by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
In a previous post I told you how Douglas became a regular contributor to The Christian Century in the fall of 1920, beginning with a series called, “Wanted: A Congregation.” Before the year was over, Christian Century Press brought out a companion book with the same title, transitioning Douglas from a writer of articles to an “author.” But there’s an interesting – and ironic – back story.
In January 1919, Douglas sent The Mendicant, a book manuscript, to the George H. Doran Company in New York City. If you’ve never heard of them, you have heard of some of their authors: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken… you get the idea. Douglas worked until 3 in the morning on January 30th, then sent the manuscript by registered mail later that same day. He was so excited, he saved the postal receipt in his scrapbook.
George Doran himself wrote the reply. He was in London through most of February, and his office held the manuscript for him to look at personally. Upon his return he did read it, and on February 28 he wrote to congratulate Douglas on the “vigor” of the piece and “the masterly way in which it is written” (George H. Doran to LCD, February 28, 1919, in Douglas’s 1918 Scrapbook, Box 5, Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan).
He offered Douglas two options:
(1) In its current state (but with some changes), it could be sold as an article to The American Magazine, “which has an enormous circulation and which is constantly on the lookout for such material as this. Should you rewrite it, I should be very glad to interest myself in securing careful consideration of the manuscript at the hands of the editor of The American.” Not a bad offer: he would personally recommend it to the editor of one of the nation’s top magazines, virtually ensuring its publication. But Douglas really wanted to publish a book. So the second alternative was more in line with his hopes…
(2) Doran expressed his “earnest desire to undertake the publication of the larger book,” if Douglas would greatly expand the work to fit Doran’s vision. Although it sounds, on the surface, like he’s saying the piece isn’t long enough and doesn’t go deeply enough into its subject matter, the truth is that Doran didn’t think it was religious enough. “If I might be so bold, I would like to urge that, in the development of your book, very particular emphasis should be placed upon the spiritual.”
Douglas wrote the book for younger ministers. He wanted to share with them the methods and attitudes that had worked for him and that, in fact, had filled his Ann Arbor congregation to overflowing. Doran conceded that this would be useful information, but he worried “that these same earnest ministers throughout the land… in their attempt to follow your method without your inspiration and vision… would fail utterly on the spiritual side.”
The Mendicant is the story of a discouraged minister who has a reunion with some old college buddies and reconsiders both the aims and techniques of his ministerial work. His friend Jimmy Bartell has become a successful industrialist; Tom McGregor is a newspaper editor; and they invite their friend, Dr. David Tracey to join them. (There always has to be a doctor in Douglas’s books!) It isn’t a novel; it’s a series of dialogues. And yet, there is character development as the minister – the Reverend D. Preston Blue (pronounced ‘Depressed-n-Blue’) – comes away with an entirely different conception of his work and how to go about it. The title of the book comes from his realization that the church is not a commanding influence in the world; it behaves like a beggar, happily accepting nickels and dimes in the collection plate and fawning over newcomers, hoping they’ll visit again next week. Rev. Blue catches a vision of a church that takes its mandate seriously. But he only catches this vision after talking with professional people (Jimmy, Tom, and Dave) and applying to his own case the lessons he learns from watching them operate in their respective spheres.
Early in the book, Jimmy (the industrialist) says that he doesn’t go to church anymore, and he gives an impassioned explanation. He holds up a mirror to Rev. Blue, helping him to see how wretched the church has become in the eyes of professional people. That’s what troubled the publisher, George Doran. “Your manuscript implies the regeneration of Jim Bartell, but as a matter of fact you do not actually touch upon the question of belief or personal faith which, of course, in the last analysis must be the basis of permanent church work.”
Actually, there was nothing about the regeneration of Jimmy Bartell. It wasn’t that kind of book. Doran was troubled because Douglas’s story was about the conversion of a minister to a new way of thinking about the church rather than the conversion of the unregenerate Jimmy Bartell to the church. Doran wanted Douglas to play the traditional minister’s role and write an old-fashioned religious book. He wanted Blue to convert the industrialist and get him into church. Douglas wanted that too, eventually; but his immediate goal was to open the eyes of the next generation of ministers to a new conception of the church’s role in society, and thereby make the church attractive to smart people like Jimmy Bartell.
Another letter from Doran dated March 8th indicates that Douglas would be in New York on the 21st and the two of them would meet to discuss the manuscript. Several pages later, Douglas wrote in his scrapbook that he began a revised version on April 7, finished it on April 29, and mailed it to Doran on May 2. Douglas could work quickly when he was motivated, but the rapid turnaround hints that he did not gut the book to the extent that Doran wanted.
Nevertheless, Charles M. Roe, the editor who took over the project, seems to have accepted the new version. He did reply to Douglas on May 23, asking him to rewrite the first and last chapters because they were “unconvincing” and “dull.” A little later in his scrapbook, Douglas wrote that he “called on Mr. Roe” (apparently in person) on June 2nd “and was assured that if the mss was satisfactorily altered they would ‘undoubtedly publish it.'” He made the changes on June 5th and 6th and sent the manuscript to New York on June 6th.
There is one more handwritten comment about the manuscript in Douglas’s 1918 Scrapbook. He says: “At the suggestion of Chas. M. Roe of the George H. Doran Company,” he sent the manuscript to The World Outlook magazine on November 1, 1919. No more comments about the manuscript appear anywhere in Douglas’s papers. Obviously the Doran Company did not move ahead with the project, but we don’t know why. There is also nothing in the scrapbook telling us how The Outlook responded.
Months later (June 1920), Douglas entered the writing contest at The Christian Century and, on the strength of that essay, was asked, by the Century’s editor, to contribute something else. What he sent was a series of non-fiction articles that drew on the material in The Mendicant. He called the series, “Wanted: A Congregation.” He didn’t write it as a narrative but did refer hypothetically to someone named Rev. D. Preston Blue. Readers of the Century enjoyed the series, and that same year (1920) the Christian Century Press printed a book version of Wanted. Although the book covered the same subjects as the series, it went much deeper into them and – perhaps more importantly – offered a new conception of the role of the church in contemporary society. It did this as a series of dialogues between Blue and his friends Jimmy Bartell, Tom McGregor, and Dave Tracey. It was, in fact, The Mendicant. He just gave it a new name.
Here’s what I find ironic: Doran (a secular publisher) lectured Douglas (“If I might be so bold…”) that “belief or personal faith… must be the basis of permanent church work,” but The Christian Century Press (run by and for clergy) understood and embraced his vision. This would not be the last time that people in secular publishing would advise Douglas to be more religious.
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