54-40 or Fight has lost its power to excite

You can not tell how large a trouble may be started by a small politician.

Emerson Hough’s 54-40 or Fight takes a great story and renders it dull as dishwater.

The story is told by Nicholas Trist, confidential aide to John C. Calhoun. It opens as Calhoun becomes Secretary of State in President Tyler’s cabinet.


54-40 or Fight by Emerson Hough

Arthur I. Keller, illus.  A. L. Burt Co. 1909 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #14355. My grade: C+.


Calhoun believes it is in America’s interests to annex Texas, which has declared its independence of Mexico. Calhoun would also like to get the entire Oregon Territory for the US, including land above the 49th parallel—if it can be done without fighting Britain.

Britain would like to get access to Texas’s cotton and silver if it can do so. And Britain wants to hold on to Oregon for its valuable fur trade.

Mexico wants to hang on to Texas.

Texas President Sam Houston would like to make Texas a nation to rival the US.

And Americans on each side of the Mason-Dixon line fear what could happen if a slave-holding Texas becomes a state.

The historical facts need no glamorous double-agent to make them exciting.

They do, however, need better context to be intelligible to today’s reader.

The real life Nicholas Trist studied law under Thomas Jefferson and married Jefferson’s granddaughter.

In defiance of orders from the President, Trist negotiated the treaty which ended the Mexican-American War and added Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of three other states to the U.S.

Trist reflects:

Now our flag floats on the Columbia and on the Rio Grande. I am older now, but when I think of that scene, I wish that flag might float yet freer; and though the price were war itself, that it might float over a cleaner and a nobler people, over cleaner and nobler rulers, more sensible of the splendor of that heritage of principle which should be ours.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Calling of Dan Matthews exposes church politics

Harold Bell Wright’s The Calling of Dan Matthews is so unusual a religious novel, it deserves to be called unique.  Although it didn’t make the bestseller list when it was published in 1909, I’m reviewing it here as one of the notable novels of the 20th century.

The Calling of Dan Matthews rontpiece illustration and title page

While fishing, an Ozark Mountain doctor meets a boy who impresses him with his mind and personality. Dr. Oldham hopes the boy will become a doctor, too. Instead Dan Matthews chooses to go into the ministry.

Dan’s first pastorate is in Corinth where the now-retired doctor is on hand if needed. Dan’s good looks and ignorance of human nature land him in hot water almost immediately.

Although his congregation finds no fault with his sermons, (except that they aren’t what they are used to) Brother Matthews offends them by his undignified behavior: he does manual labor on a farm to win the respect of farmers and get them to church, and helps a crippled Catholic lad with the garden that he and his mother depend on for their livelihood.

Dan’s growing affection for a young nurse who thinks the church is an un-Christian organization is the final straw for the Corinth church people.

Dan is not merely a good Christian with a heart for people. There are plenty of religious novels with that sort of central character. What makes Dan such an unusual lead character is his naiveté.

Nothing in his backwoods upbringing or his theological training prepared Dan for church politics. At the denomination’s annual convention, as his enemies convey the unmistakable message that no God-fearing congregation would want him, Dan knows he’s done for, but scarcely knows how it happened.

Wright’s own experiences provide details that outsiders couldn’t invent. Because of  what his congregation regarded as anti-church sentiment in the novel, Wright was forced out of the ministry.

The novel suffers from the usual flaws of religious-romance novels: both the religion and the romance are too sentimental. A more serious problem, however, is that Dan—and perhaps Wright himself—seem to label folks as hypocrites when they are merely stupid. The outcomes may be the same, but their causation is not. I suspect the God who looketh on the heart would know the difference, even if the novel’s author doesn’t.

In 1935, The Calling of Dan Matthews was made into a black and white film that turned  the church leaders into villains so evil that the Borgias look saintly by comparison. Sadly, film is remembered as a story of what really goes on in churches.

Wright’s nuanced novel is merely footnoted  as the first American novel to sell over a million copies—and it achieved that prominence without making the bestseller list the year it was published. Wright is said to be the first novelist to become a millionaire.

The Calling of Dan Matthews
by Harold Bell Wright
Illustrated by Arthur I. Keller
The Book Supply Company, 1909
364 pages
Not on the 1909 bestseller list
Project Gutenberg Ebook #9314