Though a son of the Midwest, Wright embraced the West as both subject matter and point of view. Living in various parts of Arizona and Southern California, he enjoyed freedom and independence from restrictive Eastern values. Troubled with pulmonary illness, he found the arid Southwest conducive to his health. The desert, as he describes it, is also good for the health of the soul.
The Winning of Barbara Worth was his first hugely popular novel set in the West. Its popularity is easy in some ways to account for. It appeals to a broad audience of readers concerned about core moral and ethical issues that still have a following today. Wright decries the corrupting influence of greed and adopts a Golden Rule style of morality that believes personal gain can be had while advancing the welfare of others.
|Finding Barbara's mother in the desert|
Plot. The central conflict in the novel is between Jefferson Worth, a small town western banker, and James Greenfield, a venture capitalist from New York. Both men are advocates of Good Business, understood as the investment of money and other resources in the making of more money.
Both are major players in a scheme to bring water from the Colorado River to a vast expanse of fertile but arid desert. The story is, in fact, a fictionalized account of the reclamation project that brought irrigation to California’s Imperial Valley in 1901. Greenfield only wants to get rich quick, with as little outlay as possible. Worth, more the visionary, risks all to make the desert a place that profits all its future inhabitants.
Caught between them is a young man, Willard Holmes, Greenfield’s adopted son and chief engineer. Holmes knows from the start that the intake from the river is cheaply constructed and vulnerable to floods. Bound by his loyalty to the company, he says nothing when told to keep his mouth shut. Aware of Greenfield’s devious efforts to drive Worth into bankruptcy, he says nothing of that either.
|Holmes and Barbara|
Worth, however, is far more clever than he seems. At every turn he anticipates and outmaneuvers Greenfield and remains a formidable competitor. And as a self-styled capitalist, he remains true to a principle implied in his name—using capital only in a way that produces lasting social worth, rather than only private wealth.
Eventually, disaster arrives to test both men and both ways of doing business. As it actually happened in 1904, flooding river water broke through the irrigation’s intake system and began pouring into the desert. Filling a vast ancient seabed, the incoming water threatened to inundate the valley.
In the novel, the breach is hurriedly closed after heroic effort by chief engineer Holmes. In actuality, it took two years and numerous failures, while what’s now known as the Salton Sea grew to cover over 500 square miles of low-lying Imperial and Riverside Counties. Over a hundred years, it’s become a cesspool of smelly, algae-thick agricultural runoff, so saline that few fish can survive in it. The novel, of course, describes only the immediate damage done.
|Worth and Greenfield come to terms|
Character. Holmes starts out as a self-satisfied and cultured Easterner, with high-class family connections, top-quality education, and a powerful, wealthy guardian. Though he does not know it, he is also a hollow man. He lacks passion and vision—in a word, a calling.
Wright explores this notion in a roundabout way through Holmes’ relationship with Worth’s adopted daughter, Barbara. A childless widower, Worth has given her a home after finding her as a four-year-old in the desert, near the body of her dead mother.
A spirited horsewoman and loved by the mostly male community, she communes with the desert and talks of it as “hers.” Warmly generous, she speaks Spanish and looks after the welfare of needy Mexican families. Egalitarian and democratic in her sentiments, she regards a Texas cowboy, an Irish immigrant, and a Mexican as “uncles,” who helped Worth rescue her as a child.
Holmes is taken by her, promises but fails to be “square” with her, and does his best to regain her trust. Meanwhile, he falls deeply in love with her, and his work in the desert she loves becomes a daily reminder of her. The desert work at first is a torture for him. Only an inborn stubbornness, a refusal to be shamed by men of stronger character, and a wish to please Barbara keep him going.
Through her—so Wright tells us—Holmes comes to discover his calling. When he remains in the West at the end of the novel, it’s because he has found an inner spirit, ancestral, long buried by the refinements of civilized Eastern living. His “winning” of Barbara Worth marks the achievement of his manhood.
Wrapping up. Wright’s novel is suspensefully plotted. The resolution of one conflict leads quickly to the next one. By pitting two powerful men against each other, he makes the investing of capital in reclamation schemes both entertaining and exciting. Meanwhile, he challenges easy assumptions about how money and influence serve private and public interests.
After the opening chapters, which are somewhat slow going, the book becomes a page-turner. It’s melodramatic and a bit didactic, but its huge popularity at the time is not surprising. In 1926, it was made into a feature film directed by Henry King with Ronald Colman, Vilma Bánky, and Gary Cooper.
The Winning of Barbara Worth is currently available at google books and for kindle and the nook. The film version is available at netflix. Friday's Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.
Source: Harold Bell Wright website
Illustrations: From the novel, by F. Graham Cootes
Coming up: Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)