Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Zane Grey: War Hater

(Pearl) Zane Grey was one of the first millionaire authors and with Jack London was one of the two most famous writers in America when the Great War broke out. After starting out as a dentist, he had seen an opportunity for a popular series of Westerns after reading Owen Wister's classic The Virginian. His breakthrough work was the 1912 Riders of the Purple Sage. Over his career, Grey became a major force in shaping the myths of the Old West and inspired the growth of what has become a huge literary genre. He also wrote about hunting, fishing, travel, and baseball, while also authoring six children's books. He had a dramatic response to the war, finding it repugnant, especially after the United States declared war. 

Grey suffered from extreme melancholia at times, and America's entry into the war in April 1917 set off a new and serious bout for him. He found himself repelled by its venality and fevered jingoism. He thought the young men who rushed off to the war were foolish, and he suffered vivid images of destruction and death that set off what he and his circle recognized as a breakdown. He later described it as a "hopeless, morbid, sickening, exaggerated mental disorder." 

Always an enthusiastic traveler, he was encouraged to join a group rail expedition around the States organized by his wife in the summer of 1917. It was during this trip that he had the idea of linking his reservations about the war and conditions in the U.S. to his fictional writing. This led eventually to one of his lesser-known works, The Desert of Wheat (currently published as War Comes to the Big Bend), in which the villains of the piece are "Wobblies" of the International Workers of the World, who are sabotaging the wheat harvest. 

According to Grey's biographer Thomas Pauly, the I.W.W. was just an excuse to for Grey's "anguished obsession with the war." The novel's plot involves a penetration of the union by German agents, playing on a latent disloyalty of the many immigrants who avail themselves of American opportunity but secretly hate the American government and people. The ranchers in the story eventually triumph over the subversives, but the novel was just the first of a series set in Grey's contemporary time that assessed the war's damage to the nation. Other works, for example, included veterans from the fighting who were disabled physically and psychologically. Two titles from this period are suggestive of Grey's pessimism: The Vanishing American and The Day of the Beast. Grey's self-administered form of therapy was frequent fishing, which gave him a break from his war-related writing. But, apparently, when he returned to writing, his gloominess also came back. He even wrote of his theory that the war was damaging the nation's fisheries. 

When the war ended, Grey returned to writing about the Old West, his true love. His emotional depression subsided and he came back to be the nation's most successful writer in the postwar period. His popularity declined somewhat during the Depression. Gray died in 1939. Nevertheless another war would return him to prominence. The U.S. Government reissued many of his titles as inexpensive paperbacks to be carried in the hip pockets of GIs, who loved his work. Dwight Eisenhower always called Zane Grey his favorite author. 


  1. Fascinating -- thanks for this great research.

  2. I was not aware of Grey's opposition to WWI. I plan on reading the books he wrote about the war. Thanks for the information.