World War I

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 3)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.


Grey’s novel relates the tragic end of protagonist Kurt Dorn’s father, Chris, who collapses while fighting a crop fire. While recovering from the loss and challenge of bringing in his grain from the field, Kurt is unexpectedly greeted by “a wonderful harvest scene.” Neighbors from all around his home gather for a grand threshing bee to complete the harvest. Grey cleverly uses this special “American” event—commonly seen in rural areas for families in distress, to describe the complicated and labor-intensive process of grain harvesting operations in an era of horse- and steam-power. Kurt arose to see “the glaring gold of the wheat field… crisscrossed everywhere with bobbing black streaks of horses—bays, blacks, whites, and reds; by big, moving painted machines, lifting arms and puffing straw; by immense wagons piled high with sheaves of wheat, lumbering down to the smoking engines and the threshers….” Few other novelists provide such colorful and detailed narration of the harvesting sequence from cutting by combine and reaper to threshing and hauling the year’s precious yield to storage:

First Kurt began to load bags of wheat, as they fell from the whirring combines…. For his powerful arms a full bag, containing two bushels, was like a toy for a child. With a lift and a heave he threw a bag into a wagon. They were everywhere, these brown bags, dotting the stubble field, appearing as if by magic in the wake of the machines. They rolled off the platforms.

…From that he progressed to a seat on one of the immense combines, where he drove twenty-four horses. No driver there was any surer than Kurt of his aim with the little stones he threw to spur a lagging horse. …[H]e liked the shifty cloud of fragrant chaff, now and then blinding and choking him; and he liked the steady, rhythmic tramps of hooves and the roaring whir of the great complicated machine. It fascinated him to see the wide swath of nodding wheat tremble and sway and fall, and go sliding up into the inside of that grinding maw, and come out, straw and dust and chaff, and a slender stream of gold filling the bags.

A Northwest Harvest Scene Postcard, c. 1910,   Palouse Heritage Collection

A Northwest Harvest Scene Postcard, c. 1910, Palouse Heritage Collection

With the successful completion of harvest providing payment on the farm’s mortgage (Kurt sought no favors from Lenore’s sympathetic landlord father) and resolution of further WWI turmoil, young Dorn finally feels free to enlist in the army. Following basic training in the East, he is transported to the front lines in France where he experiences the brutalities of war. Grey paints the ugliness of battle in vivid terms that also express the wastefulness of violent conflict. While an ardent patriot who decried foreign aggression, Grey also uses dialogue and description to relate the horrific long-term consequences of war for survivors frequently overlooked in contemporary press accounts. The injuries Dorn incurs going over the top of a trench amidst machine-gun fire, panic, gas-shelling, and bombardment nearly end his life. The scene is less heroic than nauseous in “pale gloom, with spectral forms,” and death. He returns home as a broken man haunted by hideous dreams and devoid of hope for the future. Once again the abiding power of love and land shown through Lenore in their native fields of Columbia grain bring forth meaning and restoration:

Then clearly floated to him a slow sweeping rustle of the wheat. Breast-high it stood down there, outside his window, a moving body, higher than the gloom. That rustle was the voice of childhood, youth, and manhood, whispering to him, thrilling as never before. …The night wind bore it, but life—bursting life was behind it, and behind that seemed to come a driving and mighty spirit. Beyond the growth of the wheat, beyond its life and perennial gift, was something measureless and obscure, infinite and universal.

Suddenly he saw that something as the breath and the blood and the spirit of wheat—and of man. Dust and to dust returned they might be, but this physical form was only the fleeting inscrutable moment on earth, spring up, giving birth to seed, dying out for that ever-increasing purpose which ran through the ages.

With the completion of The Desert of Wheat in 1918 and lucrative contracts from Harper’s for future works, Grey and his wife, Dolly, relocated from Pennsylvania to southern California in 1920 and acquired a Spanish-Mediterranean Revival mansion near Pasadena. He had long been an avid outdoorsman, and his financial success led to worldwide fishing expeditions and support of conservation efforts. Although one of America’s most prominent authors, Grey had still harbored doubts about his continued capacity for creative writing. But the recent Western travels and popular acclaim for The Desert of Wheat fostered renewed commitment and a turning point in his career. His journal entry of February 16, 1918 records, “…[M]y study and passion shall be directed to that which I have already written best—the beauty and color and mystery of great spaces, of the open, of Nature and her wild moods.”

The commercial success of Grey’s books led in 1920 to his formation of a motion picture company, Zane Grey Productions. The company released a silent movie version of The Desert of Wheat which played in theatres nationwide as Riders of the Dawn. He eventually sold the company to Paramount Studios but continued writing short stories novels for the rest of his life and consulted for later Hollywood productions of dozens of films based on his books.

Paxton Farrar, “Zane Grey House” from  Starry Night  (2016)

Paxton Farrar, “Zane Grey House” from Starry Night (2016)

The Desert of Wheat also inspired Paxton Farrar’s award-winning 2016 short film Starry Night funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Farrar cited “the vastness of the landscapes” and “melancholic romance that permeates the land” as important cinematic influences. In Farrar’s presentation the main character is a young woman who seeks escape from small town life  to pursue her passion to become an astronomer. The film’s starlit scenes evoke young Dorn’s evening soliloquy as he surveys the cosmos and expresses an eloquent philosophy of life uncharacteristic of a Western novel: “Material things—life, success—such as had inspired Kurt Dorn, on this calm night lost their significance and were seen clearly. They could not last. But the wheat there, the hills, the stars—they would go on with their task. …[S]elf-sacrifice, with its mercy, succor, its seed like the wheat, was as infinite as the stars.” Whether returning to familiar Southwest scenes and frontier action for new novels, or while sailing to the South Pacific, Grey’s time on the Columbia Plateau left a favorable and enduring impression.

 

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 1)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.


For many years I kept a copy of Zane Grey’s novel, The Desert of Wheat (1919), on my bookshelf. I confess it was mostly there because the title had piqued my hope that the famed Western author might have once turned his attention away from Southwestern cowboys to farmers in the Northwest. A few pages into the book confirmed its setting to be on the Columbia Plateau. But encounters on its opening pages with “motor-cars” and labor organizers led me to set it aside in favor of what I thought might be more interesting reads. Only in recent weeks did I return to the book after realizing that Grey had composed it amidst the convolutions of American involvement in World War one hundred years ago. So I pulled it off the shelf again and this time found myself immersed transported through compelling prose to a remarkable time that I found had high relevance to many issues of our present day.

Best-selling author and conservationist Zane Grey (1872-1939) is considered the father of the modern Western novel. He wrote eighty books with nine selling over 100,000 copies in their year of initial publication, including the quintessential Western classic Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) which became a million-seller. Even today sales of his many works typically reach 500,000 copies annually. Grey’s novels and some 300 short stories were known for idealizing the American frontier spirit with archetypal characters inhabiting moral landscapes who exemplified the Code of the West—integrity, friendship, loyalty. British poet John Masefield and Ernest Hemingway considered his writing praiseworthy and others compared allegorical storylines laden with struggle and mystery to the ancient Beowulf saga and Star Wars science fiction trilogy. Though some critics found Grey’s plots to be formulaic, several of his works ventured beyond worlds inhabited by cowboys and desperados to explore contemporary issues, and human influence on landscapes.

Zane Grey’s  The Desert of Wheat  first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of  The Country Gentleman

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of The Country Gentleman

Grey and his wife, Dolly, journeyed from their home in Pennsylvania to the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1917 and traveled through eastern Washington in July. That same tumultuous month Alexander Kerensky was named premier of the Russian provisional government after revolutionaries toppled the Romanov monarchy, and a major German World War I counter-offensive commenced on the Eastern Front in Galicia. Grey closely followed world events through newspaper reports sought to incorporate their impact on American national life into his writing. He had been encouraged by The Country Gentleman editor Benton Currie to compose an agrarian-themed story for serialization the following year.

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

While attending a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in July at Spokane’s opulent Davenport Hotel, Grey and A. Duncan Dunn, regent of the state’s agricultural school in Pullman, discussed the plight of the region’s farmers since Northwest grain markets and labor unrest seemed highly related to unfolding international events. Inspired in part by events in Russia, the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) sought to organize itinerant harvest laborers throughout the wheatlands in order to hold out for raises from two to three dollars for a customary ten-hour day of intense physical labor tending the annual threshing operations. The Wobblies were strongly opposed by farmers on economic grounds, and many throughout the country considered their socialist leanings a threat the moral and political order. The inland Pacific Northwest was also heavily populated by immigrant farmers of German ancestry from central Europe and Russia. Grey’s story would also explore the tensions within families and communities created by complex relationships between heritage and nationalism.

Zane Grey,  The Desert of Wheat  Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Zane Grey, The Desert of Wheat Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Grey’s “The Desert of Wheat” would first appear in several installments of The Country Gentleman in the spring of 1918, and Harper’s published the first of numerous printings in book form in 1919.  His earlier works had been known for vivid descriptions of action and environment, as well as respectful inclusion of Native Americans and minority cultures. This new work appealed to both reviewers and the general public, and opened with lines inspired by his summertime journey across the Columbia Plateau’s vast farming district:  “Late in June the vast northwestern desert of wheat began to take on a tinge of gold, lending an austere beauty to that endless, rolling, smooth world of treeless hills…. The beauty of them was austere, as if the hand of man had been held back from making green his home site, as if the immensity of the task had left no time for youth and freshness. Years, long years, were there in the round-hilled, many-furrowed gray old earth.”

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,”  Country Gentleman Magazine  (May 14, 1918)

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,” Country Gentleman Magazine (May 14, 1918)

Through dialogue about Bluestem and Turkey Red wheats and rattling threshers under the hot harvest sun, the story lauds the hard work and struggles of taciturn Kurt Dorn, son of an elderly German immigrant farmer. Young Dorn faces drought, blight, and the elements in order to support his father, and experiences World War I prejudice and rural labor strife. Although Grey’s characters are not typically prone to mystical reflection, Dorn and protagonist love interest, Lenore Anderson, ponder the significance of change in their own relationship, his  enlistment and brutal experience of European battle, and deeper meanings of wartime damage to culture and conviction. As do few other books in Grey’s considerable corpus, The Desert of Wheat exemplifies his lifelong compulsion to express “Love of life, love of youth, [and] love of beauty.” Dorn and Anderson’s dialogue further attest to the wastefulness of war and Grey’s own ambivalence over conceptions of patriotism and heroism. Literary historian Christine Bold characterizes Lenore Anderson as the personification of humanity’s spiritual core—a “Western version of Ceres,” and like waving heads of grain frequently described she symbolizes renewal amidst an odyssey of life, loss, and land.