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Published by the Horrmann Library of Wagner College

[Published on this website by permission of Horrmann
Library of Wagner College.  All Rights Reserved]

Staten Island, New York 10301

Volume Four, Number 2, February, 1974

 

Harold Bell Wright and
The Minister of Man:
The Domestic Romancer at 
The End of the Genteel Age

                            Edward Ifkovic

negligible but out-of-the-way villages in Missouri and Nebraska-the stronghold of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americanism-bought his romances in unprecedented numbers. A population not always economically middle class, his readership nevertheless staunchly accepted the middle-class values which had been crystallized during the nineteenth century: God and the home, America and provincialism, articulated morality and hard work. Uncomplicated, written in a pseudo-Biblical style, dealing with homely people in homely homes, Wright's romances gave a largely unlettered public comforting answers to the alarming spectacle of modern America. When a Wright novel was published, "the Christmas gift to Mother [was] pre-determined. "3
  His whole life had been geared towards the ministry. Born in Rome, New York, in 1872, he worked on the family farm and attended school irregularly, finally spending two years at Hiram College. At the beginning of a life-long struggle with tuberculosis, he went to the Ozarks in Missouri to find good health. Here he began preaching in a schoolhouse, and he spent nearly twelve years in the ministry of the Church of the Disciples, preaching in various mid-western cities and towns. As part of the Disciples of Christ, he discarded manmade creeds and accepted Christ as his inspiration. "I was tremendously moved. The very simplicity of the idea was startling. I had never thought of Christianity as apart from denominations. The vision of a united church was thrilling."4 In seeking a redefinition of religion that was outside the influence of solidified sects, Wright was reflecting an interest in Social Gospel. While still a practicing minister, he was deeply moved by Charles Sheldon's In His Steps (1897), and Wright's first story was meant to be read to his congregation on the installment plan. When he published The Shepherd of the Hills in 1907, he immediately found large popular favor, and he decided to devote all his time to writing. From that year until the First World War he rode a crest of popularity hardly rivaled in American popular culture.
   Wright's success in 1907 was the result of the growing demand in America for wholesome domestic portraits. Into his pot he threw the ingredients necessary for success: sentimentality, sermons, love pattern, mystery, a sense of the

 

"Reading, for me," said Harold Bell Wright (1872- 1944), "was only an escape. I did not read to get somewhere; I read to get away from something."1  When Wright began to write his own popular fiction, he drew upon the old sentimental patterns he knew so well in order to help others escape from something-just as he had when he was a youth. His nineteen novels, extending into the 1940's, sold perhaps ten million copies, although his cultural importance climaxed before World War I, in the time of the vogue of domestic romance. Wright was one of the leaders of this kind of romance which peaked in the years before America's entry into World War I. With a series of homely, comforting pictures, such romancers as Gene Stratton- Porter (Girl of the Limberlost, 1909), Kathleen Norris (Mother, 1911), and Eleanor H. Porter (Pollyanna, 1913) told a middle-class white America that its homes were safe-intact in a new America that was torn by shifting religious values, sterile industrial mechanization, vocal labor unionism, anarchism, and non-WASP immigration. Although most domestic romances were written by women, Wright's fiction, while largely located on the open spaces and Western frontiers of the country, nevertheless conformed to the prevailing norm: he told America that the sacrosanct American home would survive.
   According to Asa Don Dickinson, Wright was the third most popular American writer between 1895-1926; and the first in popularity during 1909-1921.2 At the height of his popularity his domestic romances made his name a household word-attacked by those who shuddered over his sickly sentimentality and easy sermonizing, but revered as a great religious writer (the best since Bunyan) by an America that never before had bought fiction. Mail order houses delivered his works to RFD boxes throughout rural and small-town America. Sales in New York City might be

 

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This Harold Bell Wright web site is written and produced by Gerry Chudleigh with the help of many friends.
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Last updated 05/26/11