Discussing Riders of the Purple Sage

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)

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Purple Sage: Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII: Surprise Valley

[Venters] descended the gorge on the other side. The slope was gradual, the space narrow, the course straight for many rods. A gloom hung between the up-sweeping walls. In a turn the passage narrowed to scarce a dozen feet, and here was darkness of night. But light shone ahead; another abrupt turn brought day again, and then wide open space.

Above Venters loomed a wonderful arch of stone bridging the canyon rims, and through the enormous round portal gleamed and glistened a beautiful valley shining under sunset gold reflected by surrounding cliffs. He gave a start of surprise. The valley was a cove a mile long, half that wide, and its enclosing walls were smooth and stained, and curved inward, forming great caves. He decided that its floor was far higher than the level of Deception Pass and the intersecting canyons. No purple sage colored this valley floor. Instead there were the white of aspens, streaks of branch and slender trunk glistening from the green of leaves, and the darker green of oaks, and through the middle of this forest, from wall to wall, ran a winding line of brilliant green which marked the course of cottonwoods and willows. [. . . .]

The slope before him seemed to swell into obscurity to lose its definite outline in a misty, opaque cloud that shaded into the over-shadowing wall. He scanned the rim where the serrated points speared the sky, and he found the zigzag crack. It was dim, only a shade lighter than the dark ramparts, but he distinguished it, and that served.

Purple Sage: Chapter IX

Chapter IX:  Silver Spruce and Aspens

Venters turned out of the gorge, and suddenly paused stock-still, astounded at the scene before him. The curve of the great stone bridge had caught the sunrise, and through the magnificent arch burst a glorious stream of gold that shone with a long slant down into the center of Surprise Valley. Only through the arch did any sunlight pass, so that all the rest of the valley lay still asleep, dark green, mysterious, shadowy, merging its level into walls as misty and soft as morning clouds.

Venters then descended, passing through the arch, looking up at its tremendous height and sweep. It spanned the opening to Surprise Valley, stretching in almost perfect curve from rim to rim. Even in his hurry and concern Venters could not but feel its majesty, and the thought came to him that the cliff-dwellers must have regarded it as an object of worship. [. . . .]

A cool wind blew across the oval, waving the tips of oaks, and while the light lasted, fluttering the aspen leaves into millions of facets of red, and sweeping the graceful spruces. Then with the wind soon came a shade and a darkening, and suddenly the valley was gray. Night came there quickly after the sinking of the sun. Venters went softly to look at the girl. She slept, and her breathing was quiet and slow. [. . .]

The details of his wild environment seemed the only substance of a strange dream. He saw the darkening rims, the gray oval turning black, the undulating surface of forest, like a rippling lake, and the spear-pointed spruces. He heard the flutter of aspen leaves and the soft, continuous splash of falling water. The melancholy note of a canyon bird broke clear and lonely from the high cliffs. Venters had no name for this night singer, and he had never seen one, but the few notes, always pealing out just at darkness, were as familiar to him as the canyon silence. Then they ceased, and the rustle of leaves and the murmur of water hushed in a growing sound that Venters fancied was not of earth. Neither had he a name for this, only it was inexpressibly wild and sweet. The thought came that it might be a moan of the girl in her last outcry of life, and he felt a tremor shake him. But no! This sound was not human, though it was like despair. He began to doubt his sensitive perceptions, to believe that he half-dreamed what he thought he heard. Then the sound swelled with the strengthening of the breeze, and he realized it was the singing of the wind in the cliffs

Purple Sage: Chapter X

Chapter X: Love

Venters had visited cliff-dwellings before, and they had been in ruins, and of no great character or size but this place was of proportions that stunned him, and it had not been desecrated by the hand of man, nor had it been crumbled by the hand of time. It was a stupendous tomb. It had been a city. It was just as it had been left by its builders. The little houses were there, the smoke-blackened stains of fires, the pieces of pottery scattered about cold hearths, the stone hatchets; and stone pestles and mealing-stones lay beside round holes polished by years of grinding maize — lay there as if they had been carelessly dropped yesterday. But the cliff-dwellers were gone!

Dust! They were dust on the floor or at the foot of the shelf, and their habitations and utensils endured. Venters felt the sublimity of that marvelous vaulted arch, and it seemed to gleam with a glory of something that was gone. How many years had passed since the cliff-dwellers gazed out across the beautiful valley as he was gazing now? How long had it been since women ground grain in those polished holes? What time had rolled by since men of an unknown race lived, loved, fought, and died there? Had an enemy destroyed them? Had disease destroyed them, or only that greatest destroyer — time? Venters saw a long line of blood-red hands painted low down upon the yellow roof of stone. Here was strange portent, if not an answer to his queries. The place oppressed him. It was light, but full of a transparent gloom. It smelled of dust and musty stone, of age and disuse. It was sad. It was solemn. It had the look of a place where silence had become master and was now irrevocable and terrible and could not be broken. Yet, at the moment, from high up in the carved crevices of the arch, floated down the low, strange wail of wind — a knell indeed for all that had gone.

Purple Sage: Chapter XI

Chapter XI:  Faith and Unfaith

Then, if there were anything that a good woman could do to win a man and still preserve her self-respect, it was something which escaped the natural subtlety of a woman determined to allure. Jane’s vanity, that after all was not great, was soon satisfied with Lassiter’s silent admiration. [. . . .] She kept close to him whenever opportunity afforded; and she was forever playfully, yet passionately underneath the surface, fighting him for possession of the great black guns. These he would never yield to her. And so in that manner their hands were often and long in contact. The more of simplicity that she sensed in him the greater the advantage she took. [. . .]

In the end, when her awakening came, she learned that she had builded better than she knew. Lassiter, though kinder and gentler than ever, had parted with his quaint humor and his coldness and his tranquillity to become a restless and unhappy man. Whatever the power of his deadly intent toward Mormons, that passion now had a rival, the one equally burning and consuming. Jane Withersteen had one moment of exultation before the dawn of a strange uneasiness. What if she had made of herself a lure, at tremendous cost to him and to her, and all in vain!

That night in the moonlit grove she summoned all her courage and, turning suddenly in the path, she faced Lassiter and leaned close to him, so that she touched him and her eyes looked up to his.

“Lassiter!…Will you do anything for me?”

In the moonlight she saw his dark, worn face change, and by that change she seemed to feel him immovable as a wall of stone.

Jane slipped her hands down to the swinging gun-sheaths, and when she had locked her fingers around the huge, cold handles of the guns, she trembled as with a chilling ripple over all her body.

“May I take your guns?”

[. . . .]

“Blind — yes, en’ let me make it clear en’ simple to you,” Lassiter went on, his voice losing its tone of anger. “Take, for instance, that idea of yours last night when you wanted my guns. It was good an’ beautiful, an’ showed your heart — but — why, Jane, it was crazy. Mind I’m assumin’ that life to me is as sweet as to any other man. An’ to preserve that life is each man’s first an’ closest thought. Where would any man be on this border without guns? Where, especially, would Lassiter be? Well, I’d be under the sage with thousands of other men now livin’ an’ sure better men than me. Gun-packin’ in the West since the Civil War has growed into a kind of moral law. An’ out here on this border it’s the difference between a man an’ somethin’ not a man. Look what your takin’ Venters’s guns from him all but made him! Why, your churchmen carry guns. Tull has killed a man an’ drawed on others. Your Bishop has shot a half dozen men, an’ it wasn’t through prayers of his that they recovered. An’ to-day he’d have shot me if he’d been quick enough on the draw. Could I walk or ride down into Cottonwoods without my guns? This is a wild time, Jane Withersteen, this year of our Lord eighteen seventy- one.”

Purple Sage: Chapter XIII


Chapter XIII:  Solitude and Storm

In his hidden valley Venters awakened from sleep, and his ears rang with innumerable melodies from full-throated mockingbirds, and his eyes opened wide upon the glorious golden shaft of sunlight shining through the great stone bridge. The circle of cliffs surrounding Surprise Valley lay shrouded in morning mist, a dim blue low down along the terraces, a creamy, moving cloud along the ramparts. The oak forest in the center was a plumed and tufted oval of gold.

He saw Bess under the spruces. Upon her complete recovery of strength she always rose with the dawn. At the moment she was feeding the quail she had tamed. And she had begun to tame the mocking-birds. They fluttered among the branches overhead and some left off their songs to flit down and shyly hop near the twittering quail. Little gray and white rabbits crouched in the grass, now nibbling, now laying long ears flat and watching the dogs.

Venters’s swift glance took in the brightening valley, and Bess and her pets, and Ring and Whitie. It swept over all to return again and rest upon the girl. She had changed. To the dark trousers and blouse she had added moccasins of her own make, but she no longer resembled a boy. No eye could have failed to mark the rounded contours of a woman. The change had been to grace and beauty. A glint of warm gold gleamed from her hair, and a tint of red shone in the clear dark brown of cheeks. The haunting sweetness of her lips and eyes, that earlier had been illusive, a promise, had become a living fact. She fitted harmoniously into that wonderful setting; she was like Surprise Valley — wild and beautiful.

Purple Sage: Chapter XIII (part two)

Chapter XIII: Solitude and Storm (part two)

Then the storm burst with a succession of ropes and streaks and shafts of lightning, playing continuously, filling the valley with a broken radiance; and the cracking shots followed each other swiftly till the echoes blended in one fearful, deafening crash.

Venters looked out upon the beautiful valley — beautiful now as never before — mystic in its transparent, luminous gloom, weird in the quivering, golden haze of lightning. The dark spruces were tipped with glimmering lights; the aspens bent low in the winds, as waves in a tempest at sea; the forest of oaks tossed wildly and shone with gleams of fire. Across the valley the huge cavern of the cliff-dwellers yawned in the glare, every little black window as clear as at noonday; but the night and the storm added to their tragedy. Flung arching to the black clouds, the great stone bridge seemed to bear the brunt of the storm. It caught the full fury of the rushing wind. It lifted its noble crown to meet the lightnings. Venters thought of the eagles and their lofty nest in a niche under the arch. A driving pall of rain, black as the clouds, came sweeping on to obscure the bridge and the gleaming walls and the shining valley. The lightning played incessantly, streaking down through opaque darkness of rain. The roar of the wind, with its strange knell and the re-crashing echoes, mingled with the roar of the flooding rain, and all seemingly were deadened and drowned in a world of sound.

In the dimming pale light Venters looked down upon the girl. She had sunk into his arms, upon his breast, burying her face. She clung to him. He felt the softness of her, and the warmth, and the quick heave of her breast. He saw the dark, slender, graceful outline of her form. A woman lay in his arms! And he held her closer. He who had been alone in the sad, silent watches of the night was not now and never must be again alone. He who had yearned for the touch of a hand felt the long tremble and the heart-beat of a woman. By what strange chance had she come to love him! By what change — by what marvel had she grown into a treasure!

No more did he listen to the rush and roar of the thunder-storm. For with the touch of clinging hands and the throbbing bosom he grew conscious of an inward storm — the tingling of new chords of thought, strange music of unheard, joyous bells sad dreams dawning to wakeful delight, dissolving doubt, resurging hope, force, fire, and freedom, unutterable sweetness of desire. A storm in his breast — a storm of real love.