HAROLD B. WRIGHT,
NOVELIST, 72, DEAD
Preacher of the Ozarks
Huge Fortune as Author,
Though Scorned by Critics
BOOKS SOLD IN MILLIONS
"Winning of Barbara
and "Shepherd of the Hills"
His Most Successful Works
SAN DIEGO, CALIF., MAY 24, (AP)
--Harold Bell Wright who left the pulpit to become one of America's best
known and wealthiest fiction writers, died today in a La Jolla, Calif.,
hospital. He was 72 years old. Mr. Wright became ill two weeks
ago and entered the hospital last week. Death was attributed to
bronchial pneumonia. His wife was at the bedside when he died.
Only last month he sold his $70,-
000 ranch home, known as Quiet Hills Farm, near Escondido, thirty miles
northeast of here, and moved to San Diego.
While critics heaped words of scorn upon Harold Bell
Wright as a purveyor of sweetness and light, millions of Americans avidly
read every word he wrote. Several years ago his publisher, Harper
& Bros., audited the record of his books' sales and found that an
average of 737,443 copies were sold of each of his first twelve novels, a
total of nearly 10,000,000 copies. At that time more than 2,000,000
copies each had been sold of "The Shep-
herd of the Hills" and "The Win-
ning of Barbara Worth."
These figures were Mr. Wright's answer to the critics,
whom he sedulously ignored over the years. With candor he insisted
that he was essentially not a novelist but a preacher, and his proudest
boast was that all his books were wholesome and clean, the kind that
anybody's sister could read. Appar-
ently, at one time or another nearly everybody's sister did.
Although no exact figures are available as to the
amount of money Mr. Wright made from his writings, it was obviously a
large fortune. Yet he was a most unostentatious man, who spurned the
big cities all his life and preferred the open spaces of the West.
The story of his life was as ro-
mantic and uplifting as that of any of his heroes, and it was as typically
American in its adherence to the old-fashioned formula for success as any
Horatio Alger might have conceived.
Tells of Family Life
He was born May 4, 1872, at Rome, N. Y., the son
of William A. and Anna Watson Wright. His father and mother had
married while the former was a young lieutenant right after the Civil
War. Mr. Wright, in his autobiography says his father was a drunkard
and a ne'er do well, who dragged his family from one squalid home to
another and squandered what little he earned in drink.
When Mr. Wright was 11 years old his mother died, and
there followed a period of wandering with his father and existence in
slums of the worst kind. He worked at hard labor, often at jobs
beyond his strength. Eventually he reached Hiram, Ohio, where he
worked in a book store for the privilege of reading as many books as he
could. He also attended the preparatory school of Hiram College,
apparently the only formal schooling for any extended length of time.
As a boy Mr. Wright adored his mother, and in later
years always gave her memory credit for his success. He was
determined to do something for her sake. At first, in Hiram, having
read Ruskin, he decided to be an artist. Acquiring some paints, he
went to the Ozarks, near Lebanon, MO., where he hoped to paint landscapes.
There one day friends urged him to take the pulpit when the
local preacher failed to appear.
"I thought," said the author, "that I could do
as well as the minister I had heard a few Sundays before on the text, 'Ye
are the salt of the earth but if the salt has lost its savor, wherewith
shall it be salted.?' So I mounted the rostrum and preached.
They kept me preaching for years."
One of his reasons for going to Missouri was that in Ohio an
attack of pneumonia had temporarily caused him to lose his eyesight and
when it was recovered he went on a canoeing trip to regain his
health. He liked the Ozarks and its people. For ten
years he preached to them, without benefit of college degree or
theological seminary education. He then accepted a call to the Forest
Avenue Baptist Church in Kansas City. It was there he began to
Wrote for Congregation
Mr. Wright's first book, "That Printer of Udell's"
was done in installments to read to his congregation. It was so
popular his friends insisted upon its being pub-
lished. That was in 1903. From then on writing occupied most
of his time. His books, like the sermons he preached to the Ozark
folk, were simply worded and "plain food for plain people."
In the meantime he had occupied pulpits in Pierce City, Mo.,
Pittsburg, Kan., and Lebanon, Mo., but in 1908 he moved to California,
where he was briefly a minister in Redlands. When he gave up
preaching in 1908 he settled at El Centro in the Imperial Valley.
There he wrote "The Calling of Dan Matthews" (1909), "The
Uncrowned King" (1910), and his perennially popular "The Winning
of Barbara Worth" (1911).
His books at first were published in Chicago, and his
publisher there tried to get him to live in that city.
"I told him I wouldn't think of it," Wright
said. "I preferred the des-
ert; the city overwhelmed me. I went to Chicago once and I hadn't
been there an hour when I wanted to know when the next train left for the
His New York publisher later brought him to New York upon
rare occasions. Reporters liked him, found him a refreshingly simple
man, who steadfastly refused to talk about his fellow-writers or answer
his critics, or even to defend himself as a writer.
Always he said his novels were thinly veiled sermons, and
said they were written because in most churches "the religion of
Christ is so far forgotten that it rarely en-
HAROLD BELL WRIGHT
The New York Times, 1934
ters into the life
of the communi-
Others of his successful novels were "God and the
Groceryman," "The Recreation of Brian Kent," "The Mine
With the Iron Door," "Helen of the Old House," and
"The Eyes of the World."
In 1916 his constant fight with ill health, which had dogged
him since childhood, sent him to Arizona to live. There he rode with
the cow- boys in their roundups and wild- horse chases, until he broke a
leg in an accident. He went to a Tucson hospital. His leg
healed but he developed tuberculosis.
Autobiography in 1934
Despite his bad health he managed to complete a novel he had
agreed to finish--"When a Man's a Man"--writing 135,000 words between February and May in order to meet a publishing deadline. He
left the hospital to go to a ranch during the time to get technical details he needed.
In 1934 appeared "To My Sons," an autobiography in
the form of letters to his sons. In it he made his strongest self
"You, my sons," he wrote, "know that I do not
think very highly of myself as a writer. Therefore you will not
charge me with anything like false modesty when I say that it is quite
impossible for me to consider my work in terms of literature. I
count myself but a sorry bungler. The best I have been able to do is
develop a little of my own faltering technique.
"I have never in my work looked toward a place in
literature. But I have hoped for some small part in the life of the
people for whom I have written. I have not coveted those honors that
are bestowed upon the literary great. I have de-
sired to rank only with my own people--the people of whom I am one and to
whom I belong as wholly today as I did in those years when I labored with
the tools of a stone quarry instead of a pen.
"I am not concerned as to whether or not my books will
live after I am gone. If any book of mine shall live it is because
it meets some vital need in human life.
"If I have succeeded in touching the lives of those for
whom I have written, in any degree, as my moth-
er touched my life, I ask for no bet-
ter immortality." After a silence of eight years his last book,
a novel, "The Man Who Went Away," was published in 1942.
Mr. Wright married Miss Frances E. Long of Buffalo, N. Y., in
1899. She was the mother of his three sons, Gilbert M., Paul W., and
man H. Wright. In 1920 the Wrights were divorced in San Die-
go. A short time later he married Mrs. Winifred Mary Potter Duncan
of Los Angeles.
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