical and metaphorical West in All The King’s Men (1946).

“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. (p.286)”

But this Robert Penn Warren character is only a visitor to the West — an interloper or outsider — defining what the West is for us.

Zane Grey’s Thunder Mountain might certainly be viewed in the same way towards its description of Idaho. It is a fictionalized telling of the Idaho mining camp of the same name. The story centers on a rough and tumble cowboy from Missouri turned miner, who garnered his reputation in Montana. He takes under his wing a tenderfoot father and daughter from out East and helps interpret the wild west of Idaho for them. Ironically, this outsider interpretation for others of Idaho, its landscapes and experiences, is reminiscent of many writers who live in and write about Idaho. Grey was not from Idaho, nor did he live here. Thunder Mountain is his only significant work with a setting in Idaho. So then, is Grey’s interpretation of Idaho an accurate one? Is this Idaho literature?

Grey was known to write formulaic novels. Ronald (1975) describes the Zane Grey formula in this manner.

“An Easterner – that is, an innocent – arrives in the West. He, or she, has been a failure in the past and seems unprepared to meet the challenges ahead. The land at first seems harsh and unforgiving – the sun is too hot, the canyons too deep, the peaks too rugged, the rivers too swift. Problems are compounded by the appearance of evil, of men who live by their guns and who care nothing for the rights of others. Gradually, however, the neophyte becomes a man. Rather than be beaten by the environment, he learns to conquer the elements, and in doing so acquires a deep appreciation for the land. (p. 13)

Thunder Mountain definitely follows this familiar plot-line but Ronald also notes that “(m)ost important, the Zane Grey formula is an outgrowth of the author’s personal experiences, a reiteration of his own journey to the frontier” (Ronald, 1975 p.13). Grey did indeed experience Idaho as he journeyed to the remote area around Thunder Mountain on a multi-day horse packing trip. This trip served as the basis of inspiration for the rich descriptions he includes in Thunder Mountain such as this description along a canyon in the Salmon River:

“Somehow it had induced lingering hours of happy reverie, to which he had long been a stranger. The place was down around the bend from the valley, where a bench of sage nestled under a great wall. The melodious murmur of the stream came up; the warm sun beat down; the sweetness of sage almost intoxicating; the solitude was omnipresent; and across the canyon a tremendous broken slope as many-sided as that mountain could boast. Long glistening slants of talus, rugged narrow defiles winding up, grassy benches fringed with fir, huge sections of splintered cliff hanging precariously, and patches of black lodge-pole lines stepped endlessly to the blue sky (p.15).”

This trip has been documented in at least two articles (Kimball 1973; Waite 1996) and each approach this trip through the eyes of an Idahoan marveling at the otherness of Zane Grey with his fancy saddle and Japanese cook that accompanies him. Despite the otherness of Zane Grey’s camping provisions, it could be argued that Grey did indeed experience Idaho and this experience is found with the surprisingly descriptive prose of Thunder Mountain. Ronald (1975) notes that Grey had once stated “My inspiration to write has always come from nature. Character and action are subordinated to setting (p.14).” Ronald concurs but suggests alternatively that “Character and action are not subordinated to setting, but rather are developed by it. The three work together, with setting providing the impetus for change (p.14-15).” As setting plays such an important role in the development of Grey’s work, it could then be thought that the setting of Idaho is the primary protagonist in Thunder Mountain since, as Ronald suggests, it is the vehicle which not only drives the plot but also initiates change in the characters. From this angle, Thunder Mountain is indeed a book about Idaho and should be embraced heartily as part of its literature.

The rest of the article is found at Bepress

 
 

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Zane Grey and images of the American West

In 1995 Kevin S. Blake wrote an article about Zane Grey’s influence on popular culture. In his introduction he says:

“The western novels by Zane Grey have been a source of imagery about the American West for almost the entire twentieth century. The plots and characterizations of Grey’s popular novels set in the American West have been thoroughly examined, but it is less clear how his work acquired a fundamental role in the creation of western imagery. With the ability to influence much of the public, mass media dominate the molding of popular culture. A medium that repeatedly projects a set of simple ideas can define the amorphous perceptual lenses through which people view a landscape and fuse them into a clear, uniformly perceived place image. Movies and television now often clarify place perceptions, but literature traditionally played a key role.

Speculation about the meaning of the American West, a landscape that occupies center stage in American folklore, is more profitable with an understanding of the evolution of the ideas that are attached to the place. This article explains how Grey’s distinctive combination of spatial, temporal, landscape and social elements crystallized the enduring idea of a mythical West and qualified him as a place-defining novelist (Shortridge 1991). My mapping and analysis of Grey’s settings lead me to contend that he shaped popular attitudes about the extent of the boundaries of the West and the location of its core. Furthermore, the temporal settings of these novels proved integral to continuing popular acceptance of the western myth. I also illustrate how Grey’s evocative portrayal of the landscape and social characteristics of the region is representative of the western imagery. I discuss modern ramifications of Grey’s imagery in each section, and a review of the western myth making that preceded Grey and his unparalleled record of popularity provides the context for understanding his power of place definition.”

The entire article may be read at: Blake, K. S. (1995). Zane Grey and images of the American West. Geographical Review, 202-216.

 
 

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