White Banners is the best sort of bad religious novel.
Its religion is so nondescript it won’t offend an ardent atheist; its story’s so entertaining the devout won’t notice the religion is tepid.
White Bannersby Lloyd C. Douglas
P. F. Collier and Son., 1936, 400 p. 1936 bestseller #6. My grade: B.
A woman selling apples knocks on Paul and Marcia Ward’s door one snowy afternoon. Marcia buys an apple from her, gives her a meal, learns she’s just been released from the hospital after having a child.
Hannah feels as sorry for Marcia as Marcia feels for her, though for different reasons.
Hannah talks Paul Ward into letting her stay as housemaid until after Marcia’s third child is born.
By the time infant Sally joins the other two children, Hannah is an indispensable part of the Ward home.
Wards are so pleased with Hannah, they overlook her peculiar belief that refusing to fight those who hurt her makes her stronger than her antagonists.
Wards also don’t inquire where Hannah goes on her days off.
The plot is complicated and, in many respects, absurd.
The Wards and Hannah’s friends are sufficiently endowed with peculiarities to make them seem human.
Lloyd C. Douglas sees that virtue is rewarded, sin is punished enough to jog repentance, and that everyone gets a chance to try living happily ever after.
Some of the bestselling authors of the first half of the 20th century had wider name recognition among Americans than many of today’s celebrities.
That may seem odd, but the total population was smaller then, and there were fewer media outlets competing for attention.
Having books in a home was a indication of social status or at least social aspirations.
Besides that, books were not ephemeral products; for the most part, they were printed on high quality paper that lasted.
Can you identify the novelists in these descriptions?
Below are descriptions of five novelists who were names were household words in their heyday. See how many you can identify. (Answers below the photos.)
1. He had the same novel on the bestseller list four times in a span of 11 years.
2. This ex-preacher is said to be the first man to have a novel sell a million copies and the first novelist to become a millionaire.
3. Critical acclaim and sales don’t always go together, but this novelist took first-place honors on the bestseller list before her novel netted a Pulitzer and was instrumental in her the Nobel Prize for literature.
4. This outdoorsman and conservationist was a prolific novelist who wrote nonfiction and children’s literature, too. Today, however, he’s primarily remembered for his writing about the occult.
5. Despite his famous English name, prolific novelistic output, and regular appearance on the bestseller list between 1900 and 1915, this American novelist is virtually forgotten today.
The names of the bestselling novelists
1. Lloyd C. Douglas made the bestseller list with his biblical epic The Robe in 1942, 1943, 1944, and again in 1953 when the film version of the novel was released.
2. Harold Bell Wright is the ex-preacher who made money and historical footnotes in the publishing business. Wright published his first novel at the insistence of his congregation. When he published his second, they kicked him out. From then on, writing became his full-time occupation.
3. Pearl S. Buck won popular and critical acclaim for The Good Earth before making a name for herself as a civil rights and women’s rights activist.
4. Late in life, The Silent Places author Stewart Edward White became interested in psychic phenomena. White wrote The Unobstructed Universe (1940), which he based on communications from his late wife.
The main plot is about surgeon Newell Paige. When another doctor bungles a surgery and lets Paige take the blame, Paige is devastated.
Dr. Elliott had been Paige’s teacher, mentor, and hero. Besides, Paige had been fond of the late Mrs. Dexter and impressed by her faith.
Paige resigns, leaves town with his dog.
Paige is living under an assumed name when he meets Mrs. Dexter’s daughter, Phyllis. It’s love at first sight except that Phyllis thinks he is to blame for her mother’s death.
Everything comes right in the end, thanks to Paige’s dog and Dean Harcourt of Trinity Cathedral.
The Dean introduces various of his counseling clients to each other (1934 was pre-HIPPA), Paige’s dog matches him with Phyllis Dexter.
Lloyd C. Douglas fills the corners of the story with other canned plots and canned characters: a girl who wants a singing career, a woman who has left her married lover, a widowed professor with a charming, motherless daughter.
Each heartwarming tale is another nail on which to hang the Dean’s inspirational message: “My course is upward. . . .I go on through. … I get the GREEN LIGHT!”
What I got was a sick feeling from ingesting a novel long past its sell-by date.
As a child, Dinny Brumm refuses to take anything from his father. His Aunt Martha and Uncle Miles tell him his father, whom he’s never seen, deserted his mother. They lead him to believe his father cares nothing for him.
In his hatred of his father, Dinny even takes their name lest he be linked to his father, newspaper magnate Zandy Craig.
Dinny finds a letter his dying mother wrote to him before he was born. It tells of her love for his father and how she found peace through forgiving those who had hurt her.
Dinny decides to see if forgiving others will help him feel better and win the woman he loves.
The plot is contrived, the main characters emotionally implausible. Douglas creates situations that he quickly drops, such as Dinny’s half-sister’s attempt to seduce him.
Although Forgive Us Our Trespasses is tinged with religiosity, author Lloyd C. Douglas stays far away from religion. He explores forgiveness as a tool for psychological health.
Despite the novel’s tacked-on happy ending, the only characters who seem likely to have any lasting happiness are Dinny’s aunt and uncle, who, despite their shortcomings, seem to have some genuine faith in something besides themselves.
Forgive Us Our Trespasses
by Lloyd C. Douglas
Grosset & Dunlap, 1932
1933 bestseller #6
My grade C-
Rather than post the list of 1943 bestsellers I’ve slated for review, since today is Easter on the Christian calendar, it’s perhaps appropriate to mention a novel related to the events of Holy Week.
I first reviewed The Robeby Lloyd C. Douglas on the 50th anniversary of its first appearance on the bestseller list, which was in 1942. The novel not only stayed on the list a second year, but rose from seventh place in 1942 to first place in 1943.
In 1953, The Robe made a comeback, again hitting the top spot on the bestseller list, as the film version of the novel appeared in movie theaters with Richard Burton in the role of Marcellus Gallio, the Roman centurion who presides over Christ’s crucifixion.
A novel that makes the bestseller list three years out of 11—and two of those in the number one spot—deserves rereading if for nothing more than the novelty. However, I think you’ll find the story worth your time.
Magnificent Obsession is one of Lloyd C. Douglas’s string of forgettable novels about the psychological benefits of practicing New Testament principles.
If you read White Banners or Green Light, you’ll find this novel familiar. Only the names have been changed to protect the author’s royalties.
In this novel, a neurosurgeon learns that if he does good deeds in secret, he is rewarded financially. He records his philanthropic experiences of not letting his right hand know what his left hand is doing (very tough for a surgeon) in secret code in a diary.
After Hudson’s death, the wealthy young n’er-do-well who deciphers the code is inspired to replace Hudson. In two pages, Bobby Merrick goes from ready-to-flunk med school to head of the Hudson Clinic.
Bobby not only becomes as good a doctor as his hero, he saves the doctor’s beloved daughter from a life of dissipation. He also wins the hero’s widow.
Douglas mashes romance and religion into a soggy pulp. Fortunately, the plot is so contrived and the characters so predictable that you’ll forget the book within an hour of finishing reading it.
Lloyd C. Douglas
Peoples Book Club, 1929
1932 Bestseller #8
My Grade: C-
The Robeis Lloyd C. Douglas’s most famous novel and perhaps his best.
For insulting the emperor’s stepson, the young tribune Marcellus Gallio is sent to Minoa (Gaza). In Jerusalem on security detail, Marcellus’ unit crucifies Jesus. Marcellus wins the robe Jesus wore.
Bother Marcellus and his slave, Demetrius, are convinced Jesus was innocent. Both men become converts.
Demetrius rescues the woman Marcellus loves from the clutches of the new Emperor, Caligula, and all three head back to Rome. Diana is skeptical of Christianity, but stands by her man.
The story is far more complex and exciting than my summary suggests. Douglas weaves ancient history and Bible stories into his narrative skillfully. The ogres of Roman history appear, as do the martyrs of the early church: Peter, John, and Stephen.
Few writers can pull off a historical novel without bogging down in history. Douglas does it superbly.
However, I’m afraid even regular church-goers nowadays lack the Biblical knowledge to understand big chunks of The Robe. Without that knowledge, it’s impossible to appreciate Douglas as a storyteller.
As a rule, I don’t like religious novels and off-the-shelf characters bore me, but I enjoyed The Robe anyway. Maybe you will, too.
Lloyd C. Douglas
Houghton Mifflin, 1942
#7 in 1942, #1 in 1943