Harold Bell Wright, though largely unknown today, outsold any other author during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Even now, fans travel to visit the Harold Bell Wright Museum and Theater in Branson, Missouri, his former home in Pittsburgh, Kansas which is maintained as a museum, and other Wright-related sites, including the Barbara Worth exhibit at the Pioneer's Museum of Imperial County, California. There are still Barbara Worth-related locations in Imperial County, including a golf resort and a junior high school that bear her name. Clearly, Wright stirred his audience and his fans remained life-long devotees, despite Wright's dismissal by reviewers and literary critics as simplistic, sentimentalist and trite. Wright's wholesome stories appealed to the American public during the turbulent pre-war years, when lifestyles and values were rapidly changing. The Winning of Barbara Worth, published in 1911, was Wright's first novel to make the annual bestseller list, as five of his subsequent novels did (1914, 1916, 1919/1920, 1922, 1923). Wright's fan base continued to grow until the mid-1920s, when his socially conservative, simple stories of morally upright citizens making the world a better place no longer fared as well against more penetrating, socially critical works like Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt (which tied with Wright's Helen of the Old House as the number ten best-seller of 1922).
Wright had already published three very successful novels when The Winning of Barbara Worth was published, but they had gained popularity steadily over time and so were not bestsellers in any one year. That Printer of Udell's (1903), The Shepherd of the Hills (1907) and its sequel The Calling of Dan Matthews (1909) had established Wright's popularity and reputation. The Book Supply Company advertised Barbara Worth in advance, and it was primarily marketed towards Wright's existing audience. Advertisements appeared in small town and church newsletters in the West and Midwest. The book was set to come out in November, and copies ordered in advance would be shipped with a festive "Barbara package band" (featuring the cover illustration of the title character) for the Christmas season. The publisher expected Wright fans to order advance copies for themselves and as Christmas presents, and counted on word-of-mouth to continue sales in 1912. Advance copies came with a postcard for the reader to pass on to a friend, calling The Winning of Barbara Worth "One of the best books I have ever read" (Burke, 370-374). Despite being released so late in the year, Barbara Worth became the third highest selling work of fiction in 1911 and was number six in 1912.
The Winning of Barbara Worth remained popular. Two play versions were produced, and in 1926 Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights to make it into a silent movie for $125,000. The million-dollar production, filmed in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, took a crew of 10,000 a year to make. Few movies up to that time were such lavish and expensive productions. A miniature city was constructed at "Barbara Worth, Nevada" for the crew, with full plumbing and sanitation, housing, kitchens, a mess hall, a recreation center, a hospital, etc, as the crew was expected to remain in the desert for the duration of the filming. The film was a huge success, and is still notable for being the screen debut of a then-unknown stuntman named Gary Cooper (Burke, 381-386).
Harold Bell Wright's wholesome novels of personal integrity and achievement, and his natural settings appealed to the American public during the early twentieth century, at the very time when Americans were moving away from a simple life lived close to nature. The population was continuing to move from the country to the city, leaving behind community and family networks that had traditionally provided support. The 1920 census revealed that for the first time a majority of Americans lived in urban, not rural, areas. The mass production of goods and the consumer culture that would become so prevalent after the Great War were beginning, and some worried that the culture was becoming too materialistic. Technological innovations like the automobile and the telephone were spreading to more and more households, even rural ones, and the lifestyles of the average American were changing. Class conflict continued unabated, as it had from the late nineteenth century, especially in the cities, where the poor continued to live in wretched slums. The early twentieth century was an era of labor unrest, even in the rural areas, where the Populist Party and the grange movement had not yet completely died out. In the cities, strikes were common. Progressive reformers were attempting to clean up the cities, working to provide adequate housing and sanitation, and attacking everything from labor problems to liquor to prostitution. Reform movements brought the problems of the cities to the attention of the general population. It was at this time of rapid social changes and concern about where society was headed that Wright's novels became so popular. At a time when people were feeling unsettled, Wright reaffirmed traditional values while providing interesting and entertaining (i.e. escapist) stories.
Wright's novels were a reaction to social changes, reasserting man's connection to nature and reaffirming the belief in man's inherent goodness, during a time of uncertainties. But The Winning of Barbara Worth was also a product of the early twentieth century, specifically of the strong belief in progress that was present in the pre-war decades. Progressive reformers and everyday Americans believed that the world was, for the most part, improving, that humanity was continually evolving to a higher and higher state. Man had achieved so much in the preceeding hundred years, and there was no reason to believe that the next hundred would not see achievements that were just as great. Thus the story of man reclaiming the desert, taming nature and making fertile farmland out of what had been a dry, barren waste, a "silent land of death" (111), was very appealing to Americans in 1911. The characters in Wright's novel believe that they are doing something great, something that will benefit all of mankind, not just the local citizens and settlers. With their example to follow, characters like the Seer envision similar desert reclamations makings the West bloom and providing food for the hungry nations of the world.
The Winning of Barbara Worth represents a turning point in Wright's career. He had just moved from the Ozarks, the setting of his earlier novels, to southern California for health reasons. Barbara Worth was the first of three novels written in a handmade studio behind Wright's new home, the Tecolote Ranch near Redlands, California. Wright decided to set his new novel in the Southwest, and to base it on actual contemporary events, the desert reclamation work that was turning the deserts of California and Arizona into farmland. Wright did research and worked with civil engineers to get all the technical facts correct (Tagg, vi-xiii; Martine, 189).
The Winning of Barbara Worth was quickly dismissed by reviewers, who had already formed opinions about Wright from his previous novels. Every reviewer made comparisons to Wright's earlier work, and while some acknowledged the greater scope of Barbara Worth, none failed to lump it in with the rest, labeling the novel moralistic, sentimental, simplistic drivel. Wright was especially criticized for his "long-windedness," his dullness, and above all for his repetitive, overly descriptive style. Indeed, by the end of the novel it does seem as if everyone has looked out at the desert and gotten all kinds of warm, fuzzy feelings one too many times, and the repeated pilgrimages to Barbara's mother's grave serve only to make a potentially poignant setting lack power. The A.L.A. Booklist summed up the stylistic and formal problems of the novel (rather mildly compared to other contemporary reviewers), by stating that "the story would have gained interest by condensation, and the style is singularly lacking in distinction." (Book Review Digest, 1911).
The reviewers were accurate in labeling Wright's works sentimental and overly moralistic; Wright himself would not have denied it. Wright, a former minister in the Church of the Disciples, was always trying to teach his readers a lesson. In The Winning of Barbara Worth, subtitled "The Ministry of Capital," Wright contrasts the business practices of Jefferson Worth with James Greenfield. Capital can work in two ways, according to Wright. It can be put to work building one man's private fortune or it can be invested into things that will benefit all men. Worth and Greenfield are blatantly allegorical, representing the good and the bad capitalist, a point which Wright goes out of his way to make clear. He describes Worth through the eyes of his workers, as being "the visible representative of that invisible power that willed their going forth. He was Capital-Money-Business incarnate," (Wright, 113). Worth and Greenfield are in competition over the development and settlement of the reclaimed desert land of the King's Basin (modeled after Imperial Valley, California). After his epiphany in the desert (123-126), Worth understands his daughter's passion for the desert and the importance of the reclamation work to the future progress of humanity. Worth has discovered a noble goal to put his Capital towards in the reclamation project, using money as it should be used, to benefit many and not just himself. Thus Worth refuses to become a part of Greenfield's company on ideological grounds. This refusal sets up the contrast between Worth and Greenfield, and begins the competition between them. Their power struggle in the King's Basin is the struggle between the archetypal greedy capitalist (Greenfield) and the idealized, honest, hardworking businessman (Worth) who works not just for profit but for the benefit of his fellow man as well. While Greenfield is preoccupied with wealth and social position, Worth is a simple, quiet man, in tune with nature, not unlike most of Wright's other heroes. Greenfield complains about how uncivilized the West is, while Worth appreciates the majestic beauty of the desert, and willingly accompanies his men in their explorations instead of staying in his comfortable home in town. Worth is scrupulously honest in his dealings, and his softer approach always pays off in the end. For example, Worth allows the settlers to buy on credit in his store, rewarding their hard work and pioneering spirit (153). In one of Wright's typically impossible plot manipulations, the allegorical businessmen get what they deserve in the end. The shoddy irrigation structures that Greenfield, concerned only with profits, refused to replace cannot withstand the flood, and the town Greenfield built, Kingston, is wiped out. Jefferson Worth's town, Barba, is spared, and to drive the point home, the new waterways created by the flood increase the power of Worth's hydroelectric plant, making him a millionaire (352).
The other characters are less allegorical than Worth and Greenfield, but they are similarly flat. Some characters barely have names at all, but are referred to most often by a title. The visionary engineer who dreams of desert reclamation and gets the whole process started is referred to by everyone as simply, "the Seer," even by minor characters who do not know him at all, and in all likelihood would never have heard the nickname (Wright, 346). Mr. Burk, the manager of the King's Basin Land and Irrigation Company is referred to at least half of the time as "the thoughtful Manager" (285, etc), providing one of many possible examples of why reviewers complained that Wright "dearly loves the adjective," (New York Times, August 20, 1911). Even main characters are all too often referred to by a title; Abe Lee is "the surveyor," Willard Holmes is "the engineer," Texas Joe is "the frontiersman"? And since many of the male characters are so similar, the use of titles can lead to confusion. Wright never makes any attempt at character development. They are all nothing more than archetypes of the sort that can be found in all kinds of sub-par novels and movies throughout the twentieth century. Texas Joe is the experienced desert man, the standard, wise, son of the earth type, and his sidekick Pat Mooney is the pugnacious Irishman. Both sport abominably rendered accents. The Mexican characters are even more stereotyped and their broken English is just as wretched. Ynez, the housekeeper, is a servile shadow who never speaks. Pablo is sometimes treated as a comrade by the other male characters, but he knows his place and is always very deferential to Barbara and her father. The other Mexicans are the workers who help build the irrigation system, the towns and the railroad. They have no sense of the grandeur of their projects, they are just a bunch of ignorant "greasers" working for their next paycheck. It is the uncivilized, unreasonable Mexicans and Indians that nearly riot when their pay is late. Clearly they are all savages at heart, as Abe explains: "We have promised these greasers and Indians that we will pay tomorrow without fail. When we don't pay?They'll go on the warpath sure. If they were white men it would be different," (Wright, 273). Abe Lee's character is very much like Texas Joe; he is a capable, dependable man of the desert. This was the movie role that launched Gary Cooper's career, with his quiet, brooding charm nearly stealing the spotlight from Ronald Colman's Willard Holmes (Burke, 382-383). Abe Lee is the bashful, unassuming guy who's always around when you need him, knows just what to do in every situation, but who despite all his admirable qualities, just isn't dashing enough to have any hope of getting the girl.
And then there's the girl. Barbara is the embodiment of pure, lovely young womanhood, with a Western flair. She is a beloved angel of mercy to the local unfortunates, as befits a rich man's daughter (Wright, 60). Besides sewing, cooking and bandaging the wounded when necessary, Barbara gets to ride horses and wear a revolver like a man. The most common adjective Wright uses to describe her is "red-blooded" (57). Lest the reader find her "bold and mannish and coarse and everything else that a girl ought not to be," (101) with her free-spirited and independent ways, Wright makes sure Barbara is confined to her proper place in the domestic sphere and that she properly defers to her father and to her love interest Willard Holmes. For example, though she is doubtless more capable and experienced than the city gentleman, Wright has Barbara lose control of her horses so that Holmes can take over driving the buggy, as is fitting for the man (101). The very qualities that make Barbara so attractive to the men in her life, her independence and her prowess as a horsewoman, are thus downplayed so that traditional gender roles can be reinforced. Wright's black-and-white plot and flat characters were to be expected from this largely self-educated former pastor, considering his previous work. Stereotyped female and minority characters were very common in his day, and perhaps should be largely overlooked, as they do not detract from Wright's point. He was concerned with creating an allegory about "Good Business-the master passion of the race," (one of Wright's favorite, oft-repeated phrases) using the backdrop of the desert reclamation work, and nothing more (Wright, 122). Wright did not strive for memorable characters, only for a memorable lesson.
Book Review Digest, 1911.
Burke, Quentin, editor. Wright, Harold Bell. The Winning of Barbara Worth. Holtville, CA: The Quellen Company for the Harold Bell Wright Society and the Imperial County Historical Society, 1998.
Martine, James, editor. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9, Part 3.