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Chapters: 1 | 2 | 34 | 5 | 6  Next >

The Social Conscience of 

Harold Bell Wright

The Man and His Work

Dr. Joyce Kinkead 
Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

Chapter 1:  Harold Bell Wright:  The Man              

          Although the name of Harold Bell Wright is infrequently recognized today, except in the Ozarks where a popular play based on one of his novels is produced, his name was a household word during the early years of the twentieth century because of the best-selling novels he wrote.  In fact, the nineteen books written during his lifetime sold more than ten million copies and set "one of the records of popular culture."[1]  Three of his novels--The Winning of Barbara Worth, The Shepherd of the Hills, and The Calling of Dan Matthews--sold more than one million copies each, while two others, When a Man's a Man and The Eyes of the World, each sold more than 900,000 copies.[2]  His writing career extended from his first novel, That Printer of Udell's, published in 1903, to his last novel, The Man Who Went Away, published in 1942.

            Wright's novels are unpretentious, just as is his background.  Born May 4, 1872, on Spring Brook Farm near Rome, New York, although actually in Wright Settlement, Harold Bell Wright was the second of four sons of Alma T. Watson and William A. Wright.  Wright relates the story of the first thirty years of his life in his autobiography, To My Sons.  His father's ancestors came from Essex, England, where a coat of arms had been granted to them on June 20, 1509.  Thomas Wright was a deputy to the General Court in England before he and his family settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut, in 1640.[3]  His descendant, Ebenezer, graduated from Yale in 1724 and then preached at Stamford, Connecticut.  His son, another Ebenezer, settled with his wife and his brother's family after the War of Independence in Oneida County, New York, near the town of Rome, a town still known as Wright Settlement.  In 1800 the Wright families--Ebenezer and Grace, and Thomas and Martha--organized the first church in Rome.

          The great-grandson of Ebenezer, William A. Wright, the father of Harold, served as a lieutenant in the Civil War.  In a letter to G.K. Watson dated September 24, 1865, this rather dashing officer asked permission from the father to marry Alma Watson, a girl of eighteen.  The letter announced that the couple would marry when William returned from the West in a year (Wright, Sons, p. 20).  After their marriage, the couple resided with Charles E. Wright in South Pass (now Cobden), Illinois, for a short time before moving to their own home in the neighborhood where their first son, William, was born.  They returned to Wright Settlement to live with Will's parents on the farm where their second son, Harold, was born in 1872.  His middle name, Bell, was taken from his mother's friends, the Bells, who lived on Bell's Hill near South Pass.  While Harold was still a baby, the Wrights moved to Whitesboro, a village on the Erie Canal between Rome and Utica.  William Wright was a failure at adapting to post-Civil War life.  He worked as an itinerant carpenter and became an alcoholic.  Whitesboro was only the first in many moves for a family destined to poverty.  A third son was born while the Wrights resided in the river town, but he died within two years.

            Harold's mother, a rather delicate woman, was unprepared for her hard life but tried to keep her sons from coming under the influence of their father and the lower class neighborhood.  Harold relates an incident which influenced him for life an which drew him closer to his mother.  When she heard him speak an obscene word during his boyhood, she took a rag "she used to clean the stove and the outside of the cooking pots and pans, and with laundry soap and ashes, thoroughly scrubbed out my mouth" (Wright, Sons, p. 36).  That event may account for the absence of realistic language in his novels, a fact mentioned by literary critics with disdain.

            The Wrights then moved to a tenant house a few miles from Auburn, New York, where the boys were able to attend school for a short time.  The family's next stop was Sennett, a small crossroads village, complete with handy school, church, and tavern.  Fortunately for Harold, he was befriended by a wealthy artist and his wife who lived nearby.  His life was enriched by this couple who introduced him to "the art of beautiful living" (Wright, Sons, p. 48) by showing him a world he had never seen before because of his poverty.  It was a wonderful world of art and culture.  However, he lost that valuable companionship when his family moved to a better house closer to the village and the tavern.  There, the fourth son, George, was born.  About the time that Harold was eight, he realized that his father was a drunkard, and that realization drew his mother and him closer together in a mutual understanding.

            Alma Wright managed to spend time with Harold even though she was continually busy with housework.  She introduced Harold to books when he was nine, presenting him with her copy of Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" (Wright, Sons, p. 57), and she also encouraged him to continue the sketching which he had learned from the artist.  When Harold was eleven, his mother died of tuberculosis.  Before her death he became the cook, housekeeper, and nurse to her.  He felt the loss of this one companion greatly, for his relationship with his brothers and father was not very strong.

            Within a few days after the funeral, the Wright boys were separated, as their father left to live by himself.  George was given to an aunt in Ohio while Will was sent to work for a distant farmer.  Harold also went to work for a farmer, "a good citizen," who actually treated the boy very roughly and gave him his first view of a Christian hypocrite.  The next farmer Harold was sent to was said to be a devout Christian; however, he too was a hypocrite, for he peddled rain water vinegar under the guise of pure cider vinegar.  Harold was forced to attend Sunday school and church during his stay with this family, but they were more tolerant in their treatment of him.

            An invitation from his mother's Aunt Mary, called Grandma Smith by his brothers and him, to visit her in Wright's Settlement ended Harold's "working out" days.  He stayed with her, attending school until she became seriously ill, and he then was sent to his father's brother, Uncle George, who lived near Utica with his wife, Mate, and two daughters.  His stay there was short due to his father's sudden increase in salary in his job at Lima, Ohio, a boom oil town.  The three brothers were united at the home of their father's sister, Mary Morrison, who took in boarders at her home in Milan, Ohio.  The reunion was short-lived because Will Wright's earnings again were squandered on his alcohol instead of going to his sons' livelihood.  Will Jr., was returned to the farmer to continue work there while Harold was sent to his father in Lima, where he worked in a paint shop until his father deserted him.  The boy was forced to take a better paying job in a handle factory, hauling waste wood from the saw on a wheelbarrow.  Because the work was too strenuous for the boy, he found another job driving the delivery wagon for a small grocery store.  Although he enjoyed that work and his freedom, he did not have the necessary clothes for the outside winter work, so he obtained work from a Grand Army of the Republic comrade of his father's in a book and stationery store.  Even though his salary--a bed and family leftovers from meals--was pitiful, the position afforded him the opportunity to read after hours and on Sundays.  Nick Carter, the Police Gazette, Faust, and Shakespeare were among the variety of materials available for him to read.

            Despite the vast amount of reading which Harold did during this time, he later found that much of it was harmful.  In fact, he remarks, "My boyhood reading was so haphazard, so unguided, so unattended by proper schooling that it was 90 per cent worthless.  Much of it was worse than worthless; it was definitely harmful.  It fixed in me habits of reading which gave me a crooked literary spine" (Wright, Sons. p. 95).  Wright continually apologizes for his literary ignorance throughout his autobiography, letters, and interviews.

            The stationery job lasted only from early winter until spring when Harold's father wrote for the boy to join him at another boom town, Findlay, Ohio.  Harold was sent for to be the cook and housekeeper to his father and four friends who were living cooperatively on the second floor of a saloon, an ideal home to the alcoholics.  In the midst of this decadent neighborhood, Harold found a friend in a female hunchback cook employed in a house of prostitution.  From her he discovered the harsh reality of prostitutes, alcoholics, and thieves, an experience he did not relish.

            Disillusioned, he left his job as housekeeper and cook and worked as magazine subscription agent and furniture polish peddler.  Next, he did odd jobs; he was a janitor, carpenter's helper, and roustabout in a boiler works, before joining a gang of young hoodlums.  During his stay with these unscrupulous thieves, he decided to learn the painting trade and shortly became an apprentice.  His employer discovered that Harold had a particular aptitude for decorating and frescoing and gave him special work.

            At eighteen Wright saw Lewis Morrison's presentation of Mephistopheles in the theatre production of Faust and found it to be an influential spiritual experience, one that made him question his station in life.  Working as a journeyman painter, he was harnessed with supporting his father, his father's friend, and Brother Will who lived in another decrepit tenement house.  Harold's refusal to join the Sons of Veterans because of financial strain created a definite break between father and son.  As a result of that break, Harold left the tenement house and boarded with a young couple in a much better section of town where he thought of making his way in the profession of painting.

            Promoted to foreman and earning three dollars a day in the early 1890's, Wright began seventh grade studies as an evening pupil under the tutelage of a neighbor who had been a teacher.  Assigned essays, Wright found writing infectious, and he began to write essays on his own initiative.  However, this schooling, too, was to be short-lived as Wright felt inhibited so long as he was near his father.  He left Findlay and wandered for several weeks before he stopped in Cleveland.  Upon entering the city, Wright experienced two incidents which help illustrate the dichotomous use of characters he later developed in his novels.  The first incident occurred when he tried to apply for work in a shipyard but was rebuffed as a bum and told that he would end up on a rock pile.  This same incident was actually used in one of his novels, and a critic decried it as unrealistic.  Another unemployed man shared his supper with Wright, who had no money left from his trip, and showed him to a charity house where Wright could sleep.  The second incident typifies the kind of character Wright believes in.

            While at the charity house, Wright met a hobo who convinced him to join him on a free train ride to California.  Wright accepted but was caught the following day by the station agent when hopping down from the boxcar.  Fortunately for Wright, this man helped him find work on a construction job and a place to board.  Wright's entry into this Ohio town ended his drifting days.  After the construction job was completed, Wright began painting again and soon established his own business.  Wright also established his religious philosophy during this time when he came under the influence of an evangelist from the Church of Christ who advanced the theory that one could be a Christian without any denominational affiliation.  Of course, Wright later discovered the fallacy in this logic when he learned that the Church of Christ is also a denomination.  Believing that Christianity "was a principle of living, a manner of thinking, a way of behaving, so that one's life should count as a service to all life" (Wright, Sons, p. 145), Wright became a member of the Christian Church or Disciples of Christ as it is also called.

            Befriended by the evangelist who was also a senior student at Hiram Collage, a school conducted by the Disciples, Wright was convinced to leave his painting business and attend Hiram College's pre-preparatory school.  He continued there for two years of study, even writing a book which he later described as "fantastic, impossible, [and] amateurish" (Wright, Sons, p. 157).  One of his college friends, the son of a millionaire, enjoyed his writing and asked Wright to spend the summer at his home.  Wright accepted but later felt the weight of being a parasite on his wealthy friend.  He left the house but not before he had come under the influence of the artist, Sir Gilbert Munger, and decided to become a landscape painter.  At that point Wright felt that he must rely on himself rather than depending on his friend, and he left Hiram.

            Wright's plan was to work and save money for a year and then return to Hiram College without debts.  He found work quarrying limestone in Lowellville in the Mahoning Valley.  He continued there until midwinter when he accepted a higher paying position as advance agent for entertainers.  He soon regretted leaving the countryside quarry for the hypocritical world of entertainment.  His health reflected that disappointment when pneumonia caused him to move back to Lowellville.  There, he painted pictures as he convalesced, but that occupation was cut short as he was temporarily blinded for several months.

            When Wright recovered his sight, he built a canoe and began his river trip to Missouri where his Uncle Ben and father lived.  His older brother Will had gone to Missouri several years before but had died while there.  Wright found himself in Springfield, Missouri, after an adventurous canoe trip and continued south to his Uncle Ben's home on the James River in the Ozarks.  There, he again began painting and managed to sell his pictures in the East.  He was determined to become an artist.  He also attended Congregationalist Church services with his aunt and uncle and was shocked at the ignorant and illiterate preacher of the church.  Wright's own entry into the ministry was accidental.  When Wright attended a revival "meetin'" one night, the regular minister failed to come, and the congregation asked him to speak since he looked like an "educated" man.  The congregation liked him so well that they decided to keep him as their minister.

            Wright stayed there until spring, even taming the hillbilly hoodlums who tried to break up his church.  He set up an adult school meeting once a week to help the people in the community learn to read and write.  When summer arrived, he went to Mount Vernon, Missouri, to continue his painting and was soon asked to preach at the Pierce City Christian Church.  He made a fifty-mile horseback ride every weekend during that summer of 1897 to preach.  With the church's increased attendance, the congregation asked Wright to become their pastor on a salary of eight dollars a week.  Deciding between art and the ministry, he chose the ministry.  He continued to preach at this church for two years, after which he was invited to become the minister of a church of the same denomination in Pittsburg, Kansas, a coal mining and railroad town where saloons, casinos, and houses of prostitution abounded.

            Wright determined to use "applied Christianity" (Wright, Sons, p. 209), and in his Pittsburg ministry resolved to meet the spiritual needs of the community, not the social needs.  He abolished the church organization set up for making money and stressed helping the poor and guiding the young.  Still, Wright was not satisfied with the results of his applied Christianity, so he devised the idea of writing a story depicting the actual conditions in Pittsburg and decrying "churchanity" (Wright, Sons, p. 211), the attitude of being more concerned with the church than with Christ.  Writing late at night and influenced by Charles M. Sheldon's In His Steps, a book which asks the question, "What would Jesus do?" in a number of situations, Wright planned to read his finished book in installments to his congregation as moral lessons.  The result of this writing was That Printer of Udell's, originally entitled Practical Christianity.  Convinced by friends and his congregation to publish the novel so that it would reach a wider audience, Wright offered it to a publisher who suggested that the novel first be serialized in a magazine.  Christian Century accepted the manuscript but edited the realistic pictures to protect its Christian readers.  Frustrated by the cutting of his novel, Wright put it away until a friend, Dr. William Williams, suggested that he try the Book Supply Company, a mail order house in Chicago.  Williams had met the manager of that company, Elsbery W. Reynolds, during a business trip.  Funded by the doctor, Wright went to Chicago and sold his book to Reynolds.  He received the first copy of That Printer of Udell's a few days before his thirty-first birthday in 1903.  Well advertised, the book sold 450,000 copies.

            During the five years that Wright lived in Pittsburg, he married Frances Elizabeth Long of Buffalo, New York, a girl he met at Hiram College, on July 18, 1899.  Their first son, Gilbert Munger, named after the artist, was born in 1901, and Paul William, their second son, was born in 1902.  During the summer of 1903, the Wrights spent the summer in the Ozarks, where he recuperated from malaria.  That fall Wright accepted a position as minister in a Kansas City church.  He remained there from 1903 to 1905, until his bad health once again caused him to retire to the Ozarks.  There he wrote The Shepherd of the Hills, which became a best seller.  He served as a minister in Lebanon, Missouri, from 1905 to 1907.

            When told that he might have tuberculosis, Wright moved to Redlands, California, his last, brief pastorate from 1907 to 1908, where he decided that he would give up his church work and write seriously in order to carry his message to a larger audience than he could reach through the pulpit.  In 1908, he moved to El Centro, California, in the Imperial Valley, where he wrote in a tent for some time until he bought a ranch in the area.  There, he wrote The Calling of Dan Matthews (1909) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), his most successful novel.  Wright and Reynolds made an excellent publishing team as they introduced an innovative method of advertising which still persists.  Encouraged by the success of his first two books, Wright devoted himself entirely to writing, and Reynolds devoted himself to promoting Wright's novels.  The Calling of Dan Matthews, the first Wright novel to receive this full-scale promotion by Reynolds, "was backed by an advertising appropriation of $48,000.  Though strong book advertising had been fairly common for several years, these figures were nothing less than revolutionary."[4]  The result of such advertising was that the book sold more than one-half million copies by the end of its first year.  The publishing plan included bringing out a new book every other year so that the market would not be glutted.  The advertising bills for other novels finally ran up to $100,000, which included a barrage of full-page advertisements in popular magazines and newspapers.  The money was not wasted, for Wright's novels were best sellers.  People who might have bought just one book a year bought Wright's, and rural mailboxes were stuffed with his books as soon as they were printed.

            The Wright-Reynolds success story continued until Reynolds suffered a physical breakdown and sold his Wright copyrights to D. Appleton and Company in 1920.  That company published the next seven books, and Harpers published the last three books.  The Wright-Reynolds team succeeded in yet another medium, for when Reynolds retired from the book business, he organized a film company expressly for the purpose of producing films based on Wright's stories.  He also saw to the dramatization of several of the books on stage.[5]

            At least twelve movies were made from Wright's stories, as were several stage versions.  Like so many other novelists of the era, Wright was lured to Hollywood.  His first movie, When a Man's a Man, was filmed in 1924 and again in 1935.  The Shepherd of the Hills was also produced twice, first in 1928 and again in 1941.  Other Wright stories made into movies included A Son of His Father (1925), The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), Eyes of the World (1930), The Calling of Dan Matthews (1936), The Mine with the Iron Door (1936), Secret Valley (1937), It Happened Out West (1937), and Massacre River (1949). [For a comprehensive and much more accurate list of Wright's movies, click here]

            Wright continued to write, amassing a fortune from his book sales and successful films.  By the time he finished The Winning of Barbara Worth, named in honor of his publisher's wife, Ruth Barbara Reynolds,[6] he was quite ill.  He recuperated near Tucson, Arizona, where he later built the Cross Anchor Ranch, where he lived for many years.  Their Yesterdays (1912) and The Eyes of the World (1914) were written while he still lived in the Imperial Valley.  After finishing this last novel, the Wrights planned to move to the Santa Monica Mountains near Hollywood, California.  The family included a third son, Norman Hall, born in 1910.  However, before they had a chance to move, Wright was seriously injured in an accident.  He related the story of his near death and its effects on his life in an article, "Why I Did Not Die," in the American Magazine.  Wright and a companion were on horseback returning home from El Centro when horses and riders were struck by a speeding automobile.  The companion was thrown to the ground unconscious, and his horse's leg was severed.  Wright and his horse were carried along a hundred feet of barbed wire by the car.  The corner of the convertible's windshield struck Wright's side, and the saddle horn smashed into his abdomen.[7]

            Wright recuperated at his Imperial Valley ranch for a few weeks and then moved to his new home.  Shortly after that, however, he was told by his doctor that he had active tuberculosis.  His plan after hearing the news was to go to the Arizona desert for its healing sunshine and write a novel whose income would support his family and in the event of his death educate his three sons.  The advance orders for the novel were already immense.  Taking with him a helper, he journeyed to the Catalina Mountains near Tucson to set up camp.  Before he could do so, though, he caught a cold and was hospitalized for some time.  When he returned to his camp, he found it totally disorganized.  He managed to instruct his help to set up the camp, but then the rainy season began, leaving him ill and depressed.  He burned the first four chapters of his novel and began anew in February when the sunshine returned.  He replaced his incompetent helper with a more knowledgeable Japanese male cook.  Convinced of the sun's therapeutic effects, Wright dressed completely in white and worked on his novel at a hooded desk in the son.  By the time he had finished the manuscript of When a Man's a Man in April, he was in good health once more and had optimistically planned thirteen more novels.  From his lonely recuperation in the desert, Wright suggested to his readers who suffered from illness to find something to think about, whether it be a rattlesnake or the start.  "If you can't find anything to think about except yourself, you ought to die on general principle--and you probably will."[8]

            Relying on an open air desert existence to retain his good health, Wright wrote The Re-Creation of Brian Kent in 1919.  Wright was a robust man who loved the outdoors and horses.  However, Wright's life was to take another turn as he divorced Frances Elizabeth Long in 1920 and married Mrs. Winifred Mary Potter Duncan of Los Angeles on August 5 of that year.  The reaction of his former friends in the Ozarks to the divorce is related in an article which bemoans the fact that the Wrights left the Ozarks.  If they had remained, the Missouri residents speculated, "Brother and Sister Wright" would probably have stayed together.[9]

            During the 1920's, Wright wrote Helen of the Old House (1921), The Mine with the Iron Door (1923), A Son of His Father (1925), God and the Groceryman (1927), and Long Ago Told (1929).  He was often in Hollywood, as his novels were brought to the screen, and he also wrote screenplays.  All three of his sons became involved in the motion picture industry.  Paul, who died about 1930, was an actor.  Under the pseudonym of John Lebar, Gilbert, the eldest, wrote The Doubtful Year (1929), The Lighted Lantern (1930), and The Devil's Highway (1932), the latter novel written in conjunction with his father.  Later he became a screenwriter for the movies.  Norman, who was also associated with motion pictures, presently lives in San Clemente, California.

            In 1932, the Wrights moved to their Quiet Hills Farm in Escondido, California, where he continued his movie writing career.  The thirties brought Exit (1930), Ma Cinderella (1932), and To My Sons (1934).  The Man Who Went Away was published eight years later, but by that time, as the previous decade had foreshadowed, there was no audience for Wright's type of book.  That audience was cynical from a world war, the depression, and the oncoming Second World War.  On May 24, 1944, Wright died of bronchial pneumonia at the age of seventy-two in La Jolla, California.  The Escondido farm was sold for $70,000 only a month earlier when he moved to San Diego.[10]  Wright finally succumbed to the respiratory problems which had plagued him all of his life but which had also "started him on his career as an author who pleased the masses with stories about right triumphant and irritated the critics--who agreed that his work was vapid, shallow, insipid."[11]  Wright's ashes are held at Greenwood Memorial Park, San Diego, California, in a book-shaped copper urn imbedded in sand from the Imperial Valley, the setting of his most popular novel.

            Why was Wright such a popular novelist during the first two decades of the century?  The character of his audience is partly the answer.  Although Wright was undoubtedly the most popular of the best-selling authors, other popular writers included Owen Wister (The Virginian), John Fox, Jr (The Trail of the Lonesome Pine), Kate Douglas Wiggin (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm), Gene Stratton Porter (Freckles), Eleanor H. Porter (Pollyanna), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan of the Apes), Zane Grey (The Riders of the Purple Sage), Winston Churchill (Richard Carvel), and Booth Tarkington (Seventeen).  The pre-World War I audience

            had been in the making since the opening years of the century, but in its earlier stages of development it was more notable for increase in size then for improvement in taste. 

                        By 1910, there was in fact a larger public for books than would exist for many years after the First World War, provided that the books were of the sort this earlier public liked and could understand.  It liked novels chiefly; it liked them if they were full of sentiment or swordplay, adventures in far places or local color; and if, at the same time, they moved by resolute steps toward an ending that satisfied the Protestant conventions.[12] 

          Part of this audience's growth was the result of a corresponding growth of secondary and higher education, in addition to adult education.

            Mott attributes Wright's success to three factors:

            the timeliness of his sincere comment upon the social problems which were already exciting wide interest, his native skill and understanding in addressing his great middle-class audience, and the powerful advertising campaign put behind his work by a sympathetic friend and publisher.[13] 

          Even though literary critics did not like his novels, Wright struck a chord with the lower and middle classes of the American public, much as Dickens did with the English reading public.  In a sense both were muckrakers--Dickens for child labor laws and Wright for social change in the churches.  Wright's time was the era of social gospel and the attempt of the churches to interpret social questions in the light of the teaching of Jesus.  Wright preached "applied Christianity" in several of his books.  The churches were in serious trouble as countless Americans no longer attended, and those who did attend criticized the church for its costliness, showiness, and concern with social functions.

            One of the most disturbing factors of social and economic unrest at the turn of the century was the changing attitude toward the churches.  Proletarian movements, political crusades against the trusts and entrenched wealth in general, muckraking writers in the periodicals, and many other elements labored to arouse the social conscience of the people; but the churches were quiescent.[14] 

          Critics of the churches included Upton Sinclair, who bitterly attacked those institutions in The Profits of Religion.  Social Christianity was the subject of Josiah Strong's Our Country and Winston Churchill's The Inside of the Cup.  The social gospel movement became almost ridiculous, as subjects ranged from the question posed in In His Steps, "What would Jesus do?" to the Reverend Courtland Myers' Would Christ Belong to a Labor Union?

            In the end, Wright was more of a preacher than a novelist, a fact he readily admitted.  He never concealed the didactic purposes behind his stories.  "He is a moralist, a fabulist, a preacher of sermons, a Sayer, and an Utterer."[15]  Believing that America can steer people in the right direction, he provides a picture of the ideal men and women in whom he believes.  His novels have "a moral basis, a romantic and sentimentalized love interest, and a liberal salting with specialized Nature study."[16]  Although not literary in many characteristics, Wright managed to capture background and local color accurately in his books, especially in The Shepherd of the Hills, set in the Ozarks which he knew well.  Wright simply wrote to illustrate his themes, even to the point in one novel of leaving his characters unnamed.  His themes emphasized

            that true religion should be a part of daily life, not merely a Sunday ritual; that simple country folk living close to nature are morally superior to wealthy urbanites; and that the evils of the American social structure could be corrected by true men and true women who lived according to Christian principles.[17] 

            When Wright began a novel, he did not prepare a plot outline; instead, he wrote an argument of why he should write that story.  That argument could contain (1) the character of man, (2) vital principle, (3) vital principle destroyed, (4) destructive agencies--intellectual, (5) destructive agencies--luxuries, etc., (6) characteristics of manhood as such, (7) man's instinctive regard for manhood as such, (8) appeal of sex, (9) racial self-preservation and error of the age, and (10) motif of the story.  In each novel he would elaborate differently on each of these points.  Next, Wright laid out the four divisions of the novel on note cards, which were placed on an organizational board.  The divisions included:

A.  Introduction of the essential characters.

  • Fixing the motif.

  • Fixing the scenes.

  • Fixing the local colour [sic].

  • Fixing the tones and movement.

  • Establishing the motives for the development into the critical situation at the climax of Division B.

B.  Building up of complications from the motives established into the critical situation, which is the climax of this division.     

C.  Working out of the critical situation from the motives established, into the solution which is the climax of this division.

D.  Development of the Finale from the solution of the climax of Division C.[18]            

            To add authenticity to his stories, Wright visited the scenes of the stories and consulted with experts, whether they were engineers or cowboys, to ensure accuracy of technical details.  The construction cards which he wrote numbered in the hundreds as they detailed character history, distinctive features, and the character's life and place in the story.  After all the construction cards were organized on the huge bulletin board, Wright determined whether the incident was interesting and consistent in plot, theme, and character; if not, the card was changed or thrown away.  From this organization Wright formed his novel.

            Wright is a phenomenon in American fiction.  He has some literary merit and a paucity of formal education.  But he was successful in part because he was honest and sincere in his writing.  His books are worthwhile, even though they are not of the quality of the books of Sinclair Lewis or Hamlin Garland, his contemporaries.  "Unliterary his work is, undoubtedly, as graded by absolute standards, but it has played its part in the literary education of the great American mass.  No history of American literature can avoid him."[19]

            Through his novels Wright guided the American reading public into the questions of church, morality, and war.  Mrs. Petty tells Carol Kennicott in Main Street that "Harold Bell Wright is a lovely writer, and he teaches such good morals in his novels, and folks say he's made prett' near a million dollars out of 'em."[20]  Her evaluation reveals Wright's place in American literature.  He provided reassurance to the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant masses, guided the morality of the young, and made money doing it, a true product of the Protestant work ethic.  Wright's guidance was to last for only twenty years though, for America's dependence on a moral leader, shaken by the First World War, was shattered by the Second World War.  In 1942, when his last novel, The Man Who Went Away, was published, Wright was its title character.  The cord between the American people and their preacher had been cut completely.

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    [1]Thurman Wilkins, "Wright, Harold Bell," DAB (1973 Supplement).

    [2]Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes:  The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York:  Macmillan, 1947), p. 232.

    [3]Harold Bell Wright, To My Sons (New York:  Harper, 1934), pp. 11-12.  All further references to this book will be incorporated into the body of the text as Sons and pagination.

    [4]Mott, p. 229.

    [5]Mott, p. 232.

    [6]Elsbery W. Reynolds, "Harold Bell Wright:  A Biography," appendix to The Re-Creation of Brian Kent (Chicago:  Book Supply, 1919), p. 350.

    [7]Harold Bell Wright, "Why I Did Not Die," American Magazine, June 1924, p. 13.

    [8]Wright, "Why I Did Not Die," p. 13.

    [9]"Grief in the Ozarks over the Divorce of Harold Bell Wright," Literary Digest, 21 August 1920, p. 57.  This article contains an inaccurate account of how Wright's first novel was published, attributing his financial backing to an Ozark physician instead of a Pittsburg physician as Wright relates in his autobiography, To My Sons.

    [10]"Harold Bell Wright Dead at 72," New York Times, 25 May 1944, p. 21, cols. 1-2.

    [11]"Death Takes Noted Ozark Country Writer," Dallas News, 26 May 1944, sec. I, p. 2.

    [12]Robert E. Spiller et al., Literary History of the United States, 4th rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 1121.

    [13]Mott, p. 233.

    [14]Mott, pp. 225-226.

    [15]Grant Overton, An American Night's Entertainment (New York:  J. J. Little and Ives, 1923), p. 124.

    [16]Fred Lewis Pattee, The New American Literature, 1890-1930 (New York:  Century, 1930), p. 469.

    [17]Wilkins, DAB.

    [18]Clair Kenamore, "A Curiosity in Best-Seller Technique," Bookman, 47 (1918), 541.

    [19]Pattee, p. 473.

    [20]Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (New York:  Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1920), p. 153.

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Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  


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Last updated 05/26/11