January 31

This Day in History

Old West

Jan 31, 1872:

Author Zane Grey is born

Zane Grey, author of Riders of the Purple Sage, is born in Zanesville, Ohio.

The son of a successful dentist, Grey enjoyed a happy and solid upper-middle-class childhood, marred only by occasional fistfights with boys who teased him about his unusual first name, Pearl. (Grey later replaced it with his mother's maiden name, Zane.) A talented baseball player as teen, Grey caught the eye of a scout for the University of Pennsylvania college team, who convinced him to study there. In 1886, he graduated with a degree in dentistry and moved to New York to begin his practice.

Grey's interest in dentistry was half-hearted at best, and he did not relish the idea of replicating his father's safe but unexciting career path. Searching for an alternative, Grey decided to try his hand at writing; his first attempt was an uninspiring historical novel about a family ancestress. At that point, Grey might well have been doomed to a life of dentistry, had he not met Colonel C. J. "Buffalo" Jones in 1908, who convinced Grey to write Jones' biography. More importantly, Jones took him out West to gather material for the book, and Grey became deeply fascinated with the people and landscape of the region.

Grey's biography of Jones debuted in 1908 as The Last of the Plainsmen to little attention, but he was inspired to concentrate his efforts on writing historical romances of the West. In 1912, he published the novel that earned him lasting fame, Riders of the Purple Sage. Like the equally popular Owen Wister novel, The Virginian (1902), the basic theme of Riders revolves around the transformation of a weak and effeminate easterner into a man of character and strength through his exposure to the culture and land of the American West. Grey's protagonist, the Ohio-born Bern Venters, spends several weeks being tested by the rugged canyon country of southern Utah before finding his way back to civilization. Venters, Grey writes, "had gone away a boy-he had returned a man."

Though Riders of the Purple Sage was Grey's most popular novel, he wrote 78 other books during his prolific career, most of them Westerns. He died in 1939, but Grey's work continued to be extraordinarily popular for decades to come, and by 1955, his books had sold more than 31 millions copies around the world. With the possible exception of Riders, today Grey's books are little read, and most modern readers find them insufferably pompous, moralizing, and sentimental. Nonetheless, Grey played a pivotal role in creating the Western genre that, in the hands of more recent authors like Louis L'Amour, continues to charm many dedicated fans.

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