Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Damnation of Theron Ware - "I've got their measure down to an allspice."

Harold Frederic was, for fifteen years, the New York Times London correspondent.  On the side he wrote fiction, including at least one unusually good comic novel, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), in which a talented but naïve young Methodist minister is sent to Frederic’c home town of Utica, New York, where he is corrupted in various entertaining ways.

Theron Ware is a reversed bildungsroman.  The character does not grow, but shrink.  The more he learns, the worse he becomes, until everyone is sick of him.  The title is ironically hyperbolic, although on the last page a dark joke makes the word almost literal, in a metaphorical way, the one time the novel turns into horror fiction.  Mostly, we watch Reverend Ware become a huge jerk.

Some representative quotations:

Thereon Ware was extremely interested in the mechanism of his own brain, and followed its workings with a lively curiosity.  (Ch. 4)

With his tender compassion for himself there mingled now a flutter of buoyant prescience, of exquisite expectancy.  (Ch. 18)

He had not comprehended at all before what wellsprings of spiritual beauty, what limpid depths of idealism, his nature contained.    (Ch. 24)

These should suggest the primary sins that that Ware’s seminary education did not really prepare him to fight, or even encouraged.

Generally, the fundamentalists get banged pretty hard for pettiness and narrow-mindedness.  The great contrast is with a Catholic priest who is educated and thoughtful, but does not seem to believe in Christianity, although he believes strongly in the Catholic Church.

Frederic’s style is like that of William Dean Howells but rougher.  This could easily have been a Howells novel.  There is plenty of dead wood, passages that could just be cut:

The Rev. Mr. Ware found Levi Gorringe’s law-office readily enough, but its owner was not in.  He probably would be back again, though, in a quarter of an hour or so, the boy said, and the minister at once decided to wait.  (Ch. 12)

So dull.  But Frederic gets off some good comic metaphors.

The Bishop droned on laboriously, mispronouncing words and repeating himself as if he were reading a catalogue of unfamiliar seeds.  (Ch. 1)

The “unfamiliar seeds” actually return as part of the plot.

I am not sure how to visualize this one, exactly, but it’s funny:

Sister Soulsby gave a little involuntary groan of impatience.  She bent forward, and, lifting her eyes, rolled them at him in a curve of downward motion which suggested to his fancy the image of two eagles in a concerted pounce upon a lamb.  (Ch. 14, Ware of course considers himself to be the lamb)

Frederic is good with dialogue, giving it some authentic upstate flavor (as if I have any idea how people spoke in Utica in the late 19th century):

“Why, man alive, that’s the best part of it.  You ought to be getting some notion by this time what these Octavius [that’s Utica] folks of yours are like.  I’ve only been here two days, but I’ve got their measure down to an allspice.”  (Ch. 14)

I have never heard that last idiom, and for all I know Frederic invented it, but I love it and hope to use it frequently.


  1. This was one of those books that I enjoyed while reading it, but felt disappointed in it when I finished. Maybe it's the hype surrounding it (forgotten masterpiece, etc.). Or maybe it's the main character, who, as you say, shrinks as the novel progresses. He's exposed to things that should make him grow, yet he's too literal-minded and intellectually stilted to make any progress...he always seems to take the wrong lesson from things.

    Sister Soulsby is an interesting character, though. Much like the Catholic priest, you begin to get a handle on what they really believe in and then it gets turned around. Instead of disappointing me, I enjoyed them the more for it.

  2. Oh, it's a second-rate novel, but that's an issue of prose and maybe scope. The anti-bildungsroman concept is a stroke of genius. You wanted him to learn more? This guy? I would have been disappointed if he had.

  3. I wonder if this matters: Methodists in the mid-to-late 19th century were part and parcel of the ultra-conservative evangelical movement, and Catholicism and its trappings(very suspicious people those Catholics) were anathema to Methodists. Does Frederic make much of that tension either ironically or comically?

  4. Yes, that's exactly it. These Utica Methodists are fundamentalist, disapproving of, for example, flowers on hats. The Catholics like ornament, and beer, and are mostly Irish, which to Theron Ware is irresistibly exotic.

    The tension is quite funny.