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Harold Bell Wright and the "Popularity" of the Best-Seller
The term "best-seller" has long defined a type of literary work that becomes popular among the American public during its publication, and is therefore bought at a very high rate (in comparison to contemporary works) and makes the most amount of money for its author in a fiscal year. It is an honor for an author to have a work on the "best-seller" list because it deems the work popular and enjoyable to a majority of readers; however, we must ask ourselves, "What exactly does it mean to be a best-seller?" If we applied today's standards, we may say that a best-seller is a literary work that combines an intelligent and intriguing style of writing with a hint of suspense, drama, or other emotion associated with plot and character. However, a best-seller thirty years ago may have an entirely different description and therefore, my assessment of a best-seller would be incorrect. What we must learn from this example is that popularity, as it defines the idea of a being a best-seller, can often define the era of readers rather than the quality of the book, as trends do change over time. Harold Bell Wright, an author of eighteen novels during his lifetime (7 were best-sellers the year they were printed), is a poignant example of this idea of popularity associated with a specific time period. Wright has often been criticized by critics as having an overly simplistic style of writing, along with no character development and shallow plots. Nonetheless, to better understand the concept of a best-seller and what it means to be a best-seller, we can contemplate the case of Harold Bell Wright, who, while he was fiercely criticized as one of the least talented authors of the early 20th century, was simultaneously the second or third most popular author between 1911 and 1919.
We can first assert that Wright's novel, THE RECREATION OF BRIAN KENT, published in 1919, was the last of immensely popular novels that he would write. Placed on the best-seller list in 1919 and in 1920, the novel revealed that Wright's appeal to the American public was drawing to a close. However, at the time, his impending fall from popularity was unforeseen - Wright was enjoying his peak of success at this point in his career. His popularity, mostly among rural American townsfolk, was a direct result of his uncomplicated and clear writing style and his characterizations of simple mountain people. Wright who had grown up as a poor, self-educated man, yearned to reach out to the "roughnecks" in hopes of preaching to them morality and basic Christian values.
Thus it was no surprise that Wright's novels were immensely popular among rural Americans, who consisted of over half of all American population until 1940 because of the economic and social situation of the country. By the end of the nineteenth century, America had seen the rise of industrial and agricultural revolutions, democratization, centralization, and urbanization (Howard and Louis, 1998). Americans believed themselves to be ready for the 20th century. With the invention of Henry Ford's Model-T and the first assembly-line factory, the country saw its cities as the wave of a new generation and a new way to improve in both social and economical conditions. Thomas Edison and the electricity industry took off in the 1900s and the centralized cities were what profited off of this new invention (Howard and Louis, 1998). Rural America was steadfastly being left in the dust as a result of being isolated from the centers of cultural growth. As a result of the country's new attachment to capitalism, farmers began to suffer because there was too little capital for the number of farmers to be supported by the economy. Many of the rural towns were left in the dark, both literally and metaphorically speaking, with the rise of cities and the power that encircled them (Howard and Louis, 1998). Social conflicts between classes and regions began to grow and many prejudices, mainly against the poor, uneducated rural American, were being formed. Education was poorly conducted, if at all, in rural America and the country farmers felt the sting of inferiority from the upper classes of urban cities. World War I broke the promise of American life for these farmers as the cost of living doubled and the draft took young men away from farms. The women and preachers of the rural towns worried about the effect on morals war would have on their young men, seeing as the men had, often times, never been exposed to metropolitan areas, much less foreign land (Howard and Louis, 1998). At the end of World War I, the men returned home, but not in time to save the economy. With the country exporting more capital than importing, farm-owners plunged into debt and most did not come out of it until the beginning of World War II.
The importance of the historical background during the time of Harold Bell Wright's success is quite apparent when one reads his novels. Many newspapers throughout the United States claimed his works were "clean, pure, and wholesome" (Hann, 1989). Many of his novels entertain problems, values, and concerns that were of a universal nature to the majority of the population at the time of the book's publication. Wright used his preacher tendencies to introduce ideas of social heritage, such as the American work ethic and the "ideal" American. People who read his novels were often those searching for a novel that would inspire in them the hope that man was still good and that that good would reside over evil. Wright was a master of dialect and never chose to ignore social problems or economical problems, but addressed them face-on in his works. Most of his readers were probably comforted by Wright's novels, which ensured them that morality was being reinforced in a new age of modernity.
Wright's largest, and by far most dedicated, readership consisted mainly of rural farmers for several reasons. First, the college-educated businessmen of the cities were turned off by Wright's simple narrative and his use of the "preachy message" in his works. It is safe to say that Christianity was suffering in the growth of industrial cities, while rural America struggled to hang on to its religious and moral values. Rural America was confused over the role of religion in their lives; they needed direction and Wright delivered it (Ifkovic, DLB, 1981). Wright's own religious fervor grew from his background, as an orphaned child who constantly moved from family to family. He was a self-taught man, which might explain his simple style and his basic themes. Wright moved to the Ozark Mountains, where most of his novels took place, and began to work as a minister. Years later, Wright left the ministry to follow his passion for writing. Wright began to write his novels with a moral, usually following the beliefs of Christian faith. His style started to take on a preaching affect that promoted what he referred to as "clean living" (Hann, 1989). He also wrote of the mountain folk that surrounded him, and he was eventually rewarded with unprecedented popularity among the "working class" who could relate to the stories told by Wright's characters. Wright had attained his goal of continuing his ministry through his published writings.
While Wright's background certainly played a large part in his success, he gained most of his readership as a result of his publisher's efforts. Elsberry W. Reynolds, owner of the Book Supply Co., saw the possible profit in Wright's writing style and convinced him to sign with the company in 1903, upon the publication year of his first novel. Reynolds became a staunch supporter of Wright's books and used his shrewd business savvy to promote his novels nationwide. The first inkling of sales resulted mainly from word-of-mouth, from neighbor to neighbor. However, soon Wright's upcoming novels were advertised in Christian magazines and free postcards sent to bookstores that ordered his novels. In addition to the increased advertisement, Reynolds had Wright's novels shipped to drug stores and bookstores all over small towns in America, making his the first novels to be sold via mail order. The mass-marketing techniques that Reynolds employed served to make Wright known throughout the country, especially in small, rural towns. Ironically, the Book Supply Co. was located in Chicago, a largely industrial-based city. Wright was living in the Imperial Valley region of California - a largely unpopulated area - during the mainframe of his success.
Wright's unpopularity largely stemmed from his critics, who regarded his simplistic narratives as a "ridiculous mess" and very plainly, "bad book[s]" (Book Review Digest, 1919 and 1921). In comparison to contemporary novels of the time, Wright's works were rather light in content. His rival authors included Zane Grey, Winston Churchill, H.G. Wells, and Eleanor Porter - all of whom were distinguished literary authors in Northern cities of "intellectuals" and college-educated citizens. Such authors had novels with intricate plots and were central to many great themes of literature, which were aimed at the higher-educated reader; Wright was no match. Also, novels on the war came out and claimed much interest of the North and its critics. Harold Bell Wright's meanderings with the theme of good versus evil just seemed too trivial in light of the impending war and its possibilities. However, perhaps that was the reason that his works were so popular in the rural towns; perhaps the men and women of the country needed a break from the seriousness of war and craved the sense of security that Wright provided in his novels. Nevertheless, the bad reviews did NOT seem to have an effect on the sale of Wright's novels; in fact, his greatest sales boom was concurrent with the publications of his worst reviews. This observation goes to show how little reviews can affect a novel's stature when compared with word-of-mouth and good marketing.
Within the end of Wright's popularity as an author - his decline began around the publication of his last best seller, HELEN OF THE OLD HOUSE - the country had changed dramatically and had so forced his readership to alter their views about his writing. With the end of World War I, the men returned home and life was significantly changed. More and more men (and soon women) were becoming college-educated in response to the growing technology of the war and the urge to be in sync with the modern times (Howard and Louis, 1998). It is safe to say that Wright was the one of the last early nineteenth century writers for the "common man." Among the new 1920s morality, including gin, wild parties, and the flapper, Wright could not reassure the younger population of his genteel messages and he lost his appeal in the new industrial America (Ifkovic, DLB, 1991).
The case of Harold Bell Wright's popularity exemplifies the effect that economic and social change in a country can have on an author's success and influence. If we look at what best-sellers today are written about, we could uncover a lot about the culture of our modern times. With our romance novels, science-fiction thrillers, and murder-mysteries, one could generalize quite a bit about our society and its apparent fetish with the cheap, superficial thrill we get from reading them. So it can be concluded that best-sellers can be a reflection of many different influences, mostly those that relate to the society of the time period. Harold Bell Wright didn't fail to "preach" his message of finding God; the times simply were a'changing, just as they will for today's best-sellers with the entrance of a new millennium and new ideals for the growth of our culture.
Hann, Carol. "Harold Bell Wright: Popular California Author." California Book Collector, Vol. 1, No. 2. California: Dan Lewis, 1989.
Howard, Michael and Louis, William R., eds. The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Ifkovic, Edward. "Harold Bell Wright." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945, Part 3: Sandoz-Young. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co., 1981.
Knight, Marion and James, Mertice, eds. Book Review Digest, vol. 15. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1920.
Knight, Marion and James, Mertice, eds. Book Review Digest, vol. 17. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1922.