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E Clampus Vitus



Dr. Joyce Kinkead on Helen of the Old House
Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

<<< Continued from previous page.  

Although these novels include a typical love story, the fiction is but pretense, for Wright's purpose is to persuade, and the novels become propagandistic.

            Helen of the Old House (1921) is set in the town of Millsburgh, a typical industrial community which boasts of several mills and a distinct class system of employers and employees.[1]  Of the mills, Adam Ward's mill is the most important because it becomes the focal point of the labor movement.  Adam Ward formerly had been an employee of the mill until he "supposedly" developed a new process which revolutionized the mill work.  After that, he rises in the chain of command until he becomes the mill owner, and then he and his family, which includes his son John and his daughter Helen, move from their old house among the other workers to the "castle" in a wealthy section of the town.

            Before the upward move, the Ward family were inseparable companions with the Martin family, their next door neighbors.  The Martin children, Charlie and Mary, were playmates with John and Helen Ward.  The close friendship dissolved when the Wards became wealthy, but a semblance of it is revived when the war brings Charlie and john together again in the same regiment, where Charlie serves as an officer and John remains a private.  John, who was influenced by his father's wealth, changes his attitude about class during the war, for he has an opportunity to learn what it is like to serve under someone's orders (Helen, p. 147).  When John is given complete management of the mill by his father, who is gradually going insane due to mental stress over some mysterious problem, he puts his ideas into action.  Differing from his father, John sees the mill as belonging to the people, not one man, and the employees see this change of attitude as John works with the man, making them feel equal or even superior in some characteristics (Helen, p. 205).

            In contrast, Adam Ward sees the mill and its employees as his possessions. They are no more than the machinery of the plant, expected to return their investment in dollars and cents for his profit (Helen, p. 116).  Thus, his men have no more than contempt for him, and they are delighted to see John placed in the seat of authority, for they can depend on his fairness.  John and his old friend Charlie believe that people can become one through work (Helen, p. 124), and they also advocate equality through rank (Helen, p. 154).  They realize that there must be leaders and followers, but rank does not necessarily imply superiority or inferiority.

            John's sister, Helen, envious of her brother's happiness, tries to discover the source of that contentment.  Unhappy with her social duties and parties, she discovers among the houses of the employees a new, rather distasteful world.  She is appalled by their poverty, disease, and filth and begins to take an interest in their welfare, even touring the plant with her brother to view the working conditions.  Her spiritual guide, who also guides the entire community of workers on labor problems, is called the Interpreter.  Now an elderly man, he once worked alongside Adam Ward in the mill when Adam was just another employee.  An industrial accident has crippled him for life, so he earns his living making baskets.  He shares his home with Billy Rand, a deaf and dumb retarded young man who serves as the crippled man's legs.  Both Helen and John are influenced by the Interpreter's philosophy, a mixture of patriotism, happiness, and work ethic.

            Into this scene of growing social consciousness comes Jake Vodell, a foreign strike organizer who preaches for "the Cause" of the working classes which is a plan to decentralize the power of the capitalist class (Helen, p. 105).  He persuades the McIver mill workers, under the management of Jim McIver, a less sympathetic person than John Ward, to go on strike.  Other mill workers also walk out, except for the Ward mill where the employees are satisfied with their management.  Vodell would like to put the workers in control and kill the wealthy employers.  To accomplish his goals, he incites riots among the workers, sacrifices the starving women and children of his unemployed followers, bombs factories, and finally kills Charlie Martin, John's friend and employee, because Charlie and his father refuse to support him.  Vodell preaches a "doctrine of class hatred and destruction" (Helen, p. 240), but the Interpreter strips away the dogmatic message of the agitator and reveals Vodell's real purpose--to displace the capitalists.

            Fortunately, just as Vodell is about to start a bloody riot among the workers, the Interpreter, John, and Pete Martin are able to persuade the men of the falseness of Vodell's plan and expose him for the murder of Charlie Martin, the town's beloved war hero.  The two most corrupt capitalists, Jim McIver and Adam Ward, are killed, the former in a bombing of his mill and the latter by his own hand, and the town returns to a more normal position after Vodell escapes to threaten other towns with his corrupt labor doctrines.  After Adam's death, his will exposes his theft of the process which has made him wealthy but which has kept the real inventor of the idea, Pete Martin, poor.  In restitution and perhaps in the hope of easing his tormented conscience, Adam, in his will, divided his estate between Martin and his own family.  The Martins and the Wards then donate one-half of their shares to their employees so that they, too, can have a voice in the management of the mill (Helen, p. 37)  The "castle" is developed into the "Institute of American Patriotism," and the Ward family move back to their old home where John marries Mary Martin, and Helen "finds herself in service" to the mill workers (Helen, pp. 369-71).  She loses her true love when Charlie Martin is killed, but she finds some happiness in her work with the children of the mill workers.

            In this novel, Wright presents a rather unusual social labor philosophy.  He very neatly retains the division of employer and employee, but he makes that relationship acceptable to the employee who may have had management grievances without such a system.  His philosophy rests on the "law of dependence," a mutual reliance among the laborers and management to get the work done (Helen, p. 241), whereas Adam Ward's management was based entirely on independence in which he was the sole manager and his people worked for him, not with him.  According to Wright, business should rely on "industrial comradeship" (Helen, p. 162) to succeed, for the primary purpose behind Wright's philosophy is simply to get the job done since if that job is not done, then the entire community, even country, suffers.

            Through what Wright terms the "God of Work," comradeship between people of different nations, backgrounds, religions, and philosophies can result if the people band together in a common cause, an important result of the influence of the war (Helen, p. 245).  World War I proved that several countries  can work cooperatively for the good of all concerned.  That cooperation can continue even though the war is over.  With the combination of labor and management, these "loyal patriots . . . will together free the industries of their own country from the two equally menacing terrors--imperialistic capital and imperialistic labor" (Helen, p. 243).  As John see it, the problem is to avoid drawing the wrong lines.  Many people want to divide the classes, but the classes are not all of one belief.  For example, John and his father have very different philosophies about management.  On the extremely conservative management side with Adam is Jim McIver, who believes armed forces should drive striking workers to their jobs at the point of bayonets (Helen, p. 314).  Instead of class divisions, loyal Americans should line up together and oppose corrupt foreign influences, such as Vodell's.

            However, John and the Interpreter see Vodell and McIver as very similar, though they have opposing ideologies.  Both advocate radical theories.  The manager sees his workers as machinery for his benefit and tries to organize the other manufacturing owners in a concentrated effort against the employees.  He crassly lets the workers starve rather than negotiate with their unions.  Vodell also permits starvation of his followers who strike to cripple the industry, and their leader, too, refuses to compromise until the workers' demands are met.  Both men are equally unreasonable, and both demand that innocent women and children suffer for the "Cause."  In fact, several children die or suffer from malnutrition because of the strike (Helen, p. 298).  Vodell and McIver both want power, although Vodell sneakily goes about his work to accomplish his purpose, while McIver, assured of his position, openly voices his sentiments of power.  John offers a logical method of compromise which will benefit both management and labor without making the innocent families suffer.

            The Interpreter acts as spiritual guide to the community, and he actually represents one of Wright's favorite characters--the minister.  He advises his visitors on matters of business, the soul, and the heart.  John is influenced in his management policy by the old man, Adam questions him about life after death, and Helen learns that happiness is not found in "the brightest jewels" but often in the grimy pebbles (Helen, p. 371).

            The Interpreter and his companion, Billy Rand, provide the symbols for the novel, one representing management and the other representing labor.  Together, they are the illustration of mutual dependence:

            Billy is as much my superior physically as I am his superior mentally.  Without my thinking and planning he would be as helpless as I would be without his good bodily strength.  We are each equally dependent upon the other, and from that mutual dependence comes our comradeship in the industry which alone secures for us the necessities of life.  (Helen, pp. 252-53) 

            Wright hopes for a balanced union of labor and management that recognizes a mutual dependence, such as that which John accomplishes in his management of the mill.  In that type of industrial world, there would be no strikes, no bombings, no starvation, and no feelings of inferiority or superiority.  For Wright industry must be infused with the spirit of patriotism and religion.  Patriotism cannot be active only when there is a war; it must be active all the time, especially in work, for the work force makes up the majority of the nation, and for a nation to steer in the right course, its people must be behind it.  Wright's idealistic philosophy is largely influenced by the common effort of the war.  He sees his ideas as a cure for the industrial problems which plagued the nation immediately following that struggle.  However, his idealism could not work in a nation disillusioned by its first world conflict.  The end of World War I brought the first decline of Wright's popularity.

            Wright also believes that religion should be a part of everyday life.  Pete Martin exemplifies the character who is moral on Monday as well as Sunday.  Though Ward defrauds him by stealing his invention, Martin does not seek revenge.  In contrast, Adam Ward see the church in business terms as an "insurance corporation . . . of personal bargain and profit" (Helen, p. 61).  He pays to hear the minister tell him what he wants to hear, and if the minister fails in that duty, then Adam withholds his church dues.  His after-death restitution to Pete Martin is his way of perhaps assuring his entrance into heaven.

Back to Helen of the Old House

    [1]Harold Bell Wright, Helen of the Old House (New York:  Appleton, 1921), p. 3.  Subsequent references to this book will be incorporated into the body of the text as Helen and pagination.

 Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission. 


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