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Volume Four, Number 2, February, 1974

outdoors, a love of country. But the most important feature was his religious orientation. The middle-class-oriented Americans he consciously wrote for were experiencing confusion over the role of religion in their lives. From the vantage point of small-town America, his readers looked on the crumbling foundations of what they had assumed was indestructible. Not only did Social Gospel question the quiescent stance of the church before the fact of urban plight, but the church was approached from other alarming perspectives. Iconoclasts like Upton Sinclair insinuated that churches were simply partners in the crimes committed by big business. In 1908-1909 in the American Magazine, Ray Stannard Baker's series on "The Spiritual Unrest" attracted large attention with its factual chronology of the decline of religious security. Somehow, the middle class believed, the state of the church was tied in with the rise of the proletariat, the immigration, the depression. Wright provided the ideal escapist vision: the domestic romance which showed the victory of the American home (true Christianity) over false values. His message was carried to the isolated farms across America. As a sympathetic reviewer noted, his purpose was "to say plainly some word that he believes will be of help, if uttered, to men and women."5  His were simple homilies, uncomplicated tales that inspired the poor boy, the motherless child, the man out of work, the woman over her stove.
     Wright excelled at one of the familiar characters of domestic fiction: the minister of God. The minister is often a regular appendage of the domestic novel, for he is a part of the home complex-the spiritual guide. His presence in a community implies domesticity, its level of settlement. To lack a minister is to suggest wilderness or anarchy; to include him is to suggest the stability of the home. Wright converted this appendage into a leading character. Like the wise old man (Edward Westcott's David Harum, 1898), or the orphaned boy John Fox's The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, 1903), the minister could hold center stage in the domestic romance which was long recognized as the province of women. But these three supplemented the dominance of woman in her home-all three are tangents which point to the woman as the mistress of her God-given role. Old men are sage philosophers of the settled life, young boys need mothers, and preachers are spiritual guides. The average husband is rarely the hero of domestic romance; he is in the background if he is there at all. Often he is dead or "missing." None of the three are threats to the home and its control by woman. In real-life America, middle-class women might find themselves dominated by husbands whose word was law, who treated their wives as household utensils-men who really controlled the family. If they failed at work, deserted the family, or died, the family would undergo a tremendous alteration. So in the domestic fiction women had the kind of power which they believed (and the society ostensibly gave them) they should have: control of the family. In the fiction they controlled destinies-a necessary wish-fulfillment. Consequently, they would tolerate no husband-figure to rule their domestic tales. Husbands worked in towns or cities; but the wife was at home. The male-female territories were clearly defined-there was no confusion of roles.
   In The Shepherd of the Hills (1907) Wright develops the character of a minister who rejects the organized religion of the city for the simple "ministry" of simply loving Christ. Wright's ministers reject the clerical collar at some point in his stories, exchanging it for the more humble (and, says Wright, sincere) role as simple child of God, returning to the basic, essential way of living in which every good man is minister to his neighbor. Such a creed allowed Wright to assail and applaud other cherished beliefs: the town over the city, the hypocrisy of some men, the glorious deeds and goodness of the average country man, the danger of the new machine age. Through the workings of his plots, Wright could twist his fears and nightmare vision-like that of machinery-into a harmless picture. The rural Americans, hidden in the village, feared the encroaching machine age (the cars, the trains, the electricity) less because Wright showed them how the machine age could be accommodated to the old-fashioned domestic virtues.
   Into the Ozark mountains ("many miles from what we of the city call civilization"6) comes Daniel Howitt, former minister of a large church in Chicago. Disillusioned and broken by his city ministry, shattered by an artificial and shallow environment, Howitt comes to the country to find his soul again. The people of the hills realize that he is a special man. "It was a face marked deeply by pride; pride of birth, of intellect, of culture: the face of a scholar and poet" (20). So begins his spiritual journey in search of himself. The city has betrayed him, but the country will restore him to the grace of God:
   "I came away from it all because they said I must, and because I was hungry for this." He waved his hand toward the glowing sky and the forest clad hills. "This is good for me; it somehow seems to help me know how big God is. One could find peace here-surely, sir, one could find it here-peace and strength" (35).
The city is a Godless environment: "Our lives have so little of God in them," for "we come in touch with so little that God has made" (36). But the city is not a home-can never be a home-and so when Howitt rejects it, he is homeless. Wright evolves the most basic plot of the domestic romance: the search for home.
     If Howitt is transformed by the purity of the hills-salvation in God's countryside-he, in turn, is a spiritual father to those who know him (wise old man as minister). He is the beloved shepherd and teacher who effects the union of Young Matt (ideal man) with the heroine, Sammy Lane (ideal woman). Howitt transforms Sammy, a diamond-in-the-rough girl, smoothing out the sharp edges until the girl-the motherless girl whose father is involved with criminals-emerges into full womanhood, ready now for the responsibility of the home. Wright depicts her as the untainted child of nature, pure and beautiful. Both she and Young Matt have been untouched by civilization-hence their natural goodness. Man in the country is innately good; only the layers of man made culture (the influence of the city) corrupt him. They are so pure that both of them have never seen a railroad, Wright's symbol of advancing

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This Harold Bell Wright web site is written and produced by Gerry Chudleigh with the help of many friends.
Copyright 2000-May, 2011 by Gerry Chudleigh
Last updated 05/26/11