Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Romanticizing Cowboys and Indians

Romanticizing the West

Zane Grey

By the early 1920s, Zane Grey had published a number of novels of romance and adventure set in the American West, focusing mainly on cowboys, homesteaders, and explorers. Grey was raised and lived much of his life in the Midwest and East, but trips west provided both the settings for most of his popular stories and a place to settle in the later years of his life.

Grey's stories tend to be action-packed, with men confronting challenges in the western landscape and serving as heroes to women in distress. In 1923, after reviewers had been asking for years about his sources for these stories, he wrote, "I see these romances, and I believe them. Somewhere, sometime, they happen." His works were adapted to film beginning in 1918, and by the middle of the 1920s, the movie versions were taking the form of the epic Western, with big budgets and huge crews sprawled across the desert to film them.

Though Grey's most famous novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, appeared in 1912, critics view his literary career as culminating in 1925 with The Vanishing American. Grey harbored his own version of primitivism, believing that white men must struggle throughout their lives to achieve the harmony with nature and in their spiritual lives that Native Americans inherently possess. In The Vanishing American, the government reservation systems and religious missionary activities were so threatening the culture and lifestyle of the "Nopah" (Grey's fictionalized Navaho-like tribe) that the book's hero had to leave the reservation to relearn the spiritual connection with the earth that was the heritage of his people. Scholars praise the book for its combination of a dramatic Grey story set in the western landscape with social criticism of the ways those sent to help Native Americans may have been negatively impacting their lives.

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Film still from Zane Grey's <em>The Vanishing American</em>
Film still from Zane Grey's The Vanishing American
Paramount Pictures

Many of Zane Grey's novels were made into films. These photographs are "film stills" of scenes from the 1926 silent film version of The Vanishing American.

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