Calling of Dan Matthews exposes church politics

Harold Bell Wright’s The Calling of Dan Matthews is so unusual a religious novel, it deserves to be called unique.  Although it didn’t make the bestseller list when it was published in 1909, I’m reviewing it here as one of the notable novels of the 20th century.

The Calling of Dan Matthews rontpiece illustration and title page

While fishing, an Ozark Mountain doctor meets a boy who impresses him with his mind and personality. Dr. Oldham hopes the boy will become a doctor, too. Instead Dan Matthews chooses to go into the ministry.

Dan’s first pastorate is in Corinth where the now-retired doctor is on hand if needed. Dan’s good looks and ignorance of human nature land him in hot water almost immediately.

Although his congregation finds no fault with his sermons, (except that they aren’t what they are used to) Brother Matthews offends them by his undignified behavior: he does manual labor on a farm to win the respect of farmers and get them to church, and helps a crippled Catholic lad with the garden that he and his mother depend on for their livelihood.

Dan’s growing affection for a young nurse who thinks the church is an un-Christian organization is the final straw for the Corinth church people.

Dan is not merely a good Christian with a heart for people. There are plenty of religious novels with that sort of central character. What makes Dan such an unusual lead character is his naiveté.

Nothing in his backwoods upbringing or his theological training prepared Dan for church politics. At the denomination’s annual convention, as his enemies convey the unmistakable message that no God-fearing congregation would want him, Dan knows he’s done for, but scarcely knows how it happened.

Wright’s own experiences provide details that outsiders couldn’t invent. Because of  what his congregation regarded as anti-church sentiment in the novel, Wright was forced out of the ministry.

The novel suffers from the usual flaws of religious-romance novels: both the religion and the romance are too sentimental. A more serious problem, however, is that Dan—and perhaps Wright himself—seem to label folks as hypocrites when they are merely stupid. The outcomes may be the same, but their causation is not. I suspect the God who looketh on the heart would know the difference, even if the novel’s author doesn’t.

In 1935, The Calling of Dan Matthews was made into a black and white film that turned  the church leaders into villains so evil that the Borgias look saintly by comparison. Sadly, film is remembered as a story of what really goes on in churches.

Wright’s nuanced novel is merely footnoted  as the first American novel to sell over a million copies—and it achieved that prominence without making the bestseller list the year it was published. Wright is said to be the first novelist to become a millionaire.

The Calling of Dan Matthews
by Harold Bell Wright
Illustrated by Arthur I. Keller
The Book Supply Company, 1909
364 pages
Not on the 1909 bestseller list
Project Gutenberg Ebook #9314

Pulitzer winner Magnificent Ambersons no great prize today

Booth Tarkington didn’t have a novel on the bestseller list in 1918, but he did win a Pulitzer Prize for a novel he published that year.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a coming of age novel plastered on top of a study of the rise and fall of an American family.

During the panic of 1873, General Amberson made a killing that propelled his family to the top of the Midland social ladder.

Grandson Georgie is a snob of the nastiest sort. Most of the town would like to see him get his comeuppance.

Georgie falls for a charming girl whose father, Eugene Morgan, had been in love with his mother years before. Eugene is in the automobile business, on his way to becoming far richer than the Ambersons.

When his widowed mother begins seeing her old beau again, Georgie throws a fit. Used to doing everything Georgie wants, his mother gives in and dies without seeing Eugene again.

Georgie finds himself sudenly penniless, jobless, homeless. He’s gotten his comeuppance, but the people who wished it on him are not around to see. Autos and industrialization have changed the town beyond recognition.

The Magnificent Ambersons is one of Booth Tarkington’s less successful stories. Georgie is too nasty to be an appropriate target for Tarkington’s usual gentle satire, and Georgie’s growing up is too sudden to be plausible.

The Magnificent Ambersons
By Booth Tarkington
Illus. Arthur William Brown
Doubleday, Page, 1919
516 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #8867
My grade: C+
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Tarzan Still Has That Swing

One of the best known novels of the Great War Era didn’t make the bestseller lists.

Tarzan of the Apes, first published as a magazine serial in 1912 and then released as a book in 1914,  catapulted author Edgar Rice Burroughs to fame. Tarzan became a icon.

Lord and Lady Greystoke are first marooned, then slaughtered in Africa. Their infant son, John, is adopted by a female ape and raised as her offspring, Tarzan, which means “white skin.”

Tarzan grows to be leader of the apes, but longs for human companionship.

He rejects much of what he sees of people. However, when a scientific expedition lands, Tarzan finds civilization does have something desirable, namely Jane Porter, daughter of the expedition’s leader.

When the expedition heads back to Baltimore, Tarzan trades his loincloth for a suit and takes off in pursuit of Jane. Tarzan learns his true identity and behaves as befits an English gentleman.

The story is totally preposterous, full of implausible situations, inaccurate information, and blatant stereotypes. Except for Tarzan, men are stupid, self-serving, and often savage.

This is pure pulp fiction, yet it’s easy to see why the book thrilled generations of youngsters: Tarzan is simply great fun.

Tarzan of the Apes
By Edgar Rice Burroughs
Project Gutenberg ebook #78
©2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Peter Pan Is Grownup Delight

Before I leave 1938, I want to share a review or two of works from that year that didn’t make the bestseller list but achieved fame since.

Peter Pan began life in 1938 as an adult play by the Scot James M. Barrie. Later Walt Disney animated the story. More recently Peter Pan went back to the stage as a musical.

In Barrie’s story, Peter Pan coaxes the three Darling children, Wendy, John, and Michael, to fly off with him to Neverland. There they join Peter’s band of lost boys for adventures with pirates, Indians, and the famous ticking crocodile.

The children eventually go home to grow up, but Peter refuses to grow up. He returns to Neverland.

Peter Pan is both more serious and more funny than Disney or musicals make it appear. Barrie uses his whimsical story to ridicule childishness in all its forms.

The Darlings’ calculations of whether they can afford children, the explanation of how mothers put their children’s minds in order each night, the story of how the Darlings acquired a dog as a nurse for their children — these are delights beyond the thrills of flying and killing pirates.

Most libraries carry a novelized version of Barrie’s play in their children’s collection. Find a copy and some children to share it with. You’ll enjoy reading it and the kids won’t know it wasn’t written for them.

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni