Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) by Zane Grey

This month we are reading adventure and sea stories. First up, we head on out to the western canyons with the cowboys…

Review by A Reading Group Member

Plot Summary: Jane Withersteen, a young and beautiful Mormon rancher, is in conflict with the corrupt patriarchal leadership of her Mormon community. She is resisting becoming a polygamous wife of a Mormon elder, which would effectively cede her estate to the church. Moreover, she has turned for support to Venters, a ‘gentile’ [non-Mormon] cowboy friend. Venters is saved from a ‘warning-off’ whipping by Lassiter, a nomadic gunman and infamous killer of Mormons. Though Lassiter has long been on a quest to revenge the abduction of his sister, he elects to help fight Jane’s persecution. This becomes complicated by Jane’s desire to wean him off ‘living by the feud’. A parallel plot emerges when Venters goes in search of Jane’s rustled cattle. Taking refuge in a hidden valley to care for Bess, a young rustler he’d accidentally shot, he begins to fall in love. Meanwhile, Jane’s humanising effect on Lassiter is being compounded by her adoption of a little girl, Fay. As the romance between Lassiter and Jane [and Fay] develops, Jane increasingly abandons her church and Lassiter his guns. More central than confrontation becomes the evolving relationships between the characters, amidst a living vibrant landscape as all their lives are transformed.

Review: This western adventure story, published in 1912, has proved the most popular of Zane Grey’s novels and is generally regarded as a seminal work in the genre. Never out of print, it has been adapted for film 5 times [1918-96] and even had its title adopted by a late 60’s psychedelic country rock band,’ New Riders of the Purple Sage’. Set in a remote part of south Utah in 1871, the novel is basically a morality tale in which individuals are redeemed or destroyed. It is characterised by three facets.

There is the social setting of an isolated Mormon polygamous community whose leadership has strayed from its founding principles into the pursuit of power and wealth. Implicit in this is not only the oppression of its lay members but also a resistance to outsiders. Thus the Mormon faith is portrayed in terms of an internalised conformist self-sufficiency which is decaying from within. As such its leaders can be seen to represent unredeemable tyranny.

A more complex perspective emerges through the relationships of the main characters. Born into this Mormon environment, Jane’s morality has taken the form of an ethereal quest for spiritual salvation. This has produced an acquiescent and damped-down form of representation centered on the sanctity of the family, love and forgiveness, peace and non-violence. From ‘beyond’ comes the enigmatic loner, Lassiter. He is an archetypal western gunman hero, descendant of the chivalrous knight errant, dispensing deadly justice according to his own system of values, c.f. Zorro; Shane; The Lone Ranger; etc. Thus established structural clarity is visited by the immediacy of ethical relativity. Or, as Jane Tompkins puts it in her introduction to the novel, Jane’s 19th century Christian duty comes face to face with Lassiter’s 20th century secular materialism.

The net result is that the coherence of Jane’s faith becomes subject to dissonance, both from the onset of troubling doubt regarding her spiritual leaders and the arrival of Lassiter as rescuer. Such incongruity creates a transformational milieu. The story moves back and forth between Jane and Lassiter’s changing worlds as each continues to have an effect on the other. For instance, Jane moves from thinking she can dismantle Lassiter’s retaliatory violence, through bemusement over his capacity for gentleness, patience and love, to a welcoming of the protection his guns can offer. In the process, a mannered Mormon love gives way to something more vital. She also ceases to attend church. Meanwhile, the humanising effect of Lassiter’s increasing love for Jane and Fay is blunting his drive for conflict, which is making him less of a protector. In effect, Jane and Fay are becoming Lassiter’s religion. He eventually offers his guns to her and she refuses them. Whilst Lassiter has learned to let go of the feud, Jane has come to realise that violence is sometimes necessary. At the same time there is a parallel transformation of Venters. It is in this way that the novel portrays transition to a new form of life.

The third facet of this tale is the way the surrounding landscape becomes more than just a background. Whether the terrain has a life of its own, as Tompkins suggests, or exerts a kind of hallucinogenic effect [promoting a rock band’s choice of name], it certainly has parity with the action, c.f. Cezanne’s art work which also bridged the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus Venters and Lassiter sleep in the purple sage and, along with rustlers, take refuge in the labyrinthine canyons. Instead of flat prairie or the arid Monument Valley background to John Ford’s western films, this is a landscape of transformation which clings to the emotions and dialogue of the characters. Such sensualising of the landscape is possibly Zane Grey’s means of circumventing a prohibition in 1912 regarding the direct presentation of sexuality. It bears a striking parallel in this respect with Ethel M. Dell whose first novel ‘The way of an Eagle’ appeared in the same year.

Though the art of this creatively complex story structure is undercut by overwritten prose, thin characterisation, stilted dialogue and lack of humour, the way it frees subject positions and keeps them on the move maintains interest. Thus as ‘light entertainment’, I found it an enjoyable read and increasingly hard to put down.

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3 thoughts on “Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) by Zane Grey

    • Hi Alison, when was that? Just wondering how long Grey’s popularity continued…? Actually, I’ve just looked on our city library catalogue, and they have 50 titles, so it is clear he is still quite popular now! (Though many are in the out of print fiction store.)

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