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E Clampus Vitus



Dr. Joyce Kinkead on That Printer of Udell's
Copyright Joyce Kinkead, 1979.  Used by Permission.  

<<<< continued from previous page.            

          The story begins when Dick Falkner's mother dies due to the abuse of his drunken father.  Not unlike the story of Wright's own life, the novel picks up the plot sixteen years later as the boy, who has roamed the world as a loner and has now grown up, enters Boyd City, a town in the Midwest (actually Pittsburg, Kansas, where Wright served as minister).  A proficient printer but out of work due to a strike in Kansas City where he formerly was employed, Falkner seeks employment only to be turned away as a bum.  In one of these frustrating interviews, Falkner receives the same treatment that Wright did at one time during his youth when he was also unemployed.  In the fictionalized account, Falkner is told by Adam Goodrich, a leading citizen, that he would eventually be working in the stone yard as a convict.

            Unable to find work, Falkner turns to a church where he feels he may find employment from one of the members attending the service.  Sure that "Christians won't let me starve,"[1] the weak and hungry man is amazed to find little sympathy and no substantial work or food.  He finally secures work with the printer Udell, the town "infidel," who refuses to become a church member.  While working there, Falkner becomes a respected and popular citizen of the community, due mainly to the help of a "true Christian," Uncle Bobbie Wicks.  Falkner and Adam Goodrich's daughter, Amy, have a mutual affection for each other, but she is forbidden to associate with Falkner because he does not belong to a higher social class.

            Amy is a member of the Young People's Society, an active church organization, which tries to help the community instead of ignoring the town's problems as do a majority of the adult citizens.  Falkner attends the group's meeting and is eventually made manager of the church's new reading room, provided as the only decent place for young men to go in the evening.  The sole forms of recreation available up to that time were saloons, gambling houses, and brothels.  Falkner gains more favor from the community by suggesting a practical method of practicing Christianity.  He offers a plan for a self-supporting, halfway house which would provide security for those people temporarily destitute but willing to work.  Shiftless vagrants would not be allowed to use the house but would be turned over to the police.  His plan works and eventually becomes a part of the Salvation Army.

            Meanwhile, the Goodrich family, outwardly perfect, has several flaws within.  The son, Frank, gambles away his money and money stolen from his father's safe, but he is rescued by Jim Whitley, who offers him the money for restitution on the condition that he marry Amy.  On the other hand, Amy is forced by her parents to withdraw from her church work and to concentrate on maintaining her social position.  To do so she dates Whitley who, when drunk, tries to attack her.  Saved by Falkner, she is strongly criticized by her father for seeing the printer and is not given the opportunity to explain that Falkner was her rescuer.  On that note she leaves town but is followed by Whitley, who tries to seduce her.  Resisting his advances, she finds herself alone and destitute in Cleveland, where "Madam" takes her in and prepares her for a life of prostitution.  Rescued once again by Falkner, who believes she is no longer innocent, she matures on a farm where she works for a couple who have also been saved by the Salvation Army.

            At last Amy returns to Boyd City, confronts her parents with the fact that she does not intend to be a social butterfly, and marries Falkner, who has become a church member as has the town "infidel," George Udell.  The two antagonists, Frank and Whitley, have died.  Frank dies of smallpox after he is exposed for seducing, impregnating, and causing the death of a girl.  Whitley has a dark, murderous past to hide and retreats to Arkansas to safety, only to be murdered by a former drinking friend of Falkner's father who recognizes the refugee as a threat to his old friend's son.

            In the space of five years' time since the hobo printer first entered Boyd City, it is transformed from a "tough city" into a good place of business where "the influence of evil" has been removed.  Falkner's influence will apparently widen, for in the last pages of the novel, he is elected as a representative to Congress.

            That Printer of Udell's is still an interesting novel to read as it accurately reflects the social gospel era of the early 1900's.  Wright presents a picture of the church which has become so involved in its own trappings and scholarship that it has forgotten the reason for its existence.  Though the novel is lengthy, it reads quickly due to Wright's skillful use of plot.  Receiving favorable reviews during a time when the state of the church was questioned by millions, That Printer of Udell's plot "bore no small resemblance to that of In His Steps but it was better in nearly every respect."[2]  The New York Times reviewer saw the novel as a story of "Virtue Rewarded:"

            The story is replete with familiar platitudes, and some of the situations are improbable and some of the characters unnatural, but it is well-written and decidedly interesting.  It ends by Dick Falkner marrying the cast-off daughter of the hard-hearted hardware dealer, mush against the will of Mr. Goodrich, who hates "that printer of Udell's," and after Goodrich's own son, one of the heavy villains of the novel, has met with a horrible death.[3] 

            The worst platitude in the novel occurs during Falkner's first day in Boyd City.  Hungry, he is taken by a friendly man to a saloon where for the price of one beer, a man can eat at the free buffet.  However, Falkner is unable to accept the liquor and continues to go hungry.  A similar incident occurred in Wright's autobiography, but in that story Wright gladly accepted the beer.  In fact, Wright makes no secret of the fact that he is not a temperance man.  Apparently he cannot allow his fictional characters to have such weaknesses, probably because of his desire to adhere to the Protestant conventions, one of his major weaknesses as an author.  His characters are often ideals rather than rounded individuals.

            During a particularly cold winter in Boyd City, a young man's death by exposure in front of a locked church demonstrates the hypocrisy of the church but also leads to an improbable situation.  That young Englishman had been the victim of a drunken American tourist several years earlier when the tourist had run over the man's younger brother and then had knifed the elderly grandfather who tried to save the boy.  Seeking revenge for the two deaths, the brother trailed the American to Boyd City where he died before confronting Whitley as the murderer.  Fortunately, but unrealistically, Falkner was a witness to the murders at the time of their occurrence, so Whitley does not to unpunished.

            With the exception of these two incidents, Wright's first novel is often realistic in depicting his chosen theme--the hypocrisy of the church.  Boyd City has a dozen churches, each interested in out-doing the others with music, decoration, attendance, and socials.  The ministerial association is comprised of several different types; one is a scholar who has no time for worldly matters; one believes that the church should follow a strict interpretation of the Bible, and a few are truly interested in the welfare of the people  One preacher, the Reverend Jeremiah Wilks, typifies the majority of the ministers when he relates his story of trying to get a donation from a citizen to the rest of the ministers:

            There's Mr. Richman. . . he's not a member of any church you know.  I only called him brother to make him feel good you know.  He said:  "Good morning, reverend;" kind of short; and then deliberately turned his back on me and went on talking with his friend.  I didn't like to leave him like that, you know, for he's got a lot of money, I'm told.  And you know we preachers never would get anything if we always quit like that; so I said, "Brother Richman, I don't like to interrupt you, but can't you give me a little something this morning?  I'm behind on our new organ, and on our benevolences and yet." (Printer, p. 208) 

          Mr. Richman, who does not see any benefit from giving money to Wilkes, has already donated unsolicited one hundred dollars to the rescue home which would do, in his words, "some actual good among the poor people in the city" (Printer, p. 209).

            The hypocrisy of the church in its concern over material wealth is also evidenced in a church member who inspect "the diamonds in the ears of the lady by her side" during the sermon in the church with beautiful frescoed ceilings, costly stained-glass windows, soft carpets, and carved furniture (Printer, p. 79).  In fact, one of the prominent church members, Adam Goodrich, frequents his place of business "where on the shelves and behind the counter of his hardware store he kept the God he really worshipped" (Printer, p. 179).  His son, Frank, follows his lead and hides his true personality.  "Like many other, he was a bad as he dared to be; and while using the church as a cloak to hid his real nature, was satisfied if he could keep the appearance of respectability" (Printer, p. 234).

            In the opinion of some of the wealthy church members, membership should be restricted to those people who have the wealth.  Associating with the lower classes, even on church business, is degrading, as Goodrich explains to his daughter:

            You must learn, . . . that the church is a place for you to listen to a sermon, and that it's the preacher's business to look after all these other details; that's what we hire him for.  Let him get people from the lower classes to do his dirty work; he sha'n't have my daughter.  Christianity is all right, and I trust I'm as good a Christian as anyone; but a man need not make a fool of himself to get to heaven, and I'm only looking out for my family's interest. . . . I wish you would follow Frank's example.  He is a good church member but he don't let it interfere with his best interests.  He has plenty of friends and chooses his associates among the first families in the city. (Printer, p. 178) 

            Wright is extremely critical of people who are church members only for appearance's sake, but he offers several suggestions on what the church should be like if it is to follow in the teachings of Christ.  The Reverend James Cameron of the Jerusalem Church is the leader in the movement for practical Christianity.  He preaches on "The Church of the Future" (Printer, p. 44) which would concern itself with the problems of life rather than paying lip service to Christ and arguing over denominational superiority.  Cameron hopes for a "wilderness" preacher similar to John the Baptist (Falkner seems a possible candidate) to rid Boyd City of its problems:  "egotism, bigotry, selfishness, man-made doctrines and creeds in the pulpit; saloons and brothels on the street; church doors closed over mawkish sentimentality, and men and women dying without shelter and without God" (Printer, p. 212).

            Instead of depending on the Ladies' Aid to run the church on a "lemonade and ice cream basis" (Printer, p. 83), the church should pay its own way just as the poverty stricken should do by working when they are taken in by the rescue home.  Too many church members have settled into listless, comfortable lives, paying their dues and feeling holy and self-satisfied.  Christianity is not to be merely attendance at church on a weekly basis but a course for the Christian' life in which he does good deeds for his fellow man.  Wright's basic argument is for a united church which simply follows the life of Christ in its thought and actions.  Knowing such a union was impossible because of the nature of people, he preached for the next best thing, individuals following Christ's example.

            Wright presents three types of characters in That Printer of Udell's:  the Christian hypocrite, a church member; the Christian church member; and the non-church member who believes that church members are for the most part hypocrites.  Adam Goodrich typifies the first category while his daughter is the second type.  The Christian non-church members are represented by George Udell and Dick Falkner, who are eventually converted to the church through the sincerity of the minister who insists that a church can not divorce itself from social issues.  The hypocritical church members are never "converted" to Christianity.  At times in the novel Adam Goodrich appears to be softening but then reverts to a man of hard feelings.  The characters to be truly admired are not the ones like Amy Goodrich, who blindly follows the church, but characters such as Falkner and Udell who actually question the church and its worth before considering joining.  Each man goes through a tremendous struggle within himself as he finally decides to affiliate himself with the church.  To Wright church membership is imperative since the church can and should be an active force in social questions, which are the responsibility of all men.

    [1]Harold Bell Wright, That Printer of Udell's (New York:  A. L. Burt, 1911), p. 29.  Subsequent references to the book will be incorporated into the body of the text as Printer and pagination.

    [2]Mott, p. 228.

    [3]Rev. of That Printer of Udell's, by Harold Bell Wright, New York Times book Review, 16 May 1903, p. 333.

Copyright Joyce Kinkead, 1979.  Used by Permission.  


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