Riders of the Purple Sage

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Riders of the Purple Sage
Grosset & Dunlap first edition cover
AuthorZane Grey
IllustratorDouglas Duer
Cover artistWendell Galloway
CountryUnited States
PublisherHarper & Brothers, Grosset & Dunlap
Publication date
Media typePaper, 8vo
Preceded byThe Heritage of the West 
Followed byThe Rainbow Trail 

Riders of the Purple Sage is a Western novel by Zane Grey, first published by Harper & Brothers in 1912. Considered by scholars[1] to have played a significant role in shaping the formula of the popular Western genre, the novel has been called "the most popular western novel of all time."[2]


Riders of the Purple Sage is a story about three main characters, Bern Venters, Jane Withersteen, and Jim Lassiter, who in various ways struggle with persecution from the local Mormon community led by Bishop Dyer and Elder Tull in the fictional town of Cottonwoods, Utah.

Jane Withersteen, a born-and-raised Mormon, provokes Elder Tull because she is attractive, wealthy, and befriends "Gentiles" (non-Mormons), namely, a little girl named Fay Larkin, a man she has hired named Bern Venters, and another hired man named Jim Lassiter. Elder Tull, a polygamist[3] with two wives already, wishes to have Jane for a third wife, along with her estate.

The story involves cattle-rustling, horse-theft, kidnapping and gunfights.


The setting is Southern Utah canyon country, 1871. The influx of Mormon settlers from 1847 to 1857 serves as a backdrop for the plot. The Mormons had been living in Kirtland, Ohio in the 1830s, but ventured west to escape persecution, Mormons being unpopular.

Point of view[edit]

The story is told from an anonymous, third-person, omniscient narrator’s point of view. The narrator reports what the characters say and how they feel, even when they are alone. For example: "On this night the same old loneliness beset Venters..."[4]


Jane Withersteen

Wealthy owner and operator of the considerable Withersteen ranch, her father having founded and established the estate. Miss Withersteen sympathizes with both Mormons (her own people) and Gentiles, which gets her into trouble with the local bishop and elder.

Bern Venters

Venters is a non-Mormon in the employ of Miss Withersteen. As the story opens he is in a very poor state, being persecuted by the local Mormons. However, Venters is very able with firearms and horses, and he is determined not to be beat.

Jim Lassiter

Lassiter is a gunfighter on a mysterious mission which brings him to Cottonwoods and Miss Withersteen. He is a non-Mormon and furthermore has no creed except his own way.

Bess/Elizabeth Erne

Bess has been raised by Oldring and his band of rustlers; she has very little memory of her mother. She is known as the Masked Rider.

Elder Tull

Tull practices "plural marriage" and desires to marry Jane Withersteen. He also wants to drive Bern Venters and Lassiter out of town and out of the region.


The Rainbow Trail, a sequel to Riders of the Purple Sage that reveals the fate of Jane and Lassiter and their adopted daughter, was published in 1915. Both novels are notable for their protagonists' strong opposition to Mormon polygamy, but in Rainbow Trail this theme is treated more explicitly. The plots of both books revolve around the victimization of women in the Mormon culture: events in Riders of the Purple Sage are centered on the struggle of a Mormon woman who sacrifices her wealth and social status to avoid becoming a junior wife of the head of the local church, while Rainbow Trail contrasts the fanatical older Mormons with the rising generation of Mormon women who will not tolerate polygamy and Mormon men who will not seek it.



Riders of the Purple Sage has been adapted to film five times. The first film version of the novel was the silent film Riders of the Purple Sage (1918) starring William Farnum as Lassiter and Mary Mersch as Jane. In later film versions the villains are corrupt judges or lawyers, not polygamous Mormons. A second silent film version was released in 1925, starring Tom Mix as Lassiter and Mabel Ballin as Jane. The first sound version appeared in 1931, starring George O'Brien as Lassiter and Marguerite Churchill as Jane. In 1941, a fourth film version was released, starring George Montgomery as Jim Lassiter and Mary Howard as Jane. Fifty-five years later, a television film, Riders of the Purple Sage (1996), was released, starring Ed Harris as Lassiter and Amy Madigan as Jane.[5]

Other media[edit]

During World War II the novel was rejected for publication as an Armed Services Editions paperback provided to US servicemen due to perceived bias against Mormonism.[6]

In 1952, Dell released a comic book version of the novel (Dell # 372).[7]

Riders of the Purple Sage was adapted into an opera by composer Craig Bohmler and librettist Steven Mark Kohn. It had its world premiere in February and March 2017 by the Arizona Opera in Tucson and Phoenix.[8] The opera was broadcast nationwide on November 25, 2017, on the WFMT Radio Network's American Opera Series,[9][10][11][12] and broadcast internationally in 2018 via distribution to the European Broadcasting Union.[13][14][15]

In popular culture[edit]

Riders of the Purple Sage has inspired a number of homages, including:

Bobbi Anderson, a novelist who is the main protagonist of Stephen King's 1987 novel The Tommyknockers, mentions Riders of the Purple Sage as one of her favorite novels, indicating that her copy of it had been read "nearly to tatters."


  1. ^ Handley, William R. Introduction. Zane Grey. Riders of the Purple Sage. New York: Modern Library, 2002; p. xi. ISBN 978-08129-66121.
  2. ^ Grey, Zane (2004). Fred Stenson (ed.). Riders of the Purple Sage. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. ix. ISBN 978-0760757550.
  3. ^ Mormons officially ended the practice of polygamy in 1890.
  4. ^ Grey, Zane. Riders of the Purple Sage. New York: Modern Library, 2002; chapter 4. ISBN 978-08129-66121.
  5. ^ Hulse, Ed (2007). Filming the West of Zane Grey. Lone Pine: Museum of Lone Pine Film History. pp. vii–x. ISBN 978-1880756096.
  6. ^ "Armed Service Editions".
  7. ^ "The Writings of Zane Grey: Comic Books". Zane Grey West Society. Retrieved November 3, 2012.
  8. ^ Lengel, Kerry (20 February 2017). "'Riders of the Purple Sage' is Arizona Opera's first-ever world premiere". azcentral.com. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  9. ^ "International Broadcast Takes Arizona Opera's Riders of the Purple Sage Around the World". Arizona Opera. September 13, 2017.
  10. ^ "International broadcast takes Arizona Opera’s Riders of the Purple Sage around the world". Arizona PBS. September 13, 2017.
  11. ^ "American Opera Series 2017 Presented by The WFMT Radio Network". WFMT Radio Network. 2017.
  12. ^ "AZ Opera's Riders of the Purple Sage Set for Nationwide Broadcast This Fall". Broadway World. November 25, 2017.
  13. ^ Burch, Cathalena E. "AZ Opera's 'Riders' getting national audience". Arizona Daily Star. September 13, 2017.
  14. ^ "Riders of the Purple Sage". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. July 22, 2018.
  15. ^ "Program: 3. 11. 2018". Vlata. Retrieved August 14, 2019.

External links[edit]