Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic

An unsung masterpiece of American realism
The name Harold Frederic is unlikely to ring a bell with many readers these days, even those who are well-versed in the history of American literature. His obscurity, however, is undeserved. I had previously read one very good short story of his entitled “Brother Sebastian’s Friendship.” This led me to his novel The Damnation of Theron Ware, an 1896 bestseller that is largely forgotten today. To my surprise, this lesser-known novel from the turn of the last century turned out to be an excellent read. As an enthusiast of naturalist literature from this time period, I consider this book to be an unsung masterpiece of Victorian-era American literary realism.

Theron Ware is a young minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church in upstate New York. As the novel opens, the church’s annual Nedahma Conference is being held to determine the placement of ministers in its churches throughout the district. Theron and his wife Alice are hoping to move to a larger, more cosmopolitan town, but instead they are posted to the conservative backwater of Octavius. Almost immediately after accepting his post, Theron must contend with the puritanical and parsimonious views of the church trustees and elders. By chance, Theron meets some new friends from outside the Methodist Church: Father Forbes, an Irish Catholic priest; Dr. Ledsmar, a skeptical scientist; and Celia Madden, a young Irish woman who serves as the Catholic church organist. As Theron gets to know these new acquaintances, he soon overcomes his prejudices against the Irish and Catholics and begins to envy Forbes and Ledsmar for their progressive intellectualism and enlightened views on theology. Even Celia intimidates Theron with her modern sophistication. The daughter of a wealthy family, she is an early feminist set on living an independent, liberated life. As a result of his encounters with these individuals, Theron begins to doubt his strict Methodist faith and becomes infatuated with the beautiful, cultured Celia.

I have no personal interest whatsoever in the workings of the Methodist Church, but this book really made the subject fascinating. The story delves into the politics of running a parish church, the social expectations imposed upon the minister and his wife, and the sometimes distasteful marketing savvy required for fundraising. The book is not antireligious, but Frederic himself doesn’t exhibit a strict attachment to any faith and reports on church doings and questions of belief in an objective, realistic manner. Occasional scenes come across as highly romanticized, but Frederic skillfully negates such departures from realism by forcing the reader to question how much of the romance merely exists within Theron’s fevered mind. Similarly, at times Frederic depicts Celia, the liberated woman who scorns Victorian conventions, as almost a devilish temptress, but then he challenges conservative readers with scenes that portray her as the voice of reason in a puritanical world. Despite its religious subject matter, the novel never succumbs to easy contrasts between good and evil or right and wrong. Frederic can be quite harsh in his renunciation of formulaic plot elements or romantic cliches. The Damnation of Theron Ware is always engaging and never predictable, right up to its very conclusion.

Frederic’s writing is on a par with better-known naturalist contemporaries like Frank Norris, Charles W. Chesnutt, Theodore Dreiser, and Edith Wharton. If this novel is any indication of his abilities, Frederic merits a great deal more name recognition than he currently enjoys. The Damnation of Theron Ware deserves to be widely read by all fans of American realist literature.
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