Literary daybook, Oct. 23

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published October 23, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Oct. 23, 1990, Tony, Roz and Charis have lunch at the Toxique, and Zenia returns from the dead.
-- "The Robber Bride" (1993)
by Margaret Atwood

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1939, Zane Grey died. Grey was born as Pearl Zane Gray in Zanesville, Ohio, a town founded by his ancestors. After high school, his first move was not west but east, to study dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania, financed by a baseball scholarship. His next move was to New York City as a dentist, but only because New York was a literary center, a place where Grey would pull teeth by day and write or play baseball by night. By the time of his death he had written 89 books, 56 of them westerns and many of them bestsellers. Two of his favorite characters were the good-bad guy and the "noble savage" Indian; one of his favorite themes was "rape-by-progress," illustrated here from the 1918 hit "The U.P. Trail":

"Slingerland hated the railroad, and he could not see as Neale did, or any of the engineers or builders. This old trapper had the vision of the Indian -- that far-seeing eye cleared by distance and silence, and the force of the great, lonely hills. Progress was great, but nature unspoiled was greater. If a race could not breed all stronger men, through its great movements, it might better not breed any, for the bad over-multiplied the good, and so their needs magnified into greed. Slingerland saw many shiningbands of steel across the plains and mountains, many stations and hamlets and cities, a growing and marvelous prosperity from timber, mines, farms, and in the distant end -- a gutted West."

Though born too late for the Wild West, there was frontier adventure in Grey's youth, some of it approaching the six-gun sort. His father was a dentist, and Grey was compelled to help out around the office, at first cleaning up but eventually pulling teeth -- a job for which a baseball pitcher's strong hands and arms came in handy. Soon Grey was sent out to surrounding towns for this task -- a traveling, and totally unlicensed, tooth-puller. On one visit to Baltimore, Ohio, he heard talk of a big baseball game that afternoon, the local squad against an unbeaten team from nearby. Grey was a star in the Columbus semipro league and proud of his curve ball, a pitch new to the game and virtually unseen by the farm boys. He introduced himself to the manager of the Baltimore team, and had his offer to pitch that afternoon immediately accepted. With the game tied in the bottom of the seventh inning, Grey hit a grand slam; in the eighth, he threw a roundhouse curve so slow and strange that the batter fell over swinging. The other team began yelling, "Ringer! Ringer! Ringer!" bringing the umpire to the mound and a decision: "Game called. Nine to nothing, favor Jacktown. Baltimore's ringer pitcher throws a crooked ball!" In the ensuing riot, Grey slipped to the barn to change, but when still only half-dressed he saw the Jacktown team and fans on their way with a fence rail to ride him out of town. Grey bolted, and after a long chase through town escaped to a farmer's cornfield, where he spent the night in hiding. The next morning the farmer congratulated him on a great game, and gave him a pair of overalls.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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