In 'Theron Ware,' Realism Wears Well

Monday, November 27, 2006

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Nearly four decades ago it was my good fortune to be granted a fellowship that permitted me to study at a major university for an entire academic year, a fellowship that prohibited taking courses for credit and encouraged grazing. I arrived on campus expecting to study ethical issues in American life but soon found myself in rapt attendance at a seminar on the works of William Faulkner. While my fellow journalists immersed themselves in public affairs and other weighty matters, I went on to study literary biography and, just because the course was there, American fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One never knows, do one? The course that I stumbled into turned out to be a turning point. We read books I'd never heard of -- Kate Chopin's "The Awakening," Hamlin Garland's "Main-Travelled Roads," Jack London's "Martin Eden" -- and books I'd heard of but never read: Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie," Frank Norris's "The Pit," Stephen Crane's "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets." We also read a novel that came from far, far out in the blue and that knocked me for a loop: "The Damnation of Theron Ware," by Harold Frederic. Since then, like "The Awakening," Frederic's novel has been rescued from obscurity by academia and can be found in college curricula, as well as in two paperback editions, but then it was little more than a literary curiosity that almost no one had read.

These novels introduced me to a period in American literature that my own undergraduate education had scanted. In the 1950s and 1960s courses in our literature tended to begin with Hawthorne and Melville et al., then to leap half a century or more to Henry James, Willa Cather and the novelists of the 1920s. Little attention was paid to those who thrived in the period between them, except perhaps for William Dean Howells and, of course, Mark Twain, who fit into nobody's category and who tended to be regarded as a special case because he committed the most unliterary sin of being funny.

The novels and stories of the period roughly from 1880 to 1920 for the most part do not have the literary flair of those that preceded and followed them, but they established the realist tradition -- the accumulation of mundane but revealing detail, the rejection of romanticism and idealism, the determination to see things as they really are -- that remains an important strain in our literature, albeit now more in popular and genre novels than in "serious" fiction. "The Damnation of Theron Ware" is a minor classic of realism, yet it rarely is ranked with the works of Dreiser, Norris, Crane and the rest, perhaps because it is Harold Frederic's only genuinely notable work of fiction, his career having been devoted largely to journalism.

Frederic was born in 1856 in Upstate New York, and before reaching the age of 20 had made a beeline for the Utica Observer. His upward trajectory was sharp; editor of the Observer a few years later -- in his early 20s! -- then editor of the Albany Evening Journal, then London correspondent of the New York Times. He began publishing fiction while he was in England, but not until the appearance of "Theron Ware" in 1896 was he taken seriously as a novelist. Unfortunately his private life was exceedingly sloppy. He had a wife and five children, to whom he added a mistress and three more children. His mistress was a Christian Scientist who tried faith healing when he suffered a stroke in 1898. It didn't work, and he died that October. She was tried on charges of manslaughter, and acquitted.

In this as in other respects, he defied convention, which in the late 19th century was a lot more rigid and intolerant than it is now. In his early journalistic career he was a passionate reformer who ran into trouble with the Albany newspaper when he defied the dominant Republican machine, and much of that spirit is evident in "Theron Ware." Its protagonist is a young Methodist minister who is appointed to serve the parish in a dreary Upstate town called Octavius. He is genial and handsome, "with the broad white brow, thoughtful eyes, and features moulded into that regularity of strength which used to characterize the American Senatorial type in those far-away days of clean-shaven faces and moderate incomes before the [Civil] War," but he is also ambitious beyond his limited abilities, foolish, spineless and self-deluding. From the moment he reaches Octavius, he sets himself on the path to self-destruction.

Soon after his arrival he is visited at the modest manse by the church's three trustees, who inform him that "no new-fangled notions can go down here" and that his wife, Alice, had best stop wearing bright flowers in her bonnet at church. This command is "a source of bitter humiliation to him," and worse for Alice, who loathes both the command and her husband's pliant acquiescence in it. Their marriage, which had been joyful, starts to turn sour, and at the same time Theron's eyes begin wandering in the direction of Celia Madden, the glamorous daughter of the richest man in town and a practicing Roman Catholic who is a close friend of the local priest.

"Celia Madden" I'm told, is an anagram for "Alice Damned." Whether Frederic intended that cannot be known, but it certainly points in the right direction: Theron's infatuation with Celia is poison to his marriage. Celia, apparently amused by his utter innocence, toys with him, inviting him to a secret room in her family's mansion where she plays Chopin on the piano, driving him to fits of ecstasy that lead to no consummation but persuade him in the baseless conviction that she loves him and that he must offer himself to her.

Significant parts of her allure for him are her Irishness and her Catholicism, though he came to Octavius with conventional late-19th-century Protestant "race and religious aversion," which Frederic sums up in a stingingly satirical passage:

"Pigs wallowed in the mire before [Catholicism's] base, and burrowing into this base were a myriad of narrow doors, each bearing the hateful sign of a saloon, and giving forth from its recesses of night the sounds of screams and curses. Above were sculptured rows of lowering ape-like faces . . . and out of these sprang into the vague upper gloom, on the one side, lamp-posts from which negroes hung by the neck, and on the other gibbets for dynamiters and Molly Maguires; and between the two glowed a spectral picture of some black-robed, tonsured men, with leering satanic masks, making a bonfire of the Bible in the public schools."

Now, though, Theron meets Father Forbes, and becomes almost as infatuated with him as with Celia. The priest is cynical, world-weary and, in Theron's eyes, the acme of intellect and sophistication. He talks with Forbes and the equally cynical, world-weary Dr. Ledsmar, and comes away from the evening convinced "that his meeting with the priest and the doctor was the turning-point in his career." The curtains part and the light shines forth: "Evidently there was an intellectual world, a world of culture and grace, of lofty thoughts and the inspiring communion of real knowledge, where creeds were not of importance, and where men asked one another, not 'Is your soul saved?' but 'Is your mind well furnished?' "

Armed with what he imagines to be this life-changing knowledge, Theron goes right around the bend. He becomes sarcastic about his own religion and convinces himself that the once-reviled Catholics in fact have achieved the ideal blend of faith and worldliness; he imagines that Alice is in love with -- perhaps even having an affair with -- a lawyer who has taken a kindly interest in her; he pursues Celia ever more inanely, all the while fantasizing that her friendship with Father Forbes is far more than platonic. He is "entirely deceived about yourself," Celia's brother tells him, and finally Celia herself confronts him with the brutal truth:

"We were disposed to like you very much when we first knew you. . . . You impressed us as an innocent, simple, genuine young character, full of mother's milk. . . . Instead we found you inflating yourself with all sorts of egotisms and vanities. We found you presuming upon the friendships which had been mistakenly extended to you. . . . Your whole mind became an unpleasant thing to contemplate. You thought it would amuse and impress us to hear you ridiculing and reviling the people of your church, whose money supports you, and making a mock of the things they believe in, and which you for your life wouldn't dare let them know you didn't believe in. You talked to us slightingly about your wife. What were you thinking of, not to comprehend that that would disgust us?"

Theron Ware's story will remind today's reader of the one told three decades later by Dreiser in "An American Tragedy": a young man married to a woman of his own modest class becomes infatuated with a woman beyond his reach and pays terrible consequences for it. Dreiser's novel is the more famous, but Frederic's is the better. It gives us America at a watershed moment in its history, with science advancing and orthodox religion retreating, with the old Anglo oligarchy challenged by new immigrants, with sexuality slowly moving beyond closed doors and shadows, with ambition becoming more rank and unashamed, with early stirrings of what we now know as feminism. More than a century after its publication it remains vivid and pertinent. Frederic's occasional lapses into sarcasm and melodramatic language may seem excessive, but they were characteristic of his time and should be accepted as such. "The Damnation of Theron Ware," according to the editor of my old hardcover copy, is "a minor masterpiece," and I say he's right.

"The Damnation of Theron Ware" is available in paperback editions from the Modern Library and Penguin Classics.

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