THE ROBE by Lloyd C. Douglas is one of the greatest bestsellers of all time, hitting the bestseller list of the twentieth century at number 43, with over 6 million copies sold, and topping the annual bestseller lists for four years (Hackett). The original publisher printed it at least 65 times, and there are over 18 editions from other publishers. At least 10 translations into other languages have been made, several of which have many editions. Readership is estimated at roughly 25 million (Wilson). It has been made into a major motion picture by Fox Video, spawned a sequel in that same media, and has been adapted for stage, radio, and children's stories. Yet in no way is it considered a literary masterpiece; contemporary reception, what little of it there was, tended to criticize the book rather than proclaim it (see Section 4, Contemporary Reception, for more information).
What is it, then, that makes THE ROBE a bestseller of enormous magnitude? There are several factors that play into the immense popularity of the novel. Lloyd C. Douglas was already a prominent best-selling author of the time, and undoubtedly his name helped to sell copies of the book. Advertising copy from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, helped to push sales of the book through its very convincing and elaborate marketing scheme. It also seems that the book just happened to be in the right place at the right time; when it was published in late 1942, the United States was on the brink of the Second World War in 15 years. THE ROBE's Christian moral and happily-ever-after storyline kept reader's minds off of the impending strife. Most of these qualities can be seen as tendencies or genres in the marketplace for best-selling fiction. Yet THE ROBE also creates a category of its own. Of all of the bestsellers on the lists for the twentieth century, THE ROBE is the only one to have topped the list in non-consecutive years over a decade apart; after its initial fame in the mid-1940s, THE ROBE again reached number one in 1956 after the release of the motion picture. In this essay, all of these factors will be analyzed regarding their role in the making of the bestseller status of THE ROBE.
Perhaps the most important factor in the sales of THE ROBE was the popularity of the author himself. Lloyd C. Douglas had begun his writing career 13 years earlier with the bestseller MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, which hit the charts in 1932. This novel was followed by more and more bestsellers, which included FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES in 1933, GREEN LIGHT in 1935, DISPUTED PASSAGE in 1939 and THE ROBE in 1942. Due to the success of his earlier novels, Dr. Douglas had already created a following of readers, who would probably have purchased his novels due to the sheer fact that they had read and enjoyed his previous works. This quality of "Author Recognition" places him aside such authors as Stephen King and Danielle Steele of the 1990's; as Douglas continued to pump out the novels, they continued to top the bestseller lists. It is important to note, however, that none of these novels received praise from the critics, and often didn't receive anything at all; THE ROBE and other bestsellers by Douglas were given bestseller status by the choice and the tastes of the readers themselves.
Although Douglas' name was sure to have helped sales of THE ROBE, it could not have been responsible for all of the popularity that THE ROBE received. After all, THE ROBE was by leaps and bounds Douglas' most successful novel, the only one the reach the number one spot, an achievement it claimed for over 14 months. For this reason, there is obviously something else that helped to push THE ROBE that was missing in Douglas' other books. Initially, sales were spurred by advertisements by the publisher. Houghton Mifflin continued to advertise THE ROBE for three consecutive years, and as they claim in the June 1942 issue of Publisher's Weekly, money allocated to advertising THE ROBE was "the largest pre-publication figure [they had] ever set for a novel". Edmund Wilson, in his article for the New Yorker in August 1943, jeers at Houghton Mifflin's decision to launch a new advertising campaign over 13 months after the book was originally published, saying that "one sometimes gets the impression that they have ceased to publish any other books." It is obvious, then, that the publishers did their fair amount of work in pushing THE ROBE to super-stardom; their plethora of PR helped to place the novel in the public spotlight.
Douglas himself had a theory about the astronomical sales of THE ROBE. He claims that any non-sect oriented Christian story about Jesus Christ is sure to be a success, and he allies his book with other bestsellers such as BEN HUR (Wilson). In a later interview, he told Newsweek that he believed that "the overwhelming popularity of THE ROBE [in the U.S.] and in England is due to a growing spiritual awareness." In fact, there are several Christian novels that have made the bestseller lists in the twentieth century; among these are predecessors to THE ROBE such as Sholem Asch's THE NAZARENE and H.W. Freeman's JOSEPH AND HIS BRETHREN. Although these examples prove that the Christian-fiction genre already existed in bestseller history when Douglas began his writing career, the success of THE ROBE helped to elevate the genre to a sure-bet best-selling success. After THE ROBE was published in 1942, several other novelists followed in Douglas' footsteps, and in the 1940's we see other Christian novels such as Russell Janney's THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS in 1947 and Mika Waltari's THE EGYPTIAN in 1949 hitting the bestseller lists (Hackett).
The success of THE ROBE may also be due in part to luck. THE ROBE was published in October of 1942, at the onset of World War Two; it remained on the bestseller lists throughout the war. THE ROBE preaches a peaceful Christian doctrine of tolerance and love, a doctrine that is in many ways opposed to the manslaughter and violence of war. One critic claimed that THE ROBE reminded him of an "old-fashioned historical novel" (Wilson) and it seems that this is exactly what the people wanted; they wanted to return to old-fashioned ideas and forget the problems that arose in the modern world. In this light, THE ROBE can be seen to belong to the genre of escapist fiction that often tops the bestseller lists; the novel allowed its readers to hide in its pages and turn a cold shoulder on the strife that surfaced around them in the world. There are many other novels in this genre; think of Eleanor Porter's POLLYANNA or Booth Tarkington's SEVENTEEN, both of which were published during the First World War and both of which totally ignore it. This escapist fiction seems to play the role of the anecdote to the hatred and violence in the world; it tries to foster in readers the feelings of love, happiness and compassion that are felt to be missing in times of war. For this reason, escapist fiction that carries a moral can also be seen as the forerunner of the self-help book fad of the 1970's. THE ROBE subtly helps people to think in a more Christian framework; although Douglas does not directly preach to his readers or tell them how to think, as a self-help author would, his plot and his moral help readers to feel rejuvenated in their convictions of peace.
All of these reasons helped to propel THE ROBE to bestseller status in 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945. After its three-plus year stint on the bestseller lists, sales of THE ROBE dropped below the best-selling line. But in 1956, the novel once again topped the charts, a phenomenon which, to date, belongs only to THE ROBE. The book topped the charts for a second time over 10 years after its original publication; this spike in sales directly correlates with the release of Fox Video's motion picture adaptation of the book. It is interesting to look at the context in which the motion picture was released; in the three years preceding the release of the film, the number one bestseller for non-fiction had been the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible (Hackett). Perhaps this is why Fox Video chose to adapt THE ROBE into film; they saw that a religious trend was sweeping the nation and decided, as any good capitalist would, to play into it. This revival in the sales of the novel points to the huge effect that other medias can have on sales. The release in 1956 of the motion picture no doubt spurred sales in that year to best-selling quantities, but it also probably has had unrecorded residual effects on sales even now, almost 45 years from its release. In a review on Amazon.com posted in February of 2000, a consumer confessed to not having read the book, claiming that she has "seen the movie and it was really enchanting. [She encourages] you to read this novel, it must be good."
Perhaps it is thorough the movie that THE ROBE achieved the recognition and popularity that it holds on to today. But perhaps not. THE ROBE has many other qualities that have sustained many other bestsellers throughout the twentieth century-it is the product of a popular author, published by a large publishing house, written to fit under the genres of historical Christian and escapist fiction. Its timeless setting and Christian morals allow the novel to be relevant to even today's readers; its message transcends cultural, political and global change. THE ROBE, although not one of the greatest literary masterpieces of all time, is nonetheless one of the greatest bestsellers of all time; it is a book written for people, not critics, and it is the people that have made it a bestseller.
Douglas, Lloyd C. The Robe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942.
Hackett, Alice Payne. Best Sellers in the Bookstores: 1900-1975.
Hackett, Alice Payne. 80 Years of Bestsellers, 1895-1975. New York: R. K. Bower and Company, 1977.
Wilson, Edmund. "Inquiry into a Current Bestseller: The Robe." The New Yorker: August 26, 1944: p 58-62.
"Inside The Robe." Newsweek: July 19, 1943: p.66-68.
Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 142, No. 14