Legend has it that the term purple prose arose from the color of the ink employed in printing the earliest pulp fiction, and when Zane Grey wrote his best-selling potboiler Riders of the Purple Sage, he was surely swimming in it. He invokes the color in the first scene of the novel and then deploys it on nearly every other page, frequently as often as three times in the same paragraph.
It’s an odd choice for an evocation of the American West—in this case, that rare gambit of polygamous willfulness that goes by the name of Utah—because the eponymous high-desert shrub of the novel’s title is only ever purple when it’s in bloom. Otherwise, for most of the year, it’s, well, gray (like Zane) (whose real given name was Pearl). But clearly no savvy wordsmith with his eye on greenbacks would call a rip-roaring tale pulsing with repressed sexual energy (it was still the late-Victorian era, even on the Utahan salt flats) Riders of the Gray Sage when he could bust out the paint pot and dab each page with purple.
And dab he does: Purple figures everywhere in Grey’s lavish descriptions—on mountains, in sunsets, on slopes, and in valleys—and if it’s not the color one associates with land surrounding Salt Lake City (it’s not), at least it’s an authentic color for the shadow this book has cast across the genre of the western novel for a hundred years.
Even if you haven’t read the book, I bet you think you know what it’s about: solitary masculinity on a colossal stage of raw geology, right? (Framed by Ford and featuring the Duke.)
Riders of the Purple Sage is a love story (several love stories, actually), bursting with pre-Freudian eroticism of the later drugstore-novel type. No wonder it sold like hotcakes. (My bet is, to impressionable boys and dissatisfied women.) It has all the standard western elements—horse thieving, cattle rustling, battles over water rights, discovery of gold—plus the carry-over nineteenth-century crowd-pleasing plot device of female abduction, this time by Mormons, not Apaches. (O those crazy Mormons!) (O pioneers!) But at its center are Jane Withersteen (a pre-universal-suffrage Mormon woman of independent mien and means) and the enigmatic, gunslinging Jim Lassiter (our conquering hero).
Today it is almost laughably unreadable. (“Lassiter, I’ll ride away with you. Hide me till danger is past—till we are forgotten—then take me where you will. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God!”) But in 1912, it must have been thrilling, sexy, even daring.
“Come with me out of Utah,” Lassiter tells Jane.
Hell yeah, cowboy.
The color purple.
Marianne Wiggins's most recent novel is The Shadow Catcher (Simon & Schuster, 2007). She is a professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California.