UNITED STATES

Norwich, OH

How Zane Grey Became the Father of the Western Novel

Zane Grey’s typewriter on his desk at the Zane Grey Museum in Norwich, Ohio

The author’s typewriter sits on the desk in the replica study in the Zane Grey Museum in Norwich, Ohio. Grey would lock himself in the study for days at a time when he was writing.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE TEENAGE BOY wanted to be a writer. At 15 he penned his first story and proudly showed it to his father. The reaction was unexpected. His dad, who wanted the boy to follow in his footsteps and become a dentist, was enraged.

Kat Miller points to a picture of a severe-looking Victorian gentleman in a little museum here. “That is the father,” she says. “He tore the boy’s story to shreds and beat him, saying, ‘No son of mine is going to be a scribbler.’”

But the boy did become a scribbler. His name was Zane Grey and he wrote more than 90 books, 60 of them western novels. Most of the novels became bestsellers and he ended up a multimillionaire.

“His Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) became the western that all other westerns had to measure up to,” says Miller, curator of the Zane Grey Museum in Norwich, just east of Zanesville, Ohio, where the author was born in 1872. (His maternal great-grandfather, Ebenezer Zane, founded the town.) Miller adds, “He is one of the most prolific authors of westerns. He sometimes wrote three or four books a year.”

Grey became known as “the father of the adult Western” and much of what he wrote is still in print or available as e-books. Titles like Riders of the Purple Sage, The Heritage of the Desert, Robbers Roost, The Code of the West and The Last of the Plainsmen conjure up images of gallant cowboys, rugged lawmen, independent pioneer women and noble Native Americans. (“He was decades ahead of his time in his portrayal of aboriginal people,” says Miller.)

The museum traces his life and career through artifacts, first editions, movie posters (dozens of his novels made it to the screen), western gear, clothing, guns and a full-scale replica of his study where, as Miller explains, “He would retreat for three or four days at a time to write, without interruption. His wife, Dolly, would put his meals just inside the door.”

His first books were indifferently received, probably because he had never been west and they lacked the “feel” of the frontier. Then he met the western hunter and guide Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones, who persuaded him to go west with him. Thus began Grey’s real love affair with the west. He “smelled the mesquite, touched the sagebrush” (as he said later) and now his evocation of the west, its majesty and grandeur, its landscapes and its characters had the ring of truth.

Besides the west, Grey’s other passion was fishing, and he wrote more than 20 books (mostly non-fiction) on the sport as well as hundreds of features for outdoors magazines. He indulged his passion in Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti.

His son Loren wrote once that his father “fished on average 300 days a year through his adult life.” Grey admitted that he suffered from “black moods”—he was probably manic-depressive—and one way to cure them was to go fishing. He died in California in 1939, aged 67.

 

ACCESS

For more information, go to www.ohiohistory.org, click on “Museums & Historic Sites,” then click on “National Road and Zane Grey Museum.”

For information on travel in Ohio visit the Tourism Ohio website at www.discoverohio.com.