Magnificent Obsession was not the stereotypical bestseller: the author was
an unknown minister, the religious themes were uncommon in its fellow
bestsellers of the early 1930s, and the book was unwieldy and rather large for the
typical "quick-read" bestseller. However, the success of Magnificent Obsession
greatly depended on the time-period in which it was published: when the nation
was in the midst of a great depression. Like the run-of-the-mill bestseller,
Magnificent Obsession offered hope to the nation with the secret to success
revealed in the novel. However, Magnificent Obsession illustrates the atypical
best-selling novel, proving that bestsellers do not have to be quick reads, have
reviews in major publications, or even have an obvious appeal to a wide
The stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed worsened
the economic conditions of many Americans. The percentage of unemployment in
the civilian labor force jumped from 1.8 percent in 1926 to 24.9 percent in 1933
(Historical Statistics 135). The total number of unemployed after 1929 rose
steadily, with even more millions of people working less than full-time. Many
Americans sought aid, and some unemployed demonstrated for relief from the
government, only to be suppressed in their efforts (Thorkelson 344). Magnificent
Obsession had a new way of living to offer Americans in their time of trouble and
despair. Advertisements in Publishers' Weekly for Magnificent Obsession had one
promise in common, as summed up by the January 8, 1932 ad: "[Magnificent
Obsession offers] a philosophy for the needs of today." In 1932, when the
depression reached its lowest level, people were eager for something new
(Unstead). Magnificent Obsession promised a new way of life through the new
philosophy it offered.
Magnificent Obsession reveals the key to success through a novel Christian
philosophy. The melodramatic story revolves around the discovery by a rich young
playboy, Bobby Merrick, of a coded journal. The journal belonged to the
highly-successful Doctor Hudson, who dies tragically because at the moment he
needs an inhalator to save his life from a swimming accident, it's in use on
Merrick, who was slightly injured in a trivial boating accident. With the help of
Doctor Hudson's loyal nurse, Merrick decides to return to college and complete
Medical School. Upon deciphering the journal, Merrick discovers the reason for
Hudson's immense success, "the rules for getting whatever you want, and doing
whatever you wish to do, and being whatever you would like to be." (Douglas
131) The key lies in the Bible, as "it took the man who discovered it to a cross at
the age of thirty-three!" (Douglas 144) The formula rests in doing good deeds for
others, but secretly. Douglas explains the need for secrecy as he compares his
notion to a battery, which needs insulation to protect the current. Douglas explains
that "most personalities are grounded," and that by doing good for others, one
energizes and expands one's own personality and is able to become a great
achiever (Douglas 141). This promise of achievement in a time when Americans
had no where else to turn for answers served to comfort the nation.
The ads for the book echoed the ability for readers to achieve their highest
goals. Other ads from Publishers' Weekly reveal the "startling philosophy of
'getting what you want.'" (Nov. 8, 1930) Upon reading the book, "the golden door
of attainment" opens, similarly proclaimed an October 19, 1929 ad. Being able to
win in a society where food and shelter were of the essence was a welcomed
promise to the poverty-stricken people of 1932. Even those that had jobs or were
wealthy would be eager to find success and the "door of attainment." In the story,
Merrick himself is a wealthy playboy who benefits from this life-changing
philosophy. No matter whether rich or poor, we all want to know the secret to
success. This universal appeal helped Magnificent Obsession reach the bestsellers
However, the fact that the book did not reach the bestsellers list until 1932,
although it was published in 1929, suggests the importance of the depression in the
selling of Magnificent Obsession. Between 1929 and 1932, the total number of
unemployed increased by 20 percent. After 1931, the membership of religious
bodies steadily increased as more and more people sought God's help to appease
their problems. In terms of personal consumption expenditures, the total decline in
spending on all products most radically declined from 77,222 million in 1929 to
45,795 million in 1933, whereas spending on religious and welfare activities those
same years only declined from 1,196 million to 872 million (Historical Statistics
135, 319, 391). Because there was not as sharp a decline in spending on religious
activities suggests that Americans read Magnificent Obsession when they chanced
to benefit from it. This serves as one reason for the slow start in the popularity of
Magnificent Obsession not only offered religious comfort, but also a highly
interesting story and dramatic plot. The story not only provided a new slant on an
old Biblical lesson to its readers, but a melodrama with mysterious and interesting
characters in a plot-line where everything turns out happily in the end. Critics of
Douglas carped on his fairy tale-like stories as a flaw, calling them old-fashioned
(World Authors 565). Douglas, agreeing, laughed off criticisms by literary
scholars: "I came into this business [of writing] too late to take on any airs about
it." (Life 110) However, this style of writing is what the American public wanted
to read. Enough depression filled the streets around them, and only in books could
they see a society not troubled with economic or personal woes. In 1933, because
25 percent of the nation was unemployed, those who had jobs were forced to fight
to hold on to them (Historical Statistics 135). Competition was fierce and men and
women were compelled to work even harder than before. One of the reviews of the
book from 1930 pointed out that Magnificent Obsession proved good reading "for
the tired man or women who cannot forget the business worries of the day."
(Boston Transcript) Women and men alike, working long and hard shifts, lucky to
have jobs, found escape in novels like Magnificent Obsession and attributed to the
novel's wide-spread reading. Other notable women's novels in the 1930s such as
Gone With The Wind and Bad Girl sought to "extract the working-class woman
from her job." (Hapke 6, 23) The fact that Magnificent Obsession succeeded in
taking readers minds off the gloom surroundings of the day, coupled with the
formula for success presented in the novel, elevated the novel to bestsellersdom.
Another reason Douglas fared so well in the writing world was that he "had
something which other authors lacked" in his religion themes (Life 109). Not
many other books on the best sellers list in the early 1930s were marketing novels
containing religious teachings (Hackett 146). Edmund Wilson compared a similar
Douglas novel, The Robe, to other books in the time period; after examining the
novel he writes, "What I have found is rather surprising. Instead of the usual trash
aimed at Hollywood and streamlined for the popular magazines, one is confronted
with something that resembles an old-fashioned novel for young people." (Life
112) Douglas was a middle-aged minister unaccustomed to the literary world at
the time of Magnificent Obsession, his first novel (Life 109). The novel originally
started out as a collection of essays, but he turned to fiction-writing in the hope to
"make his point [about doing good deeds for others secretly] by telling a
story...using his pulpit-parable style on a larger scale." (Life 112) Wilson
recognized Douglas' aim not solely towards a readership or "Hollywood," but
towards the telling of a well-written story and getting his point across about the
benefits of righteousness and giving. The book is old-fashioned in the religious
and action-packed senses, but emphasizes its teachings on the younger generations
also, as the main character is a young man who changes his life around due to the
legacy of an old doctor. The book appealed to both younger and older generations
of the day, as both were faced with the troubles of the nation and might equally
seek the secret to success.
Readers found such hope in the religious aspects of the novel, that about 10
years after the book hit the bestsellers lists, one group of readers tried to convince
Douglas of starting his own religion based on philosophies discussed in the novel,
which Douglas refused (Life 112). One possibility is that men of the depression,
unable to be saved by their former religious affiliations, turned to new slants on
religions such as one expressed by themes in Douglas' books. In times of a
national depression, despairing and anxious men could find solace in hope for a
better tomorrow. These men found these kinds of promises in Magnificent
Obsession. Bernard DeVoto wrote, "It is always comforting to frightened, weary
and discouraged men to be told that they are the masters of their fate....Comfort is
what readers ask of Dr. Douglas and comfort is what they get." (Life 112) Douglas
received mail thanking him for the comfort his readers found in his novels,
suggesting that the 1930s population appreciated help finding positive solutions to
their problems, versus negative ways of finding solace (World Authors 565). The
small decline in spending on religious literature and welfare compared to the sharp
decline in spending on other items illustrates the renewed stock people continued
to put in religion. This throws light on the want for positive help that the 1930s
population sought (Historical Statistics 319).
Despite the fact that Magnificent Obsession's hopeful message to readers
exemplifies reasons for its popularity, many reasons exist for why it might not
have reached the best-selling charts. The novel, in many ways, does not possess
the qualities of a typical bestseller. For one, the novel is unwieldy and rather large
(330 pages) to be a bestseller. The New York Times Book Review, in
1930, begins its review of the book with, "Even for those who have a large appetite
and enjoy a varied menu, Magnificent Obsession should prove an ample though
rather indigestible repast." In this review, one cannot tell whether the review is
favorable or not. The review also neglects to mention the religious aspects of the
novel. In a highly negative review in Books, the critic also carps on the length of
the novel: "told in half the space which the novelist occupies." Both these reviews
came out directly after Magnificent Obsession's publication. Consequently, the
novel became a bestseller by word-of-mouth recommendations, not by reviews in
major publications directly following the publication of the novel (Hackett 146).
Also unlike typical bestsellers, Magnificent Obsession did not rise to
popularity via praising reviews in major publications. In fact, the only publication
that mentioned the novel's main theme as it related to religion was the Christian
Century. However, Magnificent Obsession is not the type of novel to get reviewed
in major publications; the sole reason it was reviewed in major eastern
publications rested in the fact that it was achieving high praise in the Midwest
shortly following its publication (Publishers' Weekly June 11, 1932). Even then
the reviews were only around 200 words. In contrast, the review in the Christian
Century ran 1, 250 words (Book Review Digest). Moreover, the reviews in the
major publications seemed to miss the religious and philosophical points of the
novel. They tended to focus more on the obsession with doing good deeds for
others that possesses Merrick in the novel. Major publications' reviews ran along
the lines of, "it quickly absorbs one's entire attention," (Boston Transcript) or "[it]
might be ticketed as an entertaining product." (Books) The New York Times Book
Review implies that the book might be a case study of obsessive behavior. Quite
differently, the Christian Century discusses Douglas' past as a preacher and how
he transgresses from preacher to novelist without a trace of didactic language. This
stark difference might hint at the reason why the novel took 2 years after its
publication to become a bestseller. The reviews that it did get in major
publications mostly portrayed the novel as a unique, if not unattractive, one to
readers. Nevertheless, it caught on without much help from major publications and
almost chiefly through world-of-mouth (Hackett 146).
Another surprising factor when examining the popularity of Magnificent
Obsession is the lack of obvious appeal to a wide readership. The universal appeal
was revealed later as the novel caught on as offering solutions to current woes.
The main cause for the seeming lack of appeal initially was due in part to
publications such as The New York Times Book Review, which recommended the
book to "those with curiosity concerning obsession." (16) The average reader
doesn't want to read a book that examines obsessions. Another reason why the
book failed to hit the best-sellers list right away might have been because it fell
into the sub-genre of "religious literature" before the time came when the public
sought religion as comfort. Magnificent Obsession was a first of popular
religiously-themed novels, and not until the public sought religious solutions to
their woes did they discover in it the comfort they would later find (Hackett 146).
Many factors went into making Magnificent Obsession a bestseller, the
most important one being the great depression of the early 1930s. The effect the
depression had upon Magnificent Obsession proves that the success of a bestseller
can greatly depend on the time period in which it is published. Because of
Magnificent Obsession's great appeal to the nation in times of the depression, the
novel overcame the setbacks of not being the typical bestseller, such as its bulky
size and initial reviews in major publications or lack thereof. Magnificent
Obsession transcended many obstacles before it reached the bestsellers list,
proving that the success of a bestseller is virtually unpredictable and relies on the
mood of the nation at the time the book comes out.
"A Theory of Life." New York Times Book Review. 12 Jan. 1930: 14, 16.
Books. 2 Feb. 1930: 13.
Book Review Digest.
Boston Transcript. 15 Jan. 1930: 2.
Busch, Noel F. "Close Up: Lloyd C. Douglas." Life. 27 May 1946: 109-116.
Christian Century 46 (1929): 1378.
Douglas, Lloyd C. Magnificent Obsession. Chicago: Willett, Clark and Colby, 1929.
Hapke, Laura. Daughters of the Great Depression: women, work, and fiction in the
American 1930s. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
Hackett, Alice. 70 years of Bestsellers 1896-1965.
"Lloyd C. Douglas." Cyclopedia of World Authors.
Publishers' Weekly. 19 Oct. 1929.
Publishers' Weekly. 8 Nov. 1930.
Publishers' Weekly. 8 Jan. 1932.
Publishers' Weekly. 11 June 1932.
Thorkelson, John H. "Great Depression." Encyclopedia Americana. 1996.
Unstead, J.R. "Twentieth Century." Encyclopedia Americana. 1996.
Historical Statistics of the United States. Washington, DC: US Bureau of Cencus, 1975.