Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Sexism and the Writer of the Purple Prose

 I had a yen the other day for a western to read, and grabbed up a copy of Zane Grey's The Call of the Canyon. This isn't a proper review of the book, but more a rant about it.


The Call of the Canyon, by Zane Grey, originally published 1924.

I like Zane Grey. Some of his books have very strong female characters, even if they are all destined for matrimony (he was, after all, writing romances, in both senses of the word). I also expect his novels to focus on the male protagonist, and may at times feel impatient with this. So it was kind of exciting to realize that this book stuck pretty well to the viewpoint of the female protagonist.

So far so good. But after he paints Carley as a rather modern young woman, independent (in part because she's lucky enough to be independently wealthy), he starts repositioning her as selfish and self-indulgent. Fine. But what's not fine is the reason why: she doesn't want to "fulfill her destiny" as a wife and mother, subsuming her own desires to those of her man and making her be-all and end-all the raising of children and keeping house.

About the point it becomes clear that this is the hero's ideal, if I'd been writing the book Carley would have gone back to New York, set herself up in business, and proved she could have a successful and fulfilling life without any pesky men. But no: Zane Grey has to spend the rest of the book making her more and more miserable until she lashes out with a diatribe against her peers so mind-blowing I have to reproduce it here. She begins by ranting against their trivial lives while the soldiers who have come back from WWI are suffering, homeless, and neglected (I don't know how this measures up against reality as an indictment of the US in the early 1920s, but Grey uses the damaged soldier in more than one book, leading me to think that either it was a real problem that upset him, or that it was a great emotional hook). She then rants about the wasted opportunity of the vote they have just been granted, and I'm ready to cheer when she says, "Nothing wrong when there are not enough schools and teachers to educate our boys and girls, when those teachers are shamefully underpaid?" The saddest bit about that is that it's still true.

Then Grey goes off the rails, as Carley rants on:
"Nothing wrong when the mothers of this great country let their youngsters go to the dark motion-picture halls and night after night in thousands of towns over all this broad land see pictures that the juvenile court and the educators and keepers of reform schools say make burglars, crooks, and murderers of our boys and vampires of our girls? Nothing wrong when these young adolescent girls ape you and wear stockings rolled under their knees below their skirts and use a lip stick and paint their faces and darken their eyes and pluck their eyebrows and absolutely do not know what shame is?" Okay, I get that it was a different time and different morals, but this is getting uncomfortable. And she doesn't stop:
"Nothing wrong when you may find in any city women standing at street corners distributing booklets on birth control?" Well, that sounds like a good idea to me, but again, I suppose at the time his popular audience would have been shocked. Obviously, since there were women working hard to advocate for birth control, it was not a universal condemnation, however.

It gets better: after ranting about the automobile (presumably because it's a good place to lose that all-important virginity), magazines full of sex-appeal, and the over-fondness for money that she's probably right is at the root of evil, she makes a criticism of jazz that made me laugh: "Nothing wrong with jazz--where the lights go out in the dance hall and the dancers jibble and toddle and wiggle in a frenzy?" (I wonder what Zane Grey would have thought of twerking. Never mind--if the thought didn't kill him, the actual sight of it would have).

Then things get ugly: "Nothing wrong in a country where the greatest college cannot report birth of one child to each graduate in ten years? Nothing wrong with race suicide and the incoming horde of foreigners? . . . Nothing wrong with you women who cannot or will not stand childbirth? Nothing wrong with most of you, when if you did  have a child, yuou could not nurse it? . . . Oh, my God, there's nothing wrong with America except that she staggers under a Titanic burden that only mothers of sons can remove!" All I could think as I read that was that it's a source of shame for our country that this sounds like it could have come from the pen of the Head Tweeter. The sexism is bad enough (American needs sons, and to hell with the daughters), the xenophobia as understandable and unacceptable then as now.

See, what sickened me about this book wasn't that it ends in marriage and they-all-lived-happily-ever-after. We expect that in a romance. What sickened me was that, in 1924 when this was published, the same man who could rhapsodize for pages about the healing beauty of the West and the independence it brought to men, could explicitly write that women were worse than failures--that they were downright evil--if they chose any path but marriage and motherhood. Not even that marriage was the unexamined ideal outcome (that's kind of assumed in the genre), but that any other choice was a moral failure.

That was carrying the romance genre beyond the pale.

Apologies for the rather long rant!

How about you? Have you ever been sadly disappointed by an author's apparent views?


  1. And I suppose this never got anywhere near a banned books list?
    The Head Tweeter hit my pen when I finally got a flash done for this coming Friday - it's not good, but....

    1. Of course not. The one that wasn't published until after he died was Betty Zane, which was based on his grandmother, I think, who survived things like rape and being burned out to run her own life. Yeah, that was too radical for the 1930s.

  2. I can't say I have any author's I REMEMBER that outright disappoint. Often they just kind of get wiped from my memory because I put them down and forget them.

    As for that entry...good f*cking god. I don't even know what to say.

    1. Yeah. I was kind of the same way--not my most articulate post, because I was just kind of left speechless. Like I say, I knew he had the full range of prejudices of the time, but this was really over the top.

  3. Okay, so I will avoid this one.

    However, I think you are right on both counts when it comes to the broken solider trope. I think it was a big problem that concerned Zane AND it was also a good emotional hook. But as Zane Grey was a popular author of the time it was a way to keep the problem noticed. The topic was addressed in Downton Abbey in episodes that featured WWI and the time shortly thereafter. Sadly, it is still a big problem today.

    1. Yeah. We don't seem to have made a whole lot of progress in how we treat our returning soldiers.


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