Zane Grey, called by some the Father of the Western, discovered a genre that appealed to the American public like no other. At the height of his popularity, there were more copies of his books than any other
, save the Bible and McGuffey's Readers.<1> Other authors, like Owen Wister and James Fenimore Cooper, have written about the frontier, but Grey's combination of "brutal violence and saccharine romance - a heady mixture all but unknown to his predece
ssors,"<2> won readers by the millions. Grey's novels were primarily romances, stories of the fiery passions that blazed between the strong, pure men and women of the West.
One of the major criticisms of Grey's later work is that it was unoriginal. The formulaic nature of the stories was exciting in the early novels, but routine for the later ones. According to Arthur Kimball, one formula, which he called Formula ZG,
served for the majority of Grey's novels. Formula ZG goes like this:
A romantic adventure story set in the West. Two westerners, often two couples, find true love, marriage, and, unless they already have it, wealth, after overcoming obstacles in a lawless environment (which has other 'laws'). Some protagonists are
from the East. The majestic western land confronts them: beauty, vastness, physical challenge, renewing spirit, and fresh start; they respond, westerners demonstrating appreciation and the fitness for survival demanded, easterners and scarred others so
on acquiring those traits. Outlaw violence also confronts them: rustling, cheating, gunplay, and threats of seductions, the latter enhancing the erotic appeal; they respond with fists and guns. Splendid horses frequently aid the protagonists. Indians,
either as enemies or victims, often constitute a disturbing presence.<3>
There were, of course, some differences across the novels. 'Wildfire' and 'Tappan's Burro,' for example, have horses with major roles, and Indians play only a minor role in 'Wildfire.'
'Wildfire's' most memorable aspect is that of its environment. 'Wildfire' takes place in the Grand Canyon, at a ford of the Colorado River. Beauty and vastness are at their apex here, and Grey does a superb job of describing the Canyon to his
readers. Readers almost feel that they are seeing the raging red river, the rocky, broken crags, and the sheer enormity of the Canyon themselves. Mary Alden Hopkins, from 'Publishers Weekly,' felt the same way. "If the editor of the 'Book Review' s
ends me another Grey book to review, I hope he will enclose a railroad ticket to the Grand Canyon. I want to see that tragic river, the river rocks, and the adjacent stretches of sage, fertile valleys, and dim mountains."<4> The reviewer from the 'Dial
' was equally impressed with the imagery, if not the story. "The story carries one along, gives a few thrills, and if it then fades from the mind, it leaves the impression of the wonderful western canyon-country and the curious out-of-the-world figures
that used to people it."<5>
Zane Grey was a prolific writer, who used his ever-growing income to finance fishing trips across the country, and even a trek across Australia. However, writing was not just a way to make money. It was also a way to make a statement. In the first
quarter of the twentieth century, great changes were taking place across the country. Women were seeking the right to vote, minorities were seeking to lift themselves out of de facto slavery, and World War I was raging across Europe. Gary Topping, one
of Grey's biographers focused on Grey's social theory.
The social criticism in Grey's novels is one of their most interesting aspects. While studying Grey's social ideas, though, one must not forget that Grey was not a systematic social theorist - he was primarily a novelist - and his ideas never appe
ar in the thorough and consistent forms that intellectual historians would like to have.
The two fundamental components of Grey's social theory are a kind of secular Calvinism and Social Darwinism. Humanity can be divided roughly into two general categories: the elect and the damned, the fundamentally good and the fundamentally evil.<
Natural selection determined a person's role in society. The good would rise to the top and the evil would sink to the bottom. Grey felt that there were problems with modern society - women trying to reach beyond their destiny as wives and mothers, peo
ple trying to achieve materialist goals, and people distancing themselves from their roots in nature. Modern society was interfering with natural selection, and the true virtues were going unnoticed. "Consequently, spontaneous emotions, primitive streng
ths and capabilities, and stoical virtues have given way to artificial patterns of behavior, effeminacy, and materialism."<7>
For Grey, the West was a means of redemption for a lost society. By returning to the primitive way of life and thought, Man could save himself from the corruption of modern life. In many of Grey's novels, characters from the East arrive in the Wes
t to find themselves in an alien world, where charm and refinement did little to help them. During their sojourn, these corrupted folk find true strength within themselves to withstand the challenges of the wilderness, and most decide to remain in their
natural state of grace in the West, denying the lure of modernity.
This is not to say that Grey thought everyone should move to the Rockies, build cabins, and become Mountain Men. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Just as a lone wolf is a danger in the wilderness, and has no pack to cheer him or support him in his t
ime of need, so too is a lone man. Many novels feature heroes who were in the mountains or the wild alone, at peace with themselves, and yet missing some integral part of themselves. These heroes are ultimately brought into contact with others by accide
nt or design, often by girls, where they learn that what they need is the human touch. They become important members of the small communities of the West. Often these heroes have shady pasts, with a lot of violence and death. By becoming part of the pa
ck once more, the solitary heroes find peace.<8>
'Wildfire' has such a hero. Jim Slone was orphaned at a young age when his parents were killed in an Indian attack of a wagon train. He went from place to place, but the majority of his hard, young life was spent in Utah and Texas, lands of great
difficulty and brutality. He became a wild horse hunter, working alone to catch horses of beauty and intelligence. Wildfire was a magnificent red stallion and Slone stalked him for months, before finally trapping him with a wildfire in a small offshoot
of the Grand Canyon. Slone's life was filled with the hunt. It gave him purpose and filled his days. But, even so, Slone was just a wolf without a pack. "And suddenly he felt absolutely free, alone, with nothing behind to remember, with wild, thrill
ing nameless life before him. Just then the long mourn of a timber wolf wailed in with the wind. Seldom had he heard the cry of one of those night wanderers. There was nothing like it - no sound like it to fix in the lone camper's heart the great soli
tude and the wild."<9>
Slone arrives in the small hamlet of Bostil's Ford with Wildfire, whom he enters in a great horse race. Lucy Bostil, the heroine, has some trouble with the crazed Joel Creech, who has vowed to strip Lucy naked and run her through town, in retaliati
on for a girlish prank she had played on him, stealing his clothes while he swam. At the climax of the novel, Creech has followed through on his threat and it is up to Slone and Wildfire to save Lucy, tied naked to the back of her father's horse, Sage K
ing, from a grass fire that Creech set. Slone does save Lucy, but Wildfire gave his life outrunning the wildfire, a sacrifice to Grey's ultimate goal - true love between man and woman in their natural state.
It is important to note here that the naked Lucy proves another of Grey's points. Grey felt that promiscuity was immoral and upsetting to the natural order of things. In later novels, Grey rages about the flagrant disregard for respectable behavio
r exhibited by the flappers. In several stories, Grey pairs the hero and heroine in compromising situations, with both parties stirred to great passions, but, importantly, they do not act on their feelings. Their state of grace prevents them from taking
such a step. The nobility shown by his lone wolf, Slone, in not taking advantage of the situation, helps to bring him into the fold. Grey believed that strong emotions were natural in the strong men and women of the West, but that being swept away by t
hose emotions was counter to their moral code. "Appropriately, passion 'running wild' is the real destroyer, its consuming nature suggested in both blazing grass and wild stallion which become, in part, its symbols. Desire run amok must burn itself ou
t, prove lethal, self-destruct."<10>
Wildfire is multi-faceted work. The title itself refers to many things.
Grey, perhaps, did not intend the term 'wildfire' to signify anything in particular. Few authors deliberately write symbolism into their own stories. But for this novel, 'wildfire' was a horse, it was a condition (Joel Creech's setting the grass fi
re turned the surroundings into an inferno [and it was wildfire which had trapped the horse for Slone]), and it was a frame of mind. The sacrifice of Wildfire's life set loose the positive events that had been impossible before: the gentle acts of Bost
il, and the fulfillment of true love between Lucy and Slone. Thus, sacrifice - on this occasion, a horse's - was made an important key to happiness.<11>
It was one of Zane Grey's earlier novels, and he perfected his social theory, and the plots around it, through this and other works. Later novels may have a more fully developed theory, but 'Wildfire' shows the structure and foundation of that theory.
<1> Jackson, Carlton "Grey, Zane" 'American National Biography' (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, p. 578.
<2> Goble, Danney "The Days That Were No More" 'Journal of Arizona History' v. 14 (September 1973) p. 64.
<3> Kimball, Arthur G. 'Ace of Hearts: The Westerns of Zane Grey' (Ft. Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1993) pp. 19-20.
<4> Hopkins, Mary Alden "Wildfire" 'Publishers Weekly' January 20, 1917, p. 210.
<5> "Wildfire" 'Dial' v. 62 (1917: Jan 11/June 14) p. 104.
<6> Topping, Gary "Zane Grey (1872-1939) 'Fifty Western Writers, A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook' (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982) ed. Fred Erisman and Richard W. Etulain, p. 155.
<8> Topping, Gary "Zane Grey's West" 'Journal of Popular Culture' v. 7, p. 681-689.
<9> Grey, Zane 'Wildfire' (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1916) pp. 57-58.
<10> Kimball, p. 33.
<11> Jackson, Carlton 'Zane Grey' (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1973) pp. 88-89.