The fiction best-seller for 1943, Douglas's Christian historical novel recounts the tale of the man who won Jesus's robe at his crucifixion.
What is the significance of such a book being the fiction best-seller at this point in the war? I'll make a few theoretical stabs.
First, it's clear that American at the time were looking heavily to religion. It was the third year in a row that a Christian novel topped the best-seller list. One could possibly point to the war as a reason for such interest in faith, but it might also have been that the United States at the time as a nation was simply more religious. What's interesting to me is that it is not books like The Robe that dominate literature classes when we go back and read American literature of the era. Rather, it tends to be works that fit into modernist or postmodernist theory, books wherein authors are wrestling with supposed meaninglessness, looking for something to replace God, who is dead. But on the best-seller list, God is very much alive.
This suggests a few things. It could suggest that our literary scholars and critics have a distorted view of what makes a work great or important. It could suggest that academia is dominated by atheists with a point to grind into their students. But it could also suggest, as an art history teacher of mine once noted, that the important books aren't those that everyone is reading as much as it is those which are prophetic. By that I mean, the literary works that prefigure the increasing secularization of America are more important because they point to where America was headed; whereas best-selling fiction, such as The Robe failed to point--and thus to continue to have as much significance. Or one could also argue that such prefiguration is a self-fulfilling prophecy: that by focusing on areligious works, scholars point students--and thus the increasingly educated populace--toward secularization themselves.
Whatever one thinks in regard to that, Douglas's tale does seem to parallel the 1942 and 1941 best-sellers in the sense that there is a heavy emphasis in what I might term "soft Christianity." What I mean by that is that the emphasis is on people doing and feeling good rather than on the actual tenets of any particular sect. "Are you a Buddhist or a Hindu but have goodness in your heart? Well, then, that's all that matters. We're all going to heaven in the end anyway." This is religion meant to appeal to the masses, not to any individualized sect.
Douglas also, it seems, is doing his best to educate the populous about the New Testament. So many statements are quoted from the scriptures and so many Biblical characters show up at points that I felt as if the book was like a movie with a large set of cameo appearances. We get short appearances by not only Jesus but Peter, Paul, and Salome. Yes, Salome, the daughter of King Herod who danced in order that John the Baptist's head would be cut off. It seems, at least in the plot of this book, that dancing for the heads of religious adherents is something Salome rather enjoys doing. In other words, the references at times come to seem a little cheesy.
The plot of the story goes something like this. Marcellus is a tribune sent to Galilee just before Christ's crucifixion. There, he is put in charge of the military unit that is to oversee the death penalty. Marcellus wins Christ's robe in a game, but when he sees the man, he is magically struck somehow by Jesus's image. Not long after, when he is challenged to wear the robe, he does--and goes insane. His insanity gets him dismissed, and it is only months later, when he again puts on the robe, that he is cured. He becomes curious to know more about who this Jesus was, so he goes back to Palestine to interview his followers. They are a shy bunch, however, as persecution is already hitting the sect. Eventually, however, Marcellus is let into the inner circle and finally convinced of Christ's divinity. He then sets about changing his life by serving others. This doesn't sit well with certain other Romans, including the new emperor, so by the end of the text, Marcellus is being hunted much as Jesus himself was.
This brings us to one other thing that might have appealed to readers in the early 1940s. Much of the text centers around the tendency of the rich and powerful to take advantage of the downtrodden. Around page 50, there's a long discussion of the Jewish people that seems to somewhat parallel the situation of many of the people in their own countries at the time. The Jewish people were zealous for their faith and for earning independence from Rome, but it is the leaders of the Jews themselves, one of the characters explains, who sells the common people out. Concerned more with maintaining their own power and wealth, these leaders care little for their poor countrymen. This selling-out, no doubt, is what leads little people to fight wars for big people. If we could all just love each other and be kind to each other, many of the Christians state at various points in the book, then the world would have peace.