Fortunately, ex-preacher Harold Bell Wright soon climbs down from his pulpit, the better to tell what his characters are up to.
Early in the 1900s, a stranger walks onto the Cross-Triangle Ranch near Prescott, Arizona, seeking work. The greenhorn, who gives “Honorable Patches” as a name, has no work experience, but he’s strong and willing to try anything.
Phil Acton, the ranch’s second in command, undertakes Patches’ training.
It doesn’t take Patches long to learn to ride, rope, shoot, and become a part of the ranch family.
In return, Patches puts in a plug for Phil with Kitty Reid, who misses in Phil the culture she recalls from her three years of school in Cleveland.
Wright puts in the standard elements of Westerns—rustlers, wranglers, wild horses—and a few Eastern elements: a desiccated professor of aesthetics, a cowpoke with a reading habit, and an outlaw below average in the IQ department.
Wright achieves a plausible, unexpected ending that makes up for much of the hackneyed in the plot.
And along the way he tucks in enough information about ranch operations to allow readers who dislike westerns or fiction to feel their time’s not been wasted.
Some of the bestselling authors of the first half of the 20th century had wider name recognition among Americans than many of today’s celebrities.
That may seem odd, but the total population was smaller then, and there were fewer media outlets competing for attention.
Having books in a home was a indication of social status or at least social aspirations.
Besides that, books were not ephemeral products; for the most part, they were printed on high quality paper that lasted.
Can you identify the novelists in these descriptions?
Below are descriptions of five novelists who were names were household words in their heyday. See how many you can identify. (Answers below the photos.)
1. He had the same novel on the bestseller list four times in a span of 11 years.
2. This ex-preacher is said to be the first man to have a novel sell a million copies and the first novelist to become a millionaire.
3. Critical acclaim and sales don’t always go together, but this novelist took first-place honors on the bestseller list before her novel netted a Pulitzer and was instrumental in her the Nobel Prize for literature.
4. This outdoorsman and conservationist was a prolific novelist who wrote nonfiction and children’s literature, too. Today, however, he’s primarily remembered for his writing about the occult.
5. Despite his famous English name, prolific novelistic output, and regular appearance on the bestseller list between 1900 and 1915, this American novelist is virtually forgotten today.
The names of the bestselling novelists
1. Lloyd C. Douglas made the bestseller list with his biblical epic The Robe in 1942, 1943, 1944, and again in 1953 when the film version of the novel was released.
2. Harold Bell Wright is the ex-preacher who made money and historical footnotes in the publishing business. Wright published his first novel at the insistence of his congregation. When he published his second, they kicked him out. From then on, writing became his full-time occupation.
3. Pearl S. Buck won popular and critical acclaim for The Good Earth before making a name for herself as a civil rights and women’s rights activist.
4. Late in life, The Silent Places author Stewart Edward White became interested in psychic phenomena. White wrote The Unobstructed Universe (1940), which he based on communications from his late wife.
In The Eyes of the World, Harold Bell Wright delivers a fire and brimstone denunciation of American culture on the eve of World War I.
Aaron King, a young painter whose dying mother sacrificed to finance his education and repay money his father embezzled, promises to be a success for her sake.
In hopes of lucrative commissions, Aaron goes West to a playground of American’s cultural elite. There he meets Conrad Lagrange. From her letters, Aaron knows his mother once had high respect for Lagrange’s writing.
At the time Aaron meets him, Lagrange has no respect for himself: He writes for money.
The plot and characters of Eyes will be familiar to every novel reader. With Lagrange’s help, Aaron learns what true artistic success is. He meets good folk free untainted by city life. And, of course, he finds true love, as reward for his virtue.
Wright’s use of setting as a metaphor for morality will ring a bell with anyone who has read Zane Grey or Gene Stratton-Porter.
The only element that makes Eyes interesting is Wright’s harangue against artists who measure success in dollar bills.
That one who, for a price, presents a picture or a story without regard for the influence of his production upon the characters of those who receive it, commits a crime for which human law provides no adequate punishment.
Wright is so passionate in his denunciation that readers may wonder if perhaps Wright, the ex-clergyman, were preaching to himself.
The Eyes of the World
By Harold Bell Wright
Illustrations from oil paintings by F. Graham Cootes Project Gutenberg EBook #11715
1914 bestseller #1
My grade: C+
“Love ain’t no big deposit that a feller is allus hopin’ to find but mostly never does. Love is just a medium high-grade ore that you got to dig for.”
Harold Bell Wright’s The Mine with the Iron Door is an easy-reading western with a faint whiff of ideas clinging to it.
The story ‘s center is Marta Hillgrove and her “fathers,” Bob Hill and Thad Grove. She was a toddler when the prospectors rescued her from people who were clearly not her family. Unable to locate her real family, the men settled in the hills near Tuscon to raise her.
Seventeen years later, a handsome young stranger arrives. Hugh quickly wins Marta’s heart and buckles down to digging for gold enough to marry Marta and get out of the country before he is recaptured and sent back to jail.
A secondary plot about Natachee, an educated Indian with a grudge against whites, temporarily overshadows the romance. Then Marta is abducted; Natachee joins Hugh in getting her back.
The orphaned toddler is a familiar romance plot; Wright himself used it elsewhere.
Marta and Hugh are also standard issue. You’ll have forgotten about them a few hours after you’ve closed the book covers.
The memorable bits of the book are in the minor characters. Natachee in particular is unforgettable in his resentment of the education that renders Indians unfit for either the Indian or the white world.
The Mine with the Iron Door
by Harold Bell Wright
D.Appleton and Company, 1923
1923 bestseller # 7
Photo front piece of The Mine with the Iron Door. The illustrator is not identified.
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.
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
Not on the 1909 bestseller list
Project Gutenberg Ebook #9314
It is easier to name the novels from the 1912 bestseller list that are not my favorites than to pick the ones I like best. Here in no particular order are my favorites.
Their Yesterdays by Harold Bell Wright is either nostalgic or sentimental depending on how charitable you are feeling when you read it. I’ll admit it tugged at my tear ducts.
On a more cerebral level, however, Their Yesterdays is rather amazing technically. Wright breaks all the accepted novelistic rules and yet makes the novel feel right.
The Melting of Molly by Maria Thompson Daviess has to be on my favorites list because it made me laugh again and again. Molly is so droll, you just know you’d love having her live next door.
The Net by Rex Beach and Tante by Anne Douglas Sedgwick look at the dark side of human nature. Beach based his guns-and-gore novel on the true adventures of a New Orleans sheriff who took on the mafia. Beach’s fictional characters are not entirely believable, but the story overall was one I couldn’t put down long enough to eat dinner.
Guns are too physical for Tante, the aging pianist in the title role of Sedgwick’s novel. Tante’s weapon of choice is a sharper, less traceable instrument. Reading about how Tante schemes is like watching a snake eyeing its prey in one of those up-close-to-reptiles PBS nature shows. Sedgwick shows in shuddering detail how one twisted woman can ruin lives with a few ill-chosen words.
Remember, you can read any of these bestsellers free. They are all available from Project Gutenberg.org. My reviews give a link direct to the download page.
This slot should be occupied by a review of the #2 bestseller for 1912, The Winning of Barbara Worth. However, since Harold Bell Wright’s smashing novel about how engineers won the West was on the bestseller list two years running. I wrote a review of the novel on the 100th anniversary of its appearance.
In place of a review of a vintage bestseller, I’ll be posting a review of a vintage novel that’s attained almost the status of a classic: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Kim is the novel most often associated with Kipling’s name It was named one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century by The Modern Library in 1998.
Kipling originally brought the novel out in seriel form in two magazines. Perhaps that explains why Kim didn’t set bestseller records in book form.
Thirteen Truly Great Things of Life there are. No life can have less. No life can have more. All of life is in them. No life is without them all: Dreams, Occupation, Knowledge, Ignorance, Religion, Tradition, Temptation, Life, Death, Failure, Success, Love, Memories.
In Their Yesterdays, Harold Bell Wright does all the wrong things and turns out an exactly right novel, brimming with tears of joyous nostalgia.
A little boy and little girl grow up separated only by a hedge in a rural community. After she moves away, they lose touch, but each remains a central figure in the other’s memories. Grown to adulthood, they face the normal challenges of life strengthened by the values they learned as children.
Eventually the grown up boy and girl meet again, marry, and raise a family.
Wright has a knack for fastening emotion in a phrase like a bee in amber. He tells of the lad “stretched on a cross of nothing to do.” He says, “One need not die to orphan a child,” and “Life itself is nothing less than this: a continual trying again.”
Wright doesn’t give his characters names. He doesn’t tell where they lived, what they did for a living, or relate any but the vaguest suggestions of the piviotal experiences of their lives. He outlines the entire tale in the proem, quoted above, and organizes each chapter in exactly the same manner. The book should be a disaster. Yet somehow Wright makes the characters so vivid they sing on the page.
And this was the true glory and the fulfillment of their lives…that they could see themselves renewed in their children and in their children’s children.
Helen Ward is young, unmarried, and at loose ends. The end of World War I left her with no meaningful occupation because, as the daughter of a millhand who became rich from his patent on a process that revolutionized the mill operation, she can’t work for money.
Helen’s brother, John, runs the mill with too much respect for workers to suit his deranged father or Helen. She’s both pleased and miffed by her childhood sweetheart, John’s best friend, “knows his place” and makes no social overatures.
Adam Ward hopes his daughter will marry Jim McIver, another mill owner, and show John how workers ought to be treated.
As readers of romances know, Harold Bell Wright won’t let that marriage happen.
However, this set-up for romantic froth about whether Helen will find happiness is overshadowed by more exciting questions:
Can communist Jake Vodell incite a strike at the mill?
If the mill workers stage a sympathy strike, will Adam Ward blow up his mill as he’s threatened?
Why does Adam have such contempt for his one-time friend Pete Martin?
The central character of Helen of the Old House turns out to be The Interpreter, a larger-than-life character who lost the use of his legs in a mill accident and now supports himself by making baskets.
The Interpreter’s dispassionate advice is as much sought now as his translation skills had been when he worked in the mill. Although confined to a wheel chair, The Interpreter doesn’t miss much that goes on. Sooner or later, all the characters end up at the Interpreter’s hut.
Wright lades the novel with inspirational speeches about the dignity of work and the brotherhood of men that sound like the script for a Pathe news reel. The story is saved from death by sugar overdose by a couple disreputable characters of such nastiness they’ll leave you gasping for breath.
My favorite of the 1911 bestsellers is Queed by Henry Syndor Harrison. I don’t know any novel with such an emotionally inept leading man that manages to be so endearing. Harrison makes Queed believable by not letting him totally overcome his emotional tone-deafness.
The Broad Highway by Jeffery Farnol is a sunny, romatic tale with a lightweight hero and lightweight plot. It’s a charming diversion for an summer afternoon in a hammock or a winter evening with tea and scones by the fire.
The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright is not particularly interesting as a romance, but it’s fascinating in its description of geology of the West. The clash between local Imperial Valley interests and eastern financial interests is an “Occupy Wall Street” event, circa 1911.
I’m tempted to add The Prodigal Judge by Vaughan Kester to my list. It isn’t a particularly good novel, but Kester makes an absurd a plot and ridiculous characters come together in a tale that shows the best in people you wouldn’t have thought had a best side.
Don’t forget you can express your opinions in the reader poll.