For an online discussion of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, I want to suggest several contexts for considering the novel, as both continuing and developing some of the themes and conventions of the early American captivity narrative, as both continuing and developing some of the themes and character types of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and I particularly want to consider the novel as part of a long tradition of American writing about nature and the American landscape. In the entries prior to this one, I have posted several passages from Riders of the Purple Sage, and I invite you to use the comment links to comment on those quotations, either in terms of the contexts sketched out below or in terms of other issues and themes that you wish to raise about those passages from the novel.
In his descriptions of southeastern Utah, Grey draws on the aesthetic philosophy of the Sublime and Beautiful that was a dominant school of thought in 18th and 19th century European and American theories of landscape. As Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer summarize in American Sublime, the twin concepts of the Sublime and the Beautiful “were given new philosophical substance in 1757” via Edmund Burke: “Burke’s contention was that we apprehend beauty as a function of ‘generation’—our desire to reproduce our species; we define it in terms of physical attraction. In a male-dominated society, then, beauty is governed by what men find desirable in women: smoothness, gentleness, softness and so on. The Sublime refers to that other human instinct, self-preservation: ‘What is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain or danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant with terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous with terror is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the highest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.’ Burke listed the main causes of the sublime: darkness, obscurity, privation, vastness, succession, magnificence, loudness, suddenness and so on.” Not only could these qualities in natural forms produce the feeling of the sublime, but also certain scenes could be considered sublime because of “historical, mythological and pictorial associations.” For Burke, the qualities of the Sublime and the Beautiful were gendered, the Sublime evocative of masculinity, the Beautiful of femininity.
In response to early 19th-century arguments that America was lacking in both the qualities of landscape and the “associations” evocative of the Sublime, painter Thomas Cole argued in his essay “American Scenery” that the American landscape actually offered a superior aesthetic experience to European scenery because it combined qualities of the Sublime with those of the Beautiful (or “picturesque”) in a unique and distinctively American way: “In the mountains of New Hampshire there is a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent: there the bare peaks of granite, broken and desolate, cradle the clouds. . . . [No where has nature] so completely married together grandeur and loveliness—there he sees the sublime melting into the beautiful, the savage tempered by the magnificent.”
I want to suggest that Grey both participates in this tradition of landscape depiction (by drawing on concepts of the Sublime and Beautiful) and extends it, creating something new by applying that philosophy to a new kind of landscape, one with distinctively different qualities than the northeastern woodlands celebrated by Cole and Cooper. As you are reading through the quotations below, what elements of the passages suggest the qualities of the Sublime and the Beautiful? What elements suggest that Grey, like Cole, celebrates the “marriage” of the Sublime and the Beautiful in the American landscape?
Another contribution of Grey to the aesthetics of the landscape is that he adapts the Burkean notion of “masculine” and “feminine” qualities in nature, creating landscapes that at times seem personified, and that often seem to depict within the same landscape qualities of the male and the female body.
Finally, as Grey consistently draws our attention to parallels between the landscape and his characters, we might note a similar aesthetic applied to both, that individual characters may evoke the Sublime, the Beautiful, or sometimes suggest the marriage of the two.
Enjoy the quotations below, and I’ll look forward to reading your responses to them.
Quotations from the novel are all taken from a Riders of the Purple Sage etext (the full text available by clicking here)