Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (1919)

Last week I posted rather sceptically about the splurge of moralistic emotion that is Zane Grey’s The Day of the Beast. I said I wouldn’t be reading any more Grey for a while, but then I took a look at his The Desert of Wheat, and I was hooked right away. It’s a much better book (though still a bit hard to take in some of its attitudes).

One important way in which this is better is that it is located specifically in Washington state, up in the top left-hand corner of America. The Day of the Beast was set in the deliberately unspecific Middleville, but in this novel Grey shows a real feeling for the vast wheatfields of the North-West, and for the people who live there.

The book’s hero is Kurt Dorn, second-generation American. His father was born in Germany and still has strong German sympathies. I think this is the first novel I’ve read about the dilemmas of someone from the sizeable German-American community whose loyalties were tested by the decision of America to enter the war on the side of the Allies.

How many poor boys and girls in America must be helplessly divided between parents and country! How many faithful and blind parents, obedient to the laws of mind and heart, set for all time, must see a favorite son go out to fight against all they had held sacred!

Kurt has no doubts where his loyalty should lie; he is proudly and determinedly American – but the situation is painful. The father is a wheat farmer with a fair-sized estate, in a hot season when the crop is threatened by drought. An even more pressing problem is the activity in the area of the IWW, That’s the Industrial Workers of the World (sometimes known as the Wobblies) an extreme socialist Trade Union with a profound hatred of capitalism. This was a very tough-minded outfit, who sometimes added violence and sabotage to the more standard methods of industrial negotiation. Grey imagines (with I don’t know how much factual basis) that in 1917 the Union was being used by German agents to disrupt the wheat supply that was vital to the American war effort. (‘[I] t had been said that the issue of the great war, the salvation of the world, and its happiness, its hope, depended upon the millions of broad acres of golden grain .’)

As a character says:

“But this year it’s different.… All at once they’ve multiplied and strengthened. There’s somethin’ behind them. A big unseen hand is stackin’ the deck.… An’, countrymen, that tremendous power is German gold!”

We meet a couple of IWW agitators:

One of them, an American, was a man of about thirty years, clean-shaven, square-jawed, with light, steely, secretive gray eyes, and a look of intelligence and assurance that did not harmonize with his motley garb. His companion was a foreigner, small of stature, with eyes like a ferret and deep pits in his sallow face.

Foreigners are dangerous. The novel explores, in its melodramatic way, the tension between America’s ‘melting-pot’ tradition and the danger of too much foreign influence, personified by the agitator who tries to inspire the workers to violence:

If you working-men could only stand together you could do in this country what has been done in Russia,” declared the I.W.W. orator. “You know what the working-men did there to the slimy curs, the gunmen, and the stool-pigeons of the capitalistic class. They bumped them off. They sent them up to say, ‘Good morning, Jesus.'”

(This passage is surely slightly anachronistic, since it is set in the summer of 1917, before the Bolsheviks had properly got going.)

The novel develops into a fairly standard farmers versus baddies Western, with the Trade Unionists taking the baddies role (No, this isn’t a novel likely to prove popular with Corbynites). Kurt’s father, inflamed by loyalty to Germany, joins with the IWW saboteurs (while protecting his own land). But you can’t trust a baddie, they betray him and he sees the error of his ways.

Kurt has fallen for the daughter of a bigger land magnate, and saves her from being kidnapped (and implicitly a fate worse than death). He works brilliantly at combating the bad men and ensuring the safety of at least part of the wheat harvest. Eventually all the farmers and decent farm workers band together to beat the IWW. Since they are of very varied backgrounds, this becomes a metaphor for all America pulling together to fight the war:

These neighbors of his, many of them aliens, some of them Germans, when put to this vital test, were proving themselves.

The IWW men are outed. The rank and file are shipped out of the region by train, but the surviving agitator is lynched. Grey does not totally endorse this lynching – his girlfriend persuades hero Kurt not to take part in it – but it is shown as being in the Western tradition (3-7-77), and as being justified and effective.

The local victory won (and his father dying, begging for forgiveness) Kurt now decides that he must fulfil his role as a true American and enlist for the war. His girlfriend and her father beg him to stay and grow wheat for the war effort instead. The son of the family has already left for war, and is training to be an airman. But Kurt is adamant:

He longed to live, to have a hundredfold his strength and fury, to be gifted with a genius for time and place and bloody deed, to have the war-gods set him a thousand opportunities, to beat with iron mace and cut with sharp bayonet and rend with hard hand—to kill and kill and kill the hideous thing that was German.

Up till now the war has been seen as an irreproachably moral cause, a purely and simply virtuous crusade. When Kurt leaves to join the Army, however, things become more complicated, more ambiguous. The war is still seen as a good thing, even for the Germans (‘they were the ones to blame, and their punishment should be severest. Kurt began to see where the war, cruel as it would be, was going to be of immeasurable benefit to the country.’) But the novel does not underestimate the grimness of mechanised warfare. It is one of those books that while politically in favour of the war, make a point of retailing its horrors:

‘Boys, take this from me. Nobody can tell you what a machine-gun is like. A rifle, now, is not so much. You get shot at, and you know the man must reload and aim. That takes time. But a machine-gun! Whew! It’s a comb—a fine-toothed comb—and you’re the louse it’s after! You hear that steady rattle, and then you hear bullets everywhere. Think of a man against a machine-gun! It’s not a square deal.’

He is also critical of the Army, and especially of its treatment of Jim, the girlfriend’s brother, who trained as an airman, but never got to France, having come down with pneumonia. The Army system seems careless of his fate. Kurt visits him in hospital and is shocked by the poor treatment there. He writes to Lenore, his girlfriend:

Lenore, your brother is a very sick boy. I lost some hours finding him. They did not want to let me see him. But I implored—said that I was engaged to his sister—and finally I got in. The nurse was very sympathetic. But I didn’t care for the doctors in charge. They seemed hard, hurried, brusque. But they have their troubles. The hospital was a long barracks, and it was full of cripples.
The nurse took me into a small, bare room, too damp and cold for a sick man, and I said so. She just looked at me.

The book’s indignant description of a possibly preventable death from pneumonia would have had much resonance in 1919, when many Americans had died in the flu epidemic.

War is not glamorised. The nastiness of trench life is made clear:

Suddenly he felt something slimy and hairy against his wrist—then a stinging bite. A rat! A trench rat that lived on flesh! He flung his arm violently and beat upon the soft earth.

More than that, though, the war is shown as morally corrupting. When in the climactic scene Kurt goes into action, he becomes less than human:

His face became like that of a gorilla. Struggling up, he swept his right arm over and outward with singular twisting energy. A bayonet-thrust! And for him his left arm was still intact! A savage, unintelligible battle-cry, yet unmistakably German, escaped his lips.

It is the German heritage that he hates that brings out this animality, and makes him, paradoxically, a a ferocious fighter against the Germans. A crisis comes when he comes face to face with a boy like himself, and has a ‘Strange Meeting’ sort of experience:

The last fight I had was with a boy. I didn’t know it when we met. I was rushing, head down, bayonet low. I saw only his body, his blade that clashed with mine. To me his weapon felt like a toy in the hands of a child. I swept it aside—and lunged. He screamed ‘Kamarad!’ before the blade reached him. Too late! I ran him through. Then I looked. A boy of nineteen! He never ought to have been forced to meet me. It was murder. I saw him die on my bayonet. I saw him slide off it and stretch out.… I did not hate him then. I’d have given my life for his. I hated what he represented.… That moment was the end of me as a soldier. If I had not been in range of the exploding shell that downed me I would have dropped my rifle and have stood strengthless before the next Hun.… So you see, though I killed them, and though I hate now, there’s something—something strange and inexplicable.

Kurt wins all his bayonet fights, but is hit by shrapnel from a shell, and comes close to death. Will-power helps him survive, but when he goes back home to the North-West, to be looked after by Lenore and her father. Lenore loves him and tends him, but is disturbed by watching him sleep, when in nightmares, he compulsively re-fights his battles.

But neither Dorn nor her father ever guessed that, once in her room, she collapsed from sheer feminine horror at the prospect of seeing Dorn change from a man to a gorilla, and to repeat the savage orgy of remurdering his Huns.

They get through it, and there is a happy ending, but the book has gone to places that most popular fiction about the war avoided.

A thought: Grey’s first big success was Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), whose villains were Mormons, like those of Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1895). The Desert of Wheat’s villains are trade union gangsters, like those of Doyle’s The Valley of Fear (1915). Imitation? Or just coincidence?


  1. Roger
    Posted September 1, 2019 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    “I think this is the first novel I’ve read about the dilemmas of someone from the sizeable German-American community”

    The 1919 film “Behind the Door” opens with news of the US declaration of war on Germany and his neighbours cheerfully set out to lynch the previously popular German-American hero, until they learn he has joined the Merchant Navy.
    H.L. Mencken wrote essays criticising the US decision to declare war.

    • Roger
      Posted September 3, 2019 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      I misremembered “Behind the Door”. His neighbours do not cheerfully set out to lynch the previously popular German-American hero. They merely prepare to tar and feather him.

  2. Posted September 3, 2019 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Sinclair Lewis wrote a short story, “He Loved His Country” (1916) about a German Civil War veteran who is torn between his love for his native land and the country in which he’s spent most of his life, and his exploitation by some young Germans who try to use him to denounce America. It’s short, but very affecting.

    • Posted September 3, 2019 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      Any idea where I can find this story?

      • Sally Parry
        Posted September 3, 2019 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

        It was reprinted in The Minnesota Stories of Sinclair Lewis (2005). It’s also in The Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis, but that’s seven volumes and expensive. Let me know if you have problems finding it.

  3. Posted September 13, 2019 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    The Union – it’s still around – is called the Industrial Workers of the World, not the International Workers of the World, which is saying the same thing twice.

    • Posted September 14, 2019 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for pointing out my careless error. I’ve now corrected it in the body of the piece.

  4. Posted December 8, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Agricultural landowners, the urban proletariat, divided ethnic loyalties… 20th (and 21st) century politics doesn’t seem to have moved on from the days of the Roman Republic.

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