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Movies
(Introduction)
1916, Eyes

1919, Shepherd
1924, Man
1924, Mine
1925, Son Father 
1925. Brian K
1926, Barb W
1928, Shepherd
(1928, Lights)
1930, Eyes
1935, When Man
1936,  Matthews
1936, The Mine
1936, Wild Brian
1937, West  Gold
1937, Out West
1937, Secret Vly
1937, Californian
1941, Shepherd
1949, Massacre
1959, Shep (TV)
1964, Shepherd

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Mike O'Brien
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E Clampus Vitus
Bittersweet
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HAROLD BELL WRIGHT 

THE INSPIRED NOVELIST

 By
Blanche Colton Williams, Ph.D

Associate Professor of English at Columbia
University and at Hunter College
New York 


In 1925 D. Appleton and Company published two separate booklets; "Harold Bell Wright, the Inspired Novelist," by Blanche Colton Williams and  "The Sterling American," by J. Leo Meehan as part of their marketing campaign for Harold Bell Wright’s newest book, A Son of His Father.  The two articles were sometimes published together and entitled "Harold Bell Wright, Author and Man." The first is presented as a story about the Author, the second as a story about the Man.

 The booklets had several photos--none of which are found in the McCalls article.

Introduction to "The Inspired Novelist" from McCalls, March, 1925: "Here is a critical estimate of America's best loved novelist, whose readers are numbered by the millions, and whose new novel will begin in the next issue of McCall's. The article on Mr. Wright printed here is the work of one of the foremost figures in our American world of letters. Dr. Williams is Associate Professor at Columbia University, and at Hunter College, and editor the annual O'Henry Memorial Prize Stories. Dr. Williams writes with authority and with penetrating intelligence, and her, for the first time, analyzes Mr. Wright as the important force in American Literature that he is.

 

0NE Sunday, twenty year ago an earnest young preacher looked on his congregation and saw that it was good.  Over a climax of numbers and enthusiasm he might have felt, perhaps did feel, satisfaction. But he was unsatisfied because a spirit ready for service missed connection with a desperate need for that service. He must bring about that connection. 

"How," he asked himself, "can I teach my people to do the work which, if their religion means anything, is theirs to do?"  

"I might tell them a story," he reflected, "that is the way Christ taught." 

So the preacher wrote a modern parable, a novel, in which he embodied a manual of practical religion.  He told how ­Boyd City destroyed saloons and gambling dens by building a home for the wretched, the down and out, for the fellers who, as Uncle Bobbie remarked, "go to the devil because they ain't got nowhere else to go."  Every detail of the plan for the home and every detail of its operation he set forth explicitly, showing his church how to avoid the charge, "I was a stranger and ye took me not in," and how to meet the reward, inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these, ye did it unto me." 

His purpose was to read the story by installments, with the hope of realizing his vision, of making his town as Boyd City was made, "an example, to all the world, for honest manhood, civic pride, and municipal virtue."  But some of his friends urged that since the book deserved a larger audience he should publish it.  He did so, with a success immediate and pronounced. 

The book was "That Printer of Udell's.”  The author was Harold Bell Wright.   

For five years Mr. Wright continued to preach. From Pittsburg. Kansas, he was called to Kansas City where, his strength proving inadequate to the demands he made of it, he first thought of doing his ministry in the world through his discovered ability in narrative. His search for health took him to the Ozarks, and he wrote a second book; but he went on preaching.  At length, in 1908 he retired from his charge‑then at Redlands, California‑‑and went "as a matter of health insurance," to Arizona. There he grew strong , rode in the round‑ups, and chased wild ponies until he suffered an accident from which he did not die only because of the will and struggle to live. 

To know about his struggle then, and the constant struggle he has made since weakened by pneumonia at the age of twenty‑two, is to understand the motive underlying his stories.  Every one introduces a man who fights to keep, to win, or to rewin manhood.  To know about the places he knows is to understand his fidelity to setting, always that of scenes to him familiar. "The Shepherd of the Hills," "The Calling of Dan Matthews," and "The Re‑creation of Brian Kent" glow with his passion for the Ozarks; “The Winning of Barbara Worth” and "The Eyes of The World,” with his apprec­iation of California and the Imperial Valley; “When a Man's a Man” and “The Mine The Iron Door,” with his intimate knowledge of life in Arizona. 

From instant recognition of Mr. Wright’s power to the demand for his latest book, he has become the most popular author of his age.  By every new novel he augments his reputation.  Works of other writers sell by thousands, his sell by millions.  A phenomenon he compels admiration: "How does he do it ?"  "What is his secret ?” 

"Read his books!"  One volume will give immediate answer, confirmed by a second, intensified by a third. Though his secret is visible through direct acquaintance, it refuses to be analyzed: his dominion, comprehensible through knowledge of his work, cannot be measured with a yardstick. 

The literary artist of one extreme uses art for art's sake; he entertains.  Of the other extreme, he uses art for truth's sake; he teaches. To be successful, he does both.  Now, Mr. Wright belongs to the teaching group, but delivers his lesson through a story popularly entertaining.  Through pleasant means he reaches a salutary end, possible through his vigorous belief that men abhor evil, cleave to good.  The world is headed for heaven, not hell.  On this faith in mankind he rests his first and his final appeal. 

Assured that he can help to right living he does so through realistic experiences which he invests with the dazzling garment of romance. He draws for every book typical figures so clearly defined as to illustrate the incarnation of vices and virtues. Without repetition he reflects the infinite variety of life. They pour through his pages--mill hand, rancher, shepherd, merchant, engineer, printer, doctor, nurse, teacher, social worker, housekeeper, scholar, artist, writer, surveyor, capitalist, preacher, the success, the failure, villain, thief, booster, giant, deformity, weakling, ruffian, aesthete-‑in a stream the diversity of which typifies twentieth century America, as Chaucer's pilgrims typify fourteenth century England.  They file through his pages, mutually heightened by contrast.  A cripple limps more haltingly behind an upright brother; a beautiful spirit shines more brightly against an ugly soul; the super‑aesthete is more ridiculous beside the master cow puncher.  The dialect of his rugged gentlemen--he is an admirable writer of dialect--rings loudly against the low tones of his scholars.  Natachee, the Indian, is more inscrutable surrounded by Saint Jimmy, Martha, and the garrulous old men.  He corrals them out of life and marches them on to his rodeo . . . 

Mr. Wright's preaching perfected him in storytelling.  He gathered from the reaction of his audience what pictures pleased, what expositions held, and what story clamped them in a vise inescapable.  And he is a born storyteller succeeding not because he has to tell a story but because he has a story to tell.   In his novels mystery, progressively heightened action, suspense, dramatic situation, and stirring moments cooperate.  He knows how all impulses and  passions are motivated‑‑love, hate courage, sorrow, hope, despair‑‑ and how they in turn motive action.  Men always have fought, forever have been surrounded by the unknowable, and always have suffered temptation; therefore, men are interested in fights, in the solution of mysteries, and in the dramatizing of temptations.  His every book challenges through this axiom. 

He galvanizes attention through a mystery. "The Shepherd of the Hills" opens with the coming of "Dad" Howitt to the Ozarks. Who is he?  Why has he come?  Shortly you may guess, as the mountaineers do not guess, but yet know all the circumstances only at the end.  Who, in "When a Man's a Man," is the Honorable Patches?  Probably, you wrongly surmise, an escaped prisoner.  Who is Brian Kent?  Who the woman in his life?  What, in "Helen of the Old House," is the secret of Adam Ward's fear?  You would wager that he has defrauded his friend Peter Martin, but yet cannot know the precise cause of his nightly dreams of hell before you hear his will and his astonishing contract with God.  Who, in "The Winning of Barbara Worth” are the parents of Barbara?  With Tex and Pat and Jefferson Worth you discover her there by the water hole, beside the body of her mother.  Sands have drifted over the wagon that brought mother and child. "You will never know," says Tex, "what's buried in there until God Almighty uncovers it." God Almighty will shift the sands, you hazard, before the play is over; but meantime there is other entertainment.

 For the mystery is not so all engrossing as to worry you about its solution.  If it were, Mr. \\'right would be a competent writer of detective stories, whereas he is that and more. 

The center of his action is a fight, heroic, sometimes epic, always of right against wrong. Brian Kent in "The Re‑creation of Brian Kent" rises on stepping stones of his dead self and struggles to raise others who have been twisted and broken. Aaron King, artist in "The Eyes of the World," wavers between the Age represented in Mrs. Taine and Nature in Sybil Andres.  The struggle evolves out of the artist a man.  The long time struggle of capital with labor “Helen of the Old House" instances in a modern conflict, every movement of which follows inevitably from the arrival of the foreign agitator to the tragedy of fire and murder. 

His ability in bringing to a clash forces at war reaches its superlative in "The Winning of Barbara Worth" which, by virtue of magnificence in concept and plan, well might be called the great American novel.  For the great American novel, if it reflects anything, must reflect crude power operating on huge scales.  Vaster projects may arise; engineers may change the current of the Gulf Stream, or melt the Arctic regions by some new leverage on the sun; but if a more stupendous project ever has been planned and executed than the reclamation of that part of the desert now known as the Imperial Valley, it has not inspired the fictionist.  A combat American in the victory over the desert, American in the victory of big business over big business.  Eastern capital and greed grapple with Western capital and legitimate desire for gain—plus love of land and desire for greater human happiness.

 In this epic men become supermen.  In their giant throw of cities and railroads, they are like those angels who plucked mountains from their roots to fling them hurtling against Satanic hosts.  In making habitable thousands of acres that have lain waste for thousand of years, they are gods who beckon into being new worlds.  Their battle progresses through minor climaxes of realistic yet romantic interest, every detail of which discloses in the author an epicist of modern business. 

His details are right.  If his own investigation does not satisfy him, he verifies through experts. The facts of this story were checked up by surveyors and engineers. He has the capacity for taking infinite pains‑-which has been identified with genius. One immediate result of his adherence to fact is to color with authenticity the fabric of his fiction.  In all his books temptation conquers or it is conquered. "Somewhere in the life of every man there is a testing time," he says in "Their Yesterdays."  "There is a trial to prove of what metal he is made. There is a point which, won or lost, makes him winner or loser in the game. There is a Temptation that to him is vital."  In his first book preachers succumb to the temptation to exalt form and ceremonial over spirit, the name of Christ above His work.  Dan Matthews in the later story conquers the same temptation.  In "Helen of the Old House," Aaron Ward wrecks his life through cheating his friend only to know at last he has been cheated, irrevocably, himself.  In "The Winning of Barbara Worth" Holmes forges out of his manhood the iron will to do right, even against the Company whose chief has been to him a father.  Excuses might he found for one who refused this final test.  But Mr. Wright never condones the step across that invisible but absolute line between right and wrong.  Nor does he fail to show the logical sequence of the step, in punishment or reward.

 In dramatic incident and situation his books bristle.  From the discovery of Barbara one climax after another surprises down to the ride of Abe Lee--Mazeppa of courage and endurance‑-on to the day when Willard Holmes directed the pile drivers in thirty feet of water that "ran like the mill tails of hell."  Recall the highest light in "Helen of the Old House"‑-that where the mob is silenced by the Interpreter--borne high on the shoulders of loyal union members—who names the murderer of Captain Charlie. Recall that moment when Brian Kent hesitates to save his wife, headed for the rapids, and heave with Betty Jo a sigh of relief when he leaps over the railing.

 "The Shepherd of the Hills" prepares for some marvelous exhibition of Young Matt's strength. He lifts an engine, holds out a man in each hand, at arm's length above his head.  But in spite of your expectation, the exhibition thrills you: "Like a flash he whirled just as the knife was lifted high for the murderous blow.  It was over in an instant.  Sammy saw him catch the wrist of the uplifted arm, heard a dull snap and a groan, saw the knife fall from the helpless hand, and there saw the man lifted bodily and thrown over the wagon to fall helpless on the rocky ground." You can only exclaim with Sammy, "Oh, what a man!"

 Patches swings down from the saddle to snatch up a child from the oncoming car, saves Helen Manning from the plunging steer; he himself through the timely arrival of the Dean is saved from hanging.  "That printer,” at the print of the gun, diverts the gunman’s attention for the fraction of a second, his hand shoots out with a heavy paperweight and catches the negro above the right ear.  In "The Mine with the Iron Door" see Natachee bound to the altar rock, Sonora Jack ready to burn out his heart with live coals, Hugh Edward, stealing horror‑struck toward the guns.  From moments like these you could not, with Phil Acton’s wild horses, pull away certain millions of readers.

One and all, Stevenson remarks in his, "Gossip on Romance," we read stories not for eloquence or character or thought but for some quality of the brute incident.  "The desire for knowledge, I had almost added the desire for meat, is not more deeply seated than this demand for fit and striking incident."  Well Mr. Wright abundantly supplies for a large audience that demand. 

An artist of the brush he excels in creating pictures through words, unrolling them with a facility which—for the reader—is the facility of the motion picture screen.  As his stories are bound up with his lesson, his pictures are bound up with the narrative.  Neither excrescent nor ornamental but organic parts of the tale, they are not omitted by the reader who may “skip descriptions” elsewhere.  The picture may be of only a few words:  “The faint sound of the sliding rock and gravel dislodged by the flying feet died away; the cloud of dust dissolved in thin air," but you see the vanishing horseman complete. 

     Not infrequently these briefer pictures express themselves in pertinent figures. At the whistle of the Ward mill the workmen pass in line to receive their pay envelopes: "From furnace and engine and bench and machine they made their way toward that given point as scattered particles of steel filings are drawn toward a magnet." When Captain Charlie is feeling belligerent he finds his pipe and fills it with "the grim determination of an old time minute man ramming home a charge."

      But he may be concerned to create a larger picture and, regardful of the readers energy, to make it easy.  Suppose he wishes to describe the cutting out of a pony or the branding of cattle. He does so by making the process a constituent part of his main action, a process involving the fortunes of his hero. The reader who conceivably could not he forced to master an article on cattle branding will know all about it on finishing the chapter "Concerning Brands" without being aware, conscious only of having been entertained. Mr. Wright finds it necessary to convey an impression of Clear Creek Canyon. He paints no detached picture, but sends his horsemen through it. "On either hand the walls rose almost sheer under the overhanging cliffs, below which the white waters of the stream—cold from the snows so far above‑tumbled impetuously over the boulders that obstructed their way—filling the hollow gorge with tumultuous melody. . . And then they came to that point where, on either side, great cliffs, projecting, form the massive rugged portals of the mountain's gate."

      Much has been written in praise of Victor Hugo 's capital A in his description of Waterloo. Something should he written in praise of Harold Bell Wright's Palm of the Hand of God in his description of the King's Basin. He need not have added the diagram, so succintlv [sic] does he show the outline, indicate the extent, set his landmarks, and shift the scene of operations, using as basis a mighty hand. The Gulf of California separates thumb from forefinger; the Rio Colorado flows across the base of the fingers; the palm lies northward, marked by intersections of trail and railroad, dotted by towns, and bounded on east and west by mountains. San Felipe stands on the extreme west. Rubio city at the southeast. He needs five hundred pages to develop the struggle in La Palma de la Mano de Dios and he takes no chance of confusing the reader.

      This idea—the Palm of the Hand of God—exemplifies his symbolism.  The palm is not only a palm; it is the Palm of the Hand of God; God's eternal presence through his temporal manifestation.  Nature in all his works, is the creator or re‑creator and therefore synonymous with God. Brian Kent is remade by his short sleeved labor in the Ozarks on the river which prefigures the current of life. Amy Goodrich is restored in the same mountain country. When Dan Matthews and the Doctor are troubled they go fishing—not so much to catch fish as to find peace under the shade of a mossy bank. Aaron King decides between right and wrong in the mountains of California. Lawrence Knight becomes a man on an Arizona ranch. Donald Payne rehabilitates himself in the Canada del Oro. 

     One might contend that most readers do not care for the exploitation of nature and therefore this argument for Mr. Wright's popularity is ill taken. But his nature is no more excrescent than his description. Nature infuses and surrounds his people: it is the very condition of their existence. His advocated reliance on nature is no mere gesture. When a man's health has failed and he seeks the wilds for restoration, he learns all the benevolence—and all the malevolence—of nature. He sees not only the beautiful and the magnificent, to which response is easy—but the harsh and the cruel. And he learns, finally, the meaning these have for a humanity to which they are colossally indifferent. He knows not only the streamers of changing mist that make of the desert a beauty evanescent as eternal, the upthrust of ridge and peak; he knows the mountain drought, the desert sand storm, the Gila monster, the deadly side winder.  And if after seeing the indifference, which is seeming enmity to man, he can still love nature and live with her, then he understands as the poet understands.

      Both materialist and mystic he is, in his appreciation.  With meticulous detail he records the scamper of squirrels, the flight of birds, the drone of bees, the browsing of sheep.  His seasons keep pace with the progress of his story; green changes to gold, the gray haze takes on a purple tone, and presently the trees stand naked against the winter sky.  And all these outer signs have significance as they have significance for his characters,  Transcendentalist, too, he feels

 --“a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is in the light of setting sun,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit that impels,
All thinking things,
All objects of all thoughts,
And rolls through all things,” 

 and sees with that other Higher Pantheist, in mountain and sea and sky, “the vision of Him Who reigns.”  He sees with the simplicity which imparts the sense without the difficulty of mysticism.  He interprets the mystics in the masses. 

     His allegorical stories reveal him at poet.  “Their Yesterdays” tells us of a man and woman working toward union through the thirteen truly great things in life.  Dreams, Occupation, Knowledge, Ignorance, Religion, Tradition, Temptation, Life, Death, Failure, Success, Love, Memories.  The selection of a mate should be guided by instinct.  Repeatedly he uses the word “mate” with Edenic significance,  His readers like the dignity of the primeval import and the same time translate the word in terms of their own feeling for it.  If a woman asks, “Shall I take this man?” she must rely upon instinct, deeper than reason.  If her instinct rebels, she must surrender him. 

     As all the world is but a figure of the Creator’s power, so each detail of the external world becomes charged with its peculiar figure of the Creator’s power, so each detail of the external world becomes charged with its peculiar figurative meaning.  Sibyl brings three gifts to Aaron: the mountain trout for strength, the berries for purity, and the wild flowers for beauty.  “In the hills of life,” he says in “The Shepherd of the Hills,” “there are two trails.”  “One lies along the higher sunlight fields where those journey who see afar, and the light lingers when the sun is down; and one leads to the lower ground, where those who travel, as they go look always over their shoulders with eyes of dread, and gloomy shadows gather long before the day is done.”  The story that follows is of a man who took the lower trail and of the woman who found her way to the sunlit fields.

      Poetry emerges in certain characters, at least one of whom he places in every story.  The Interpreter, in “Helen of the Old House;” the Seer, in “The Winning of Barbara Worth;” the boy Pete, in “The Shepherd of the Hills;” the Doctor, in “The Calling of Dan Matthews;” Saint Jimmy, in “The Mine With the Iron Door;”—poets all.  “You can’t afford to go the way of the dreamer who started this work with the exalted idea of making a benefit to the whole human race,” Greenfield remarks to Willard.  But the end proves that although the poet may be unrewarded—and sometimes crucified—his is the only way to go.  In “Their Yesterdays,” Mr. Wright says dreams are first.  The world itself is only a dream of God, the hope of immortality, a dream to inspire man.

      But through poetry alone—through dreams, symbols, nature—no author would win and hold millions.  This appeal is emphasized here because it has been inadequately noticed in estimates of Mr. Wright’s work, and because it is a distinctly individual achievement, that of bringing to humanity through prose the poetry of life.

   Dreams are first; but this world is one of work.  Occupation, then, is life itself.  Dreams are the spirit; work is the body.  And what is the noblest work?  His answer exalts woman; for, he declares the only occupation of real and lasting value is that of home building.

     Men read the novels of Harold Bell Wright for their breezy freedom.  For vicarious adventure, for the simplicity and sincerity; it is said they read them also because the women are the kind they admire in real life.  This kind is the healthy, sensible, the charming or beautiful woman—and she is a homemaker.  Mr. Wright lays it to the custom of the age and the demand of civilization which has gone wrong that women must frequently choose careers and surrender right to love and protection.  For, he says, the mission of womankind is sacred; the purpose of her creation beyond all price.  Not once does he swerve from his sentiment that back of everything is a great woman.  And lest it be misunderstood that he thinks woman good for homemaking only, that she is back of everything only as the eternal mother, it should be added that his women are the intellectual equals of his men.  Hope Farwell owns the thinking power, the logic, the forensic ability possessed by no man in “The Calling of Dan Matthews.”  Mr. Wright’s ideal woman grows from observance of practical ways and means.  It will be remembered, for instance, that “Dad” expounds to Sammy the definition of the true lady, even to the matter of personal cleanliness!  By his generous estimate of woman’s ability he draws women; by his emphasis on her place in the universal scheme he placates men.

      Since after dreams occupation is the greatest thing and since woman’s work is supreme, every story by this author is a love story.  Through the universal passion, Mr. Wright entices most of his millions,  “If I can make men and women believe that truth in love will make them happy,” wrote Trollope in his Autobiography, “then, if my writings be popular, I shall have a very large class of pupils.”  Mr. Wright might paraphrase, “I make men and women believe that truth in love will make them happy and, since my writings are popular, I have a large class of pupils.”

      Admirable, lovable, his chief man and woman are meant for each other, and come at last together.  In life a man must fight to get the woman worth fighting for; in these books he must fight for her.  He may win over the claims of another, he may win a victory in his own soul.  Women readers love the heroes because they are tender, brave, chivalrous.  “When a man’s a man,” says Helen Manning, “there is one thing above all others he cannot do.  He cannot take advantage of a woman’s weakness; he cannot tempt her beyond her strength; he must be strong both for himself and her; he must save her always from herself.”  In the union of the right man and woman the reader rejoices: Sammy and Young Matt; Donald Payne and Martha; Amy Goodrich and Dick Faulkner; Hope Farwell and Dan Matthews; Sybil Andres and Aaron King; Phil Acton and Kitty Reid,--Yet since the author’s romance has the quality of the real, he does not forget that in a world of wrongs love may be disappointed.  Through the falsity of convention and the labor war, Helen of the Old House is deprived of her gallant lover; Lawrence Knight winning manhood loses Helen.  His notions of love, frankly old fashioned, meet an approval which establishes most readers old-fashioned—flappers and flippancy notwithstanding—and the balance wheel of the social machine still smoothly turning. 

     Amorous love is only one manifestation of the passion every phase of which he gives its due.  Sex love spices his tales with romance; family affections flavor them with the essence of reality.  Affection for Barbara underlies all the work of Jefferson Worth; affection for Willard lies back of Greenfield’s schemes.  Jim Lane loves his daughter well enough to lay down his life; Thad and Bob care for nothing in the world but Martha.  Love, further, is a panacea whose remedial power, like that of nature, is a manifestation of God.  Love for humanity provides the plan by which Boyd City is saved; the same love enables Dan to see through the shams of a formal religion which permits persecution to a blameless girl.  Aunt Sue not only forgives Brian his wrong to her, she nurses him back to health. 

     Love is allied with tenderness, compassion.  So eloquent is Mr. Wright’s sense of the pathetic as to draw comparison with Dickens.  But here and there he is as stark as Thackeray.  Perhaps he is more akin to Dickens when Jefferson Worth refuses water that he may bathe the hot face of the little girl.  But he is brother to Thackeray when, after the grilling ride to Rubio City, “the engineer, the banker, the Irishman, and the boy were lying unconscious on the bottom of the wagon,”  No more; no sympathy for the stricken men. . . . 

     Perhaps no author will live whose works are not leavened with humor.  From his first volume to his latest, Mr. Wright employs a subdued yet pungent irony that points up his characters through their own acts or speeches.  Who can read of the ministerial gatherings in “That Printer” without chuckling over the pettiness of Wilks, the slyness of Cockrell, the pompousness of Hartzel?  These gentlemen have not the remotest consciousness that they turn the spotlight on themselves.  So Horace P. Blanton, unaware of the humorous figure he cuts, boosts “our store,” “or hotel,” “our bank,”—ignorant that Jefferson Worth could have given him pointers about all.  So does Dogberry write himself down a fool!  Humor is also provided through homely speaking, gnomic philosophers, given to wise saws, acute observations.  Proverbs, earliest literature of all races, share with riddle and charm a current popularity.  Cross word puzzles recently have achieved sales equaled only by fiction.  Selections from Emerson and Browning make up birthday book or calendar; volumes of quotations filled with the wisdom of the race show man’s dependence upon the past.  Mr. Wright’s strength in this entertainment lies in his easy diffusion of it throughout the novel.  Collections of riddles and proverbs prove too tiresome for long companionship; but the sayings of Uncle Bobbie, Preachin’ Bill, or Thad Grove, wisdom shot through with humor, occurs just often enough to whet the reader’s appetite.  “Love ain’t no big deposit that a feller is allus hopin’ to find but mostly never does.  Love is just a medium high-grade ore that you got to dig for,” says Thad, and later his pard Bob suggests, “You can tell a heap more about a man by the jokes he laughs at than you can by the religions he claims to believe in” . . . . “I’m constrained to testify,” drawls Tex, “that the real cause and reason for the declining glory of this yere great western country is poor shootin’.  That same, in turn, bein’ caused by the incomin’ herds from the effete East bein’ so numerous as to hinder gun practice.” 

     Humor of incident, as this author sees it, like humor of character, is part of life.  But knowing that a difference in the appreciation of humor is a strain on the affections, he does not too insistently point it out.  When Uncle Bobbie advises the Negro who expects nothing short of immediate extinction, “Now’s yer chance, Bill, git out quick ‘for we change our minds,” and the astonished darky bolts, every reader will see the fun.  But humor may lie in what for another is tragedy or grimness.  Take the rescue of Patches.  After a hard argument by the Dean the mob surrender to him.  “When the last man had disappeared in the timber, the Dean wiped the perspiration from his flushed face, and looked at Patches thoughtfully.  Then that twinkle of approval came into the blue eyes, that a few moments before had been so cold and uncompromising.   

     “’Come, son,’ he said gently, ‘let’s go to breakfast.  Stella’ll be wonderin’ what’s keepin’ us.’” 

     On finishing that chapter does the reader smile at the contiguity of food and hanging, admiringly exclaim over the Dean’s handling of the mob, or does he breathe relief? 

     Finally, Mr. Wright meets the needs of the average man and woman.  True religion is the work man can do best; a man serves divinely if he serves for the good of his fellow-men.  “Our teachers,” says Hope, “our legal and professional men, our public officers, our mechanics and laborers, must all know and understand their work.”  John Ward recognizes that “as surely as work is health and strength and honor and happiness and life, so surely is idleness disease and weakness and shame and misery and death.”  Man must realize that salvation of individual labor; he must esteem its oneness.  “And it shall come,” declares the Interpreter, “that every forge and furnace and anvil and machine shall be an organ to praise—that every suit of overalls shall be a priestly robe of ministering service.  And this God that you banished from the Mill and that is to be by your son restored to His throne and served by a priesthood of united employers and employees, shall bear a new name, and that name shall be WORK.”

      The author has not changed his concept of the ministry of labor since Dan left off preaching and took up mining as the particular divine work to which he was called.  Yet the end of work is not a great work but a great life, for in the exaltation of life is the remedy for all the evils that threaten the race.  Religion is not a creed; it is service.  Every man who accepts this view will accept the spirit of Mr. Wright’s books. 

     His practice of good works is obvious in his later as in his earlier novels.  In “ That Printer” he points the way to removing evil by substituting good; in “Helen of The Old House” he converts Adam Ward’s home into a center of community interest.  One feature of this center is an institute of patriotism.  And his Americanism may be summed up in the announcement of his legal gentleman. “Why not an institution for the study and promotion of patriotism—research in the fields of social and industrial life that are peculiarly American—lectures, classes, and literature on the true Americanization of those who come to us from foreign countries—the promotion of true American principles and standards of citizenship in our public schools and educational institutions and among our people.”  That passage proclaims him a practical visionary. 

     If the great creative writer shows apotheosis of the common man’s day dreams, the popular creative writer will show that apotheosis in a way the common man understands.  Mr. Wright does both in story and thesis. 

     As I suggested at the beginning of this inquiry into his popularity, the final secret eludes analysis.  Other writers make romantic the search for health or wealth or love by living men and women; others develop these fables around important themes; others may reveal in fiction the poetry of things as they are; they may temper philosophy with humor, may base on the deep substratum of religion their towers of aspiration, and may venture visions.  But no other so reconciles romantic story, poetry, philosophy, religion and vision in a single volume to meet the demand of millions.  Yet he wins by something more—the unique personality expressed through his books, harmonizing each and harmonizing all in a steadily growing achievement. 

Blanche Colton Williams 

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Last updated 05/26/11