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