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Harold Bell Wright

The Best Selling American Author 
of the 
Early 20th Century

Harold Bell Wright writes while horse watches over his shoulder

Who Was Harold Bell Wright? 

by Gerry Chudleigh


     Most people today are surprised to learn that during the first quarter of the twentieth century the novels of Harold Bell Wright (1872-1944) outsold every other American writer. [Click here for New York Times Obituary].  Newspapers of the day claimed Wright was the first person to become a millionaire by writing novels, and some say he was the first author to write a novel that reached a million sales. If not true, neither statement can be far wrong. Click here to read Ronald Reagan's statement about the effect of Wright's books on his life.

     Between 1903 and 1942, Harold Bell Wright wrote nineteen books (see list in left margin), several scripts for stage plays, and several magazine articles. At least fifteen movies were made from his novels.  Seven of Wright's books appeared on the top ten best sellers lists, two of them twice, including a number one seller in 1914, a number two in 1916 and a third best seller three times. For some reason The Shepherd of the Hills and The Calling of Dan Matthews don't appear on these lists though they each sold over a million copies within a few months of their publication in 1907 and 1909. It is possible that the people counting didn't keep track of The Book Supply Company titles, since BSC was a wholesaler and had never published books before Wright's titles. Or perhaps Elsbery Reynolds, the BSC owner and president, had not yet started reporting his sales to the list compilers.

Wright's best known titles are The Shepherd of the Hills, set in the Ozark mountains of Missouri, and The Winning of Barbara Worth, set in the Imperial Valley of southeastern California.

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Harold Bell Wright, from book dust jacket, 20367 bytes)

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     Just how popular was Harold Bell Wright? Frank Luther Mott developed a system to compare bestsellers from 1665 to 1945, when he wrote Golden Multitudes, the Story of Bestsellers in the United States. To make comparisons meaningful, Mott defines a bestseller as a book with sales equal to one percent of the U.S. population at the time of publication. His ranking: Charles Dickens, 16; Earl Stanley Gardner, 7; Walter Scott, 6; Gene Stratton Porter, 6; and James Fenimore Cooper  and Harold Bell Wright, five each.

     Scott and Dickens were not American authors, and Gardner came much later than Wright. So by Mott's reckoning Harold Bell Wright was one of only three American authors to write five or more best sellers from the arrival of the pilgrims in America through the first quarter of the 20th century. 

     Later in this introduction we will examine the angry criticism poured upon Harold Bell Wright by other writers, scholars, preachers, and even librarians. But before we get to that we need to consider why people bought and read his books by the millions. Marketing had a lot to do with it. His publisher, Elsbery W. Reynolds, of the Book Supply Company, was one of the first to recognize that rural and largely uneducated people would buy and read books if they were made available and attractive. As a result, millions of people who had never read a "better" book found Harold Bell Wright's books in their local small town stores, and listed in the Sears catalog.   


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   But his success didn't depend on marketing alone. Harold Bell Wright was a master of description. Readers learned to expect that between the covers of a Wright book they would travel to other places and learn about other ways of life. Wright went to enormous effort to research his locations, usually living there for several months or years before taking his readers there through his words.

Harold Bell Wright studio photo (9854 bytes)

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      Harold Bell Wright was a good storyteller, but more; he made it seem that his stories mattered.  In some moral sense, the resolution of the conflicts and dilemmas in the stories resolved issues the readers faced in their own lives. Wright became the common reader's entertainer, pastor, counselor and social commentator.

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Harold Bell Wright in his Tucson study (16629 bytes)
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     Most of the critics' ridicule and animosity targeted Wright's simple characters. Wright tended to see people as all good or all bad. That simplistic view of people and issues permeates every book. Readers quickly recognize which characters are intended to be models for good behavior, and which are symbols of evil. In other words, readers always know Wright is preaching.
     Harold Bell Wright's books defy easy classification. In some ways they are religious novels, like those of the later Lloyd C. Douglas. Many are westerns, like Zane Grey's. Most are romances, like Gene Stratton Porter's. All of Wright's stories were about the West, and most dealt with romance, pioneers and, sometimes, cowboys. There were gunfights in the canyons, illegal distilleries, cattle rustlers, fights at the mill, Indians, gold mines, and all-day chases on horseback, though not in every book. But Wright always went deeper. Wright's pivotal issues were always moral, and he spent much time delving into the emotional and spiritual struggles of the heroes. The hero was never the person with the fastest gun, but the one with the strongest character. For many modern readers those issues are still relevant.
     The values Harold Bell Wright championed were just what millions of people, especially rural and western people, wanted someone to champion. In Wright's books the values of the country and mountains and deserts were always strongest and best, even if transferred to the city. What were those values? Hard work, honesty, responsibility, perseverance, integrity, respect, physical health, and living a life that is true to the work God has assigned to you whatever that might be. (Continue...)

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Harold Bell Wright from book dust jacket (11877 bytes)
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Your Questions and Comments are Welcome. Click Here for Email Address.

    This Harold Bell Wright web site contains information from the book, "Harold Bell Wright's Books and Collectibles," plus additions and corrections.  Learn about Postcards related to Harold Bell Wright, Old Matt's Cabin, The Shepherd of the Hills, Branson, Missouri, Uncle Ike, El Centro, California, Harold Bell Wright as Author, Lebanon, Missouri, The Calling of Dan Matthews, Hiram College, The Winning of Barbara Worth, and more.  

This Harold Bell Wright web site is written and produced by Gerry Chudleigh with the help of many friends.
Copyright 2000-May, 2011 by Gerry Chudleigh
Last updated 05/26/11