Harold Bell Wright
April 1, 1988
Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Harold Bell Wright: Storyteller to America.
By Lawrence V. Tagg. Tucson: Westernlore Press, 1986. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. 197 Pages. $14.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Raymond Starr, Professor of History at San Diego State University and author of San Diego: A Pictorial History (1986).
There is in San Diego’s Greenwood Memorial Park an urn set in a bed of Imperial Valley sand; it contains the ashes of Harold Bell Wright. It would be interesting to know how many people in San Diego today know who Wright was, and how important he was to American popular culture through the 1920s. With the appearance of Lawrence Tagg’s Harold Bell Wright: Storyteller to America, San Diegans now have a chance to find out.
Who was this man? He was, from the 1910s through the 1920s, one of the best selling writers in the United States. With titles like The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911) or The Re-Creation of Brian Kent (1919), he was so successful that between 1911 and 1923 he ranked 3rd, 3rd, 6th, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 6th, 3rd, 10th and 7th on the best seller lists. In addition, between 1916 and 1963 a dozen movies were made from his books. What made Wright’s books so successful in that period? Tagg thinks it was their message, which was a sort of applied Christianity coupled with traditional small town American values. It should be noted, however, that while Wright was beloved by the book buying public, he was never taken seriously by academics or critics. One result of that has been the absence of much serious writing about Wright in the forty years since his death.
The man who produced this extremely popular literature began his life in New York in 1872 in a very unstable family situation, which caused a most difficult childhood. In time Wright overcame the tribulations of his youth and became a minister in the Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church. After some years as a preacher, Wright concluded that he could best convey his ministry through his gift for storytelling. Thus from about 1910 on, Wright devoted his life to his writings. Although he left the pulpit, he never left the ministry, as his writings always reflected his religious and social views. Indeed, the extent to which one likes Wright’s books (or Tagg’s biography) will depend somewhat on how comfortable you are with those values.
Wright came into the San Diego picture in the latter part of his life. In his early life he moved from New York to Ohio to the Ozarks, and then on to the Southwest. He headquartered for years in Tucson where he is remembered as a contributing citizen of that community. He came in 1915 to El Centre and fell in love with the Imperial Valley, which he used as the setting for Barbara Worth. He later wrote Brian Kent in Riverside, although he never developed the connections there which he found in El Centre. As his health began to fail in the 1930s, Wright more or less retired from writing and moved to a pleasant little farm in Escondido. In 1944, as his health further declined, he planned to move into San Diego to be near better medical facilities. Before he was completely moved, he died at age 72 in Scripps Memorial Hospital.
Lawrence Tagg has done us a service in describing Wright’s life (and his San Diego-area connections) and significance. While all may not share the author’s acceptance of Wright’s values and ideas (Tagg is himself a minister), the book is still a credible piece of work. There are, however, a few problems. Often Tagg speaks of Wright pieces as though every reader knew them intimately; some brief plot summaries would have been helpful. At other times it is a little hard to follow the story because of the need for more dates and signposts. The author also needed to rely a little more on his own analysis and a little less on the quotations of others. At times the book becomes a pastiche of quotations which makes it read like a graduate student’s paper. Tagg could also have been more thorough in explaining the popularity of Wright, especially in the 1920s. Roderick Nash’s The Nervous Generation (1970), in which Nash argues that a troubled “nervous” America in the 1920s was seeking a reaffirmation of old and familiar values, might have been a good starting point for that analysis. These criticisms aside, Harold Bell Wright: Storyteller to America gives us a good account of Wright, his life, what he stood for, and his role in American popular culture. The book also gives readers of the Journal of San Diego History a good opportunity to learn about the man whose remains are in an urn in a local cemetery.