Now that the gene sleuths have identified the genes for a great many human quirks and compulsions, perhaps it will soon be discovered that there is even a gene for pulp fiction—or, if not a whole gene, at least an errant particle that induces in its victims a kind of lifelong, low-grade logorrhea. The sufferers can’t really write well, but they can’t stop writing, either. I once saw a letter from an extreme case, Frederick Faust, the so-called “King of the Pulps,” who wrote under at least nineteen pseudonyms, the most famous of which is Max Brand. The letter was twenty-eight pages long, single-spaced, and yet Faust had evidently just tossed it off before settling down to work. Frederick Faust’s lifetime output has been estimated at thirty million words. But he had aspired to poetry and one of his books of poems was published by Basil Blackwell in Oxford. (Louis L’Amour also aspired to poetry; his book of verse was published in Oklahoma City.)

Somewhere, perhaps, reruns of Dr. Kildare—one of Faust’s inventions—are still lighting up obscure lives, and a few Max Brand reprints continue to circulate, but the King of the Pulps is long dead and so are his thirty million words. Few pulpers escape immediate oblivion, yet Zane Grey has, and so—perhaps most remarkably—has the German writer Karl May (1842-1912), who set a number of novelettes in the American West, featuring such Germanic pioneers as Old Shatterhand, Old Surehand, Old Death, Old Wabble, and, of course, Winnetou, the competent Apache sidekick who is probably the source of our own Tonto. Early in life May had been a petty criminal; success, when it came, soon brought out the faker in him. He began to dress like Old Shatterhand, or Kara Ben Nemsi, another of his characters, and to claim that he had actually lived all the events that happen in his books. Peter Gay, in The Naked Heart, quotes a letter in which Karl May makes the following claim for his own linguistic skills:

I speak and write: French, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Romanian, 6 dialects of Arabic, Persian, 2 Kurdish dialects, 6 Chinese dialects, Malaysian, Namqua, a few Sunda idioms, Swahili, Hindustanic, Turk-ish, and the Indian languages of Sioux, Apaches, Comanches, Snakes, Utahs, Kiowas, in addition to Ketshumanu, 3 south American dialect. Lapp I will not count among them.

Karl May’s westerns are some of the dottiest in that vast genre, which is saying a lot, and yet there is a scholarly journal devoted to him (Jahrbuch der Karl May Gesellschaft), and an annual festival held in his honor at Bad Segeberg. Der Spiegel claimed that he had the greatest influence of any German writer between Goethe and Thomas Mann, and his fans have included Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Adolf Hitler, and Hermann Hesse. Schweitzer, Einstein, and Hitler very likely were subject to bouts of brain fatigue severe enough that Karl May’s weird, quasi-Wagnerian fictions about the American West might have made a likely antidote—but Hermann Hesse? And yet it was Hesse who said that May’s work represents “a type of literature that is indispensable and eternal.” Besides that, for what it’s worth, the German director Carl Zuckmayer, co-screenwriter on The Blue Angel, named his daughter Winnetou.

The overwhelming popularity of utterly ridiculous pulp fiction is a matter to give one pause, and pause over it we will, a little later. For now it is a relief to leave the sons of Wotan and examine the homelier contours of our own Zane Grey, born Gray—once grown both he and his brother opted for that stylish English “e”—who was first a dentist and a baseball player, then a writer, and finally a sports fisherman of considerable renown.

Stephen May—no kin, I guess, to Karl—has now written two readable books about Zane Grey. The first, Zane Grey: Romancing the West, is a study of the fiction in relation to its (mainly) western background; the second, Maverick Heart, is a biography. Professor May has not escaped entirely unscathed from a too-close association with Zane Grey’s cliché-heavy style, the result being comments such as “Blazing like a meteor, he soared through life,” but he is usually more sensible than that, and is even fair enough to quote Heywood Broun’s to my mind accurate remark that “the substance of any two Zane Grey books could be written upon the back of a postage stamp.”

Professor May is annoyed by the scorn that has been heaped on Zane Grey’s writing, and yet, by quoting liberally from the books themselves, unfortunately ensures that more scorn will be heaped. He is careless enough, for example, to offer this compliment early in Maverick Heart:

In my mind, most of Grey’s work discussed in this book contains splendid description, insightful narration, frequent humor, surprising vitality, pungent wit, and provocative philosophy.

It might be best to start with the provocative philosophy and work back toward the splendid description:


A man can die. He is glorious when he calmly accepts death; but when he fights like a tiger, when he stands at bay his back to the wall, a broken weapon in his hand, bloody, defiant, game to the end, then he is sublime…. Then he is avenged even in his death.


She was woman with all a woman’s charm to bewitch, to twine round the strength of men as the ivy encircles the oak…with all a woman’s wilful burning love….

At last so much of life was intelligible to him. The renegade committed his worst crimes because even in his outlawed, homeless state, he couldn’t exist without the companionship, if not the love, of a woman.

Examples of pungent wit, surprising vitality, and frequent humor I cannot immediately locate, but we might try this for insightful narration:

Don’t anybody move!

Like a steel whip this voice cut the silence. It belonged to Blue. Jean swiftly bent to put his eye to a crack in the door. Most of those visible seemed to have been frozen into unnatural positions. Jorth stood rather in front of his men, hatless and coatless, his arm outstretched, and his dark profile set toward a little man just inside the door. This man was Blue. Jean needed only one flashing look at Blue’s face, at his leveled, quivering guns, to understand why he had chosen this trick.

“Who’re—you?” demanded Jorth, in husky pants.

And here’s the splendid description:

Late in the afternoon I slipped off down the canyon, taking Haught’s rifle for safety rather than a desire to kill anything. By no means was it impossible to meet a bad bear in the forest…. Like coming home again was it to enter that forest…. What cool, sweet, fresh smell this woody, leafy, earthy, dry, grassy, odorous fragrance, dominated by the scent of pine…. This golden-green forest, barred by sunlight, canopied by the blue sky, and melodious with its soughing moan of wind, absolutely filled me with content and happiness.

I didn’t find these four passages in Zane Grey’s books—I found them in Professor May’s two studies, quoted, it would seem, with approval. As prose, though, I think they are entirely consistent with thousands of pages of Zane Grey’s writing, spread through more than eighty books. Why Stephen May thinks it’s good writing is hard to know, since almost any passage in any of Zane Grey’s books makes it cruelly obvious that the man failed to master even the most basic unit of his craft: the prose sentence.

Once he became successful, with the publication of The Heritage of the Desert in 1910, Zane Grey left the pulps behind him and wrote mainly for the vastly more lucrative slicks. His regular customers were Country Gentleman, McClures, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, Coronet, The Ladies Home Journal, etc.; the respectable house of Harper published his books. But, wherever he published, Zane Grey still wrote like a pulper, at top speed, like Frederick Faust. It’s not evident from the prose that Zane Grey even noticed sentences—he was scribbling them off too fast—and, after 1905, it didn’t matter so much, because in that year he married Dolly Roth, a woman as patient as he was impatient, and not merely in the matter of prose, either. Dolly, who once described herself to her (absent)husband as “the ‘alonest’ person I’ve ever met, no matter how many people are around me,” cleaned up Grey’s hasty manuscripts, punctuated them, edited them, and sold them. She was wife, editor, and agent all in one. Once, in his usual rush, Grey sent off a story without letting Dolly work on it; to his chagrin it was immediately rejected. Dolly worked on it and sold it. She got to know the various magazine editors well, and kept a close eye on the market. In the boom days of the Twenties she once got her husband as much as $80,000 for a serialization. And where was Zane while Dolly was so ably managing his literary affairs? Zane was usually gone fishing.


Was Zane Grey primarily a writer who fished, or was he, essentially, a fisherman who wrote? In his youth he was a pretty good baseball player, playing for summer leagues in Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey; he loved baseball and wrote three baseball books for boys, but, from boyhood in the 1870s until his death in 1939, the activity Zane Grey loved best was fishing. Literary fame and the fortune that came with it enabled him to fish for larger and larger fish in more and more distant waters. He fished off Nova Scotia, Mexico, Tahiti, Bora Bora, Tonga, Australia, and New Zealand; in 1936 he landed a tiger shark off Sydney that weighed 1,036 pounds. Between 1924 and 1936 he held fourteen deep-sea fishing records. After he became interested in sharks he even starred in a movie called White Death, a killer-shark movie that anticipated Jaws by some forty years. Grey himself took what became the Robert Shaw role, the shark hunter brought in to save the village.


White Death flopped, much to Grey’s annoyance, but he had very little to complain about where movies were concerned, being far and away the most-filmed American author. To date one hundred and eleven movies have been made from his books, which means that many of them have been filmed twice, as silents and again as talkies. Riders of the Purple Sage was remade as recently as 1996 and did respectable business, too.

Zane Grey’s many fishing trips kept him away from home for as much as six or eight months at a time, one reason Dolly Grey felt herself to be the “alonest” person she had ever met. Grey usually had female company on his trips, young female company for the most part, a situation Dolly only just managed to tolerate. When she did explode it was usually because one of these “secretaries” had attempted to usurp her work as an editor of her husband’s writing, a task she was still pressing on with as late as 1953, fourteen years after his death.

Ernest Hemingway was a literary man who liked to hunt and fish. The hunting and fishing were important to him, but not as important as the writing—not even close. Zane Grey was the other way around. He wrote as rapidly as possible, trusting to his wife to tidy up his manuscripts, and then he got back to his fishing. He wrote and published more than eighty books without ever quite becoming a literary man. Even Professor May has an uneasy sense of this, admitting, finally, that Zane Grey never matured as a novelist; he thinks Grey will probably be remembered as a folklorist, but this I doubt. Zane Grey was a very crude fabulist, not a folklorist; he was an enormously popular pulp writer who came along at a time when “outdoor” writing was in demand, thus enabling him to sell his work to the slicks, make a lot of money, and catch some very large fish.

I’m aware, though, that a listing of Zane Grey’s deficiencies as a writer doesn’t settle all the questions. Virtually all his books are still in print, even the boys’ books and even his awkward first novel, Betty Zane, first published in 1903. What if Hermann Hesse is right to remark that such literature as Zane Grey and Karl May produced is indispensable? What, exactly, is the element of indispensability in these apparently childish creations?

There is a passage in Beginning Again, the third volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, that might contain a clue. He is writing about Mrs. Funnell, a country woman who worked for the Woolfs in Sussex:

Mrs. Funnell was a woman of iron will, but, in so far as her hard life allowed it, of good will. She became quite fond of Virginia, and, to a much lesser degree, of me. She brought up a family, in spotless cleanliness and considerable fear of their mother, on the starvation wages of her husband. Within the limits of her profound ignorance of the world outside of a four-mile radius of her cottage…she had sagacity, understanding, curiosity, intelligence. I think she had scarcely ever read a book, but one day one of our visitors left a copy of Ethel M. Dell’s The Way of an Eagle in our kitchen and Mrs. Funnell became completely engrossed in it—it was my first experience of the mysterious, devastating power of the great born best seller, which acts like a force of nature…upon the mind and heart of unsophisticated millions.

I only once saw Mrs. Funnell in any way upset…. One evening there was a knock on the sitting room door and there stood Mrs. Funnell again, obviously “in a state” a dark, fierce, but worried look on her broad, lined, handsome face. Without beating around the bush she told us that her unmarried daughter was at that moment giving birth to a child…. So bare was the home of a Sussex shepherd 50 years ago that she had not the necessary towels, basins, cans, and she had come to borrow them from us. The child was safely delivered, the father being, it was said, the bailiff, but Mrs. Funnell never mentioned the subject again.

This Issue

November 2, 2000