The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 9, Number 1, Pages

Zane Grey's Washington: The Desert of Wheat (I9I9)

by Robert B. Olafson

Robert B. Olafson is a professor of English at Eastern Washington University. He teaches a course in the Western novel and has been active in the Western Literature Association and the Pacific Northwest American Studies Association where he is secretary-treasurer.


Eastern Washington has been the setting of a number of novels. Recently John Keeble's Yellowfish and Terry Davis' Vision Quest both depicted scenes in the Spokane area. Zane Grey also set one of his more than eighty Westerns in the "Big Bend Region" of Eastern Washington. The Desert of Wheat (1919)(1) takes place in 1917 shortly after the United States and Germany went to war. With his wife, Dolly, Zane Grey had visited Washington and gathered material for his novel. He visited Spokane's Davenport Hotel, the wheat lands, and the Columbia River scablands. He also read scientific data on smut and other wheat diseases and he did research on the I.W.W. (The Industrial Workers of the World) - who became the villains of The Desert of Wheat.

Zane Grey had become fascinated with deserts dating back to 1907 when he traveled with Buffalo Jones in Northern Arizona. This trip deeply influenced Grey's first successful Western novel, The Heritage of the Desert (1910). His second Western Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) (also set as his first was in Southern Utah) became a bestseller and put Grey on solid financial footing. This financial success, along with continual production of new bestseller Westerns each year, allowed Zane Grey to travel in Arizona, New Mexico, Death Valley, Mexico, and Washington State between 1912 and 1919. Grey gathered material and took copious notes on each trip; these notes found their way into his Westerns, refined and embellished.

In the first page of Zane Grey's handwritten manuscript: (Reproduced from the Collections of the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress), we see him set the tone, epic and mystical, concerning his views of the wheatlands. (See figure 2.)

Figure 3

On the third page of his manuscript he mentions geographical names: Columbia Basin, Cascade Mountains, Coeur d'Alene, Bitteroot, Blue Mountains and towns: Odessa, Russ. Ephrata, Krupp, Wheeler. Moses Coulee, Ruff, Moody, Wheatland. (See figure 3) The final printed text has some slight differences from the handwritten manuscript; obviously Grey did some further revision.

These two sample pages reveal Grey's tone as he casts the struggle to harvest wheat in Eastern Washington in heroic terms. Grey sees the farmers as types of "giants in the earth" who must battle the forces of nature and the forces of corrupt men: the l.W.W. In many ways Grey's Desert of Wheat resembles Frank Norris' The Octopus (1902) another novel of wheat. Norris' The Octopus waxes eloquently about the power, beauty, and natural force of the wheat in California. Grey's does the same for the wheat in Washington State. Norris has his huge and powerful wheat ranchers battle the corrupt forces of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Grey's powerful ranchers battle the corrupt forces of the l.W.W. labor organizers. Each author sees the conflict in grandiose and heroic terms.

Each novel has a father-son conflict. In The Octopus the father. Magnus Derrick, is betrayed by his son, Lyman, who eventually sells out to the railroad. In The Desert of Wheat, old Chris Darn, a German-born wheat rancher, feels ashamed of his son Kurt's American patriotism. Old Chris Darn feels that the United States has been led astray by England and that Germany is in the right. His son, Kurt, on the other hand, wants to fight against the Germans and enlists in the U.S. Army. Chris Darn feels betrayed by his son; eventually, however, just before his death, Chris Darn sees the error of his loyalty to Germany and comes to admire his son's desire to fight on the side of the United States.

In Chapter IV of the novel. Grey sets the scene in Spokane which "was awakening to the menace of hordes of strange, idle men [l.W.W. members] who had come on the west bound freight-trains." Grey describes a meeting of the wheat ranchers and the city leaders:

The Chamber of Commerce sent an imperative appeal to representative wheat-raisers, ranchers, lumbermen. farmers, and bade them to come to Spokane to discuss the situation. They met at the Hotel Davenport, where luncheon was served in one of the magnificently appointed dining-halls of the most splendid hotel in the West. The lion of the group of Spokane capitalists was Reisenberg, a man of German forebears, but all American in his sympathies, with a son already in the army. Reisenberg was president of city bank and the Chamber of Commerce. His first words to the large assembly of clean-cut, square jawed, intent-eyed Westerners were:
"Gentleman, we are here to discuss the most threatening and unfortunate situation the Northwest was ever called upon to meet."

According to the novel the Wobblies the ranchers and businessmen feared were a corrupt labor union, perhaps in the pay of the Germans to disrupt the war effort to produce wheat and other goods. Grey depicts the Wobblies as intimidating farm workers, as burning wheatfielcls, as using guns and thug tactics to organize the workers. Finally the wheat ranchers capture a Wobbly leader and hang him from a railroad trestle, where his body swings for several days. The act of labor organization was suspect to begin with; but to do it in wartime and to do it with radical power tactics was criminal in the eyes of Grey's ranchers. Grey put all the abuses on the side of the Wobblies. Grey was aware of the l.W.W. "Bloody Sunday" free speech fight at Everett, Washington that involved the massacre of Wobblies on Sunday, November 5. 1916. He also curiously enough foreshadows by sheer coincidence an episode which took place in Centralia. Washington where a Wobbly was hanged and castrated and left swinging from a railroad bridge on Armistice Day 1919. Grey's ranchers hang a Wobbly in the same way. Since the novel was published in January 1919, the fiction took place before the real event. Also they probably were aware of the l.W.W. Free Speech Fights in Spokane in 1909.

The Spokane Chamber of Commerce forced through a law against public assembly in the street which exempted only the Salvation Army. One hundred and three soapboxer Wobblies were arrested on the first day of the Spokane fight. The number of arrests grew to five hundred by the end of the month. President Taft visited Spokane at this time. He, of course, was allowed to speak in the streets, much to the ire of the Wobblies. They deliberately defied the law, were arrested. and packed the jails.

About forty years later, in 1959, another great writer of Western themes. Wallace Stegnar, published the novel The Preacher and the Slave (later republished as Joe Hill, A Biographical Novel. 1972) which presented the worker's side of the l.W.W. conflict. Some of its action takes place in Washington State, too.(2)

There is no question that the Wobbly movement was revolutionary, radical, and too prone to violence.(3) Grey, however, seems to have been caught up somewhat in the wartime hysteria of 1917-1918 as he sanctions the vigilante hanging of the labor leader.

The Desert of Wheat has a love story as Kurt Darn eventually marries a neighboring rancher's beautiful daughter, Lenore Anderson. Lenore nurses Kurt back to health after he has returned home from combat in Germany, where he has been seriously wounded.

The first section of the novel deals most effectively with the portrayal of the people and the land of the "Big Bend Region." All in all, The Desert of Wheat is Zane Grey's ambitious attempt to deal with a region and a contemporary conflict of his day. Grey sold the novel to Hollywood and a movie based somewhat loosely on it was made under the title, Riders of the Dawn. In 1921 Zane Grey returned to his hometown of Zanesville, Ohio to receive honors for his success as a writer. The movie was played at the local cinema on this occasion.

Another interesting sidelight on this novel concerns the illustrator of the first edition. W.H.D. "Big Bill" Koerner was selected by Zane Grey and Harper and Brothers Publishers to do four drawings for the novel. W.H.D, Koerner was working as art director of the Chicago Tribune when in 1919 he got the job of illustrating two novels by leading writers of Westerns: the first was Emerson Hough's Traveling the Old Trails; the second was, of course, Grey's The Desert of Wheat. (See figure 1 and 4) This work launched Koerner on his new found career as a painter of Western themes.(4) In 1922 he did a painting that is now famous: 'The Madonna of the Prairie," In 1924 Koerner made an extensive tour of the West and devoted himself exclusively to Western themes from then on. His paintings are now featured along with Frederick Remington's and Charles Russell's in the Whitney Callery of Western Art at Cody. Wyoming.(5)

Figure 4


1. Zane Grey, The Desert of Wheat (New York: Harper and Brothers, Inc., 1919.

2. Wallace Stegner, Joe Hill, A Biographical Novel (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.) (Originally as The Preacher and the Slave, Boston: Houghton Mifflan, 1950.1

3. see also B. Traven, The Wobbly (Berlin: Leipzig: Buchmeister-Verlag, 1926.) This is a sympathetic novel about an American Wobbly in Mexico in the 1920s. In the U.S., the novel has been published as: The Cotton Pickers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.)

4. W.H.D. Koerner's illustrations from work done for them were featured recently in The Saturday Evening Post: Saga of the American West (Indianapolis, Curtis Publishing Co., 1980.)

5. Owen Wister author of The Virginian, set in Wyoming, also visited the "Big Bend Region" and wrote about it in his journals in the late 1890s. See Robert B. Olafson, "Wister's Washington," Pacific Northwest Forum, Vol. 2, Number 4 (1977), 2-5.