Critics never understood the popularity of Lloyd C. Douglas’s novels, condemning them for trite language, superficial characterization, and thin ideas. By Douglas’s death in 1951, more than seven million copies of his books had been sold. Of those, one and a half million were of his first novel, Magnificent Obsession. He was the highest-selling author in American publishing history in his time. As late as the close of the twentieth century, he lacked entries in standard dictionaries of literary biography. What made him such a popular novelist for the two decades in which he wrote?
For almost three decades before publishing Magnificent Obsession, Douglas was a minister in several Lutheran and Congregational pulpits. As he moved from pulpit to pulpit, from Washington, D.C., to Ann Arbor to Akron to Los Angeles, his theology became increasingly liberal but his rhetoric stayed the same. His vivid narratives held crowds spellbound, and he achieved some fame in religious circles for his lectures, essays, and sermons. Before beginning his writing career, he often commented that he would like to try his hand at a novel. To Douglas, the novel-reading public constituted “a larger parish” with which to share the joys of Christian living.
Magnificent Obsession had its beginnings in two sources. One was a newspaper story reporting the death of a Detroit doctor who could have been saved had his respirator not been used to rescue a young man across the lake. The second was a series of sermons Douglas had preached in Los Angeles on the secrets of exultant living. According to his biographer daughter, he had been trying to convince people that their religion could have a practical dynamic effect in their lives if only they would put Jesus’ words about secret altruism—let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing—into practice. When his wife remarked that for the first time she understood what he was saying, he admitted that it was his most important message. Then his daughter, Betty, asked why he did not include that message in his novel. So Magnificent Obsession came to be, although its early days were not secure. It had originally been sent to Harper’s magazine as...
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