Textual Detritus – Riders of the Purple Sage

Textual Detritus is a running series of notes focused on my reading list for exams related to my PhD studies.  These are not reviews so I will refrain from explaining plot lines.  These posts also contain any number of spoilers for the books in question though I’ll try to keep them hidden behind a cut.  Simply, the idea here is to get some of my immediate thoughts down in a coherent manner for later use or discussion.  As such, I make no claim about the level of thought, coherence, or grammar to any of these posts.Riders of the Purple Sage is Zane Grey’s breakout 1912 success that I have to admit struck me as odd from the first page.  It likely has to do with me lack of familiarity with the western genre that allowed me to be so surprised by the intense focus on Mormonism in the novel.  Not that all Westerns are anti-Mormon in some way, but rather that I simply wasn’t thinking about the fact that a book taking place in Utah in the 19th century would, of course, have Mormonism as a central point.  I linger on this point, not due to Grey’s overt criticisms of the religion, but rather due to the way that he utilizes the cowboy figure in light of the failings of the community that he creates.  Grey’s portrayal of the area makes it clear that the rough form of Lassiter is a necessary component to a West that allows such lawlessness to flourish.  The problem is not the gunfighter per say, but rather the community that requires the gunfighter to stand up to a chivalrous code of honor.  The fact that Oldring’s rustlers and Bishop Dyer and Elder Tull are in cahoots just goes to show how “lawless” the West can be on a larger scale than just gun fights.  Rights, such as Jane Withersteen’s are not protected against the vested interests of the community.  There are of course any number of complications due to the inherent bias against Jane since she’s a woman (particularly through the lens of Mormonism in the 19th century), but to the romanticization of the individual West with which Grey is deeply enamored.

The key for me in this development of the individual cowboy is in Venter’s growth in the novel.  Venters appears as the young man who, in the opposite trajectory of Lassiter, goes to the wilderness to discover his love (Bess) and then paradise (Surprise Valley behind the Balancing Rock).  He becomes wild, but in that wildness is his manhood.  We’re left with the prospect of individuality honed against the wild of the West and in direct conflict with the civilization present in the West.  Venters’ trajectory with Bess back East would seem to suggest that their abilities will not be hampered once they return to the proper American civilization (contrasted with Mormon Utah in this case).  That said, it’s safe to assume that some bags of gold will help with this.

The gold of Surprise Valley operates as an example of the paradise of the land serving the innate interests of the American Hero.  Grey frankly shines in his description of the land, until it becomes overwhelmed by the Edenic quality in Surprise Valley.  The land is indeed beautiful, but the perfect landscape is too much for the reader to take in (or at least this reader).  The Balancing Rock with it’s ability to shut out civilization also serves as a precarious marker for the books shark jumping moment.  As soon as paradise is in reach, complete with its lack of outside intrusion, we’re in a fiction so deep that its hard to set store by it.  I think it’s best shown by Bess’ characterization, or lack thereof, since she resides almost entirely in the Valley.  She becomes the best rider in the sage, yet it’s all ability and no awareness.

This all leads me back to the idea of victimization in these early Western novels.  Like The Virginian, there are any number of fissures where the story does not hold – Lassiter’s sister is kidnapped with little retaliation, there is no federal presence whatsoever in the area nor any gentile resistance to the Mormon attacks.  Moreover, there are no real motivations for any of the “bad” characters, though Oldring becomes something of a “good” character thanks to his care of Bess.  The trials become staged and somewhat ham handed to be honest.  Yet at the same time they highlight the central tenants of the West that we like to hold dear.  Care for the downtrodden, freedom for religion (though in this case it’s from Mormonism) and freedom for upward mobility (Venters).  Justice, through Lassiter’s revenge, and forgiveness, though Lassiter’s postponement of revenge also play a large part in the novel.

In the end the Balancing Rock must fall. The social concerns the novel plays with cannot be supported in the long run nor can even an environment as rich in fantasy as the West sustain the conflict without the intervention of larger powers (federal, Mormon or otherwise) for long.  Lassiter and Jane may be hidden, but they are not alone as they are with their adopted child at the close of the text.  The fallen rock may be scaled, but that is an avenue that Grey cannot easily take us as it leads to new generations, the fall of the frontier and, of course, 1912.

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