In 1918, The U.P. Trail by Zane Grey was the number one bestseller in the United States. Grey first made the list of bestsellers with his novel The Lone Star Ranger in 1915, and his popularity took off from ther
e. Grey reached the height of his fame during the World War I years, as signified by The U.P. Trail heading the bestseller list in 1918, and throughout the 1920's. In The U.P. Trail, Grey adheres to a stylistic form prototypical of most of his fiction
and most popular Western fiction as well. Specifically, the book incorporates action, romance, and a conflict of good and bad characters as it's main ingredients. Grey also employs a characteristic initiation formula of Western fiction in The U.P. Trai
l. Warren Neale, a young and innocent civil engineer from the Northeast is transformed by the catalytic Western setting and experience, and achieves ultimate success in the West. The book is a romance about the building of the trans-continental railroad
, the Union Pacific. Underlying this theme is a melodramatic love story between Neale and Allie Lee, a young woman he saves from a Sioux Indian massacre. The plot is predictive; Neale gets the railroad built and is reunited with Allie at the end of the
book. He is rewarded for his diligence by being promoted to the head of the engineer corps, and by winning Allie's hand in marriage. Thus, the characters in the novel are not complex. They are "flat" because Grey never attempts to analyze their motiva
tions or effectively convey their emotions (Etulain, Historical Development). Yet, despite this obvious weakness in his writing style, Grey was still able to touch an impressive, worldwide audience.
Most readers of The U.P. Trail agree that the novel's story line, the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, is a heroic event in American history with the potential to evoke strong, national feelings. Critics disagree as to whether or not Grey has su
ccessfully retold the unforgettable epoch in American history, but they all agree that Grey's talent rests in his portrayal of the West. The U.P. Trail is praised for it's graphic descriptions of Western life, and its overall romantic portrayal of the
West. One great fact of Western life that Grey pays particular attention to is nature. Grey's descriptions of western nature begin on the very first page of the book. For example, he describes the Nebraska plains and their "swales and billows and long
, winding lines of cottonwoods" (1). He writes how these lines of cottonwood lead "to a slow, vast heave of rising ground-Wyoming-where the herds of buffalo grazed and the wolf was lord ?on up to the bleak, black hills and into the waterless gullies and
through the rocky gorges?" (1). The book is full of similar descriptions of nature that romanticize the West and purify the individual. To Grey, contact with nature has the power to purge man of the superficiality and corruption of Eastern over-civiliz
ation. Neale experiences the restorative effects of the West and nature through his work on the Union Pacific. Grey writes, "[He] felt that he was fitting into this scene, becoming a part of it, an atom once more in the great whole" (443). Gary Topping
notes that Grey's "descriptions of boom town life and railroad construction in The U.P. Trail" are another good example of his ability to detail Western life (Topping).
Although some critics seem to dwell upon the romanticized aspects of the book, Topping sees a realistic side to The U.P. Trail as well. He points out how the book features Beauty Stranton, a whorehouse madam, as a major character and elabor
ately describes her establishment. He also states that The U.P. Trail is "remarkably daring and realistic for pre-1920 fiction." For example, Allie's breasts are bared, even if it is for medical purposes. Finally, Toppling points out that Grey success
fully integrates violence into the book's plot. He does not relish in it, as indicated by an "off-stage" Indian massacre that takes place early in the book, but he does make sure that the violence indicative of the time period is represented.
Zane Grey is known as a prolific writer of popular Western fiction. Specifically, the Western is defined as an adventure story, set in the West, with a major emphasis on action and romance. He was an outdoorsman. He was a great fisherm
an, hunter, and baseball player. Although Grey was not from the West, he did know the region from personal experience. He wrote about the Western locations he had visited, and was widely read about the area. His fiction has been labeled as escapist and
sentimental, offering idealistic beliefs in the goodness of man, in the role of women as the consciousness of the race, and in the benevolence of nature. He has said that his novels speak to "the spirit, not the letter of life," which helps to explain s
ome of the apparent contradictions in them. In The U.P. Trail, for example, he praises the Union Pacific as a "noble cause," and anxiously awaits "the development of the West," and "the making of a Western metropolis" (124). However, he also bemoans the
destruction of the West as he envisions the railroad and "[sees] many shining bands of steel across the plains and mountains, many stations and hamlets and cities, a growing and marvelous prosperity from timber, mines, farms, and in the distant end-a gut
ted West" (469).
All in all, Grey's fiction definitely provided his readers with what they wanted: a romance with the West. His books were enormously popular; in the ten-year period between 1915 and 1924, a Grey novel was on the best-seller list every
year except 1916 (Scott). Thus, the popularity of individual books like The U.P. Trail was short-lived simply because they were constantly being replaced by new Westerns. Furthermore, it is an interesting fact that while the movies made out of many of Z
ane Grey's books were themselves popular, they did not propel a resurgence of the book's popularity. In the case of The U.P. Trail, the 1920 movie version did not put the book back on the bestseller list. This trend may be explained by the fact that G
rey was at the height of his career in 1920. He was producing more books and releasing more film rights than any other author of popular Westerns in American history. Thus, while the popularity of individual books like The U.P. Trail was transient, the
genre remained popular well into the 1960's.
The Western became a conspicuous part of American popular culture during the twentieth century. Beginning in 1900 there was a revival of interest in the historical novel. Americans turned to historical fiction as one possible way to recapture a past th
at they were reluctant to lose. As a pseudo-historical genre, the Western benefited from this renewed interest (Etulain, Origins of the Western). This attachment to the past was a result of an increased interest in the West that began during the last tw
o decades of the nineteenth century. Increased industrialization as a result of the Progressive Era and Union Pacific Railroad revealed the chilling conviction that the West, a land linked with freedom, space, and opportunity was rapidly vanishing (Etula
in, Historical Development). In fact, the rise of the West was characterized by a series of contradictory drives that included subjugation versus freedom, and exploitation versus conservatism. There was a common desire to hold on to the fruits of indust
rialization without losing individual freedom. Grey sums up this attitude best when he writes in The U.P. Trail that, "Progress was great, but nature unspoiled was greater" (469). Many Americans turned to the Western genre to recapture a past that was n
ot dominated by the city, the immigrant, and the worker. They embraced Zane Grey's popular literature that represented a return to a region that was their last opportunity for democracy, individualism, and freedom. Thus, the West was an important symbo
l for Americans during the Progressive Era. The conflict between industrial and agricultural America and a resulting nostalgia for the past spawned the rise of the Western (Etulain, Origins of the Western). And, writers like Zane Grey who portrayed the
West romantically garnered a large audience.
In addition to offering a renewed vision of the West as the last frontier of American individualism, the popularity of The U.P. Trail, is due to other contemporaneous events as well. To begin with, World War I played a large role in the book's success.
Harper & Brothers, the publishers of the book, ingeniously incorporated the war into their marketing strategies. They printed two different first editions of The U.P. Trail. One cloth edition utilized the standard trade binding and thick paper that wa
s typical of the times. However, the other edition was advertised as a "khaki pocket edition for the soldiers and sailors." This edition was printed on thin paper and bound in flexible leatherette. The idea was that this edition was made especially for
the young patriots involved with the war effort. It was pocket sized so that they could carry it with them or effortlessly stick it in their duffel bags.
The U.P. Trail espouses the popular World War I idea that the devotion to a cause, and most especially the larger cause of patriotism has a purifying influence upon the individual and the country's national character (Boynton). The book came out in Jan
uary 1918, only a few days after Wilson delivered his Fourteen Point speech to Congress. Warren Neale's devotion to the completion of the Union Pacific and the resulting unification of East with West may be compared to the soldier's devotion to the Ame
rican cause in World War I. The pursuits of both the railroad engineers building the U.P. and the soldiers fighting in the world war are extremely patriotic and unifying. In The U.P. Trail, Grey describes how the completion of the railroad brought the e
ntire country together. When the rails joined and the last spike was driven, "San Francisco had arranged a monster celebration marked by the booming of cannon ? At Omaha cannons were to be fired ? Chicago was to see a great parade ? In New York a hundred
guns were to boom out ? In Philadelphia a ringing of the Liberty Bell" (463). Essentially, The U.P. Trail is a product of its time, praising all acts of patriotism, including the war effort.
Many war novels written and published around the same time as The U.P. Trail champion similar ideas regarding the purifying influence the devotion to a patriotic cause has on the individual and the national character of a country. For instance, May Sinc
lair's novel, The Tree of Heaven, was the number two best-selling novel in 1918. This novel, along with one by H.G. Wells entitled Mr. Britling Sees It Through, a bestseller in 1916 and number one bestseller in 1917, "show the first effects of the great
ordeal upon a world grown fat upon the fruits of a safe balance of powers and immunities and egotisms" (Boynton 177). Both novels end much the same way The U.P. Trail does; they invest faith in the conviction that good will come out of all the suffering
and sacrifice. For example, in The U.P. Trail, Neale is reunited with Allie and promoted to a seat of honor in the engineer corps.
Another salient characteristic of war fiction is an expressed contempt for the American policy during the early years of the war (Boynton). The general assumption was that the United States Government was insincere and timid. The U.P. Tra
il expresses a similar frustration with an insincere government that is completely removed from the project at hand through its presentation of the Credit Moblier scandal. "Expert" commissioners, not engineers, who were employed by the United States Gove
rnment, deemed the grade of five miles worth of railroad track surveyed by Neale too steep. As a result, the track was torn up, resurveyed, and re-laid. However, the new finished product had precisely the same grade and data as the track Neale surveyed.
Upon discovering the fact that government officials are dishonestly spending twice as much money as necessary, Neale is dumbfounded that "parallel to the great spirit of work ran a greedy and cunning graft" (137). Grey's presentation of the scandal pr
ofesses a disappointment with the federal government that was also characteristic of the time period.
All in all, The U.P. Trail by Zane Grey is a popular Western fiction book that definitely espoused many of the convictions that were rampant during 1918. Although the book has suffered the fate of being one of Grey's numerous Westerns, t
he academy has not forgotten about Zane Grey. Numerous pieces of academic prose have been written about the popular writer long after his death in 1939. Additionally, an internet search reveals numerous pages dedicated to Grey and his books. In compari
son, The U.P. Trail's popularity was brief and transient.