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13.  God and the Groceryman 


God and the Groceryman, by Harold Bell Wright, dust jacket God and the Groceryman, by Harold Bell Wright

First Edition

Appleton, 1927, red cloth cover, gold letters, greenish gold foil-like dust jacket with E.E.Warren drawing.  First printing has (1) on last page.

Total sales: 198,865

List of editions

Value Guide


Background

By 1927, as the great depression approached, Harold Bell Wright's sales were dramatically down from the old Book Supply Company days, though he was still one of the best selling authors in the world. In this book he returns to Dan Matthews, making sort of a trilogy with The Shepherd of The Hills, where Dan is a teen, and The Calling of Dan Matthews, where Dan is a young pastor. In God and the Groceryman, Dan, now a wealthy but still faithful businessman, funds a non-sectarian Christian ministry.

In my opinion, this book marks the low point in Wright's career, and is the last of his books to sell more than 50,000 copies. Unlike the first two simple and compelling stories, this book is about 10 percent story and 90 percent grumpy lecturing on how to improve American churches. While Wright makes a good point, that churches are only valuable to the extent that they serve people as Jesus did, he could have summed it all up in ten pages or less. The lesson that Wright tries to teach does not flow from the story itself, but is forced from the lips of the characters in seemingly endless and repetitive speeches.

Collecting

This book is decidedly less common than earlier Appleton titles, but still not rare. The foil dust jackets are hard to find. All first editions were produced by Appleton and look exactly like the photos at the top of this page. In all Appleton books, at the end of the last page of text, you will find a printing number. First editions with numbers higher than (1) are, of course, considered not quite as desirable as first printings. Reprints were produced by A.L. Burt, Hodder and Stoughton, and Triangle.

Total sales: 198,865

Review of Book by Dr. Joyce Kinkead  Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission

          After an eighteen year absence, Dan Matthews returns in 1927 in Wright's thirteenth novel, God and the Groceryman, the last book in the Matthews trilogy which begins with The Shepherd of the Hills.  In this more optimistic novel, Wright again attacks the church, but this time he offers a plan for reform, a unified church. However, this novel fails whereas The Calling of Dan Matthews succeeded because the former is more sermon than story.   

          Wright's purpose is to find a solution to the moral bankruptcy and social degeneracy of America, and although he determines the cause of America's problems as the failure of the churches to preach Christianity, his solution is rather unrealistic.  Even though denominational congregations may be dissatisfied with their particular sects, they are not likely to abandon their churches as readily as do the people in Westover, the novel's fictional town.

            The plan to incorporate the churches into one unified body was initiated by Dan Matthews, now a Kansas City millionaire businessman, "the Carnegie of mining."[1]  Dan, feeling that he has failed to be a true Christian even though he has donated money to several good works, decides to perform an experiment in Christianity in an average American town, Westover.  He sends his friend and confidential agent, John Saxton, to begin inspecting the town for the religious enterprise.  When Saxton arrives in Westover, the local businessmen see the presence of the wealthy man as a possible means for their own good fortune.  However, they also feel impending doom, for the home lives of these men are unsettling as they feel that their families are falling apart.  And so they tell polite lies to each other.  Their children drink bootleg liquor and dance (God, p. 219); their wives have affairs and substitute clubs of all types for family life (God, p. 78); and the men drink liquor and try to appear prosperous for the good of their families (God, p. 103).

            Wright studies one family in particular, the Paddocks.  Joe Paddock is a groceryman and a director of one of the banks.  His life is upset though by his wife, Laura Louise, who has an affair with a cultured novelist, who actually only wrote one worthless book.  His daughter Georgia is basically "a good girl," but she is driven to drink and wild parties after she discovers her mother with a lover.  The only content Paddocks are the grandparents who have remained on the farm and kept religion in their lives.  Each leading Westover family has basically the same problem, but it is not until the banker's son is killed in an automobile accident that the leading citizens realize that the town's moral situation must be changed.  They recognize that it is not the bootleggers or taverns that are responsible for the boy's death; the fault lies with the parents and the church for not being better instructors.

            When the five businessmen, whom Saxton has already met, decide to take action, they go to him and find that his business enterprise is actually a religious enterprise.  Together, with Dan Matthews, they plan a church which has no denominational ties, no membership, no dues, and follows the simple teachings of Christ.  At first scoffed and ridiculed by the denominational ministers, the church rapidly gains acceptance by the townspeople who appreciate the church's purpose.  As Dan's elaborate statistics show, only one out of every five dollars given to the church actually goes toward good works, and the other four dollars is spent on the machinations of the church (God, p. 27).  A good business would never operate in such a manner.  All of the charity work for the town has to be done by an association especially designed for that purpose or by organizations such as the Elks, Rotary, or Kiwanis.  The town, much like Babbitt's Zenith, even has a Booster's Club to promote the community's industry, and every businessman is expected to do his part (God, p. 42).  However, there is no religion associated with these clubs, and Wright stresses that there must be Christianity in all that the people do, even in business.  The new church, which has been totally funded by Matthews, gives any donations it receives to charitable cases.  As usual, Wright provides a sympathetic family whose son serves as delivery boy for Paddock.  Both of the boy's parents are temporarily disabled and have been taken off the church roll since they have not paid their dues.  The son is driven to delivering bootleg liquor and, finally, stealing to provide for his parents and family.  Fortunately, Paddock realizes that here is the opportunity to practice his Christianity, and thus he finances the family until the parents can return to work, which they do.  That family, like many others who have fallen on hard times, becomes bitter toward the church, but the family members' faith is renewed when they attend the unified church where money does not matter.

            Although Paddock's family suffers through several confrontations between family members, they survive because of his determination to return Christianity to the home.  Paddock, like his friends and business associates, is tired of the constant rivalry of the denominations and the modern minister who is, he says,

            ten per cent social visitor, tea drinker and diner-out; five per cent handyman and speaker for all kinds of boosting clubs; five per cent political henchman; twenty per cent denominational advocate; five per cent protector and comforter of that portion of his membership who, because their deeds will not bear the light, must live under the cloak of the Church; and fifty per cent public entertainer.  The remaining five per cent of him is the teacher of the truths of Jesus, which, alone constitutes one hundred per cent of Christianity. (God, pp. 165-66) 

            As the churches attempt to draw more members, these institutions become places of public entertainment.  Somewhat parallel to Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, the book catalogs the church programs advertised in the Sunday newspaper:  "An Up-to-date Jazz Band Furnishes the Music at Services," "Broncho Jack, Here to Hog-tie Souls of Men," "An Ex-Governor to Occupy Pulpit," and "The Go-Getter Church" (God, pp. 171-173).  The churches rely on athletes turned ministers, illustrated talks of China, and movies to capture the attention of the people.  They are actually alienating the people who want to hear Christianity preached.  Rather than tending to their congregations, the ministers are interested in making religion pay.  The church money spent in missionary work "opened up those heathen countries to our commerce until the return in dollars and cents were already a thousand times more than the total cost of the work" (God, p. 60).

            The reviewers of this novel note the cynicism of Wright's attitude toward churches, but they also think his solution to the problem is too simplistic.  One reviewer writes about Wright:  "He places everything that is wrong on the doorstep of Twentieth Century Christianity.  Like Sinclair Lewis, he believes the Church of Jesus to be flabby with divines who have nothing to say and say it vulgarly."[2]  Wright follows Lewis' pattern of putting the novel's major character in a town to illuminate its faults, in this case to point to the lack of religion.  The same technique is evident in The Calling of Dan Matthews.

            Another reviewer finds that Wright, in order to accomplish his purpose, has practically abandoned "the pleasant fields of fiction for the less luscious plains of statistic and propaganda."[3]  Wright retains his love story, adding a near rape of Georgia Paddock, a rather liberal move for the author.  A more detailed and accurate critique of the novel is given by Leon Whipple:

            Wright surpasses Sinclair's seriousness of the propagandist with his seriousness of the theological seminar.  He was an Ozark mountain-preacher and still is.  His importance is not artistic, but social, for his books sold by the carload and supported a special publisher.  His vogue invites attention for it is millions-wide.  He has a narrative gift, a kind of popular sentimentality tempered with common sense, and a style that is a mosaic of phrases that people understand from long usage in books.  He is clean, simple and naive.  He here combines a slight story of conflict between the generations with pages of harangue against the evils of denominationalism.  He stages debates between characters and writes Platonic dialogues.  His characters have different faces but the voice is the voice of Wright.  He is a ventriloquist whose ideas and accent remain the same whether projected from the dummy of golden-haired Mary of black Sambo.  The book is as bitter against the church as Elmer Gantry [sic], and often more pointed.  It will prove useful in that his large clientele must certainly absorb the idea that their literary pastor is disgusted with functionless sectarianism and the failure of the Church either to preach spiritual salvation or offer social succor.  That this is all that is the matter with the Church I cannot agree, nor do I find in his remedy of the united community church an answer that seems to carry very far.[4] 

            In the review by the New York Times, Wright is referred to as "the mouthpiece of a multitude."  This is because he reflects the opinions of the masses.  When Wright says that the people of Westover are not content with religion, he actually means that Americans are not content.  The twenties was a difficult period for the American people, who recovered from a war, drank bathtub gin, and adopted a new set a values.  The fictional town of Westover cannot escape from these problems or from the new freedom of the younger generation, especially the freedom of the women.

            One advertisement for the book reflects the insecurity of the decade and asks:

            Is God being crowded out of American life?  Are we losing the deep religious background that has played so important a part in moulding [sic] a nation?  In his new novel, "God and the Groceryman," Harold Bell Wright shows what is happening today in thousands of American homes.  An amazingly interesting and absorbing story of people you know, the people who live round the corner or up and down your street, and behind it all a message filled with hope and inspiration.[5] 

            God and the Groceryman is not as well written as Wright's previous novels, for he dwells on criticism of the church rather than mixing criticism with plot as he did in The Printer of Udell's and The Calling of Dan Matthews.  In fact, Dan Matthews is only present in about one-fifth of the novel as he chooses to remain in Kansas City so that the new church will not become associated with one man.  The contrast between the second and third novels in the Matthews trilogy is shockingly apparent.  In the space of twenty years, the horse and buggy of The Calling of Dan Matthews has been scrapped for the automobile, and morals of the characters have changed from Victorian to flapper in God and the Groceryman.

            Wright's choice of titles for this novel is unfortunate, though the analogy of the groceryman Matthews uses is appropriate.  He likens the groceryman to a church member who must learn to recognize and acknowledge God in all things, just as the groceryman recognizes the importance of produce, money, and the grocery store; each is just a link in a chain (God, pp. 22-23).  In this case, Wright's purpose is not to write a good novel but to deliver his sermon on the evils of denominational worship.  He does so with a rather heavy hand.  This book best serves as an accurate picture of the religious attitudes prevalent during the twenties and the unification movement which tried to reform the churches.  Once again, Wright proves himself an apt social commentator, concerned with the lower, middle, and upper classes who are disturbed by the role of the church in the American society.  Although the argument sustains interest, the story does not.

 


    [1]Harold Bell Wright, God and the Groceryman (New York:  A. L. Burt, 1927), p. 25.  Subsequent references to this book will be incorporated into the body of the text as God and pagination.

    [2]Rev. of God and the Groceryman, by Harold Bell Wright, New York Times Book Review, 7 Aug. 1927, pp. 13, 16.

    [3]Gladys Graham, rev. of God and the Groceryman, by Harold Bell Wright, Saturday Review of Literature, 26 Nov. 1927, p. 347.

    [4]Leon Whipple, "Some Like Them Hot," rev. of God and the Groceryman, by Harold Bell Wright, Survey, 1 Oct. 1927, p. 52.

    [5]Advertisement of God and the Groceryman, by Harold Bell Wright, New York Times Book Review, 31 July 1927, p. 15.

Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

 

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