"Often as Barbara sat looking over that great basin her heart cried out to know the secret it held," frontispiece from The Winning of Barbara Worth
One of California's most unlikely writers was Harold Bell Wright, a one-time itinerant painter who found his spiritual calling in an Ohio meeting of the Disciples of Christ
Wright eventually became a pastor and wrote works that reflected his religious values. But when ill health forced him to give up his ministry, he bought land in El Centro
and eventually became one of the best selling authors of the Southwest. In his 1911 novel The Winning of Barbara Worth
, Wright draws upon his familiar desert environment to write about the reclamation of the Imperial Valley, or as Wright calls it, King's Basin.
From horizon to horizon, so far that the eye ached in the effort to comprehend it, there was no cloud to cast a shadow, and the deep sky poured its resistless flood of light upon the vast dun plain with savage fury, as if to beat into helplessness any living creature that might chance to be caught thereon. And the desert, receiving that flood from the wide, hot sky, mysteriously wove with it soft scarfs of lilac, misty veils of purple and filmy curtains of rose and pearl and gold; strangely formed with it wide lakes of blue rimmed with phantom hills of red and violet—constantly changing, shifting, scene on scene, as dream pictures shift and change. . . .
And over it all. . . was the dominant, insistent, compelling spirit of the land; a brooding, dreadful silence; a waiting—waiting—waiting; a mystic call that was at once a threat and a promise; a still drawing of the line across which no man might go and live, save those master men who should win the right.
Wright's novel is a tribute to hard working Westerners who sought to irrigate California's desert. And if those efforts sometimes brought unforeseen results—as when the Colorado River overflowed
to form the Salton Sea
—no one denies the power of their pioneer dreams.
"Sybil," frontispiece for The Eyes of the World. Larger.
The sheer scale of California's vast southern interior can easily overwhelm us, but at the same time, it gives us leave to realize the best within us.
In his 1914 novel The Eyes of the World
, Harold Bell Wright
creates the character of Conrad Lagrange, a writer who feels the challenge of the majestic landscape of the southern California interior.
This West country will produce some mighty artists. . . . By far the greater part of this land must remain, always, in it primitive naturalness. It will always be easier, here, than in the city crowded East, for a man to be himself. There is less of that spirit which is born of clubs and cliques and clans and schools--with their fine-spun theorizing, and their impudent assumption that they are divinely commissioned to sit in judgment. There is less of artistic tea-drinking, esthetic posing, and soulful talk; and more opportunity for that loneliness out of which great art comes. The atmosphere of these mountains and deserts and seas inspires to self-assertion, rather than to a clinging fast to the traditions and culture of others--and what, after all, is a great artist, but one who greatly asserts himself?
Harold Bell Wright was a Redlands
minister who eventually became one of America's best-selling fiction writers.