The Damnation of Theron Ware (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


One of the most riveting examples of American literary realism, The Damnation of Theron Ware insightfully captures the unsettling religious, scientific, philosophical, and sexual transitions American society underwent in the late nineteenth century. Theron Ware, a naïve Methodist minister, becomes sexually attracted to Celia Madden, daughter of the town's richest resident, and is intellectually seduced by her friends, including the town's Catholic priest and a reclusive scientist. Intoxicated by the strange ideas...
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The Damnation of Theron Ware: Or Illumination

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One of the most riveting examples of American literary realism, The Damnation of Theron Ware insightfully captures the unsettling religious, scientific, philosophical, and sexual transitions American society underwent in the late nineteenth century. Theron Ware, a naïve Methodist minister, becomes sexually attracted to Celia Madden, daughter of the town's richest resident, and is intellectually seduced by her friends, including the town's Catholic priest and a reclusive scientist. Intoxicated by the strange ideas of his new friends, Theron Ware eagerly trades in his former innocence and faith for a conspicuously "modern" set of ideas and beliefs he only vaguely understands. What first appears to be illumination is ultimately "damnation" for Ware, as he abandons all beliefs for a shallow pursuit of power and financial success.
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The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic is both a riveting tale of passion and disillusionment and a profound philosophical statement about a society's identity crisis. Theron Ware, a naïve Methodist minister in the small upstate New York town of Octavius, falls under the spell of Celia Madden, daughter of the town's richest resident. Ware's sexual attraction to the beautiful and sensuous Celia is matched by his intellectual seduction at her hands and those of her friends, who include the town's Catholic priest and a reclusive scientist. Intoxicated by the strange ideas of his new friends, Theron Ware eagerly trades in his former innocence and faith for a conspicuously "modern" set of ideas and beliefs he only vaguely understands. What first appears to be illumination is ultimately "damnation" for Ware, as he abandons all beliefs for a shallow pursuit of power and financial success. As one of the most significant examples of American literary realism, The Damnation of Theron Ware insightfully captures the unsettling religious, scientific, philosophical, and sexual transitions American society underwent in the late nineteenth century. More significantly, the novel deftly captures the timeless tensions between innocence, knowledge, and falling from grace.

Harold Frederic was born in 1856 in Utica, New York, a town in the central Mohawk Valley, a region that would become the setting for much of his fiction, including the town of Octavius in The Damnation of Theron Ware. Although Frederic came of age during the postbellum years, his birth five years before the Civil War began placed him in the position to observe the passing away of the antebellum generation as the twentieth century drew closer, which to Frederic came to symbolize the loss of a national innocence and a traditional set of values and beliefs. Although raised in a pious working-class family in Utica, Frederic was no rural innocent himself. He was an avid reader as a child and moved to Boston at the age of seventeen to flirt with bohemianism. Returning to Utica two years later, Frederic announced his self-conscious cosmopolitanism to his townsmen by wearing a long-tailed frock coat through the streets. Shortly thereafter, he began a career as a newspaper reporter that would continue for most of his life until the success of The Damnation of Theron Ware provided him the financial security to quit. Eventually, as the London correspondent for the New York Times, Frederic became truly a cosmopolitan man of letters, and while living in Europe he gained great sympathy and respect for the Irish, which is clearly displayed in Theron Ware. Another significant influence in Frederic's life evident in the novel was his life-long friendship to Utica's Catholic priest, Father Edward Terry, who impressed Frederic with the sophistication and scholasticism of the Catholic Church, which is expressed in the character of Father Forbes. Although Frederic published such novels as Seth's Brother's Wife (1887), The Lawton Girl (1890), In the Valley (1890), The Return of the O'Mahony (1892), The Copperhead (1893), March Hares (1896), Gloria Mundi (1898), and The Market-Place (1899), these works never achieved the popular or critical success the best-selling Theron Ware has enjoyed. Frederic died of a stroke in 1898 while in England.

By the time of Frederic's death on the cusp of the twentieth century, American society had radically changed from the country it was at his antebellum birth. Perhaps no other period in American history witnessed such a drastic transformation to its citizens' material, mental, and spiritual existence. The rise of an urbanized and industrialized America uprooted the primacy of traditional agrarianism and its attendant values; the Gilded Age exhibited the worst abuses of industrial capitalism; Darwinism and geological discoveries de-centered humans from creation and questioned biblical veracities; scholarly analysis and criticism of the Bible further eroded faith in Christianity; woman and African Americans strove for rights once afforded only to white men; and each day thousands of impoverished immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe-mainly Catholic and Jewish-entered the country, creating a "multi-ethnic" society which many xenophobic nativists found threatening.

Of course, not every American was equally affected by or conscious of the aforementioned social changes; however, on the brink of the twentieth century, increasing numbers of Americans were aware that the traditional moorings of their society had rapidly become unloosed, even within their lifetimes. By the mid-1880s, as A. N. Wilson notes, the intellectual and philosophical debates that were once only the province "of the better-informed had reached the suburbs." A country that had taken pride in its Jeffersonian agrarianism was now increasingly urban. Similarly, American faith in individualism and progress looked more like a myth than a reality to the millions with low-paying jobs in factories that enriched the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Morgans. Even the dominant religious character of the nation, Bible-centered Protestantism, was being either "updated" to conform to recent scientific discoveries or mocked as irrelevant. Trains, telegraphs, and electric lights united and illuminated an America that was more interconnected, homogenized, and powerful than the antebellum generation could have every imagined. By the 1890s, American consciousness of these vast social changes reached the point to where the historian Henry Steele Commanger dubbed the decade "the watershed" of American intellectual history.

American authors of the late-nineteenth century were keenly aware of and fascinated by the dramatic changes their society was undergoing. The writings of such authors as William Dean Howells, Henry James, Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, and Sarah Orne Jewett, although individually unique, have collectively come to be known as literary realism due to the authors' attempts to mimetically portray real life, as they knew it, and thereby offer it up for understanding. Howells, the powerful long-time editor of the Atlantic Monthly and "dean of American letters," advocated that novels should not didactically "instruct" or purposefully "please" their audience, but rather they should "make the truest possible picture of life." Thus, realism often emphasized realistic settings, dialogue, characters, psychology, and plots in an attempt to both capture and understand the rapidly changing American society. Harold Frederic's detailed and engaging portrayal of Theron Ware's personal and intellectual destruction, and the larger social significance it suggests, clearly makes The Damnation of Theron Ware a landmark document in American literary realism.

At the start of The Damnation of Theron Ware, the traditional beliefs and values Frederic associated with America's antebellum generation are embodied by the church elders attending the annual Methodist conference. Frederic writes that these aged patriarchs conjured "pictures of a time when a plain and homely people had been served by a fervent and devoted clergy,-by preachers who lacked in learning and polish, no doubt, but who gave their lives without dream of early reward to poverty and to the danger and wearing toil of itinerant missions through the rude frontier settlements." Here, Frederic is not simply celebrating Methodism or the fundamentalist religious beliefs of these "patriarchs"-in fact, Frederic personally found "the Methodism he had encountered" intellectually "narrow," which is expressed in the novel by a trustee of the Octavius Methodist Church cautioning Ware, "We don't want no book learning or dictionary words in our pulpit. . . ." However, what Frederic clearly admires about these church elders is the simple firmness of their faith, which inspires them to great acts of self-sacrifice and an ascetic lifestyle. Frederic also expresses, though, that these elders are no longer a vital force in the church; they are mere relics leftover from "heroic times" that are now "aged, worn-out." The next generation of young ministers at the conference are "deemed a decline" by the church elders they are to replace.

By Frederic's portrayal of the Methodist elders, which celebrates a rugged authenticity clearly associated with a bygone era, he is expressing the "antimodern" impulse widely felt at the turn of the century. Historian T. J. Jackson Lears asserts that Americans "began to recognize that the triumph of modern culture . . . promoted a spreading sense of impotence and spiritual sterility--a feeling that life had become not only overcivilized but also curiously unreal," which he termed "antimodernism." In place of modern "unreality," many turn-of-the-century Americans sought spiritual, moral, and physical "authenticity" in activities and institutions regarded as "pre-modern," including a "fascination with Catholic forms." The novel's Catholic counterpart to the Methodist elders is Jeremiah Madden, "the richest man in Octavius," but also "its least pretentious." The aged Jeremiah is "diligent, unassuming, kindly, and simple" and never misses the early Mass. Also like the Methodist elders, however, the pious and simple Jeremiah Madden is a lone remnant from a former age, spending most of his days smoking his pipe in a graveyard. Although the most positive characters in the novel, the small amount of pages devoted to either the Methodist elders or Jeremiah Madden underscores their insignificance in a modern world dominated by the likes of Father Forbes, Dr. Ledsmar, Celia Madden, and eventually, Theron Ware.

Although a young man, when Theron Ware is first introduced, he initially has much more in common with the Methodist elders and Jeremiah Madden than with the three Octavius sophisticates he will soon imitate. In fact, Frederic's first description of Ware suggests he is a vigorous moral throwback from the antebellum era: he is a "tall slender, young man with the broad white brow, thoughtful eyes, and features molded into that regularity of strength which used to characterize the American Senatorial type in . . . far-away days of clean-shaven faces and moderate incomes before the War." Although Ware is disappointed when he is assigned to minister the unfashionable congregation in rural Octavius, he selflessly consoles himself by stating "Somebody must have the poor places." Ware's simple character matches his simple faith: although he chafes at the Octavius Methodists' encouragement to preach only "straight-out, flat-footed hell-the burnin' lake o' fire an' brimstone," his irritation is merely rhetorical and not theological. Shortly before his first encounter with Father Forbes, Ware decides he will write a historical study on Abraham, and to Ware "the hand of Providence was clearly discernable in the matter. The book was to be blessed from its very inception."

Ware's simple faith in the guiding hand of Providence and the literal veracity of biblical figures like Abraham are quickly shattered when he encounters the purposefully "modern" ideas of Father Forbes, Dr. Ledsmar, and Celia Madden. Father Forbes's airy claim of "this Christ-myth of ours" and his habit of tracing all Christian beliefs and rituals to their pagan roots clearly represent turn-of-the-century "Higher Criticism," a scholastic movement which subjected the Bible to rigorous inquiry as a historical document rather than a sacred text, undermining religious claims for its literality and infallibility. Dr. Ledsmar's interest in genetics and his experimentation on plants, animals, and even his Chinese servant, align him with detached, emotionless rationality and a post-Darwinian view of humans as just another animal to be studied. Celia Madden, although the daughter of the pious Jeremiah Madden, claims she is philosophically "Greek," which she defines as "Absolute freedom from moral bugbears . . . [and] the courage to kick out of one's life everything that isn't worth while." Celia's bold sensuality and flaunting of Victorian gendered taboos clearly define her as the feminist "New Woman" of the 1890s.

The crux of the novel, and the most fascinating aspect of Theron Ware's encounter with a priest who speaks of "our Christ myth," or Ledsmar's Darwinism, or Celia Madden as she smokes, drinks, and plays Chopin for him late at night in her private parlor-all attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that Ware never conceived of before personally confronting them-is that he is seduced, not repulsed. Ware does not attack the priest's atheism from his pulpit on Sunday, nor does he avoid the company of the sterile Dr. Ledsmar or the sensual Celia Madden. Instead, he is enthralled by these new ideas, titillated by the prospect of each new encounter with them: "The prospect [of meeting Forbes and Ledsmar] wooed him, and he thrilled in response, with the wistful and delicate eagerness of a young lover." Moreover, Ware's previous persona and faith become such an embarrassment to him that he vows to slough them off and immediately join the ranks of the illuminated, a fantasy as unrealistic as his connected fancy to leave his wife Alice and run away with Celia Madden. The problem for Ware, however, is that he believes illumination to be instantaneous, that the ideas Forbes, Ledsmar, and Celia Madden have introduced him to are simply intellectual poses that can be assumed at a moments notice, illustrated by Ware thinking to himself, "it was amazing how much wiser he had grown at all once." He grows to loathe his wife and parishioners, along with any vestige of his traditional faith and personal history.

Through the instant collapse of Ware's lifelong faith and personality, Frederic is forecasting a dark future for an "innocent" American society awakening to the modern world. The totality of Ware's-and by extension America's-innocence makes the collapse all the more complete and destructive. As the turn-of-the-century Pragmatist philosopher William James (brother of writer Henry James) noted, a total faith is by definition a brittle faith. The strength of a total faith is its ability to answer all questions and create a unified order to one's universe. However, its strength is also its weakness: anything, no matter how trifling, that exists outside of a complete system of faith destroys the entire system by its mere existence. A faith that claims to provide all life's answers crumbles in the face of a remaining question. Thus, as Larzer Ziff notes, "The old ideality has failed; it cannot continue with influence in an America that has awakened to the implications of the Darwinist philosophy and the new historical and anthropological findings about organized religion."

Although Ware's traditional faith and identity are destroyed, a mature, intellectual, and sophisticated modern man does not rise in their place. While Ware considers his "old" self a "former country lout, the narrow zealot, the untutored slave groping about in the dark after silly superstitions," we are quick to realize that without his previous piety and antebellum morality, reminiscent of Jeremiah Madden and the Methodist elders, Ware has no beliefs to keep his selfishness, callowness, and ruthlessness in check. In short, freed from a moral system he now considers an embarrassing superstition, Ware is left to worship himself as the ultimate source of truth, morality, and satisfaction. Personal power and prestige become Ware's only goals. As the symbol of "the fate of the American" in "the new, complex century about to arrive," Ware foreshadows the solipsism, moral relativity, and ruthless ambition that America and the world struggled with during the long and bloody twentieth century.

Unsurprisingly, Ware finishes the novel in the home of Sister Soulsby, the itinerant Methodist revivalist that makes a good living by orchestrating emotional revivals, although she has no religious faith herself. In fact, Soulsby is the embodiment of a coarse pragmatism as she instructs Ware that he is to worry only about how his actions affect himself and not be guided by any larger principals. She admonishes, "I've seen too many promising young fellows cut their own throats for pure moonshine. . . ." Loosed from his former faith and with only himself to please, and at the suggestion of Soulsby, at the end of the novel Ware heads west to Washington territory to pursue a career in politics. In modern politics, Ware's valuable oratory skills learned in the ministry will be freed from the nagging requisite of believing in what he "preaches." Or, as Ware states to Soulsby, "I can speak, you know, if I can't do anything else. Talk is what tells, these days." Thus, as Ware hitches his fortunes to the rising American West at the dawn of the twentieth century, like an American Adam, he has gained knowledge and recognized his former nakedness. Also like Adam, Frederic clearly suggests that Ware's "illumination" is ultimately a "damnation." He is left only with himself to worship and to blame.

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