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Harold Bell Wright

His Life and His Writings

 

Inside the back dust wrapper on the first edition of Helen of the Old House [1921] the publisher wrote: "A biography of Mr. Wright and a critical sketch of his work will be sent free to anyone mailing coupon on inside of this wrapper." The coupon, inside the front wrappers says, "Where does he live? What are his hobbies? How does he write his books? Where does he get his plots? What is the secret of his success? How does he stand in the community? These are only a few of the questions asked about an author as universally popular as Mr. Wright. So many questions like these come to his publishers from the great host of admirers of Mr. Wright, that a booklet has been specially prepared to tell something of his homelife, his aims and ambitions, his methods of work, and of the work itself. To anyone sending the coupon below the publishers will be glad to mail the booklet free of charge. They will  include also a descriptive catalog of books--new and old--which should be in every home."


Front Cover

Back

   

"The Old Trail?"


A happy dinner party in Los Angeles. It somehow recalls to two of the guests a similar dinner years ago in their Ohio home. They remember the preparation, the eager anticipation, and finally their aggravation when the little delivery boy for their grocer lost the piece de resistance, a duck.


"Do you remember, too, the boy?" asks one of the guests, suddenly aroused by their faithful description of the incident.


Indeed they do. The consternation of the little fellow was as genuine as their own. His humiliated little face they could never forget. They didn't remember his name or much else about him, but they did remember him.


"I remember that incident, too," laughs Harold Bell Wright, "for I was that boy."


* * * *


He was born with the instinct to sense the good in the hearts of people. His birthright was a limitless courage and a body almost too frail to sustain it. That was all. Harold Bell Wright lost his mother in his tenth year. His struggles to exist began then, and continued for more than thirty years. Today he is healthy, honored and happy.


His early life was so devoid of bright spots that the achievements of the man are amazing. He was practically thrown upon his own resources at a time when whatever seeds of greatness were in him might have been crushed and destroyed forever. Ninety-nine per cent of life's failures who condole themselves with the platitudinous, yet truthful, "I never had a chance," never suffered from the handicaps, physical and material, which beset Wright, nor were they justified in their
excuse to the same extent that he might have been had he failed.


Whatever opportunities Wright had were few and insignificant. He carved his own career, and in so doing he ran the whole gamut of life's experiences.


Harold Bell Wright has worked--not alone with his brain and heart, but with his hands and his muscles. He has known hunger. He has known the distress of unemployment. He has gone from quarry to factory, from office to mine, looking for work--anything which would enable
him to live. He has met with all the rebuffs and abuse which some of the more fortunate take a vicious delight in inflicting upon those who ask their consideration. He has been told that "the rock pile was intended for fellows like you!"


Wright was born in the East, and lived there until a serious sickness forced him to seek a more healthful climate. He has worked in all sections of the country, usually as a painter and decorator, but when necessity demanded, doing anything he could find to do. He possessed a natural talent for painting, but he found the commercial application of it more marketable, and being in no position to scorn his one means of livelihood, he had little compunction about painting barns or decorating walls.


* * * *


Wright, however, had no intention of devoting his life to that sort of work. He had determined before his twentieth year to enter the ministry. His course at Hiram College, which he financed by hard work, was abbreviated by sickness, but it provided him with the fundamentals of his calling, and partially equipped him to enter his chosen career. His search for health brought him eventually to the Ozark Mountains, the scene of some of his most successful works. It was here he preached his first sermon.


Harold Bell Wright's career as a minister among the mountaineers, and among the more sophisticated city folk, provides a remarkable example of the power one man can exercise over others. His sermons pierced the very hearts of his listeners. He seemed instinctively to divine men's thoughts and emotions. so that he could interpret and express the things they felt but could not define. Wright was as much a man as the best of them. He was friend, adviser, inspirer, and minister to all their Deeds. He talked of material things and the complexities of life as much as
he discussed the spiritual. And his congregations liked it--they liked Wright and they were better people for having known him.


Wright's passion in life was to help people. His experience with his little congregation in the Ozarks was sufficient to induce him to broaden his activities. Then followed a succession of calls to larger churches, in all of which Wright repeated and multiplied his previous successes.


He put into his work all he had to give. He was fearless and frank, and so obviously sincere that men and women not only accepted his counsel, but constantly sought it. Those who knew Wright in those days have never forgotten his magnetic personality. After the day's work.
his fine, clean, inspiring ideals, and his utter disregard of his own welfare, his health and his comfort in his tireless endeavor to help those who needed help. Wherever he has preached, Wright has accomplished tangible results. In mining towns where vice ran riot, in factory towns where saloons were almost as numerous as homes, in good places and in bad, he left behind him people who through him had learned once more to value the decent things in life and to strive to attain some of them. Wright feared no man. Perhaps that explains why so many of them respected him, and consequently, heeded him. He was the perfect leader--the one to whom entire communities turned instinctively whenever something worth while was the consideration. He might have been a famous minister. But the world would have been the loser had not Fate ordained that his special gifts should be available for all, instead of for the comparatively few with whom he came in contact.


* * *


"That Printer of Udells," Harold Bell Wright's first novel, was not conceived with the idea of making it a book. It was prepared with the intention of reading it in installments to his congregation in Pittsburg, Kansas. But with the meticulous care which has always been characteristic of him, Wright submitted his material to some of his friends for criticism, and to check up the accuracy of incidents and characters. After reading it, they persuaded the author to publish it, pointing out to him the far-reaching value it could have through such distribution, as contrasted with its otherwise purely local effect. The book was published--and with it the foundation laid for the development of this most widely read and best loved author. Through his books, Harold Bell Wright has attracted to himself a congregation of millions. No other minister of the gospel ever exceeded this influence for good, or won the affections of more people. There is not a village or cross roads in the land where he has not entrenched himself in the hearts of decent men and women.


The strain of preparing his book for publication, coupled with the endless activities in his church work, again undermined Wright's health, and he returned to the Ozarks to rest and recuperate. Here he planned "The Shepherd of the Hills," and wrote it for two specific reasons. First, he felt that he had a message which could best be delivered through the printed word. Second, he wanted to convince himself that he could interest larger audiences and do greater good through his books, than through his preaching.


He soon learned. His following had grown legion. He had become America's most popular novelist. He was physically unable to continue both his church work and his writing, so after months of earnest deliberation, and with the profound regret of his countless friends, he resigned the ministry to devote his life to helping his fellow men in the direction where chance had guided him.


Following "The Shepherd of the Hills" came "The Calling of Dan Mathews" in 1909, "The Uncrowned King" in 1910, "The Winning of Barbara Worth" in 1911, "Their Yesterdays" in 1912, "The Eyes of the World" in 1914, "When a Man's a Man" in 1916, "The Re-creation of Brian Kent" in 1919, and "Helen of the Old House" in 1921. Nearly ten million copies of Wright's books have been bought and read and re-read. That they have fulfilled a real mission, and that they have done a great and lasting good, the whole world openly acknowledges.

 

WRIGHT AT WORK


Harold bell Wright has written nine novels, and each is constructed upon an entirely different theme. He has written only when he had something vital and compelling to discuss--some great truth to elucidate, some warning to impart, something which would be helpful to people, or which might lend impetus to some beneficial movement. True, his themes have been usually the result of inspiration, but it was an inspiration born of conditions and problems of the day. Wright feels with an unerring instinct the passions disturbing the contentment and arousing the uneasiness of men and women, which are not always apparent to others. In each of his books he has not alone told a story, but he has put his fingers upon the mainspring of one of life's complexities, and shown the way to set it right. The story and the romance in his works are only incidental to Wright's main theme or argument. Sometimes, as in the book "Helen of the Old House," the development of his theme alone takes more than a year. Again, as with "Their Yesterdays," the subject chosen is such that he can begin his writing almost immediately.


Since the end of the [first] World War, Wright has studied the problems of Industry, as they applied to the relations between the worker and the employer. Industrial unrest, affecting as it
does, the greater part of the nation, was a subject of prime interest--perhaps of existence--to millions of men and their families. It was a subject worthy of a great book. The author's theme, or "argument," as he calls it, was this, "How can the ideals which inspired the nation during the war be applied to industry?" At first he didn't know that, they could. So he undertook to find out. For nearly a year he did little but discuss his argument and its ramifications with everybody likely" to have an intelligent opinion one way or the other. He went directly to the heart of industry. He went to mills, worked in mills, lived in mill towns--today with the workers, tomorrow with the owners. He put himself, for weeks at a time, in the very frame of mind of his subjects, living as they lived and thinking as they thought. His argument developed. Wherever
he went, in the textile mills of New England, in the steel mills of the Middle West, in the coal mines, the oil fields, the quarries, the farms and great cattle ranges, in the lumber camps of the Northwest, he found diversity of opinion only in immaterial details. The fundamental truths of the problem did not vary. The worker and his boss were essentially the same everywhere, with the cleavage between them only slightly less--or more--distinct, as the conditions in the individual industry differed. After months of investigation and research, Wright had not determined definitely to write the book. But all this time he was gaining confidence in his "argument," growing to believe in it more and more, as he drew deeper into the question and learned at first hand the true conditions in the field which he had chosen to study. Not a phase of present industrial relations escaped him. His task was to absorb all the information available, and to do it with an open mind, thoroughly unprejudiced, and disposed toward neither side.


In the time he spent deciding whether his theme was big enough for a book, other authors could have conceived, written and published one, if not two, novels. But, when he had completed his survey and summarized the staggering amount of information accumulated, Wright knew his argument was worthy of development, and he knew he had selected the one subject which, at the moment, was of deepest concern to the great mass of American citizens.


Wright's method of constructing his books never varies. The process he followed with "Helen of the Old House" is similar to that employed in his previous works.


Certain that his argument was the right one, and equipped with a mass of material, Wright proceeded to elaborate his argument. For weeks he worked over a plain statement of facts, covering all phases of his theme. The book itself was still far in the background. The unity of the argument can be compared to the preparation of a law brief, so thoroughly did it embrace its subject, and so completely did it expound both sides of its case. The argument when completed, after infinite revisions, resembled a popular novel about as strongly as a field of clover resembles milk. Yet, it was the novel--and it was the Harold Bell Wright portion of it. His argument answered his original problem, "How can the ideals which inspired the nation during the war be applied to industry?" And his answer resolved itself with a plea, not for Unionism, not for Capitalism, but for Americanism.


"The 'Big Idea'," says Wright, "The idea of the Oneness of all humanity will come. I don't know how it will come; but somehow, the appeal must be made to the loyal citizens of this nation in behalf of the humanity that is dependent for life itself upon our industries, exactly as the appeal was made in behalf of the humanity that looked to us for help in time of war.


"We must, as a nation, learn somehow to feel our work as we felt our war. The same ideals of patriotism and sacrifice and heroism that were so exalted in the war must be held up in our everyday work. We must learn to see our individual jobs in the industrial organizations of our country as we saw our places in the national activities during the war. As a people we must grasp the mighty fact that humanity is the issue in our mills and shops and factories and mines, exactly as it was the issue in our campaigns in France.


"America has not only to face in her industries the same spirit of imperialism that we fought in France, but she has to contend with the same breed of disloyal grafters, profiteers and slackers that would have betrayed us during the war. And these traitors to our industries must be branded wherever they are found--among the business forces or in the ranks of labor--in our schools and churches or on our farms.


"The individual's attitude toward the industries of the nation must be a test of his loyal citizenship just as a man's attitude toward our army was a test. And Americans dare not continue to ignore the danger that lies in the work of those emissaries who are seeking to weaken the loyalty of our workmen and who, by breeding class hatred and strife in our industries, are trying to bring about the downfall of our government and replace the stars and stripes with the flag that is as foreign to our American independence as the flag of the German Kaiser himself."


DEVELOPING THE STORY


With his argument in final shape, Wright next selected his characters. He needed two types of employers, and two types of workers, the good and the bad, the honest and the dishonest. He had their very prototypes. He selected actual individuals from the many he had encountered when gathering his material. He chose characters who actually did and said the things which appear in the book. After his four principals, Wright chose the supporting cast, who were to furnish the romance, the tragedy or comedy, and the "story" part of his book. Here, also, he frequently modeled his characters upon people he had known. Isn't it obvious why his books are true to life ? Could they be otherwise? For he exercises his inventiveness only in the elements of romance. All else is exactly what has happened somewhere, sometime, and the things his characters do and say, are what their counterparts have done and said in real life.
 

Seldom has Wright used an important incident in any of his books, which he could not parallel by an actual occurrence.


The plot of the story unfolds through the actions of the characters themselves. By grouping his selected personalities, and associating them in the business of life, the plot becomes merely a logical development. The characters write the book--the author becomes their interpreter. They lead him. He simply follows them and records their actions. He never attempts to control them. He allows them to follow their natural inclinations, and the result is truth in the guise of fiction.


In the preparation of his manuscripts, the same painstaking care is manifested as in securing his material and completing his argument. With the argument constantly before him, he permits the story to unfold itself. He writes and continues to write, with no regard for sequence or climaxes, until he has put on paper all that possibly could be used in the book. Sometimes he will have written five or six times as much as he can use. But, he gets it all down, and then begins to put it in shape. He binds his first manuscript in loose leaf form, with wide margins on the outside of each sheet for notations. He goes over it first, to insure its completeness. He then checks it against his argument to be certain that in no instance has he deviated from the theme. Then he will revise his material, cutting or adding to it, working over sentence after sentence. Only then does he complete his story. He will transpose pages, often chapters. He will begin to cut whenever possible. He will rearrange the entire manuscript until he feels that he has perfected the construction. Once more he goes over each chapter, with a view of improving the elements of drama and suspense. His climaxes are put in order. His scenes, his characters, his incidents are all weighed and worked over, until what remains bears little resemblance to his first draft. Again the story as it stands is compared with the argument, until it is the argument in story form. After he has completed his work, Mr. Wright subjects it to the final test. He will have it read by people who are thoroughly familiar with the subject he has treated. And, until he has faithfully pictured his scenes, characters and action, he will not release his manuscript.


In the case of "Helen of the Old House," several nationally known employers of labor and labor leaders have been over portions of the manuscript, and representatives of the rank and file of the workers have been consulted by the author for the express purpose of making doubly sure that life itself will substantiate and prove whatever in the book might seem improbable.


Before releasing his manuscript of "The Winning of Barbara Worth," Wright submitted it to five famous engineers to check over his treatment of the reclamation of the desert. In "When a Man's a Man," the descriptions of Western life and experiences were first verified by a group of ranchers and cowboys before the book was published. It is amusing and not at all disturbing to the author when occasionally a critic will doubt the possibility of some of his incidents. Almost always they choose some incident which actually occurred somewhere. Why, even the story of the baby girl who was found in the desert ("The Winning of Barbara Worth") was authenticated by a whole township in Arizona, where such an incident had happened.


Perhaps such scrupulous regard for detail and such painstaking labor are not imperative in writing novels; but the question persists,--Are not these the characteristics which have given Wright his
great audience? Could he do less and remain Harold Bell Wright?

 

* * *

Harold Bell Wright lives  in the desert of Arizona;  not the desert of waste and desolation, but to him, Nature's own garden spot. For there is all he loves best, there to him is the essence of all that is lovely, a landscape of glorious wild things--flowers, s h rubs, bushes and trees--with here an expanse of twenty miles, solid with  poppies, blooming cactus, and elsewhere a dozen different wild flowers, massed within a few square feet. The birds, the animals, the very air, are untamed and untainted. Nature reigns supreme, and the hand of man has not attempted to interfere. These are the things which mean life to Wright, and there is where he calls "home."


Wright went to Tucson, Arizona, largely by accident. Ten years ago, while living in California, he made an important business engagement, and for no special reason other than its convenience for both parties, Tucson was chosen for the meeting. With Wright and Tucson, it was a case of love at first sight. Three days after reaching the city he had purchased a cottage, where he wrote most of "Their Yesterdays." Today Wright has a tract of eighty acres outside of Tucson, where he is building a new home. Here he intends to remain. His home is in perfect harmony with its surroundings. It will be neither palatial nor pretentious, but substantial and comfortable. His gardens are typical of the country, for he has transplanted from the desert the most beautiful of the plants and shrubs, the trees and bushes, so that his own grounds afford him a miniature of the picturesque country. Most of the work on the home and grounds is done by Wright and his wife, because they like to do it. One servant is usually the extent of the domestics, and even in Tucson the servant question is not without its difficulties.


The home life of the Wrights is so essentially the "simple life" that it differs little from that of the average American family. It is totally without pretense, and very little of the luxurious is associated with it. Wright has a motor car which he has driven for six years, and will continue to drive as long as it can be driven. His inclinations do not turn toward the lavish or the expensive. The more closely his life approaches that of his beloved characters, the happier he is.


Wright attributes his love of the outdoors to the training he received from his mother. His earliest recollections are of days spent with her in the fields and woodlands, learning to know and appreciate the wonders of Nature. The first book his mother gave him was Longfellow's "Hiawatha," and to the boy that expressed the philosophy of life.


His greatest pleasure is in hiking and camping in the desert. He is an expert horseman, but an injury suffered several years ago in an automobile accident has made riding a bit precarious, and he has been forced to give up, to a large extent, one of his favorite sports. He spends as much time camping as he does at home. Most of his books have been written out of doors, far from civilization. Two or three tents, his motor car, some staple provisions, and plenty of ammunition are about all he requires. Wright and his wife are both good marksmen, and shoot what game they require for food. They have never hunted for the sake of hunting alone. Wright has never killed a deer. His love for the wild creatures is greater than any sporting instinct to kill for the test of skill it affords. Many of the desert animals seem to sense his friendliness, and lose all fear of him.


While working on one of his novels in his camp, a party of naturalists, whose guide had deserted them, stayed with Wright for a while, and, of course, were very much interested in him and in his work. They plied him with questions, and requested permission to photograph the tents and his paraphernalia. Wright humored them, and when they had pried into everything in sight, he asked them if they had met Lizzie.


"Why no," replied one dignified professor, "But, may I ask, who is Lizzie ?"


"My companion," said Wright, with a slight suspicion of a smile.


"Of course, er, we should be delighted to meet Miss Lizzie," stammered the spokesman of the group, plainly embarrassed.


They followed Wright into his tent. It was partitioned by a curtain dividing the work room from the sleeping quarters. Wright stepped behind the curtain and returned with several white moths. Cautioning his guests to silence, he sat cross-legged on the board floor, and rapped on the boards. Nothing happened. The bewildered professors eyed each other. What a strange creature this Wright was! As they watched, Wright repeated his knocks, softly calling, "Lizzie." There was a slight stir, and over the edge of the boards appeared a green lizard. It advanced slowly toward Wright, nibbled a moth in his fingers, and crawled up his arm.


"Gentlemen, permit me to introduce Lizzie." Wright grinned, and so did his guests.

Lizzie was not the only one of Wright's strange friends. Mr. Hawkins, with whom he was very intimate, was a hawk, and Fido an ordinarily ferocious coyote!


That, to Wright, is living. He has been everywhere and seen everything, but to him the fairest spot in all the world is his desert home.


Tucson counts Wright one of its substantial citizens. He is a member of the local Commercial Club, active in municipal affairs, and friendly with everybody in the county. His chief town interest, however, is the Tubercular Charity Hospital, which is supported entirely by voluntary contributions. Wright has organized and conducted a series of benefits for the hospital which have done much to maintain it. In 1921 he staged in Tucson his new play, "Salt of the Earth," and performances were given to large audiences for six nights.


Few men have ever had the friends which Wright numbers as his. They can be attributed not alone to his books, but to his wonderful personality as well. He is the sort who men like instinctively. He radiates a Lincolnian type of rugged honesty. There is about him an easy air of distinction which mingles attractively with his extreme democracy, He is tall and slender, with strength of character in every feature. His expression is a study, reflecting the animation and the deep feeling of the man. To meet Wright is to meet a man. To know him is an inspiration to make of one's self what Wright has made of himself. He is modest to the extreme, but not shy. Though highly sensitive to criticism, he can not be influenced by fear of it. He talks easily, and always interestingly. He stirs in one emotions of which one is not ashamed. He is so real, so close to the ideals of manhood, that one sees in him the good in one's self, and finds in him the justification of decent aspirations.


Much can be written of Harold Bell Wright. Sometime, perhaps, a competent biographer will write the best of Wright's romances--his own, and it will be found that the greatest of Wright's characters, the finest, the cleanest, and the best loved were inferior in their greatness to their author.

 

HELEN OF THE OLD HOUSE

By HAROLD BELL WRIGHT

 

D. APPLETON AND COMPANY

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