It is not surprising that "The Damnation of Theron Ware" created a scandal when it was first published. Considering its merciless exposure of religious bigotry and self-delusion, it's a wonder that it was published at all. Or that, when published, it did not provoke violent hostility -- including the refusal of numerous libraries and bookstores to carry it -- of the kind that greeted Kate Chopin's equally daring 1899 novel, "The Awakening." (Of course, Kate Chopin was a woman, a woman writing boldly and sensuously about a wife and mother who commits adultery. That made all the difference.) In contrast, far from being reviled or banned, "Theron Ware" became a best seller, alone among Frederic's several novels, and made its 40-year-old author famous.
In his time, Frederic was favorably compared to Crane, William Dean Howells, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland and Theodore Dreiser. Yet he will strike a contemporary reader as "modern" in ways that these writers, with the exception of Crane, do not. The passionate debate in "Theron Ware" about theories of Darwinian evolution, biblical scholarship and women's rights -- not to mention the question of what constitutes integrity -- is presented by Frederic as both intellectually engaging and funny; his sensibility is more forgiving than damning. Pervading all is the writer's fascination with the world he evokes. In a sense, the novel refuses to take sides in any debate. "Truth is relative," says the worldly Father Forbes as, with patrician disdain, he shuts the yearning Rev. Theron Ware out of his life forever. Frederic's satiric vision is that of a Henry Fielding, not the savage indignation of a Jonathan Swift.
Like a number of successful novelists of his era, Harold Frederic was trained as a journalist. He began his career working for newspapers in Utica and Albany, then moved on to become London correspondent for The New York Times; he held the post for 14 years. His journalist's sharp eye and ear for revealing detail, his instinct for the symbolic juxtaposition of the private and the public, are everywhere evident in "Theron Ware." The meticulous attention to Methodist and Roman Catholic religious ceremonies and customs, the eyewitness drama of meeting-camp conversions, the descriptions of houses and interiors, of conversations all ring wonderfully true. Here, for example, is the welcoming speech of a trustee of Theron Ware's church, delivered at his first meeting with the new minister:
"We walk here . . . in a meek an' humble spirit, in the straight an' narrow way which leadeth unto life. We ain't gone traipsin' after strange gods, like some people that call themselves Methodists in other places. We stick by the Discipline an' the ways of our fathers in Israel. No newfangled notions can go down here. Your wife'd better take them flowers out of her bunnit afore next Sunday."
AT the opening of "Theron Ware," we find ourselves looking into a sea of uplifted, expectant faces, as if awaiting mystical salvation. But what we are observing is the final session of the annual conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, at which an elderly, mildly senile bishop reads out the lists of ministerial appointments for the coming year. Handsome young Theron Ware is this year's star. Yet, unaccountably, he is assigned not to the well-to-do congregation that has lobbied for him but to provincial Octavius, a place for which he and his young wife, Alice, are clearly unsuited. This is the first of Theron's disappointments, but he accepts it with Christian forbearance.
The occasion allows Frederic to deftly sketch several generations of Methodist ministers, presenting in miniature a quick history of this slice of America: the very aged survivors of "heroic" times, who lived in frontier poverty and disdain for earthly goods, wholly dedicated to their mission; the robust middle-aged, who resemble prosperous farmers, tending toward "self-complacency rather than learning or mental astuteness"; and the newly ordained, who are the least impressive ("Zeal and moral worth seemed to diminish by regular gradations as one passed to younger faces"). The novel bears out Frederic's implicit theme: that the religious spirit in America reverses the myth of progress as it takes on the features of the materialist society whose mission it is to "convert."
One of the novel's central motifs is the casual, unexamined bigotry of the members of the young minister's congregation. Their fundamental bond is not a love for Jesus Christ but a deep suspicion of all who think differently. Roman Catholics are particularly despised and feared; anti-Semitism has become assimilated into the congregants' very vocabulary. ("Don't you let them jew you down a solitary cent" rolls off Alice Ware's tongue with an ease that seems to us, at the present time, obscene.) Frederic's portrayal of right-wing Christian sentiment strikes a disturbingly contemporary note, for this is paranoia as religion (or religion as paranoia) -- an essentially militant spirit that languishes in times of peace. Its spirit is best displayed in opposition, in combat. As the disillusioned Father Forbes tells Theron, though there would seem to be great advances in knowledge and civilization over the course of millenniums, "Where religions are concerned, the human race are still very like savages in a dangerous wood in the dark, telling one another ghost stories around a camp-fire. . . . The most powerful forces in human nature are self-protection and inertia."
It is the exoticism of Roman Catholicism -- its ritualized Latin prayers; its music, statues, stained-glass windows; the mysterious sacrament of extreme unction; the apparent passivity and unquestioning obedience of its worshippers -- that first attracts the young Methodist minister, in defiance of all he has been taught to believe. Theron Ware falls under the enchantment of Father Forbes and the beautiful red-haired young Irish-American woman, Celia Madden, who is the organist at Forbes's church, and whom Theron mistakes at first for a devout Catholic. How ironic that it is Father Forbes who, in a casual dinner conversation, plants the seeds of fatal doubt in the Protestant minister's mind by speaking of the archetype of the "divine intermediary," "this Christ-myth of ours." The effect upon the younger man is electric:
"Theron Ware sat upright at the fall of these words, and flung a swift, startled look about the room -- the instinctive glance of a man unexpectedly confronted with peril, and casting desperately about for means of defense and escape. For the instant his mind was aflame with this vivid impression -- that he was among sinister enemies, at the mercy of criminals. . . . Then, quite as suddenly, the sense of shock was gone; and it was as if nothing at all had happened."
From this point, however, Theron Ware's "damnation" progresses by steady degrees.
Celia Madden is a remarkable fictional creation -- for her time or any other. She is a thoroughly self-defined woman, presented without irony and without punishment. She describes herself as a "Greek," a "pagan," who remains a Catholic only because its symbolism is "pleasant" to her. Her father's extreme wealth allows her a freedom unknown to most women, and so she need never marry. To her, marriage is an anachronism; she scoffs at the notion "that women must belong to somebody, as if they were curios, or statues or race horses."
CELIA tells the infatuated Theron that repudiating marriage does not mean repudiating love, which he takes as a statement that has some application to him. Celia's boldness -- "I am myself, and I belong to myself, exactly as much as any man" -- and a perfunctory farewell kiss provoke a fatal misinterpretation by Theron, as do earlier conversations with Father Forbes and Dr. Ledsmar, the agnostic doctor, all of which lead to the novel's denouement. What Theron had believed to be a "metamorphosis" of the self, an acquiring of a "new skin" of intellectual and moral enlightenment, his acquaintances in Octavius see as "degeneration." Ironically, and cruelly, it seems to have been his very naivete that initially attracted them: "We thought you were going to be a real acquisition," Celia says. And so Theron is rejected, turned away as a "bore." He promptly goes on the first drinking binge of his life, using church funds.
While Kate Chopin's "Awakening" is an American tragedy in the mode of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," Harold Frederic's "Theron Ware" is a comedy. Its protagonist approaches suicide, but is never quite that desperate. He collapses; he is ill; he recovers. (There are women to help him, of course.) Frederic allows his protagonist a generous measure of insight: "Everything about me was a lie. I wouldn't be telling the truth, even now, if -- if I hadn't come to the end of my rope." His unquestioned religious faith is lost forever, and he will live from now on without illusion, in an altered landscape in which there is no God "but only men who live and die like animals." This is the most extreme fin-de-siecle despair, the dark obverse of the bright Walter Pateresque estheticism that is Celia Madden's "pagan" religion, and an apt description of the worlds explored by contemporaries like Crane, Norris, Dreiser and Jack London.
But even this insight is comically undercut in "The Damnation of Theron Ware," for by the novel's end its protagonist, no longer a minister, has entered the far more promising world of business. Through a friend's intervention, he will be superintendent of a real estate company in Portland, Ore. His very shallowness gives him confidence and resilience. He is no conscience-stricken Reverend Dimmesdale, brooding upon his past; rather, he is an American of the upcoming century.
In a final delicious twist, Frederic allows Theron Ware a vision of the future in which he sees, in mimicry of the novel's opening scene, "a great concourse of uplifted countenances, crowded close together as far as the eye could reach. They were attentive faces all, rapt, eager, credulous to a degree. Their eyes were admiringly bent upon a common object of excited interest. They were looking at him." In Theron's reverie, a mighty roar of applause follows, and suddenly he knows his destiny. "I can speak, you know, if I can't do anything else. Talk is what tells, these days. Who knows? I may turn up in Washington, a full-blown senator before I'm 40. Stranger things have happened than that, out West!"
In mock Darwinian terms, Theron Ware has adjusted to altered circumstances and a new environment. He will not only survive but succeed. His is what the new century inherits in the way of 19th-century idealism.
It is certainly a loss to American literature that Harold Frederic died only two years after the publication of his most ambitious novel. And what irony there is in his death: despite Frederic's skepticism regarding religious beliefs, he seems to have acquiesced in his Christian Scientist wife's refusal to provide medical care when he became gravely ill. After his death, she was tried for, and acquitted of, manslaughter.Continue reading the main story
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