Zane Grey: Father of the Western Novel

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Grave of Zane and Lina Grey, Lackawaxen and Union Cemetery

I arrived in Lackawaxen in search of the most famous burial within the Lackawaxen and Union Cemetery. After years of stating I was going to visit the cemetery and pay my respects to the author buried in this sacred plot of land, I finally made the journey. I turned onto Scenic Drive, which parallels the Delaware River, ready to visit the grave of one of the authors whose books filled my youth with adventures.

I passed the church and the moment I saw the cemetery I stopped in the middle of the narrow road. The cemetery was in desperate need of some care – the cemetery had not been mowed in a couple weeks.

I debated the next step in this journey. I had two options and neither one was appealing to me. The first was I could park in the muddy parking area and trudge through the tall, wet grass to the group of cedars that was my final destination. The other option was not appealing either – I could attempt to follow the overgrown roadway through the cemetery that would take me closer to the restful spot.

“Well what are you going to do?” my mother asked. I knew she was debating the same question. Either way, I was going to have wet shoes and pants, but I decided to get as close to the grave as possible.

“Let’s try to follow the road,” I replied. “Keep an eye out for stones.”

I entered the cemetery and followed what looked like the roadway. I inched the vehicle forward, allowing the feel of the tires in the ruts guide me through the tall grasses of the cemetery. The roadway circles around the cemetery and I carefully made the turn and then the next one – thankful there were no corner markers on the inside of the turns. As I made the second turn I easily spotted the grave I sought near the cluster of cedars, I got out and walked over to the grave of one of best-known western novelists of all-time – Zane Grey.

Born January 31, 1872, Pearl Zane Gray in Zanesville, Ohio, Grey was the fourth of five children born to Lewis and Josephine Gray. He was named after his ancestors, the Zane family, who had been frontier settlers in Ohio. Grey grew up hearing about his ancestors and would later memorialize his family history in the trilogy: Betty Zane, The Last Trail, and The Spirit of the Border.

Grey grew up in the overbearing shadow of his father, who did not want his son to write. Instead, at an early age, he began helping his father doing dental work in the region, until he was discovered and was ordered to stop due to not having proper training. Zane’s first story was written at the age of fifteen and his father ripped it up and then beat him for writing it.

Grey and his younger brother, Romer – known as “Reddy” and “R.C.” – both showed a love of baseball and Grey would attend the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, and while there studied dentistry to appease his father. But his desire was to write and he spent much of his free time writing. Upon graduating, he opened an office in New York City under the name Zane Grey.

Note: “Reddy” Gray would play nine seasons for minor league teams beginning in 1895. During his final season, which was with the Worcestor Riddlers, he made an appearance playing left field for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His only game was on May 28, 1903. He made four trips to the plate that day resulting in one walk and one hit with a run batted in. After that game, he returned to Worcester and finished the season before retiring from baseball.

In 1900 Grey met Lina “Dolly” Roth while camping near Lackawaxen and five years later they were married. They moved into a home on land owned by her family at the confluence of the Lackawaxen and Delaware Rivers. Their marriage produced three children: Romer, Betty, and Loren.

Although married, Grey’s life was far from perfect and he spent much of his time away from the household, either hunting, fishing or cheating on his wife. Lina made Zane the success he was as she managed his career. She had excellent editorial skills and handled all business negotiations.

Grey’s first published piece “A Day on the Delaware” – about time spent with his brother fishing the Delaware – was published in 1902 in the magazine Recreational. Though it only netted him ten dollars, it was enough encouragement for him to continue.

Grey’s first attempts to write a full-length novel were rejected by many publishers and to his disappointment, he had to self-publish them. In 1910, Grey had his breakthrough novel, Heritage of the Desert. Two years later, he wrote the novel most know him for – Riders of the Purple Sage. The novel was so successful that five years later Zane wrote a sequel, Rainbow Trail, and Riders of the Purple Sage was made into a motion picture six years after publication.

Now that he had money, in 1918 Grey moved the family to Altadena, California and was able to purchase a lodge near Payson, Arizona. He spent the majority of his time doing the one thing he loved most – fishing. From 1918 to 1932, he wrote fishing articles for Outdoor Life and began popularizing deep sea fishing.

Zane died October 23, 1939 at the age of 67. Grey left behind enough manuscripts that he would continue to publish a book a year from his death in 1932 to 1963. Once the last one was published, Grey had written almost ninety books, with the majority being westerns, for which he is most recognized.

Though he was successful, many did not like the romantic westerns Grey wrote and were described as being inaccurate and unfaithful to the western frontier. Another big criticism about Grey’s writing involved his non-fiction works. Critics complained because he filled many of his nonfiction works with “this is where this happened in my fiction book,” which merely served as a promotion for his novels.

That may have been the case in many of his nonfiction writings, but it did not stop him from capturing the imagination of America as he wrote about the frontier, making himself a millionaire in the process. His westerns are still as popular in the modern era as they were when they first were published.

As I finished paying my respects to Zane and Lina, a deer stepped out of the woods nearby and hesitantly walked into the field nearby. I paused to watch it graze. It seemed fitting to see it as I stood paying my respects to a man known for his vivid descriptions of the land within his writings. It stopped and turned to stare at me, knowing I did not belong, but sensing I was far enough away to not be an immediate threat. It stomped its foot a couple times before returning to feeding. I knew it was time to continue my journey and returned to the warmth of the vehicle, leaving the Greys to rest under the watchful eyes of the deer grazing nearby.

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