Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

One slow-moving oater
Originally published in 1912, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage is considered a seminal classic in the genre of literature of the American West. Set in 1871, the story takes place in a Mormon settlement in southern Utah. Jane Withersteen, orphaned and unmarried, is the wealthiest landowner in the town of Cottonwoods. Though a Mormon herself, Jane is independently minded and doesn’t always follow the dictates of the church elders. When she starts a relationship with Bern Venters, a gentile cowhand (“gentile” in this book means anyone who’s not a Mormon), the local Mormon authorities express their disapproval by arresting him. A Mormon elder named Tull has his eyes on Jane’s lands, riches, and beauty, and wants to make her his wife. When she declines, Tull and his fellow churchmen, with the blessing of the Mormon bishop, attempt to coerce her through intimidation tactics. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Lassiter arrives in town—a gentile gunfighter with a fearsome reputation as a killer of Mormons. Though Jane abhors his brutal tactics, this Lassiter just might be her savior.

The main problem with Riders of the Purple Sage is a problem that plagues many books in the western genre: an obsession with topography. Early in the book, Venters, in an attempt to save Jane further persecution, flees Cottonwoods and discovers a secret valley hidden amidst the Utah canyon lands. Grey unfortunately feels the need to enumerate every rock he treads over along the way. Way too many tedious chapters are spent describing this idyllic cowboy Garden of Eden. An excellent nature writer, like Henry David Thoreau or Frank Norris, might be able to pull this off, but in the hands of Grey it reads like a laundry list of canyon after canyon, ridge after ridge, wash after wash, ad nauseam. He obviously has a vivid picture in his head of what this landscape looks like, but he lacks the verbal eloquence necessary to get that image across sufficiently for the reader to visualize. The relentless repetition of the words “purple” and “sage” is tiresome at first and actively annoying by the end. So much ink is devoted to these inadequate descriptive passages that there isn’t much room for the plot to move. The first two-thirds of the book lurch along with the slow pace of an obstinate mule. The final chapters offer some more compelling drama, though it’s more soap opera than horse opera. There are three or four major revelations towards the end, but the story is so predictable they fail to surprise.

One audience that should definitely avoid this book are Mormons, for they’re likely to find offensive the depiction of the Cottonwoods church as a totalitarian theocracy. The only good Mormon in the book is Jane Withersteen, and she spends the entire narrative defending herself against her evil brethren. This one-sided depiction of an entire religion as villainous may have been acceptable a hundred years ago, but these days it comes across as unrealistic and prejudiced. In battles between good and evil, today’s reader expects more shades of gray.

I enjoy western movies, but as far as western literature is concerned, I’ve never found much satisfaction. I had high hopes for Riders of the Purple Sage, which is often billed as “the most popular western novel of all time.” In the end, however, it has done nothing but confirm my suspicion that the western may be the one realm of literature where the book is not better than the movie. If this is considered a classic example of the genre, I’d hate to see what a mediocre example would be.

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  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for your suggestions. I have been meaning to give Max Brand a try. When I do, I'll start with The Untamed.

      I am also a follower of the Pulpflakes blog (H.A. DeRosso link, above), and I know it covers westerns quite extensively. A good resource for fans of the genre.