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New York Times              --              May 24, 1944


Preacher of the Ozarks Earned
Huge Fortune as Author,
Though Scorned by Critics


"Winning of Barbara Worth"
and "Shepherd of the Hills"
His Most Successful Works

--Harold Bell Wright who left the pulpit to become one of America's best known and wealthiest fiction writers, died today in a La Jolla, Calif., hospital.  He was 72 years old.  Mr. Wright became ill two weeks ago and entered the hospital last week.  Death was attributed to bronchial pneumonia.  His wife was at the bedside when he died.
  Only last month he sold his $70,-
000 ranch home, known as Quiet Hills Farm, near Escondido, thirty miles northeast of here, and moved to San Diego.

    Unpopular With Critics
   While critics heaped words of scorn upon Harold Bell Wright as a purveyor of sweetness and light, millions of Americans avidly read every word he wrote.  Several years ago his publisher, Harper & Bros., audited the record of his books' sales and found that an average of 737,443 copies were sold of each of his first twelve novels, a total of nearly 10,000,000 copies.  At that time more than 2,000,000 copies each had been sold of "The Shep-
herd of the Hills" and "The Win-
ning of Barbara Worth."
    These figures were Mr. Wright's answer to the critics, whom he sedulously ignored over the years.  With candor he insisted that he was essentially not a novelist but a preacher, and his proudest boast was that all his books were wholesome and clean, the kind that anybody's sister could read. Appar-
ently, at one time or another nearly everybody's sister did.
    Although no exact figures are available as to the amount of money Mr. Wright made from his writings, it was obviously a large fortune.  Yet he was a most unostentatious man, who spurned the big cities all his life and preferred the open spaces of the West.
    The story of his life was as ro-
mantic and uplifting as that of any of his heroes, and it was as typically American in its adherence to the old-fashioned formula for success as any Horatio Alger might have conceived.
         Tells of Family Life
     He was born May 4, 1872, at Rome, N. Y., the son of William A. and Anna Watson Wright.  His father and mother had married while the former was a young lieutenant right after the Civil War.  Mr. Wright, in his autobiography says his father was a drunkard and a ne'er do well, who dragged his family from one squalid home to another and squandered what little he earned in drink.
    When Mr. Wright was 11 years old his mother died, and there followed a period of wandering with his father and existence in slums of the worst kind.  He worked at hard labor, often at jobs beyond his strength.  Eventually he reached Hiram, Ohio, where he worked in a book store for the privilege of reading as many books as he could.  He also attended the preparatory school of Hiram College, apparently the only formal schooling for any extended length of time.
    As a boy Mr. Wright adored his mother, and in later years always gave her memory credit for his success.  He was determined to do something for her sake.  At first, in Hiram, having read Ruskin, he decided to be an artist.  Acquiring some paints, he went to the Ozarks, near Lebanon, MO., where he hoped to paint landscapes.
   There one day friends urged him to take the pulpit when the local preacher failed to appear.
   "I thought," said the author, "that I could do as well as the minister I had heard a few Sundays before on the text, 'Ye are the salt of the earth but if the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted.?'  So I mounted the rostrum and preached.  They kept me preaching for years."
   One of his reasons for going to Missouri was that in Ohio an attack of pneumonia had temporarily caused him to lose his eyesight and when it was recovered he went on a canoeing trip to regain his health.  He liked the Ozarks and its people.   For ten years he preached to them, without benefit of college degree or theological seminary education.  He then accepted a call to the Forest Avenue Baptist Church in Kansas City.  It was there he began to write.
      Wrote for Congregation
    Mr. Wright's first book, "That Printer of Udell's" was done in installments to read to his congregation.  It was so popular his friends insisted upon its being pub-
lished.  That was in 1903.  From then on writing occupied most of his time.  His books, like the sermons he preached to the Ozark folk, were simply worded and "plain food for plain people."
   In the meantime he had occupied pulpits in Pierce City, Mo., Pittsburg, Kan., and Lebanon, Mo., but in 1908 he moved to California, where he was briefly a minister in Redlands.  When he gave up preaching in 1908 he settled at El Centro in the Imperial Valley.  There he wrote "The Calling of Dan Matthews" (1909), "The Uncrowned King" (1910), and his perennially popular "The Winning of Barbara Worth" (1911).
   His books at first were published in Chicago, and his publisher there tried to get him to live in that city.
   "I told him I wouldn't think of it," Wright said.  "I preferred the des-
ert; the city overwhelmed me.  I went to Chicago once and I hadn't been there an hour when I wanted to know when the next train left for the West."
   His New York publisher later brought him to New York upon rare occasions.  Reporters liked him, found him a refreshingly simple man, who steadfastly refused to talk about his fellow-writers or answer his critics, or even to defend himself as a writer.
   Always he said his novels were thinly veiled sermons, and said they were written because in most churches "the religion of Christ is so far forgotten that it rarely en-

The New York Times, 1934

ters into the life of the communi-
   Others of his successful novels were "God and the Groceryman," "The Recreation of Brian Kent," "The Mine With the Iron Door," "Helen of the Old House," and "The Eyes of the World."
   In 1916 his constant fight with ill health, which had dogged him since childhood, sent him to Arizona to live.  There he rode with the cow- boys in their roundups and wild- horse chases, until he broke a leg in an accident.  He went to a Tucson hospital.  His leg healed but he developed tuberculosis.
        Autobiography in 1934
   Despite his bad health he managed to complete a novel he had agreed to finish--"When a Man's a  Man"--writing 135,000 words between February and May in order to meet a publishing deadline.  He left the hospital to go to a ranch during the time to get technical details he needed.
   In 1934 appeared "To My Sons," an autobiography in the form of letters to his sons.  In it he made his strongest self defense.
   "You, my sons," he wrote, "know that I do not think very highly of myself as a writer.  Therefore you will not charge me with anything like false modesty when I say that it is quite impossible for me to consider my work in terms of literature.  I count myself but a sorry bungler.  The best I have been able to do is develop a little of my own faltering technique.
   "I have never in my work looked toward a place in literature.  But I have hoped for some small part in the life of the people for whom I have written.  I have not coveted those honors that are bestowed upon the literary great.  I have de-
sired to rank only with my own people--the people of whom I am one and to whom I belong as wholly today as I did in those years when I labored with the tools of a stone quarry instead of a pen.
   "I am not concerned as to whether or not my books will live after I am gone.  If any book of mine shall live it is because it meets some vital need in human life.
   "If I have succeeded in touching the lives of those for whom I have written, in any degree, as my moth-
er touched my life, I ask for no bet-
ter immortality."  After a silence of eight years his last book, a novel, "The Man Who Went Away," was published in 1942.
   Mr. Wright married Miss Frances E. Long of Buffalo, N. Y., in 1899.  She was the mother of his three sons, Gilbert M., Paul W., and Nor-
man H. Wright.  In 1920 the Wrights were divorced in San Die-
go.  A short time later he married Mrs. Winifred Mary Potter Duncan of Los Angeles.

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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