Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Rae Armantrout revisits Zane Grey’s novel Riders of the Purple Sage.
As I mentioned in my Art of Poetry interview in The Paris Review’s Winter issue, my mother loved Westerns, especially Zane Grey. Only a few books were available in my household, and I read whatever I could get my hands on. Some, like The Grapes of Wrath, were forbidden—but I was allowed to read Gone with the Wind and Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. Presumably these were considered wholesome. This is highly dubious in both cases.
The Paris Review asked if I would write something about Riders. Because I hadn’t read it since I was around twelve, I remembered very little. When I reread it, I was surprised. Wikipedia says that this is the book on which the Western genre was founded. To me it seems more like a romance novel set in the West. To say the least, sex is in the air. Perhaps this is why the sage is so continuously purple. (I counted six uses of the word purple in the first page and a quarter.) I began to wonder if this book was the origin of the phrase “purple prose.” This ambient sexual tension is all I remembered about the book from my first pubescent encounter with it.
The plot centers on two couples who clearly want to have sex but never do. I remembered that much. What I didn’t recall, what appears to have made no impression upon me at the time, is that the book is an anti-Mormon tract. It is set in southern Utah where “gentiles,” or non-Mormons, are threatened, harassed, and impoverished by the Mormon townsfolk. I don’t know how that part slipped my mind. I was living in an evangelical household against which I was already in rebellion, and the theme of defying religious conformity should have made a larger impression on me.
Of the four main characters, only one, Jane Withersteen, is a Mormon. She is unusual in that she’s a single woman who has inherited and operates a large cattle ranch. This, of course, gives her a measure of autonomy that offends the Mormon elders. The bishop of the nearby town wants to force her into polygamous marriage, but she is holding him at bay. I don’t want to spoil the plot for you (just joking, I will). As the book opens, the bishop and his henchmen are threatening Bern Ventners, a “gentile” ranch hand Jane has taken a liking to. Just in time to save the day, a mysterious stranger appears and undertakes to defend the outnumbered cowboy or, as the book always puts it, “rider.” (Just as the sage is always purple, the ranch hands are always “riders.”) The mysterious stranger is, almost needless to say, an infamous “gunman” called Lassiter. Someone recognizes him and the attackers decide to drop the fight. Actually, the Mormon elders decide to let a band of local rustlers led by an outlaw named Oldrig do their work for them. To defend herself, Jane decides to keep Lassiter around, although she also fears he will murder many of her fellow citizens.
I do seem to have strayed pretty far into plot summary. The more important thing, certainly for me as a young girl, was the constant atmosphere of sexual threat. The Mormons are said to hold women prisoners. The outlaws are rumored to kidnap them. Sexual slavery is always in the background, though never named as such. Fortunately, there is Lassiter and his “big, black guns” to hold it off. The guns are always described in terms of their large size. Jane swoons several times in the book, including at the sight of the guns. This despite the fact that she is often portrayed as an independent, strong woman.
In one fracas, Bernt Ventners shoots Oldrig’s infamous “masked rider,” a horseman who makes terrifying runs through the Mormon villages without, it seems, actually harming anyone. Still, rumors abound about the fearful deeds of this desperado. When Ventners goes to check on the outlaw he’s wounded, he discovers, only after removing the mask, that “he” is really a slender young girl called Bess. This is the other thing I remember about the book. I was very much interested in the idea of an outlaw girl who was an expert rider. Ventners feels terrible about having shot a woman so he patches her up. After she says she wants nothing more to do with the rustlers, he undertakes to carry her to safety. He carries her to a hidden, paradise-like valley he’s found and nurses her back to health. Even so, he is rather squeamish about her because he assumes she is “bad,” which seems to mean guilty (?) of having been raped. Worse, she admits to loving the gang leader, Oldrig. But then, pages later, comes the revelation that she is Oldrig’s daughter, thus eliminating any chance of sexual abuse (at least in the quasi-Victorian mind of Zane Grey): “She was the rustler’s nameless daughter … He had so guarded her … that her mind was as a child’s. … That was the wonderful truth. Not only was she not bad, but good, pure, innocent.” His passion for her grows, spiced by his memory of her as an outlaw boy. She is an emblem of potential female empowerment in the book, as is Jane Withersteen, but the narrative allows neither to hold onto her freedom for long.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the gunman Jim Lassiter is falling in love with Jane. He is quite the gentleman, though, and she doesn’t suspect his feelings at first. She sees him as her protector. Despite his protection, however, her “riders” defect and she loses both her cattle herds. Then Fay, the orphan girl she’s raising (did I mention her?), is kidnapped. Finally, at the height of her desperation, she realizes that Lassiter loves her—and she begins to love him in return. Sounds like a happy, if convenient, ending. But we’re not quite through yet. While escaping from a posse of Mormons, Lassiter and Jane come upon Fay’s captors and Lassiter kills them. Now with the child in tow, the twosome become a sort of nuclear family. Here things take a rather disturbing turn, at least for this reader. Despite the novel’s flirtation with unconventional roles for women, Lassiter takes Jane to the secret valley (Ventners and Bess are gone by then. Don’t ask.) and rolls a balancing boulder down a mountain, causing an avalanche which imprisons the not-yet lovers and the girl in the paradise valley forever. Yes, when pressed, Jane consents. But it’s notable that she is described as stunned and passive. “Like an automaton she followed Lassiter down the steep trail of dust and weathered stone.” This is the novel’s most extreme form of female imprisonment yet. Lassiter has saved Jane from (purportedly) oppressive Mormon marriage so that he can have her to himself for the rest of their lives. Let’s not even imagine Fay’s life or the lives of the children Jane and Lassiter may produce! Riders of the Purple Sage, after flirting with unconventional roles for women, ends by closing off such possibilities with the literal thud of an avalanche. Now that’s melodrama!
Given that the novel’s ending promises (or threatens) a kind of romantic imprisonment, I wonder if the book’s audience skewed male or female. Does anyone, of any gender, truly want this? My mother, though she had a job at a time when most women didn’t, shared a small house with an abusive husband. I wonder if she read Grey’s books as an escape from her circumstances. If so, I can’t help but find it ironic.
Rae Armantrout is the author of over a dozen poetry collections, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Versed.