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
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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,"
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.
The themes in the novel are often stereotyped; however, the one
theme which permeates the novel is the superiority of the West over the
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
Eventually, Holmes, like the dog, acquires a respect for the
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
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
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.
Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.
Used by Permission.