By Harold Bell Wright and his son, Gilbert Munger
Wright, who used the pen name John Lebar. Wright did a lot to help
his sons establish successful careers. He undoubtedly did the
most, and agonized the most, trying to help his oldest son Gilbert become successful as
a writer and producer. Speculation that Gilbert wrote the entire book while Dad
added only his name to help it sell better is not true. In a letter to
his son, Norman, dated February 10, 1944, Wright offered these
"In 1930 I figured a way
to help Gilbert and his little family to full financial
freedom. I proposed that he collaborate with me in writing a
novel. I said that for his share in the collaboration he
should receive all that the magazine serial rights paid,
and all that the motion picture rights paid. For my
share I would take the book royalties only.
"We worked together on a rough draft of
an outline using my card system.
He [Gilbert] wrote an outline from this first
We together revised the outline.
He wrote the first writing of the story.
We worked together on a revision.
He did a rewrite.
Then I worked alone on a final re-write of the
revision and with Mrs. Culan's help proof-read and prepared
the copy for the printers, and made the publishing
"This book was published in 1932. The
serial rights paid Gilbert $15,000. The motion picture
rights paid him $7,500. I received from the book royalties
$2,336.29. My plan to give my son financial self-respecting
freedom from debt seemed to work out." [bullet points
supplied by Chudleigh]
This was Wright's second book to sell very few copies, making it
one of the "furious five" rare titles today. After an unusually
large number of unsold copies were returned by dealers, net sales
totaled 9,639, including reprints and foreign editions. All American first
editions were published by Appleton, who always included a printing
number on the last page of the book, and look exactly like the photos at
the top of this page. Printing numbers higher than
(1) are considered less desirable by collectors than first printings,
but the books are so hard to find that any number is fine with many
collectors. Reprints were also published by A.L. Burt. In the 1990s Yestermorrow produced reprints for
Barbara Berry's Bookshop. These Yestermorrow copies show up
frequently on eBay.
What is this Book
Wright was an idealist. He believed in the natural
goodness of ordinary people, especially those who followed the teachings
of Jesus. But he also recognized evil. His stories
feature ordinary people loving, suffering, serving others, being
stubbornly honest, working hard. And those ordinary people usually
triumphed over evil people, those who scorned the good of others to gain money, prestige or power.
In the Devil's Highway, Wright and son launch a scathing
attack on "scientism," which Wikipedia defines as "the faith that
science has no boundaries, that in due time all human problems and all
aspects of human endeavor will be dealt [with] and solved by science
alone. This idea is also called the Myth of Progress."
It is probably fair to say this book is an attack on
Nazism, Fascism and Communism, all of which were taking root during
Wright's most productive years, but the book also attacks any effort to
replace old-fashioned values with modern, scientific ideas.
As the three "isms" mentioned above illustrated,
scientism requires enforcement by an elite group or a powerful dictator, whether they be scientists
or politicians. Correcting or curing criminals required first taking away their
freedom, then applying therapies whether they wanted them or not. Fixing
mental illness sometimes required lobotomies and shock therapy, whether
the afflicted person wanted such treatment or not. And universal human advancement would happen only after the
simple masses gave up things like religion, love, patriotism and other
prejudices and sentimentalities, which they were not likely to give up
One way to show the fallacy of any flawed philosophy or
theory is to take
it to its logical extreme. That is what Wright and his son, Gilbert, do
in this book. Would we really want to live in a world where scientific progress
was the only value? In The Devil's Highway we see Wright's vision
of a totally scientific world, where progress is all that matters. Today
we don't need this kind of imaginative picture. We have seen ethnic cleansings, gas chambers, labor camps,
motivated sterilizations, and medical experiments on expendable people.
Wright saw it before it happened.
In The Devil's Highway, several years before Hitler,
Wright showed what science would produce if not used under the
constraint of traditional values: despots and victims. And along the way
he unmasks the intellectuals and scientists who pretend to be interested
in the good of humanity but are really interested in absolute control
over the masses. Wright's scientists, whose only claimed goal is to produce
desirable results, end up producing what is best for themselves. And the
human relationships among the scientists are based on lies, misunderstandings,
betrayals and murders — whatever will produce the desired result.
Wright maintains that real beauty, fulfillment and salvation come from good
people with old fashioned values. That is the message of The Devil's
The story seems rather complicated, but isn't. There are
three main characters or groups of characters.
Simple goodness is represented by Alma, the loving
daughter of a scientist. She respects science, but values loving
relationships and truth more.
Evil is represented by a series of scientists, each of whom thinks he is
in control. But eventually each is shown to be a puppet of some more
powerful scientist. It is this passing of the torch from one scientist
to another that makes the book seem complicated. Finally we get to the real center of evil, Dr. Munsker,
who lives and works in a laboratory under a mountain in Arizona.
And third, there is Fred Ramsey, the central character
in the story, who must choose between good and evil. He loves Alma, but is
attracted to Scientism. [SPOILER ALERT]: In the end Fred surrenders to scientism and is
destroyed by it, before being miraculously rescued by Alma (goodness and
truth). And, also in
the end, we see that Dr. Munsker was really just the puppet of a
supernatural evil, perhaps what we would call the Devil.
This same idea was told several years later by C. S.
Lewis, in an almost identical story: That Hideous Strength.
Review of Book by Dr.
Joyce Kinkead Copyright 1979 by Joyce
Kinkead. Used by Permission
In 1932, the same year that Ma Cinderella was published, Wright
and his son Gilbert (John Lebar) produced The Devil's Highway, a
different kind of book for Wright.
Just as he uses labor and art in Helen of the Old House
and The Eyes of the World, The Devil's Highway represents
his one attempt at using science as a subject.