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16.  The Devil's Highway 


The Devil's Highway, by Harold Bell Wright, dust jacket The Devil's Highway, by Harold Bell Wright

First Edition

Appleton, 1932, red, (1) on last page, light orange dust jacket with black and red illustration on front.

Net sales totaled 9,639

List of editions

Value Guide


Background

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 details:

    "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 draft.

  • 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 arrangements.

"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]

Collecting

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 About?

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 willingly.

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, genocides, politically 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 Highway.

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.  Continue >>>

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This Harold Bell Wright web site is written and produced by Gerry Chudleigh with the help of many friends.
Copyright 2000-October, 2012 by Gerry Chudleigh
Last updated 10/06/12