Harold Bell Wright

Harold Bell Wright, author of eighteen major works published between 1903 and 1942, lived in the Imperial Valley area of Southern California's desert  region from 1907 until 1915. Most of Wright's eighteen novels were written while he lived in Arizona from 1915 until he moved back to California in  the late 1930's where he lived until his death in May 1944. While again living permanently in California, Wright wrote his last novel: The Man Who Went Away (1942). Even though the Tucson, Arizona area "claims" him, three of his most popular and influential novels were written and published while he was a resident of California's Imperial Valley. Seven of Wright's novels were made into full-length feature films. His two most popular novels were also two popular films: The Shepherd of the Hills and The Winning of Barbara Worth. Harold Bell Wright influenced America's reading public, and it is estimated that some of his works were read by one in every ten persons; yet, no intensive and widely published biography or analysis of his works is available. Critics scorned both Wright and his works because he had no formal education, and many reviewers considered his works to be simplistic. He was adored by his reading public, however, as evidenced by the fact that millions of copies of his books were sold during his lifetime; he was the first American author to earn more than one million dollars from his writings alone.

Harold Bell Wright became one of America's most popular novelists by accident. When Harold was ten years old, his mother died, and his father virtually deserted him. Harold was forced to live with various families and in many unpleasant situations. Having no formal education, he took advantage of every opportunity to read, and he became self-educated. He supported himself, whenever health permitted, by primarily doing manual labor. He occasionally painted landscapes, and he became known as a very talented artist.

Prior to becoming a novelist, Wright was a full-time minister. His ministerial career, like his writing career, began by accident. In the late 1890's, while in the Ozarks recuperating from one of his many bouts with respiratory problems, Wright decided to attend an evangelistic meeting, and he volunteered to preach when the scheduled preacher did not appear. He was "successful" with his first attempt in the pulpit, and was asked to preach at future meetings. Wright's sermons at such meetings were well-received, and he felt he would have much to offer as a minister. It was then that he decided to pursue the ministry. Soon after, he accepted a position as minister at a church in Pierce City, Missouri, at an annual salary of $400 per year. After spending approximately a year in Pierce City, Wright resigned his pastorate and accepted a position in Pittsburgh, Kansas. It was during the second year of his pastorate at Pittsburgh that he married Francis E. Long, a woman he had met when they were schoolmates at Hiram Prepatory School. Pittsburgh, Kansas was a small rough mining town that did not appear to have high moral standards, and Wright wanted to "preach" about that. It was during his tenure in Pittsburgh that Reverend Wright began spending his evenings writing a series of mini-sermons, linked together with numerous themes, and written in a story-like fashion. He never intended to publish these essays; instead, he had hoped to read them to his congregation in installments during the successive weeks. However, he was encouraged to submit these vignettes to Christian Century, and the magazine published these essays as a serial in 1902 under the title That Printer of Udell's. That same year Wright attended a conference in Chicago, where he met ElsberyReynolds, owner of The Book Supply Company. Reynolds persuaded Wright to let him publish That Printer of Udell's, and the work was
soon published and printed nationally.

After the publication of That Printer of Udell's, Wright accepted a call to a church in Kansas City, Missouri. His health began to fail, and after a year there, he discovered that he did not have the physical stamina to assume a pastorate in a large church, so he resigned and again went to the Ozarks to recuperate. He then attempted to write a novel. During this time Wright lived in a tent on a hilltop in the Ozarks, where he made notes and outlined The Shepherd of the Hills, which he later completed in Lebanon, Missouri. Elsbery Reynolds believed that Wright would be a popular writer; after the publication of Shepherd of the Hills, Wright was under contract to write a book for the The Book Supply Company approximately every two years. When The Shepherd of the Hills was released by The Book Supply Company, Reverend Wright, his wife Francis, and their two sons Gilbert and Paul had already moved to Redlands, California, where Wright had accepted a pastorate at the First Christian Church of Redlands. The family moved to Southern California to see if Wright's health problems would improve. When they first moved to Redlands, they lived in an apartment above William F. Holt's carriage house. A few months later, Holt, an Imperial Valley land developer and promoter, persuaded Wright to move the the Imperial Valley.

Wright resigned his pastorate and moved from Redlands to the desert of the Imperial Valley area of Imperial County, California. He felt rather depressed in having to resign from the pulpit, for as he later wrote in his autobiography To My Sons, "It seemed that I was never to be permitted to attain my idea of usefulness as a preacher. I could not bear the thought of drilling along in the same old ruts; turning over that old sermon barrel every two of three years, getting nowhere toward a realization of my vision which alone made the work worth the effort... I had said to myself many times during those ten years with the church that if I ever came to feel that I could render better service in some other field of endeavor, I would leave the pulpit as unceromoniously as I had entered it. When I became convinced that, all things considered, writing was the work I could do best, I undertook that job in exactly the same spirit with which I had undertaken the work of preaching. I repeat, I did not seek the job of preaching; the job found me. It is just as true that I did not seek the work of writing; that job, too, found me."

After the Wrights left Redlands, they purchased undeveloped desert land between Holtville and El Centro, California, in an area commonly referred to as Meloland. While waiting for his acreage to be cleared, Wright built a studio of woven arrow weed, a weed that grew profusely in the desert, and often grew over seven feet in height. It was in this studio that Wright spent his time writing and painting. After his house was completed, Wright continued to use his studio as his workplace. It was in the arrow weed studio that Wright wrote three best sellers: The Calling of Dan Matthews, (1909), The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), and The Eyes of the World (1914). The Uncrowned King (1910) and Their Yesterdays (1912) were written while Wright lived elsewhere. Wright raised thoroughbreds on his property, and called his ranch "El Tecolote."

The Calling of Dan Matthews was the first novel that Wright wrote while in the Imperial Valley. The novel attacks the organized church as an institution. It was criticized by members of the ministry, and became the subject of numerous sermons. Ironically, this helped the novel to become a best-seller. In Heber, a small community in Imperial County, Reverend Wilcox, assistant-at-large, preached a sermon in March, 1910, attacking The Calling of Dan Matthews. He indicated that the novel "is probably the most discussed book written in recent times."3 In the meantime, many newspapers throughout the United States carried reviews of Wright's books, indicating that his works were "clean, pure, and wholesome."

For many years Wright had been an accomplished and well-known artist. He even painted murals in some churches in the Midwest. After Wright had been in the Imperial Valley for a while, he faced a dilemma as to whether he should pursue his artistic abilities on canvas or through literary means. It was in August, 1909, the same month in which The Calling of Dan Matthews was published, that, according to a September, 1909 issue of the Imperial Valley Press, "Mr. Wright went to his studio and ruthlessly tore down and carried out every picture he had painted, every canvas he had sketched, his easels, frames, studies... all his oils and colors, ...sketch books and water colors and threw them all on one big heap. Then without hesitating - lest he should relent, he touched a match to the heap and $500 worth of materials went up in smoke. It was truly a burnt offering to the art of writing." 

Wright liked the Imperial Valley, and he wanted to "promote" it. He believed that it would provide food for much of the United States. In December, 1911, Wright donated $116 to the University of California to help build the Imperial Valley Field Station, the oldest field station in California; it officially opened in 1912.

Wright, like Holt, was a visionary who believed in the Valley's future. The Imperial Valley was a desolate, undeveloped desert area approximately fifty miles west of the Colorado River, south of the Salton Sea, and on the border of Baja California, Mexico. Much of the Colorado Desert is below sea level, and for centuries the area flooded when the Colorado River overflowed its banks. The rich silt deposited from the overflows caused much of the region to be a potentially fertile agricultural area. The only item lacking was water. Engineers who came to the region in the late 1800's and early 1900's believed that Colorado River water could be brought into the central portion of the Imperial Valley via a canal that would be dug through Mexico and into the United States near Calexico, California. Prior to Wright's settling at El Tecolote, Colorado River water was brought into the Imperial Valley. Without water, the area was uninhabitable. As more canals were built, and more water districts were formed, William Holt brought many prospective landowners to this new American frontier.

Wright was intrigued with the complicated process involved in bringing water to the Imperial Valley and in developing towns and services for the residents. He carefully studied the recent developments of the area, and decided that they would lend themselves to developing a historical fiction, which became The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911). The problems, values, and concerns encountered in The Winning of Barbara Worth were of a universal nature that transcended social, economic, and cultural differences. The Winning of Barbara Worth is different from Wright's previous works in that it does not have a "preachy message" against the church. Instead, the themes that are introduced are those that relate to the social heritage and status of the "ideal" American and the ideal American work ethic. According to the Calexico Chronicle, the "novel was written at a time when American literature was being saturated with an unhealthy suggestiveness. The reaction toward the pure made the novel a most popular success..." The characters do not universally represent a virtue or trait such as goodness, purity, or evil; instead, they are representations of people who lived in and developed the present-day Imperial Valley. The characters are based upon actual residents, developers, and promoters who played a large and important part in the development of the Imperial Valley.

The Winning of Barbara Worth is a story about the Colorado River flood of 1906 that caused the formation of the present-day Salton Sea, and also about the reclamation of the Colorado Desert. Many reports about this disasterous flood had appeared in newspapers just six years prior to the publication of the novel, and many Americans were eager to read about this frontier region of hte United States. In his "story" about the Colorado River flood and its effects on the development of the area known as "The Kings Basin," Wright interweaves a number of stories, including the development of towns and services in King's Basin; the rivalry between the engineers who sought to bring water to King's Basin; the rivalry between Jefferson Worth, a "local" developer and James Greenfield, an Eastern capitalist; and the discovery of Barbara and her heritage. The story that most readers remember is the story about Barbara. Barbara's relationship to the development of the reclamation of King's Basin is described. Barbara, however, is a fictional character arund which the entire story revolves; she is the composite epitome of young women who lived in the desert and who believed in its future. As a toddler, Barbara is orphaned on the desert and is then found by Jefferson Worth. He takes her from the desert to live with him and his wife in Rubio City. The Worths are childless. They adopt Barbara, and a short time later, Mrs. Worth dies. Jefferson Worth is frequently away from home onbusiness trips, and Barbara virtually grows up without a "father." Barbara is cared for by Mr. Worth's housekeeper, Ynez. Much of the novel revolves around Barbara and her love and passion for the desert, and the desert is sometimes referred to as "Barbara's desert." Barbara is concerned about her heritage, and she struggles to learn about her past. She is portrayed in such a realistic fashion that many readers assume the "Barbara's story" is real; however, Barbara Worth never existed except on the pages of Wright's work and in the minds of those who read the book. It was not until after the manuscript was completed that the character of Barbara had a name. She was "named" by Mrs. Elsbery Reynolds as a tribute to her mother-in-law, Ruth Barbara Reynolds. Jefferson Worth, the main character around whom most of the novel revolves, is patterned after Wright's dear friend, Imperial Valley entrepreneur William F. Holt.

Many persons consider The Winning of Barbara Worth to be Wright's "best" work. It was his first attempt at historical fiction, and incorporated elements of both personal and philosophical conflicts with which male and female readers could identify. He was a master of dialect, and portrayed his immigrant characters with a speech style that was natural. Mystery and excitement fill the pages. The real-life conflicts that were faced by the inhabitants of the Imperial Valley are aptly portrayed; and the conflicts and hardship involving the reclaiming of the arid, undeveloped region are vividly described, along with the problems or raising capital to develop King's Basin. 

According to Elsbery Reynolds, The Winning of Barbara Worth required more effort and time in researching and in writing than did Wright's previous books. Wright prided himself on accuracy, and consulted with various engineers to ascertain that there were no errors in his descriptions involving the history of the reclamation.

By the time that The Winning of Barbara Worth was published, Harold Bell Wright was established as the most popular American author of his time, based upon book sales. Among his literary contemporaries were Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, and Jean Stratton-Porter.

Elsbery Reynolds presented many reviewers with advance pre-publication copies of The Winning of Barbara Worth; many newspapers were thus able to publish reviews of the novel within a short time of the announcement of its publication. The reviews did much to stimulate sales. The Chicago Record-Herald called The Winning of Barbara Worth "a novel with 'body,' with a large and timely idea back of it, with sound principles under it, and with a good crescendo of dramatic thrills." The Boston Globe indicated "To the reader the characters will appear as real as friends they know - all of their aims, and likes, and hatreds being portrayed as true to life as snapshots caught by moving-picture cameras." The Cleveland Plain Dealer called The Winning of Barbara Worth "the best thing he [Wright] has done so far... a twentieth century epic."

The Winning of Barbara Worth was one of Wright's best-received works; over 175,000 copies were run during the first printing by The Book Supply Company. Elsbery Reynolds' innovative marketing techniques assisted in generating sales. Bookmarks and postcards advertising Wright and his work were provided gratis to those who purchased the novel. A combined total of over two million copies of the book were printed by three publishers over the years: The Book Supply Company, A. L. Burt Company, and Appleton. Within a few years after its initial publication, Mark Swan dramatized The Winning of Barbara Worth in a play; a New York cast toured the United States, performing in both urban and rural areas. The company that performed the play in the Imperial Valley in March, 1915, was the same one that had previously performed the play 100 nights in Chicago. A news release advertising the play indicated that "The play was built at a time when the American stage was loaded with sex plays and its purity appealed instantly."6 The Winning of Barbara Worth is one of Wright's best-known works, not only because of the sheer number of copies published, but also because Gary Cooper made his film debut in the silent film adapted from the novel.

After the overwhelming success of The Winning of Barbara Worth, Harold Bell Wright wrote another immediate best-seller: The Eyes of the World (1914). This novel was about affluent society living in a California town. In 1916, the novel was made into a silent film. While it was in operation, The Book Supply Company published only the works of Harold Bell Wright, and then entered into an agreement with the A. L. Burt Company to publish "reprints." Elsbery Reynolds was a shrewd businessman and a strong promoter of Harold Bell Wright's novels. Announcements of Wright's forthcoming titles appeared in Christian magazines, and his books were among the first ever sold via mail order. Books were shipped by the thousands to small towns in rural America, where they were frequently sold in drug stores. In addition to the publicity campaigns that popularized Wright's works, his writings were popular because each one contained numerous elements that appeaed to the American public. Harold Bell Wright wrote for the common, unsophisticated reader, using realistic dialogue and simplistic but not condescending language. The novels present an element of drama and were popular because of their simplicity in reading. His works appealed to the masses because they contained a basic theme of conflict between good and evil; many of the characters in the stories are hard workers, primarily from the "working class"; the heros and heroines are the types of persons that people admire in real life; even though they have "heroic" qualities, they are also liked and respected for their compassion. The heroines were intellectually equal to the heros and male characters. The admirable, sensible, and strong female heroines were admired and respected by male readers;the heros were idolized by female readers because the men were brave, chivalrous, and tender.

His works entertain, teach, and provide an element of conflict between right and wrong. As an author, Wright provides graphic, visual descriptions of the characters and their environment; he creates pictures through the use of words. Harold Bell Wright used his novel to help promote what he called "clean living." Even though he formally resigned from the official church pulpit, Wright was able to continue his ministry through his published writings.



Helen of the Old House

Helen of the Old House focuses on the labor unrest and socialist agitation immediately following World War I Although these novels include a typical love story, the fiction is but pretense, for Wright's purpose is to persuade, and the novels become propagandistic. The novel (1921) is set in the town of Millsburgh, a typical industrial community which boasts of several mills and a distinct class system of employers and employees Of the mills, Adam Ward's mill is the most important because it becomes the focal point of the labor movement.Adam Ward formerly had been an employee of the mill until he "supposedly" developed a new process which revolutionized the mill work. After that, he rises in the chain of command until he becomes the mill owner, and then he and his family, which includes his son John and his daughter Helen, move from their old house among the other workers to the "castle" in a wealthy section of the town. Before the upward move, the Ward family were inseparable companions with the Martin family, their next door neighbors. The Martin children, Charlie and Mary, were playmates with John and Helen Ward. The close friendship dissolved when the Wards became wealthy, but a semblance of it is revived when the war brings Charlie and john together again in the same regiment, where Charlie serves as an officer and John remains a private. John, who was influenced by his father's wealth, changes his attitude about class during the war, for he has an opportunity to learn what it is like to serve under someone's orders. When John is given complete management of the mill by his father, who is gradually going insane due to mental stress over some mysterious problem, he puts his ideas into action. Differing from his father, John sees the mill as belonging to the people, not one man, and the employees see this change of attitude as John works with the man, making them feel equal or even superior in some characteristics .In contrast, Adam Ward sees the mill and its employees as his possessions. They are no more than the machinery of the plant, expected to return their investment in dollars and cents for his profit. Thus, his men have no more than contempt for him, and they are delighted to see John placed in the seat of authority, for they can depend on his fairness. John and his old friend Charlie believe that people can become one through work , and they also advocate equality through rank. They realize that there must be leaders and followers, but rank does not necessarily imply superiority or inferiority.John's sister, Helen, envious of her brother's happiness, tries to discover the source of that contentment. Unhappy with her social duties and parties, she discovers among the houses of the employees a new, rather distasteful world. She is appalled by their 
poverty, disease, and filth and begins to take an interest in their welfare, even touring the plant with her brother to view the working conditions. Her spiritual guide, who also guides the entire community of workers on labor problems, is called the Interpreter. Now an elderly man, he once worked alongside Adam Ward in the mill when Adam was just another employee. An industrial accident has crippled him for life, so he earns his living making baskets. He shares his home with Billy Rand, a deaf and dumb retarded young man who serves as the crippled man's legs. Both Helen and John are influenced by the Interpreter's philosophy, a mixture of patriotism, happiness, and work ethic. Into this scene of growing social consciousness comes Jake Vodell, a foreign strike organizer who preaches for "the Cause" of the working classes which is a plan to decentralize the power of the capitalist class. He persuades the McIver mill workers, under the management of JimMcIver, a less sympathetic person than John Ward, to go on strike. Other mill workers also walk out, except for the Ward mill where the employees are satisfied with their management. Vodell would like to put the 
workers in control and kill the wealthy employers. To accomplish his goals, he incites riots among the workers, sacrifices the starving women and children of his unemployed followers, bombs factories, and finally kills Charlie Martin, John's friend and employee, because Charlie and his father refuse to support him. Vodell preaches a "doctrine of class hatred and destruction", but the Interpreter strips away the dogmatic message of the agitator and reveals Vodell's real purpose--to displace the capitalists.Fortunately, just as Vodell is about to start a bloody riot among the workers, the Interpreter, John, and Pete Martin are able to persuade the men of the falseness of Vodell's plan and expose him for the murder of Charlie Martin, the town's beloved war hero. The two most corrupt capitalists, Jim McIver and Adam Ward, are killed, the former in a bombing of his mill and the latter by his own hand, and the town returns to a more normal position after Vodell escapes to threaten other towns with his corrupt labor doctrines. After Adam's death, his will exposes his theft of the process which has made him wealthy but which has kept the real inventor of the idea, Pete Martin, poor. In restitution and perhaps in the hope of easing his tormented conscience, Adam, in his will, divided his estate between Martin and his own family. The Martins and the Wards then donate one-half of their shares to their employees so that they, too, can have a voice in the management of the mill. The "castle" is developed into the "Institute of American Patriotism," and the Ward family move back to their old home where John marries Mary Martin, and Helen "finds herself in service" to the mill workers. She loses her true love when Charlie Martin is killed, but she finds some happiness in her work with the children of the mill workers. In this novel, Wright presents a rather unusual social labor philosophy. He very neatly retains the division of employer and employee, but he makes that relationship acceptable to the employee who may have had management grievances without such a system. His philosophy rests on the "law of dependence," a mutual reliance among the laborers and management to get the work done, whereas Adam Ward's management was based entirely on independence in which he was the sole manager and his people worked for him, not with him. According to Wright, business should rely on "industrial comradeship" to succeed, for the primary purpose behind Wright'sphilosophy is simply to get the job done since if that job is not done, then the entire community, even country, suffers. Through what Wright terms the "God of Work," 
comradeship between people of different nations, backgrounds, religions, and philosophies can result if the people band together in a common cause, an important result of the influence of the war. World War I proved that several countries can work cooperatively for the good of all concerned. That cooperation can continue even though the war is over. With the combination of labor and management, these "loyal patriots . . . will together free the industries of their own country from the two equally menacing terrors--imperialistic capital and imperialistic labor". As John see it, the problem is to avoid drawing the wrong lines. Many people want to divide the classes, but the classes are not all ofone belief. For example, John and his father have very different philosophies about management. On the extremely conservative management side with Adam is Jim McIver, who believes armed forces should drive striking workers to their jobs at the point of bayonets. Instead of class divisions, loyal Americans should line up together and oppose corrupt foreign influences, such as Vodell's.However, John and the Interpreter see Vodell and McIver as very similar, though they 
have opposing ideologies. Both advocate radical theories. The manager sees his workers as machinery for his benefit and tries to organize the other manufacturing owners in a concentrated effort against the employees. He crassly lets the workers starve rather than negotiate with their unions. Vodell also permits starvation of his followers who strike to cripple the industry, and their leader, too, refuses to compromise until the workers' demands are met. Both men are equally unreasonable, and both demand that innocent women and children suffer for the "Cause." In fact, several children die or suffer from malnutrition because of the strike (Helen, p. 298). Vodell and McIver both want power, although Vodell sneakily goes about his work to accomplish his purpose, while McIver, assured of his position, openly voices his sentiments of power. John offers a logical method of compromise which will benefit both management and labor without making the innocent families suffer. The Interpreter acts as spiritual guide to the community, and he actually represents one of Wright's favorite characters--the minister. He advises his visitors on matters of business, the soul, and the heart. John is influenced in his management policy by the old man, Adam questions him about life after death, and Helen learns that happiness is not found in "the 
brightest jewels" but often in the grimy pebbles. The Interpreter and his companion, Billy Rand, provide the symbols for the novel, one representing management and the other representing labor. Together, they are the illustration of mutual dependence: Billy is as much my superior physically as I am his superior mentally. Without my thinking and planning he would be as helpless as I would be without his good bodily strength. We are each equally dependent upon the other, and from that mutual dependence comes our comradeship in the industry which alone secures for us the necessities of life. Wright hopes for a balanced union of labor and management that recognizes a mutual dependence, such as that which John accomplishes in his management of the mill. In that type of industrial world, there would be no strikes, no bombings, no starvation, and no feelings of inferiority or superiority. For Wright industry must be infused with the spirit of patriotism and religion. Patriotism cannot be active only when there is a war; it must be active all the time, especially in work, for the work force makes up the majority of the nation, and for a nation to steer in the right course, its people must be behind it. Wright's idealistic philosophy is largely influenced by the common effort of the war. He sees his ideas as a cure for the industrial problems which plagued the nation immediately following that struggle. However, his idealism could not work in a nation disillusioned by its first worldWright also believes that religion should be a part of everyday life. Pete Martin exemplifies the character who is moral on Monday as well as Sunday. Though Ward defrauds him by stealing his invention, Martin does not seek revenge. In contrast, Adam Ward see the church in business terms as an "insurance corporation . . . of personal bargain and profit". He pays to hear the minister tell him what he wants to hear, and if the minister fails in that duty, then Adam withholds his church dues. His after-death restitution to Pete Martin is his way of perhaps assuring his entrance
into heaven.
Large Photo of HBW