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The Forgotten Novelist

Harold Bell Wright at his portable writing desk in Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains.

Harold Bell Wright is not a name that trips lightly from contemporary tongues. Yet, there was a time when this prolific novelist was among the nation’s best selling and highest paid authors.
Photographed beside his tent house in the Santa Catalina Mountains during the 1920s, Wright relished the environment that made him a convert to the desert and become a resident of Tucson. The apparatus into which he looks is a portable writing desk, topped and sided by a canvas sun shield.
Widely read as he was, Wright was an anomaly. During an era when Joyce, Hemmingway, Dos Pasos, Fitzgerald and others were recreating the rules of literature, Wright embraced extreme conservatism with uncommon gusto. In his novels, directed largely at young teenage boys, he sermonized the virtues of simplicity and hard work. He was the Boy Scout of literature who scorned the realistic school. “A rose is as real as a rotten rat,” he said.
Born in Rome, New York, in 1872, Wright had some formal schooling during a brief stint in the preparatory department of Hiram College in Ohio. As a young man he migrated to the Ozarks where he eked out a living by painting houses and landscapes.
One Sunday, he took to the pulpit of a little church when the minister failed to appear. His simple, homey sermon was well received and led to a new career as a preacher.
But Wright’s first love was putting stories on paper, and in 1903 with the publication of his first novel, he retired from the pulpit to become a full-time novelist. A succession of books followed, and so did fame and wealth.
During the early teens, Wright developed tuberculosis. In 1915, he came to Tucson — for years the city had billed itself the “Sanatorium of the West” — and lived in a tent house in the Catalina foothills. His speedy recovery led to an article, “Why I Did Not Die,” which lauded Tucson’s climate and focused national attention on the city.
Write made Tucson his permanent home in 1916, and for the next 20 years promoted its desert climate in novels and motion picture adaptations. He became deeply involved in community affairs, most notably with charitable and medical organizations.
In 1928, he furnished the Sisters of St. Joseph’s Convent at St. Mary’s Hospital, and provided lighting and plumbing equipment for the nuns’ quarters at San Xavier Mission. In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, he organized the Emergency Relief Committee of Tucson, and headed it for two years. He wrote and produced two plays to raise funds for construction of Comstock Hospital, to serve indigent adults with tuberculosis. In numerous instances he quietly paid for the hospitalization of penniless tuberculosis patients who came to Tucson.
He built a mansion at the city’s eastern outskirts, and then — abruptly — he was gone. Some say he left because the city allowed construction of another mansion at a higher elevation this his, thus obscuring his view. For reasons never revealed, Wright abandoned Tucson for California in 1936, where he established Quiet Hill Farm near Escondido. There he lived out his life, never returning to Tucson.
Harold Bell Wright died at the age of 72 in a La Jolla hospital in 1944. The previous year, 9 million copies of his books were sold. Today, however, he is largely forgotten.
— W. Lane Rogers, photo courtesy of author

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