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.


“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.


October 31, 2012

For November’s book, I’m reaching back to my childhood for one of the books I loved most during my growing-up years. Coming in the midst of Hurricane Sandy devastation, I felt following up Mendenhall’s Cool Names with a book like Penrod might be an additional opportunity to stir in a few chuckles—well, more like a lot of them.

Another reason for choosing this book is that it graphically—by contrast—highlights how much childhood, family life, and community interaction has changed since Booth Tarkington launched his bad boy on an unsuspecting public. “Bad” is a poor choice of words, for Penrod can more aptly be described a tornado of mischief wrapped up in boys’ clothing.

In reading Penrod, our readers will rediscover this America that is no more. A world of picket fences, stay-at-home moms, two-parent families being the norm, fathers being the breadwinners, and children feeling free to roam in and out of neighbors’ homes at will, children living and playing out of doors, and boys having the opportunity to be boys.

The contrast is obvious: today, with pedophiles being a constant threat outside, porn criminals weaseling their way into home computers, and violent crimes becoming the norm in society, no one—least of all children—feels safe anymore.

I’m not claiming that world was utopian, for there were also dark sides to it: racial stereotyping and inequality, inadequate career opportunities for women, to name just two. But the beauty of reading Penrod is that you the reader have the unique opportunity to vicariously immerse yourself into that world, sort out for yourself the positive and negative aspects of it, and draw your own conclusions.

But, as a child, I read Penrod first not for its social commentary but because I laughed myself half to death over Penrod’s antics: getting in big trouble for his mischief only to get deeper into trouble the next day. There is a direct correlation between Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Tarkington’s Penrod. Given that today it is so hard to find a book that appeals to boys, here’s a heaven-sent opportunity to set a boy loose on Penrod, and just let him cackle as the town’s goody-goody boy, Georgie Bassett, gets his comeuppance. The “Little Gentleman”/“Tar” sequence by itself is one of America’s all time classics of humor.

Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) was born in Indianapolis, and remained there for much of his life. During his life, he won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for The Magnificent Ambersons in 1919 and the other for Alice Adams in 1922.

Donald Heiney declares that Tarkington was an expert satirist, one of the first to depict the urban middle class. Heiney also notes that Tarkington had a marvelous talent for creating unforgettable characters. His key fictional milieu has to do with the rise of a midwestern aristocracy, essentially Victorian and conservative, beginning in the 1890’s Gilded Age, its ascendancy, then gradual decline at the hands of a new industrial and mechanical generation.

Tarkington wrote three Penrod books: Penrod (1914), Penrod and Sam (1916), and Penrod Jashber (1929). In Seventeen, Tarkington depicts an older character than twelve-year-old Penrod. Interestingly enough, today’s teenagers are so much more sophisticated, jaded, and cynical about life that they’d have little in common with the protagonist of Seventeen.

So welcome to the three worlds of Penrod.