Public Domain Day advent calendar #20: The Vanishing American by Zane Grey

The American West has long been a cherished place of myth in American imagination. Frederick Jackson Turner may have pronounced the western frontier “closed” in 1893, but in the decades that followed, stories set in the frontier-era Western US, with varying degrees of resemblance to the actual historical West, made up one of the most popular American fictional genres.  Owen Wister set many of the conventions of the Western genre with his 1902 novel, The Virginian, and many other authors followed in his footsteps.  One of the most popular of those authors was Zane Grey, who’d found success with novels like Riders of the Purple Sage.  By the 1920s his reliably popular books were not only selling widely, but were also frequently adapted for film and radio.

In 1922 and 1923, however, Zane Grey tried publishing a story that didn’t hew to the expectations of his audience, and caught enough grief for it that he eventually retreated to safer, if less sincere, territory.  The Vanishing American, his first novel with a Native American protagonist, began running in serial form in the November 1922 issue of the Ladies Home Journal.  Over six installments, Nophaie seeks reunion with his people after having been separated from them by whites at a young age, but finds them exploited by government agents and Christian missionaries, and himself changed enough from his separation that he can’t go back to living among them as before.  Eventually, he meets Marian, a white missionary, and they fall in love, and make plans to marry (while discussing frankly the problems they expect their “half-breed” children to face).  The story ends with Nophaie lamenting the “vanishing” of his race, but if he ends up being “absorbed” by Marian’s love and their children, “it is well!”

Many Native Americans, as well as many other present-day readers, may look askance at the “vanishing” trope that Grey uses for his Native American characters.  But in the 1920s, that wasn’t the cause of the loudest protests.  Westerns were written largely for a white Christian audience, and letters from them started pouring into the Journal complaining about the general portrayal of the Christian missionary characters.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs likewise denounced the book’s description of their work.  And in an era of increasingly prominent white supremacist movements (as I noted in a previous post), a mixed-race marriage was not what many white readers were ready to see as a happy ending, whether it involved “absorption” or not.

Something had to give, if the story was going to turn into the popular film and best-selling book that his publisher and film company now expected.  Ultimately, Grey agreed to change his story rather than forgo expectations. In the film adaptation, delayed until 1925, a designated villain was given the bad qualities that the missionaries and officials had more generally in the original story, and the Native American protagonist ends up dead rather than wed.  Grey also made changes for the book version that came out the same year.  He didn’t sanitize as much as the movie did, but he still changed the ending, making his protagonist die on the page as he does on the screen.  “This is the first time in my life I have been driven away from the truth,” he lamented in a letter to his editor, “from honor and ideals, and in this case, from telling the world of the tragedy of the Indian.  It is a melancholy thing.”

You can still find the book The Vanishing American for sale online, and in many libraries, but you may well end finding the sanitized version.  The first three magazine installments are in the public domain now, and 12 days from now the last three will join them.  Once that happens, the story as Zane Grey meant to tell it will be free for all to read and evaluate for themselves.

(My thanks to Thomas Pauly’s 2005 biography Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women, for most of the information I relate here about Grey and his novel.)

2019 update: Link to full text of The Vanishing American as published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1922 and 1923, now in the US public domain.  The link goes to scans of issues provided by HathiTrust.  One correction from my original post: The ending even in this serialization is different from Grey’s original ending, though also different in some ways from the movie and the 1925 book publication.  Pauly’s description of Grey’s original ending is based on a later book edition published in 1982, with an introduction Zane Grey’s son Loren.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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