By Ruth Graham
At the outset of The Damnation of Theron Ware, the young Methodist pastor of its title is a true believer. He is pious, earnest, and confident. He is a deft presence in the pulpit, quick-witted and charismatic. He has an instinct for authenticity, and scorns the “cheap buffoonery” of circuit-riders hired to fatten the church’s coffers. He believes in the full historical truth of the Old Testament, the full spiritual truth of the New.
But Theron Ware, like any proper American protagonist, is also a striver. Born and raised on a farm, religion had been Theron’s portal to a wider spectrum of both ideas and emotions—“a veritable new world of views and aspirations.” He knows he is talented, and yearns for new stages on which to express himself. He plans to write a book about Abraham, despite having no special knowledge of the patriarch, and he daydreams about becoming renowned for his preaching. The novel’s opening scene takes place at a denominational conference at which the young pastor and his wife, Alice, receive a crushing blow: Even after preaching one of the best sermons of his life, he is being placed in a pastoral assignment beneath his talents, in the unremarkable and un-prestigious upstate New York town of Octavius.
Octavius is quickly revealed to be an intellectual and social backwater. “We don’t want no book-learnin’ or dictionary words in our pulpit,” a church elder warns Theron in a somewhat menacing visit to the couple’s new house. “They tell me there’s some parts where hell’s treated as played-out,” the elder says. “What we want here, sir, is straight-out, flat-footed hell—the burnin’ lake o’ fire an’ brimstone. Pour it into ‘em, hot an’ strong.” Theron’s salary is low, and the church’s powerful elders make clear he and Alice will live under their thumbs.
By now, the reader—nineteenth-century or twenty-first—will be perfectly clear on the stakes of the story. Will Theron, talented and upright, prevail against the provincial rubes of Octavius? Will his intellectual ambitions be thwarted? Will Alice, his cheerful wife, be able to win over a congregation so sour that she is once chastised for sporting fresh roses in her bonnet on Sunday? Will the couple escape, physically or spiritually, or be dragged down?
Except those aren’t the book’s questions at all. The Damnation of Theron Ware twists itself into a radically unsettling novel, in which strong men are revealed as weak, hucksters are honest, intellectuals are two-faced jerks, and there’s almost no such thing as a true believer. Its themes clearly resonated with readers at the turn of the last century. The novel sold briskly in both England and America upon its publication in 1896, and received warm reviews. “It is a book which every one must read who wishes to hold his own in popular literary discussions,” as the Chicago Tribune put it. And the novel still has the power to provoke. It’s a perfect story, as it turns out, for a jaded moment.
Harold Frederic was born in 1856 in Utica, New York, which he later used as the model for the fictional Octavius. He left school as a teenager and became a newspaperman in the old-fashioned mode, a schmoozer by inclination and a generalist by interest. He started his career at the Utica Observer then moved to the Albany Evening Journal, which he quit when the owners grew displeased with his Democratic politics. (He had steered the historically Republican paper into boosting reformer Grover Cleveland as governor.) Frederic then became a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, which
sent him to London in 1884. The first big story he covered in Europe was a cholera epidemic.
In person, Frederic was said to be charismatic, boisterous, and an enthusiastic conversationalist. He was a man of expansive appetites: He drank, he ate well, and he was curious about everything. He had “the manner of a campaigner and a voice that would suit a commander of legions,” one peer said of him in an obituary. “His vitality is unusual, his nerves more than ordinarily strong. He tells inimitable stories.”
Frederic was constantly scrubbing for money, asking for advances and taking on magazine work on top of his newspaper salary. But he also had serious literary ambitions, which he nurtured in part through a close friendship with Stephen Crane. (He knew Henry James, but didn’t much like him, referring to him in a letter “an effeminate old donkey who .
. . insists on being treated as if he were the Pope.”) Continuing all the while in his work as a journalist, Frederic published novels at a brisk pace starting in 1887, including Seth’s Brother’s Wife, about a country boy who becomes a newspaper editor, and In the Valley, an historical novel set in upstate New York.
The Damnation of Theron Ware, published in March 1896, was immediately recognized as Frederic’s most important work to date. The title refers to a process, not a single action. (Frederic actually preferred “illumination,” the word used in the title in England and which suggests both a more gradual development and a slyer writerly eye on it.) It begins when Theron is out walking the streets of Octavius, and happens on the scene of a fatal accident involving a local workingman. Out of his element among the town’s Irish working class, Theron quietly tags along as the man is carried into a house and administered the last rites by the local priest, Father Forbes. He also encounters Celia Madden, an Irish free spirit and the daughter of the richest man in town, and is soon introduced to their friend Dr. Ledsmar, an atheist and polymath.
Theron is simultaneously afraid of and attracted to this sophisticated trio. Critics have pointed out that Celia, Forbes, and Ledsmar tidily represent several nineteenth-century threats to Christian piety, including sensuality, materialism, and skepticism. The pastor’s personal library is small and out-of-date, and his beliefs are correspondingly simple. But his new friends introduce him to the latest Biblical criticism and historical analysis. In an ominous early scene set in Forbes’s darkly luxurious home, Forbes chides the pastor for believing the Old Testament figure of Abraham was an historical individual, and refers offhandedly to “this Christ-myth of ours.” This makes Theron bolt upright, sweating, slack-jawed, prickling with a physical sensation of an enemy presence. “For the instant his mind was aflame with this vivid impression—that he was among sinister enemies, at the mercy of criminals.”
The feeling quickly passes. And with that, the process of what one contemporaneous reviewer called an “intellectual debauch” has begun. The young pastor leaves the encounter electrified, filled with new ideas, ambitions, and lusts. As his self-estimation rises, everything about his old life—his earnest faith, his simple wife—comes to seem beneath him. Much later, a distraught Alice frets that he is turning into a “backslider.” Once, Theron muses to himself, he would have been aghast at the accusation. Now he sees it for what it is, “an empty and stupid epithet.”
Everywhere Theron turns in Ocavius, he is confronted by new ideas that at first frighten him, and soon attract him. In Theron’s pious Protestantism, a sinner in a downward spiral would stay away from church entirely. Ledsmar explains to him that in the Catholic Church, virtue is “on tap,” and adherents come to church when they are low on it themselves. Later, at a beer-soaked church picnic in the woods, Ware discovers virtue isn’t the only thing on tap for the local Catholics. Naturally, he partakes.
Meanwhile, Theron also gets to know a pair of itinerant revival leaders contracted by the church to whip up donations. “Sister” and “Brother” Soulsby’s method is to hold a week-long revival to pack the pews, whip the crowd into a crescendo of religious feeling through preaching and music, and then “quietly turn the meeting into a debt-raising convention.” Theron recoils at their tactics at first; they seem artificial and dishonest. But over time, he comes to respect their success. “It’s a fraud,” Sister Soulsby tells him. “But it’s a good fraud.”
Money—mistakes with it, lust for it, anxiety over it—emerges as a major theme. (Is it possible to imagine American life otherwise?) At the outset of the book, Theron and Alice have only recently climbed out of a steep debt, and their financial anxiety hums underneath the plot. Frederic never lets the reader forget that a church is not so different from a business, with the grubby business of interest rates, tight budgets, and tetchy benefactors perpetually threatening its higher mission.
Music also winds through the story as a kind of, well, melody. Theron is entranced by Celia before he even sees her, when he overhears her playing a Chopin tune “delicious to the ear, but as cold in the mind’s vision as moonlit sculpture.” (p. 90) The Soulsbys’ performance style involves setting familiar hymn lyrics to secular tunes by Chopin, unfamiliar and mesmerizing to churchgoers. Music, like money and new ideas, turns out to be a dangerous seductress.
Devoted to realism in both style and substance, Frederic was an assiduous researcher. He pressed a musician friend to play each of Celia’s Chopin pieces so that he could describe them more fully. “I have waded in Assyriology and Schopenhauer,” he said. “I pored over palimpsets and pottery.” He also borrowed many characters and scenes from his own life, including a Catholic priest whose beliefs were too edgy for his upstate assignment, and a wealthy and flirtatious local Irishwoman he knew in Utica.
Frederic was as prolific a family man as he was a writer. He sired five children with his wife, Grace, and maintained a not-terribly-secret second family with Kate Lyon, a fellow New Yorker in Europe. Eventually they had three children together, and she openly called herself “Mrs. Frederic.” Frederic fell fatally ill in 1898, and Lyon, a devout Christian Scientist, insisted that he be treated only by a “reader” rather than a medical doctor. He died that fall, at age forty-two. Kate and the “reader” were later indicted for manslaughter in a highly publicized trial. His death, then, was its own religion-tinged tragedy, with intriguing mysteries about sincerity, sin, knowledge, and paths not taken.
By the final third of The Damnation of Theron Ware, a creeping sense of anxiety has settled in around the reader. This is partly due to the machinations of the plot. Theron’s marriage, his career, and his faith have all been imperiled or destroyed. But there’s a deeper anxiety embedded behind the text: The book has no heroes at all. Theron himself is weak, delusional, and disastrously quick to forgive himself. Sister Soulsby, while likable, is still a grifter, and pragmatic to the point of nihilism. Theron’s worldly friends, meanwhile, are monsters. The priest is a condescending cynic. The scientist is a moral barbarian. The free spirit is a duplicitous jerk. Near the end of the novel, she delivers what has to be one of the most devastating comeuppances in American literature.
In a sentimental novel, Theron Ware would be depicted as a pious man ruined by worldliness. But Theron Ware is not a sentimental novel. Theron’s enlightenment damns him, but should the sophisticated reader really lament that the pastor loses a set of false beliefs? He might have remained happier if he continued to believe in, say, the historical Abraham. But that’s not a terribly satisfying vision for a reader who doesn’t. Frederic doesn’t comfort the reader on that front, although he suggests his protagonist will land on his feet in the end—financially and socially, if not spiritually. (The exact joke is too good to spoil.)
The Gospel of Matthew asks, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
In America, at least, he’ll be just fine.
From the introduction to a new edition of Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware, published by Belt Publishing’s Belt Revivals imprint, which is dedicated to reprinting unjustly forgotten, newly resonant works from the American Midwest.
Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist and a contributor at Slate. She has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, and many others. She often reports on religion and culture. She lives in New Hampshire.
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