Thursday, November 3, 2011

Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911)

As few but historians of popular fiction will know, Harold Bell Wright (1872-1944) was once a best-selling author. Five of his novels show up on the Publishers Weekly top-ten list for the years 1910-1919. He is remembered as the first American novelist to sell a million copies of a single book and the first to make a million dollars as a writer.

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 B├ínky, 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.

Illustrations: From the novel, by F. Graham Cootes

Coming up: Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)


  1. I am glad you reviewed this important novel in depth. It exemplifies a strand of western fiction that has vanished. The values found in modern genre westerns are virtually the opposite. Thank you not only for this, but for the brief biography of that earnest idealist Harold Bell Wright.

  2. I checked this novel out of the library while I was in high school, but I gave up on it after 2 or three chapters, the reason being all the typos and misprints of that particular edition. I'm sorry to say I never tried it again, but you make it sound more interesting and I may go at it again.

    I have some good beachfront property to offer you.

    Oh, yeah, where?

    On the Salton Sea.

    This was a joke among local realtors for awhile.

  3. I've got Barbara on my Kindle now and I'm ready to go! Didn't read your review closely (yet), but thanks for influencing me to get this one.

  4. Patti, book illustrators often created lovely illustrations of female characters in these old western novels, but this is the only one I can think of who made it to the cover.

    Richard, thanks for the comment. I've written more about this interesting book and hope to see it soon as a chapter in a book from me about all these early westerns.

    Oscar, I gave up on this one maybe a year ago because it seemed to get off to such a slow start and seemed outside my interest at the time; I'm glad I finally tried it again.

    Bybee, I'm planning to watch the 1926 film that was based on the book, which has been released on DVD as an early Gary Cooper classic. Look for a review of that here, too.

  5. Rather a Gibson girlish look on the Barbara drawings. Everyone seems to have a pretty emphatically metaphorical name. And, of course, the Salton Sea is a magnet for some of the more transient folks of California and eventually elsewhere...because of the near-anarchy of the settlements around it.

  6. A character in each of two John Steinbeck novels was described as reading 'Barbara Worth' HBW was Ronald Reagan's favorite author. His books had values. I want to bring this novel to the screen, and include an epilogue wherein we describe How to save The Salton Sea. The silent film of 1926 failed to shoot the denoument of the novel: Harriman's historic fight w/Colorado.