Harold Bell Wright’s “That Printer of Udell’s”

BLOG #2, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #37
HAROLD BELL WRIGHT’S THAT PRINTER OF UDELL’S
January 14, 2015

Many of you responded to last week’s blog overwhelmingly urging me to hold the course and extend the life of our book club for another year. Everyone appeared pleased that last week’s blog had a convenient listing of authors and their books; this way, if you’d missed certain books you could secure them, read them, and add them to your library. And new book club members could begin with whatever titles they wished.

Several of you specifically mentioned your love of Harold Bell Wright’s books, and how, ever since we featured Wright’s The Calling of Dan Matthews, you’d been acquiring other titles bearing his name. This tied in perfectly with my growing conviction (over the last month) that it was time to revisit Wright, this time featuring what I felt to be his greatest book.

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“First Edition cover with tipped-in illustration”

Back in the early 1970s, when, choosing a doctoral dissertation topic at Vanderbilt University, my first choice was Wright. Unfortunately, I discovered several other doctoral dissertations had already been written about Wright’s significance, so I reluctantly moved on to Fyodor Dostoevsky, then eventually to Zane Grey.

To History of Ideas (my doctoral emphasis) scholars, Wright fascinates because he is central to the Social Gospel movement that began in America during the 1890s. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist clergyman and theological professor, articulated the philosophical base for the movement in books such as Christianity and the Social Crises (1907), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), and A Theology of the Social Gospel (1917). But far more influential (in terms of impact on the popular culture) than he was Charles Sheldon (a Topeka pastor who penned In His Steps, first published in 1896). It has sold several million copies and remains in print today. But it would be Wright who would take the movement to its zenith in his extremely popular romances: That Printer of Udell’s (1903), The Calling of Dan Matthews (1909), Helen of the Old House (1921), and the increasingly rare God and the Groceryman (1929).

The premise of the movement, born as it was during America’s greedy Gilded Age, was that the Jesus of the Gospels was not the least bit interested in doctrine or church politics, but rather His entire earthly ministry was dedicated to humble selfless service to others, mainly the common people, those most in need. His ministry was all-inclusive—no one, not even lepers, criminals, prostitutes, Romans, outcasts, or gentiles, were excluded. Yet, thoughtful people, especially Protestant pastors such as Charles Sheldon, Harold Bell Wright, and Henry Van Dyke, couldn’t help but notice the glaring disconnect bedtween Jesus’ caring ministry and the pompous, self-righteous, smug, arrogant church leaders and members of the time, who apparently had not the least interest in following in Christ’s footsteps service-wise. These ministers early on, discovered that abstractions didn’t work with their congregations; only as they sugar-coated them in Story would their listeners take them seriously and internalize them. Only recently have scholars realized that the first four centuries after Christ (during which time over a quarter of the Roman Empire turned Christian), Post-Apostolic church leaders and members’ entire theology was the Didache, based on Christ’s answer to the oft-posed question, “What do I have to do to be saved?”

‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the other commandments and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.’
–Matthew 22:37-40

In my second book on the life and ministry of St. Nicholas, I noted that contemporaries labeled this spiritual emphasis as “The Way of Life,” or the Didache, and I quote D. L. Cann, in this respect:

The imperial and provincial governments offered no regular social service programs—people simply had to take care of themselves or starve. Into that abyss of human need, ignored by provincial and imperial authorities, stepped the Christian communities. Led by bishops, priests, deaconesses, and deacons, the faithful carried out their ministry to the urban poor. The Christian churches of the first four centuries provided hospice care for the sick, as well as support for widows, orphans and the unfortunate. . . . From the teachings in the Gospels, the Christians, and young Nicholas with them, cultivated a strong sense of responsibility to care for the souls and bodies of those in need.

No wonder Christianity was turning the world upside down!
–Saint Nicholas, by Joe Wheeler (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2010, pp. 5-7).

Illustration from P. 191 of First Edition

Illustration from P. 191 of First Edition

Thus writers such as Wright wove the essence of the Didache into novels such as That Printer of Udell’s, a book I consider one of the most significant seminal books of the last century and a half.

Historians of Ideas note that Wright published the book in 1903, before automobiles, airplanes, electricity, indoor plumbing, radio, and electronics revolutionized society. Horses and buggies, privies, candle-or lantern-lit homes, children forced to work as adults, terrible pollution, abysmal medical conditions, education more often than not limited to only a couple of years—in short: the world Wright captures in this riveting novel. In it, Wright’s protagonists attempt to live by the question, “What would Jesus do if He were in my place?” And juxtaposed, the “Christians” who ridiculed those who would dared to live by Christ’s Didache.

If you want to dig deeper into Wright, I suggest you track down Lawrence V. Tagg’s Harold Bell Wright: Storyteller to America (Tucson, Arizona: Westernlore Press, 1985). In it, you will discover that Wright himself endured all that was worst in society during his early life, but miraculously rose above it.

There are many editions of That Printer of Udell’s, but for all you bibliophiles who cherist first editions, I urge you to track down at least a VG copy of the book: That Printer of Udell’s A Story of the Middle West (Chicago: The Book Supply Company, 1902). It will incorporate 9 splendid illustrations by John Clitheroe Gilbert and a tipped-in cover illustration (hand-glued on).

Will be most interested in your reactions to the book. If you’re like me, you’ll return to it again and again.

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Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club — Charles Sheldon’s “In His Steps”

BLOG #34, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB
CHARLES SHELDON’S IN HIS STEPS
August 22, 2012

Somehow this summer has just galloped away from me! So much so that I forgot July’s Book of the Month, and all but forgot August’s as well. The mere fact that no one jogged my memory about the omission makes me wonder how many of our readers are seriously into reading our selections. So belatedly, here is September’s selection.

“For hereunto were ye called: because Christ also
suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye
should follow his steps.”
1 Peter 2:21

1897 Edition

In 1889, a young minister named Charles M. Sheldon founded the Central Congregational Church of Topeka, Kansas. Profoundly convicted that it was long past time for Christians everywhere to forsake their doctrinal warfare against each other and instead—really study Christ’s example while on this earth: in short, our Lord’s example of humble selfless service for others. The 1890’s produced a veritable explosion of interest in Christ’s Didoche (one is saved, not by doctrine or creed, but by loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, and unconditionally loving and serving one’s neighbor)—and, of course, by the Cross.

1899 Edition

Sheldon couldn’t help but notice that Story was about the only thing that caused his parishioners to be faithful in their attendance, so he began packaging his Social Gospel sermons in story serializations. Presto! Church attendance swelled. Each chapter would conclude with a fictional cliffhanger of sorts—so people naturally had to show up for the next installment. The core of the story had to do with the question, What would Jesus do? were He faced with the same circumstances and decisions the parishioners were.

As Sheldon read his story to his congregation, a religious weekly of Topeka published it serially, gathering the chapters together in a paper-bound book in 1897. Within two years In His Steps went through five editions. In 1899, ten different publishers, finding a flaw in Sheldon’s copyright, and disregarding the central premise of the book, What would Jesus do?, unleashed a veritable torrent of new editions, not paying its author a dime. It was then pirated overseas as well. But one good thing resulted from all this chicanery: it became one of the best-selling books of all time. 115 years later, it is still selling.

1900 Edition

If you have not yet read it, now is the time! Do let me know what you think of it.

Sources:

Hart, James D., The Popular Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
Mott, Frank Luther, Golden Multitudes (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947).

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

PROPOSED: DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

For Oct. 26, 2011

“Read the best books first, or you may not have

a chance to read them at all.”

                                                                        —Thoreau

Last week’s blog on the Williamsons’ travel books appears to have started something totally unexpected.  Or perhaps it would be more apt to say “restarted.”  Our daughter Michelle suggested I organize a series of blogs having to do with my favorite books—and I had a tough time sleeping that night.  Should I devote one blog a month to a favorite book?  I’ve since become convicted that I ought to do just that.

Former students of mine who are kind enough to check in with the daily tweets and weekly blogs will remember that for years I taught such courses as Great Books of the World and Modern and Contemporary Literature, as well as individualized Directed Reading courses.  Many of you actually took some of those courses.  In those courses, I had the opportunity to share some of my most loved books with my students.  I miss those courses.

After I left the classroom for a full-time career as an author, over a five-year period, I edited special editions of some of my favorite books for Focus on the Family/Tyndale House.  The twelve we created are: Little Women and Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, Robinson Crusoe and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, The Christmas Angel by Abbie Farwell Brown, Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter, The Twenty-fourth of June by Grace Richmond, Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, and Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace.

At the front of each book, under the heading of “A Life-Changing Letter,” were these words:

 

                                    Several years ago I received a letter that changed my life.  Sadly, I don’t

remember who wrote it, only what she said.  In essence, this was her plea:

                        “Dr. Wheeler,

    I have a big favor to ask you.  First of all, though, I want you to know how much I enjoy your story collections; they have greatly enriched my life.  Now for the favor: I was wondering if you have any interest in doing with books what you are doing with stories.

    You see, while I love to read, I haven’t the slightest idea of where to start.  There are millions of books out there, and most of them—authors too—are just one big blur to me.  I want to use my time wisely, to choose books which will not only take me somewhere but also make me a better and kinder person.

   I envy you because you know which books are worth reading and which are not.  Do you possibly have a list of worthy books that you wouldn’t mind sending to me?”

   I responded to this letter but most inadequately, for at that time I had no such list.  I tried to put the plea behind me, but it dug in its heels and kept me awake at night.  Eventually, I concluded that a Higher Power was at work here and that I needed to do something about it.  I put together a proposal for a broad reading plan based on books I knew and loved—books that had powerfully affected me, that had opened other worlds and cultures to me, and that had made me a kinder, more empathetic person.

 

You see, we have so little time in this tragically short life in which to read books worth reading.  If, over a seventy-year period, we read only a book a week, that would total only 3,640 books during a lifetime.  A book a month would come to only 840.

So my question to you is this: Would you be interested in such a book club, beginning this November?  Most of these titles would not be new but rather would have stood the test of time.  Some might turn out to be books you once read but might enjoy re-reading.  Others would be new to you.

There would be no cost for joining.  You could either purchase a copy of each book at a bookstore or from the worldwide web (Amazon, ABE, etc), or check it out from your library.  There is another option for some of the titles I’d choose: Eric Mayer of Bluebird Books (8201 S. Santa Fe Drive, #245, Littleton, CO 80120 (303) 912-4559.   books@bluebirdbooks.com  www.bluebirdbooks.com   Reason being that for most of my life I planned to open up a book business when I retired, and so purchased many thousands of books over the years for that purpose.  Well, I’ve ruefully concluded that I’ll probably never retire, so I turned over a good share of those books to Bluebird Books for him to dispose of.  He is aware of this book club concept and is enthusiastically on board.  He is honest, conscientious, prices out-of-print books at market norms, and is dedicated to securing books in the best condition possible.  You’ll find him special to work with.  Let him know you’re part of this book club.  Me too, as I’ll be making up a list of names and addresses of each of you who joins.  Would love to hear from you as to reactions to the books we select.

Years ago, I joined the Heritage Book Club and, over time, purchased most of their classic titles.  They tended to cycle through certain authors.  I would too.  Not all at once, but over time.  If you’re like me, however,  you’re not likely to wait but if you fall in love with a certain author you’ll start adding others of their books to your personal library.

As to my favorite books, I’m a sentimentalist who loves romances, family favorites, adventure, historical romances, classics, etc.  I gravitate to books that move me deeply, take me places I’ve never been to before, make me laugh or cry, incorporate values worth living by—pretty much the same criteria I’ve used in selecting stories in my 60 story anthologies.

I’ll be candid with you: I really miss the one-on-one interaction with my students.  Such a book club as this would be second best to actual classroom interaction.  I’m really looking forward to such contact.

BOOK #1 – OUR NOVEMBER BOOK OF THE MONTH

THE CALLING OF DAN MATTHEWS        

—Harold Bell Wright

 


Have you ever noticed that it is only in retrospect that we realize that if certain days in our lives had never been, how different our lives would have been.  Well, there was just such a day I’d like to share with you.

It was a heartstoppingly beautiful spring morning along California’s Feather River.  Since my missionary parents were far away in the West Indies, relatives stepped in to keep me from being lonely during vacations.  On this particular day, two of my favorite relatives, Aunt Jeannie and Uncle Warren, pronounced it picnic time.  We stopped en-route to Feather River Canyon at the Tehama County Library where my aunt steered me to certain authors she thought I’d relate to.  I checked out a number of books that really looked interesting to me.  One of them was this particular book, first published in 1909 by the Book Supply Company.  After settling down on a blanket under a great oak, I opened this book, and was almost instantaneously drawn into it—so much so that I lost all track of time, only remaining aware of the haunting riversong.

I was more than ready for this romance.  Having grown up in a conservative Christian church my world view was a bit limited.  Wright, a pastor himself, disillusioned by church politics and broken in health, had come to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas to see if he could find answers.  In time, he was strongly impacted by the Social Gospel Movement of the 1890s, the discovery of the Didache being at the root of it.  Only during the last year have I discovered (during research for my second biography of St. Nicholas) that for four centuries the early Christian Church exploded across the Roman World, not because of doctrine but because of living out Christ’s injunctions to serve others, to help those who were ill or in prison or who were in need of humanitarian aid (known as the Didache).  Wright concluded that if he incorporated Christ’s injunction to make service to others the highest calling of his life, he could revolutionize American life.  But not through sermons but rather through fiction.  He wrote three books in what has become known as the Social Gospel Trilogy: That Printer of Udel’s, The Calling of Dan Matthews, and God and the Groceryman.  Not until years later did I discover those other two books.

But the book proved to be an epiphany for me.  It radically changed my life: gave me a vision of selfless service and revealed that God was not owned by any one denomination but rather that He found ways to relate to every human being on earth, regardless of nationality or religion.  He was—and is—Father of us all.

I set out on a life-long search for all of Wright’s other books.  Wright has that effect on his readers.  I know of one woman who cried when she read the last Wright novel.  Cried because never again could she listen to Wright in an unread book.  Not all our mentors are still with us—many speak to us from the grave through their books that live on and on.

So this is why I’m starting with Wright.  As you begin building a library—or expand it to include these books—, I strongly encourage you to buy your own books, choosing First Editions or special editions, keeping in mind that in books, as in art, condition is everything.

I’ll be talking a lot more about books in blogs to come, among our other subject areas.  Next Wednesday I’ll be discussing the importance of journaling and why, if we don’t, we’ll be losing out big time!

No, I haven’t forgotten the Southwest National Parks.  I just got sidetracked!

If you wish to write me, I can be reached at Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.