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Dr. Joyce Kinkead on The Calling of Dan Matthews
Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

Continued from previous page    

          In it [The Shepherd of the Hills] Sammy Lane marries Grant Matthews.  Their first-born is Daniel Howitt Matthews, named after the Shepherd.  The family makes its home in its native Ozarks where thy own an underdeveloped but rich mine in a cave on Dewy Bald.  When Dan is twelve, Dr. Oldham, a retired physician from Corinth, located in a Midwestern state, visits the Ozarks on a fishing expedition.  He becomes fascinated with the boy and his ideal character.  Returning to the Ozarks frequently to fish and watch the boy's development, the doctor becomes like a godfather to the boy and is disappointed when Dan, having reached adulthood, chooses the ministry instead of medicine.  Knowing that the backwoods boy will be disillusioned with the church in its real state, the doctor prepares to "stand by" him when that moment arrives, so the old man get Dan a pastorate in Corinth where he can watch over him.

            Dan arrives in Corinth simultaneously with a nurse, Hope Farwell.  His arrival on the train foreshadows the problems he is to face, for gossip about his female companion on the train, who is really his mother, set the church elders to cautioning the young minister.  Dan takes a room across the street from the doctor.  From his window Dan can see to one side the well-kept garden of the crippled boy who lives next door with his widowed mother; to the other side, Dan can look at the cast iron monument to a statesman, the town's native son who won national fame during his lifetime.  The garden and the statue are the dominant symbols in the story.

            Nurse Farwell stays at the home of Judge Strong, the town's leading citizen and an elder of the church, while she is caring for his sister-in-law.  She and Dan become acquainted although she does not know of his profession until later, and in a conversation between the two, she speaks extremely critically of the church.  They grow closer together through the attempted suicide of a young girl and Strong's attempt to evict the widow and her crippled son from their home.  Dan and Hope give the girl encouragement to live, but Dan is amazed and disturbed to find the church responsible for the girl's depression, for Grace Conner is "the saddest of all sad creatures--a good girl with a bad reputation."[1]  Her reputation results from her father's murder of the town marshal, the Widow Mulhall's husband.  The entire community, except for the doctor, shun the girl so that she cannot work for a living.  Even so, the girl refuses to prostitute herself and instead chooses death.  With the help of the nurse and the widow, the girl regains her confidence.  However, Hope and Mrs. Mulhall lose face in the town as they become guilty by association.  When Dan befriends the group, he is warned by the elders to dissociate himself from them.  Already feeling "that his work was not so much to give what he could to meet the people's needs as to do what he could to supply the wants of the Memorial Church" (Dan Matthews, p. 112), Dan resigns himself to the fact that his job depends on these hypocritical elders, but he continues to help the ostracized group.

            At the church's regional convention, Dan realizes that he is, for all practical purposes, through with the Memorial Church, for the elders do not allow him to give any of the reports of the church presentations, which is part of the minister's duties.  He is shunned by the entire convention because Corinth's delegation has spread the rumors about Dan and Hope.  Upon the delegation's return to Corinth, they find Hope and Grace Conner have gone to Chicago; before going to the convention Dan chooses the church and loses the girl, for she was not a church member and did not choose to be.  Her abrupt departure starts the gossip anew, and shortly after, Dan is asked to leave.  Prior to his departure, he discovers that Strong has been a thief; he has demanded mortgage payments of the widow when in reality the house was paid for years before by her brother.  When Dan presents the case to Elder Jordan, he squirms and says, "Brother Strong may have made a mistake, may--ah, have done wrong, but the church--the church; we must think of the good name of the cause!  Coming so soon after the revival, too" (Dan Matthews, p. 329).  The church keeps the acknowledge thief as an elder but fires the innocent preacher, probably because Strong feel the threat of Dan's continued presence.

            With Dan's realization of the covert politics in the church, he preaches his final sermon to the 'misguided religious people [who] have always crucified their saviors and always will" (Dan Matthews, p. 337).  Insisting that the congregation must find God in their everyday work in order to find him on Sunday in church, he concludes:

            Because I believe these things I am, from this hour, no longer a professional preacher, hired by and working under the direction of any denomination or church leaders.  This closes my ministry as you understand it.  It by no means closes my ministry as I have come to understand it. (Dan Matthews, p. 346) 

            Dan spends his last day in Corinth, a town "caught in an eddy" (Dan Matthews, p. 16), fishing with the doctor.  When Judge Strong arrives at the stream and refuses to apologize to Dan about the previous comments he has made about Hope, Grace, and the widow, Dan assaults the Judge.  After that revenge, Dan returns home to the Ozarks, but only after he goes to the city to make plans with the president of a steel company about the development of the Dewey Bald mine.  He plans to use that wealth for the benefit of mankind and to help the Grace Conners and Dennys of the world.  Grace has become a nurse with Hope's help, and Denny has received the education which he wanted through Dan's aid.  Upon his return, Dan also finds Hope there.  They acknowledge their love and eventually marry.

            The literary reviewers recognized the timely theme of The Calling of Dan Matthews but as usual criticized Wright's writing style.  One critic finds that the author

            has taken occasion to state some very plain facts.  The chances are that readers may not entirely agree with him.  They will feel, perhaps, that he has overstated his case, but much remains to command a careful hearing. 

                        That Dan should finally relinquish the vocation for which he felt so decided a calling seems unnecessary.  The most obvious solution of his difficulties would be for him to remain in the thick of the fight and prove that there is a place in the Christian ministry for men of strength of character.  Then, too, the novel might have been stronger, had the writer taken into account that real men and women are neither wholly good, nor wholly bad, but that human nature approaches neither extreme.[2] 

            This critic finds the novel too harsh in its criticism of the churches and suspects that the readers will do the same.  Many readers probably do find the book too bitter, but the subject of the novel hits close to many Americans who may see themselves as members of the congregation, who are accomplices to Dan's fall, though the members are sorry to see him leave the church.  Dan cannot remain and fight as the reviewer suggests, for he is disgusted with the hypocritical community, and he has been ostracized by both the local and regional churches.  Rather than go to some distant ministry, he chooses to serve mankind in what he believes to be a Christian manner through the use of his coming wealth.  Wright pictures only one totally corrupt church official--Judge Strong.  Dan is basically good, but he is also an innocent as a result of his isolation while growing up.  The congregation is typical of many.  They enjoy gossiping; they like to see new and exciting people and things, and Dan qualifies as gossip material.  He is not the commonplace minister but a young, attractive, and educated backwoodsman.  Most of the young ladies of the town admire him and flirt with him.  Corinth is, in fact, a very typical small midwestern town.

            Another reviewer describes the subject of the novel:

            The experience of an unworldly young minister in a sordid little town in the Middle West, his development under trial and the influences that led him to give up the ministry and enter business.  A tale of considerable interest but annoyingly exaggerated in the drawing of "pious" characters.[3] 

Again the town is not supposed to be "sordid;" instead, it represents the norm.  There are no truly pious characters.  The elders try to appear pious, while Dan is not pious but confused as to the role of church and minister.

            A New York Times reviewer also notes the lack of round characters:

            The author writes, evidently, with deep seriousness and with some knowledge of life and the world, but he has not succeeded in imparting to his characters the illusion of reality.  In this respect the book is not equal to his former novels, although the plot, what little there is of it, is handled more skillfully.[4] 

After serving ten years in the ministry, Wright certainly had some knowledge of the church.  That asset makes this novel possess a truthful quality, even though it is a tremendously bitter novel.

            In his review Frederick Taber Cooper failed to take into account the importance of the church criticism:

            It is precisely the sort of book which the readers who like this author's previous volumes may reasonable be expected to enjoy.  That it has no special structural merit, no special distinction of style is quite beside the point.  People who read books of this type are not looking for high artistic quality; they are looking chiefly for certain types of distinctly American character, depicted with a certain graphic accuracy; a moderate quantity of more or less whimsical humour [sic] and an underlying strain of religious sentiment which sometimes verges on sentimentality.[5] 

Wright's novels do not pretend to be literary; he knows precisely what kind of book he wants to write and does so.

            In this book Wright chooses to expose the commercialization of the church and its lack of human warmth.  On the day of Dan's arrival in Corinth, the town is holding a street fair, and the churches prove to be as enterprising as the merchants:

            In a vacant store room the Memorial Church was holding its annual bazaar.  On different corners other churches were serving chicken dinners, or ice cream, or in sundry ways were actively engaged for the conversion or the erring farmer's cash to the coffers of the village sanctuaries. (Dan Matthews, p. 37) 

As is usual in Wright's church novels, the Ladies' Aid Society does its part to raise money, in addition to gossiping at each meeting.  Ironically, the society is more interested in converting cash than in converting souls.  The ladies make a quilt with the names of donors embroidered on it and then sell it to raise money at a talent show sponsored by the church.  While they quilt, they discuss their minister's charismatic preaching, which has been drawing members of other denominations, and they plan how to entice more people to their church so that they can boast of the largest congregation (Dan Matthews, pp. 122-124).

            The direct criticism aimed toward the elders and the Ladies' Aid Society does not extend to all the congregation.  Although the congregation has many of the characteristics of a mob, since it follows one or two men and their whims, Wright does not condemn all of the church members.  Some of the farmers have a low opinion of ministers, but Dan changes their minds as he joins them in their fields and helps them harvest their crops when they are short of laborers.  Typically, Wright praises the country people for their honesty and sincerity.  However, these people do not have any power in the political circles in the church.

            Dan often feels awkward in his role of minister; he is far from the stereotyped view of preachers.  He quickly comes to know the difference between being treated as a man and as a minister.  People are more distant and formal with a minister.  The minister is also given discounts on merchandise by the local businessmen.  Dan resents these attitudes as he resents the daily call he is required to make to his members' homes.  He despises sipping tea and listening to the gossiping of the women, while their husbands are at work.  For relaxation he works in the garden next door to help the widow and her son, but he is soon criticized for that act because the family is Catholic, which Dan's congregation feels to be almost as bad as not belonging to a church at all.  The congregation is also unhappy that Dan performs manual labor, a job the congregation believes is below his position (Dan Matthews, p. 185).

            When Dan receives a warning from his employers, he deliberates on which one of two ministerial roads he should select.  One is the easy path of "obedience to the traditions, policies and doctrines of Memorial Church and its denomination leaders" while the other road represents "truthfulness to himself and his own convictions" (Dan Matthews, pp. 228-229).  He selects the latter road.  He discovers that he is "paid to be good" (Dan Matthews, p. 205), that he should not associate with the working class (Dan Matthews, p. 220), and that he is constantly on trial before the public eye.  A minister is allowed no weaknesses.  He also find that he is one in a long succession of ministers to Memorial Church.  Each of his predecessors had some character flaw that did not suit the congregation.  One was too old and one was too young.  Family members could also be the cause of the congregation's disfavor with a minister (Dan Matthews, p. 268).

            The strongest critics of the church are Dr. Oldham; Dr. Harry Abbott, the elderly doctor's partner; and Hope Farwell.  Dr. Oldham is aware of the difference between theological theory and actual practice in the church, but he does not tell Dan.  Hope Farwell's criticism is the first indication to Dan that there might be something wrong with the church.  Her words carry weight, for Dan respects her:

            This selfish, wasteful, cruel, heartless thing that men have built up around their opinions, and whims, and ambitions, has so come between the people and the Christianity of the Christ, that they are beginning to question if, indeed, there is anywhere such a thing as the true church. (Dan Matthews, p. 103) 

Her views on ministers touch Dan deeply, for she is unaware during their conversation that he is a minister:

            On the contrary a church employs a pastor to serve itself.  To the churches Christianity has become a question of fidelity to a church and creed and not to the spirit of Christ.  The minister's standing and success in his calling, the amount of his salary, even, depends upon his devotion to the particular views of the church that calls him and his ability to please those who pay him for pleasing them. (Dan Matthews, pp. 105-106) 

            Hope's words trouble Dan greatly and make him reconsider his concepts of the church.  However, he is not convinced of the hypocrisy of the church until the church actually proves Hope correct.  Then, he turns to Dr. Abbott, a friend and member of his church, for answers.  The doctor clarifies some questions for Dan and offers an explanation for his own membership in the church (Dan Matthews, p. 210).  Although Dr. Abbott recognizes the hypocrisy of the church, he remains a member because he, like others, depends upon it for religious life, but he continually hopes for reformation of the church which can be provided by men like Dan.

            Conversely, Charity Jordan, the elder's daughter, represents the opposite view.  An interesting minor character, she was trained to be a minister's wife.  When Dan comes to Corinth, she, as an accurate judge of preachers, feels that he can rise to great heights in the ministerial profession, if only he is helped by an aspiring wife.  She plans to fill the position that is expected of her, but Hope inadvertently gets in her way.  Charity is well versed in denominational politics, and to here there are only two types of people in the world--church members and non-church members.  The latter are aliens and not to be trusted until they become church members (Dan Matthews, p. 272).  Charity even pleads with Hope to give Dan up, for he must not marry a worldly woman.  Charity eventually does marry a minister and finds her niche, and his success is assured because of her knowledgeable help.

            However, Dan is not to be swayed from his convictions, and his determination brands him as a rebel in the church despite Charity's help.  Dan believes that religion is not to be found in a Sunday ritual but in everyday life.  Wright stresses this point by using the word "ministry" in a variety of ways, atypical to its common meaning.  Dr. Abbott feels the need to "minister" to the needs of the poverty-stricken (Dan Matthews, p. 138), while his two servants, former slaves, serve the doctor as an expression off the love and their "ministry" (Dan Matthews, p. 140).  Hope tells the doctor that he has a "ministry," his profession (Dan Matthews, p. 143), and Dan considers Hope's saving of Grace Conner a "beautiful ministry . . . an example of the spirit of Christian religion" (Dan Matthews, p. 200).  Dan finds "ministry" in music, labor, and fishing.  The constant use of "minister" and "ministry" emphasizes the theme of everyday religion.

            Besides the prevalent symbolism of ministry, Wright uses other symbols to illustrate his theme.  Water and fishing are two of those symbols.  In the first pages of the novel the reader finds that Corinth is not in the flow of the world, as are surrounding communities, but is caught in an eddy, unable to free itself from the circular movement.  As the succession of ministers suggests, the town moves in circles.  The cycle is repeated over and over.  On the other hand, Dan and the old doctors are fishers of men, an image raised by their several fishing trips in which they discuss the life stream, men, and religion.  Dan is caught temporarily in the stagnant waters of Corinth but frees himself to continue his service to man in a fresh stream (Dan Matthews, p. 349).

            The two most important symbols, however, are the garden and the statue, one on either side of Dan.  When the community dedicated the statue to its statesman, it did so with honorable intentions, but they cast the good man in iron, an ugly symbol of the technological age, and engraved the monument with a quotation of his on an issue long since irrelevant.  In contrast, the garden is a living, growing thing, dormant through some seasons but always there.  The garden offers a variety of vegetables, something for all.  Denny serves as the garden's "minister."  In the center of the garden is a huge rock which Denny cannot move.  He wisely leaves it alone and tends to what he knows.  The garden represents religion as opposed to the cast iron monument which symbolizes the church, an institution of ecclesiastical dogma.  The statue cannot adequately represent the warm human being whom is supposedly portrays (Dan Matthews, pp. 340-42).

            Taking his cue from Voltaire's Candide,[6] Wright insists that each man must find his own garden, for it is only in the garden that a man can be happy.  Although Denny is crippled, he finds happiness working in his garden, for there he is useful.  Dan feels that he too must find his garden; "he would find his work" (Dan Matthews, p. 349).  He does find that garden when he uses the wealth of the mine to help his fellow man who may be handicapped physically or handicapped by society.  Dan is initiated into society and the church as his innocence is destroyed; however, he becomes a better man and minister for the experience.  Wright's purpose is to make people see the hypocrisy of their religion and reform themselves and the church to follow the guidelines of "applied Christianity."


Back to The Calling of Dan Matthews


    [1]Harold Bell Wright, The Calling of Dan Matthews (New York:  A. L. Burt, 1909), p. 86.  Subsequent references to this book will be incorporated into the body of the text as Dan Matthews and pagination.

    [2]Rev. of The Calling of Dan Matthews, by Harold Bell Wright, Literary Digest, 2 Oct. 1909, p. 546.

    [3]Rev. of The Calling of Dan Matthews, by Harold Bell Wright, A. L. A. Booklist, Nov. 1909, p. 94.

    [4]Rev. of The Calling of Dan Matthews, by Harold Bell Wright New York Times Book Review, 18 Sept. 1909, p. 551.

    [5]Frederick Tabor Cooper, rev. of The Calling of Dan Matthews, by Harold Bell Wright, Bookman, 30 (1909), 189.  Bookman finally recognized Wright and his phenomenal success after ignoring his first two novels.

    [6]Voltaire, Candide, trans. Robert M. Adams, ed. Robert M. Adams (New York:  Norton, 1966), p. 77.

   Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

         

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