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Dr. Joyce Kinkead on The Winning of Barbara Worth
Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

<<< continued from previous page.     

          Subtitled The Ministry of Capital, the 511-page epic of the Southwest sold nearly two million copies, a publishing triumph in the days before the Roaring Twenties.  A synopsis of the novel will prove helpful in revealing the reasons behind its phenomenal success.

            The novel focuses on the reclamation of the desert in the Imperial Valley of Southern California and includes "Good Business--the Master Passion."[1]  Pitted against each other are the benevolent capitalist, Jefferson Worth, and the exploitative capitalist of the corporation, James Greenfield, a New Yorker.  "Good Business" centers around the reclamation of a desert known as the King's Basin in Southern California.  The reclamation project is a dream of Barbara Worth, the adopted daughter of Jefferson.  The circumstance of her parentage is mysterious.  At the age of four years she is found in the desert by Jefferson and his crew; she is bereft of parents who have been killed by a sandstorm while crossing the unfamiliar land.  Reared as Jefferson Worth's own child, Barbara envisions a fertile desert supporting hundreds of families.  Her dream goes awry when the reclamation is begun by Greenfield's New York corporation which cares only for profit, not for land, people, or their safety.  Barbara molds a young engineer from the East, Willard Holmes, into the West's concept of a man--one who follows the western code of honor.  Realizing his changing attitudes about capitalism and honor, Holmes leaves the impersonal corporation of his guardian.  When the unsafe dam on the Colorado River finally breaks, as Holmes knew it would, he secures the river, replacing the substandard material used by the company in its initial building of the dam and levees with quality material provided by the Worth company, which now gains control of the project since the corporation from New York no longer sees any profit in remaining.

            At first, love interest seems to be between Barbara and Abe Lee, a native engineer who relies on his experience in the desert.  However, Willard Holmes, the educated engineer with little knowledge of the desert, appears on the scene, and after he realizes the importance of the desert and shares Barbara's love of it, they fall in love and marry.  But the girl can only love him after he has been initiated into the desert and has become a man in the western definition.  Then, he has both education and experience, the best of both East and West.  He remains in the West with the girl and the desert he loves, a convert to the western code.

            The novel received mixed critical reviews, as did most of Wright's works.  However, The Winning of Barbara Worth probably enjoyed the most positive acclaim of any of his books.  In a contemporary review, William Morton Payne notes:

            The story has a great deal of character-interest, and of the interest that goes with tense situations and the solving of difficult problems.  Its materials have been used many times before, but they are made to seem almost fresh by the largeness of their treatment.  Still, the descriptive parts seem to use overdone, and the engineering situation, although described in great detail, and even illustrated by a map, makes too heavy a demand upon what understanding the average reader of novels may be presumed to possess.  The style of the book is matter-of-fact, and without any sort of distinction.  But in spite of its long-windedness, and of the stretches which rival its own desert in aridity, the story is not unmoving or unsatisfying, and we can see in it many of the elements of popularity.[2] 

            Actually, the subject of this novel is very fresh.  The Colorado River had, in fact, changed its course four or five years prior to the publishing of the novel.  Threatening the fertile Imperial Valley, the river was harnessed by means of funds appropriated by the Federal Government at the instigation of Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1910, the Colorado River was still the subject of discussion as it continued to threaten the land of southwesterners.  Wright studied the project intensely, questioning engineers and managers of the reclamation project, whom he acknowledges in his book, before linking the actual event with the story of the orphaned girl, Barbara Worth.  His descriptions of the engineering work are very detailed and are easily understood despite the above reviewer's remarks.  The map which Wright provides is not to explain the engineering portion of the novel so much as to extend the symbolism of "The Palm of the Hand of God," the name for the desert region (Barbara Worth, p. 95).

            A reviewer writing for the New York Times notes the extent of the fictional work and Wright's literary improvement:

                        The author handles very well and makes quite natural and pleasing the several ways in which she [Barbara] inspires, when grown up, the reclamation projects.  Then there is a desperate struggle between a local capitalist and a big Eastern syndicate as to which shall control the irrigation work.  And all the time a stupendous struggle goes on between man and the desert on one hand and the river on the other. 

                        Mr. Wright had a big theme before him, but he has handled it in a commonplace, amateurish way.  The story, however, is better in construction, more closely and smoothly knit together, then his previous novels, and his style shows improvement, though he still dearly loves the adjective.  Since the author's large audience has liked so well the previous stories it is probable that it will find this one still more pleasing.[3] 

Another review acknowledges Wright's affinity with the land he describes:

            The most ambitious and successful novel Mr. Wright has yet produced.  It deals with the reclamation, against many odds, a vast tract of waste land [sic] in the Colorado Desert.  There is an abundance of strong action, good character delineation, and descriptions of the country which show a first-hand and sympathetic knowledge of it.[4] 

            As usual, Wright is at his best when describing the land which he loves and knows.  However, he does not see the desert with prejudiced eyes.  He introduces the beauty of the desert in its landscape, vegetation, and sunsets, but he also includes the brutality of the climate, weather, animals, and terrain.  It is a land in which the novice can perish as did Barbara's parents, or the river can unleash its fury on crops, homes, towns, and people, wiping out anything in its way.

            Combining "the beneficent influences of feminine spirituality" with "masculine materialism,"[5]  Wright became a national figure with the publication of this novel.  Towns celebrated "Harold Bell Wright Day," movie theatres were built named Barbara Worth, and hotels in the Southwest featured Barbara Worth frescoes illustrating incidents in the lives of the characters of the novel.[6]

            The themes in the novel are often stereotyped; however, the one theme which permeates the novel is the superiority of the West over the East.[7]  The westerners with their contrasting geography and culture have an advantage over the tenderfoot easterners represented by Willard Holmes.  He is shocked upon first arriving in Rubio City to see a girl, Barbara, riding a horse but not using a sidesaddle, wearing culottes, and carrying a pistol.  Her open, friendly manner is even more disturbing to the city gentleman who is accustomed to the refined manners of New York women of the upper classes.  Holmes at first feels superior to the self-educated men like Abe Lee and even ventures to voice that opinion.  He is flustered by the westerner's code of evaluating a man by what he can do, not by a man's heritage.  Holmes typifies the tenderfoot Mark Twain describes in an anecdote in Roughing It when he has a coyote, representing a westerner, easily outrun the dog with "a good opinion of himself" that represents the tenderfoot.[8]  Eventually, Holmes, like the dog, acquires a respect for the coyote.

            The desert landscape is affectionately described by Wright, who was cured of tuberculosis by the sun.  Wright's affinity for the desert is best seen through Barbara's eyes.  She realizes not only the beauty and possibilities of the desert but also its dangers, having lost her parents to a sandstorm, her horse to a prairie dog hole, and her friends to a flood.  The West represents the wide open spaces of nature which Wright pairs with spirituality.

            The bare bones of the plot reveal a sentimentality which is compensated for by the themes and conflicts of the novel.  To begin, a small female child is found orphaned on the desert, surviving a storm that her parents could not.  She is readily adopted by the rich banker of the town and grows into an attractive, virtuous young woman.  The reader is held in suspense as she decides between the veteran westerner, Abe Lee, and the recently matured eastern engineer, Willard Holmes.  Rather disappointingly for some readers, Abe receives only her love as a brother, while Barbara and Willard finally confess their love, thus uniting West and East, with the West triumphant.  Wright makes Abe Lee a very sympathetic character, but Lee must sacrifice his love for Barbara after Holmes arrives.

            The characters are also often stereotypes:  the beautiful girl, the tenderfoot, the old-timer (portrayed by Abe Lee, the Seer, and "Texas," the men in Worth's company who found Barbara in the desert), and the corporation.  Jefferson Worth represents the enlightened banker.  He, too, was a money hungry capitalist until Barbara influenced his life.  After that, he secretly helps struggling, worthy pioneers and ranchers.  His final goal is a safe development of the King's Basin where settlers have the opportunity to build homes and ranches.  Accordingly, Worth triumphs in the end over the city corporation, as nature lends a hand destroying the corporation's development and leaves the Worth project untouched.

            These characters are set in a plot of dynamic action in which towns are built and new lands are developed.  Wright creates suspense by raising a question at the end of each chapter, thus holding the reader's attention.  The mystery of Barbara's background haunts the reader throughout the novel, and it is not until near the end that Barbara's true identity as an eastern blue blood is revealed.  The main plot focuses around her desire for the desert's reclamation, the reclamation itself, and the eventual failure of that reclamation.  The climax of the novel occurs with the flooding of the river and the success Holmes has when he finally contains it and returns it to its channel.  The beginning of the novel offers the often used technique of the lone horseman crossing the desert.  His loneliness is short-lived, however, when a drunken Irishman who is a stowaway in his wagon announces his presence, and the solitude of man and mountains is broken.

            Less didactic than previous novels which focus on social gospel, The Winning of Barbara Worth centers on the major conflicts of man against nature and man against other men.  Unlike the Indians in Edwin Corel's novel, Fig Tree John, which also focuses on desert reclamation, the Anglos believe that they must change nature to keep up with progress.  The desert is not suitable for farming, a fact the Indians realize.  The Anglos exert time, energy, and money to reform the desert into their kind of landscape.  The Winning of Barbara Worth and Fig Tree John provide contrasting views of the reclamation of California's Imperial Valley and its flooding, which the Indians believe justifiably destroyed many Anglos and their homes.

            A second conflict, man against man, is evident in the clash of cultures, East and West, and the clash of "Good Business," benevolent and exploitative.  As mentioned earlier, the clash of cultures is resolved by the western initiation of Holmes and his marriage to Barbara.  Those easterners who remain novices in the West return to the East, unable to see any advantages to living in the desert.  The clash of "Good Business" is headed by Jefferson Worth and Holmes' uncle, Jim Grainfield.  Wright approves of the local businessman who invests in a development but resents the stockholders and company who manage from afar, wanting only dividends and profits.  This last conflict is resolved rather superficially as the children of Worth and Grainfield marry.  Barbara, as it turns out, is actually Grainfield's niece.  Grainfield to some degree finally realizes the value of the western code and the western people.  However, the reconciliation is somewhat unsettling since it is based on the knowledge that Barbara does have fine ancestry after all and is not just another uncultured girl from the crude West.  The corporation manager realizes that he can never be a man of the West so he returns to the East leaving his nephew who has been converted to the West.

            The symbolism, often religious, includes the geographic names of the area.  The setting is concentrated in the Imperial Valley, called in the novel La Palma de la Mano de Dios (the hollow of the hand of God).  This symbolic name allows Wright to present his characters as actors in the command and presence of God.  The moral virtuosity of the Worths is rewarded at the conclusion of the novel by a sudden wealth due to the devastating flood which proves tragic for many people and the corporation.  Embedded in Wright's philosophy is the Protestant work ethic in which the spiritually wealthy are rewarded with accompanying material wealth.  Thus, Grainfield fails in his land development because he is immoral in business, but Worth succeeds and becomes a millionaire because he is moral in his home life and his business.

            Wright uses a curious mixture of sentimentality and realism in the novel.  The facts and details of the engineering project were checked by Wright with the engineers of the actual reclamation work and found to be accurate (Barbara Worth, p. ii).  The landscape is also realistically pictured, and the characters serve as reflections of East and West.  Stressing the superiority of that western culture, Wright argues for the capitalist who also is a moralist.  As Holmes discovers, the West provides the environment for moral development.  The Winning of Barbara Worth is an entertaining novel which combines fact and fiction while also extolling the superiority of the West and calling for moralistic businessmen.


<<< Back to The Winning of Barbara Worth


    [1]Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth (Chicago:  Book Supply, 1911), p. 150.  Subsequent references to this book will be incorporated into the text as Barbara Worth and pagination.  For details on this novel's phenomenal success, see Margaret Macmullen, "Love's Old Sweetish Song," Harper's, Oct. 1947, pp. 371-80, and Mott, p. 230.

    [2]William Morton Payne, "Recent Fiction," rev. of The Winning of Barbara Worth, by Harold Bell Wright, Dial, 16 Sept. 1911, p. 200.

    [3]Rev. of The Winning of Barbara Worth, by Harold Bell Writhe, New York Times Book Review, 20 Aug. 1911, p. 504.

    [4]Rev. of The Winning of Barbara Worth, by Harold Bell Wright, A. L. A. Booklist, Aug 1911, p. 78.

    [5]W. A. Bradley, rev. of The Winning of Barbara Worth, by Harold Bell Wright, Bookman, 24 (1911), 97.

    [6]Bailey Millard, "The Personality of Harold Bell Wright," Bookman, 44 (1917), 463, 467.

    [7]Franklin Walker, A Literary History of Southern California (Berkeley:  Univ. of California Press, 1950), p. 216.

    [8]Mark Twain, Roughing It (New York:  New American Library, 1962), p. 56.

Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

 

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