Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 918
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 the manuscript “Salvage.” It was rejected, revised as Magnificent Obsession, and again rejected by Harper’s and several others before being published by a small religious house in Chicago in 1929. Within eighteen months, however, it was on best-seller lists, seemingly having hit a nerve of many people whose lives were being buffeted by economic forces beyond their control.
Theme was all-important to Douglas. He considered his novels to be “purpose novels.” In a letter, Douglas stated the thesis of Magnificent Obsession as “how to get what you want and be what you would like to be through a practice of a Galilean principle of secret philanthropy.” To demonstrate such a principle of living, Douglas fleshed it out in the lives of characters, who either act on the principle or who provide a contrast by refraining from acting on the principle. Robert Merrick, the playboy whose life is saved by Dr. Wayne Hudson’s secret philanthropy, is skeptical for a long while, even after he reluctantly goes to medical school so that he may take Dr. Hudson’s place at the Hudson Clinic. Merrick is skeptical even after he begins to decipher the journal that contains Hudson’s philanthropic activities and beliefs. When Hudson’s administrative assistant claims that “It’s all true, Bobby. You do get what you want that way, if what you want contributes to the larger expression of yourself in constructive service,” he could only think that it sounded foolish. Nevertheless, just having helped a fellow medical student out of his financial predicament, and beginning to read the New Testament accounts of how Christ had quietly helped people, Merrick mystically encounters a power that can change lives, thus launching his successful career as a brain surgeon, medical inventor, and philanthropist. Eventually, Merrick does get his heart’s desire, Dr. Hudson’s young widow as his own wife.
It is no accident that the central figures in this novel are physicians. For Douglas, a doctor rather than a minister is in a better position in society to help people. Doctors are practical, scientific, and compassionate, embodying all the characteristics Douglas admired most. Merrick himself convinces a popular preacher that the purely intellectual, critical approach to religion that the preacher has been preaching to large crowds each Sunday is bankrupt compared to Merrick’s own scientific appropriation of the power of his Major Personality. That power has proved practical in Merrick’s own life. He uses it not only to heal the sick but also to invent better ways to do brain surgery and—eventually—to gain his own love’s reward.
Although Douglas cloaks his ideas in character and action, his style is not symbolic. Rather, it is direct and vivid, filled with action verbs and many descriptive words and phrases. There is much dialogue, yet little preaching. It is this nonliterary style that riled the literary establishment but attracted a huge reading audience. A direct, accessible style accounts for much of the popularity of Douglas’s fiction, along with the appeal of his message to a nation undergoing a spiritual crisis fostered by the economic depression. Carl Bode, a critic writing in the 1950’s, claimed that Douglas was the most popular religious writer of the century because he understood America and its religious needs so well.