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Who Was Harold Bell Wright? 

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Harold Bell Wright writes while horse watches over his shoulder


     While Harold Bell Wright's values were the values of  most religious people in America, Wright also challenged the churches. Before he was a novelist, Wright was a pastor of several congregations affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), whose fundamental doctrines include the unity of the Christian church and the need to seek justice in society. In almost every novel Wright attacked religious denominations and the conventional church members and pastors in them for fighting with each other instead of being of service to the people around them. Wright believed a religion that mattered involved personal and community social services. Wright's heroes tend the sick, take in the homeless, build youth centers, teach the ignorant, and use their wealth for the good of  society. And they usually do this while making the established churches and religious people look hypocritical and irrelevant. Wright calls for people to rise above denominational issues and competition, and to serve individuals and society.

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     When people today say they don’t think it matters which church you belong to, or even if you belong to any church, as long as you are a truly good person, they are reflecting the message that millions of people read in Harold Bell Wright’s books perhaps more than anywhere else in the early part of the 20th century. Most Americans might think and talk just a little differently today if it hadn’t been for the influence of Harold Bell Wright.

     But it wasn’t conventional religious people alone who played the antiheroes in Wright’s books. No one was vilified more than eastern intellectuals, artists, authors and cultured people in general in other words, people like Wright's critics. They were depicted as weak, pale, emaciated, silly, often drunk, evil and always useless when put to the tests that country people faced. Harold Bell Wright was not the first person to lash out against declining moral values, nor the last, but perhaps no one has done it as effectively through popular books or entertainment as he did. 

     Many of Wright’s attacks seemed to be very direct and personal attacks on his critics, and they were taken that way by “better” but less popular writers. In The Eyes of The World Wright has a fictional Eastern writer say, “I am a literary scavenger. I haunt the intellectual slaughter pens, and live by the putrid offal that self-respecting authors reject. I glean the stinking materials for my stories from the sewers and cesspools of life. For the dollars they pay, I furnish my readers with those thrills that public decency forbids them to experience first hand. I am a procurer for the purposes of mental prostitution.”

     In Wright's most western book, When A Man’s A Man, an eastern professor of aesthetics shows up on an Arizona cattle ranch. “His slender body, with its narrow shoulders and sunken chest, frail as it was, seemed almost too large for his feeble legs. His thin face, bloodless and sallow, with a sparse, daintily trimmed beard and weak watery eyes, was characterized by a solemn and portentous gravity, as though, realizing fully the profound importance of his mission in life, he could permit no trivial thought to enter his bald, domelike head.” 


Harold Bell Wright postcard no. 10 (34751 bytes)     Perhaps it wouldn’t have been difficult for “good” writers to ignore Harold Bell Wright if his books hadn't been selling so phenomenally well. Wright was getting very rich and influential from writing “trash,” while their works of "literature" were being ignored by the masses. Lawrence V. Tagg, Wright's biographer, has gathered an impressive collection of contemporary attacks on Wright. Owen Wister’s comments are representative of most of the literary establishment: “I doubt if the present hour furnishes any happier symbols [of the quack novel] than we have in Mr. Wright [and The Eyes of the World]. It gathers into its four hundred and sixty pages all the elements ...of the quack-novel. It is,” Wister says, “stale, distorted, a sham, a puddle of words,” and “a mess of mildewed pap.” It was also number one on the bestseller list that year.

     Irving Babbitt, who taught French and Comparative Literature at Harvard from 1894 to 1933, included this reference to Harold Bell Wright in his 1924 classic, Democracy and Leadership

     "If quantitatively the American achievement is impressive, qualitatively it is somewhat less satisfying. What must one think of a country, asks one of our foreign critics, whose most popular orator is W. J. Bryan, whose favorite actor is Charlie Chaplin, whose most widely read novelist is Harold Bell Wright, whose best-known evangelist is Billy Sunday, and whose representative journalist is William Randolph Hearst? What one must evidently think of such a country, even after allowing liberally for overstatement, is that it lacks standards. Furthermore, America suffers not only from a lack of standards, but also not infrequently from a confusion or an inversion of standards ...." 

     For the most part, Harold Bell Wright has continued to be ignored in literary circles. Today, almost no volume on the history of American literature or authors mentions his name. 

By the late 1920’s Wright’s popularity had waned considerably. Others have mentioned that public tastes had changed.  People no longer wanted religious values mixed with their entertainment. Joyce Kinkead mentions that the pre-WWI optimism that Harold Bell Wright capitalized on had been replaced by a darker mood. And perhaps the majority of the population had successfully made the transition from farm to city and didn’t need Wright’s reassurances that the country ways were better. 

     But there may be another reason for Wright’s decline that I have not heard anyone else suggest. In my opinion, most of his books after 1923 weren’t very good, at least not from a commercial standpoint. Two were not fiction at all, one was science fiction, and except for his last book, even those that were Western fiction lacked the appealing characters and strong story lines of his earlier books. Harold Bell Wright seemed to depart from the formula that had made him successful and he lost some of his clear passion.


    Of course, even before 1923 the quality of Wright's novels was rather uneven. That Printer of Udell's, (1902-03) was a silly, sermonic melodrama, but it does plainly state his theme for the remaining 18 books. He didn't intend That Printer to be printed in book form; it was a series of chapters to be read to his congregation at Sunday night services. When it was printed as a book and sold reasonably well, he decided to write his first real novel, The Shepherd of the Hills (1907). Where the first book was all sermon, this one was all story, and a pretty good read, even today (though far too sentimental for most people). In his third book, The Calling of Dan Matthews (1909), Wright combined good story, powerful sermon and autobiographical elements for what may be his most powerful presentation of the passions that drove him. This book and The Shepherd of the Hills each reached the million sales mark at about the same time. Their phenomenal sales and challenging messages grabbed the attention of the general public, church leaders, publishers and other writers.

     Wright interrupted this momentum with an unremarkable little poem, The Uncrowned King in 1910; then followed that with the best selling book of his career, The Winning of Barbara Worth, a historical novel, in 1911. But he followed that with the low point of his career, the embryonic Their Yesterdays (1912), a book with delightful bits of wisdom, but which seems more like an outline for a novel than like a finished story. None of the characters are given names.

That lull didn't last long: in 1914 Wright produced The Eyes of the World, his most exciting novel and the first of a series of stories that followed a clear theme of moral conflict in the west. They were all good reads and of consistent quality and style. When a Man's a Man (1916) was his most "western" novel, The Recreation of Brian Kent (1919) is usually called a "sweet story," Helen of the Old House (1921) involved labor relations in a Midwestern town, and The Mine with the Iron Door (1923) returned to the far west for more gunfights and moral triumphs.

     A Son Of His Father, published in 1925, was Wright's last book for several years to follow this winning formula of moral struggles and gunfights in the West. But the story seems to me to drag a little, and it lacks the engaging characters found in earlier titles. That book was followed in 1927 by God And The Groceryman, an annoyingly repetitive and stern lecture against denominational sectarianism, interrupted occasionally by pieces of a weak story line to make the lecture resemble a book of fiction. (Continue >>)

Harold Bell Wright from Mott's Golden Multitudes(10825 bytes)

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    This Harold Bell Wright web site is written and produced by Gerry Chudleigh.
Copyright © 2000-May, 2011 by Gerry Chudleigh
Last updated 05/26/11