DON'T LET THE UNFORTUNATE title of this nearly forgotten 19th century novel put you off. Even the redoubtable editor of this magazine remembers it from his graduate school days as “The Damnation of Wear and Tear.” In England, where it was published separately, it was called Illumination, perhaps to indicate a readership more alert to irony than its fellows across the Pond. Harold Frederic’s novel treads a wobbly line between a comedy of manners and something more sad, sober, and significant. Published in 1896, the book has nerve; it’s modern. We lose not only our attachment to our fresh-faced, impressionable Theron of the title, but in this story, we also lose a sentimental, romantic notion of the American experience in general.
Frederic begins by presenting Theron Ware, a Methodist minister, as an open-minded innocent, whose native curiosity transcends the xenophobia of his Methodist culture. Like the characters who surround him in the book, we are attracted to his candor and youth. Then slowly Frederic dissects these impulses to reveal the darker motives of social climbing, intellectual presumption, and sexual desire that lie beneath. The way Frederic constructs his story, we find ourselves identifying with Ware’s exuberant journey towards self-improvement until we catch on that there’s a reason the book’s called The Damnation of Theron Ware. It’s a good ride, and takes us all the way to the finish line.
The setting for the novel is the Mohawk Valley, where Frederic himself was born and raised, a part of upstate New York famous for spawning a diverse array of religious movements and spiritual “awakenings.” At the start, Theron has been newly appointed to Octavius (read Utica), one of its poorest communities. The tone of the book’s satire is caught when the new minister meets the parish trustees: Loren Pierce, a rich quarry owner, with a “general determination to exact 7% for his money, and some specific notions about capturing certain brickyards which interfered with his quarry-sales”; Erastus Winch, wealthy from selling farming equipment, who seemed “a good fellow,” although “the County Clark of Dearborn could have told you of agriculturists […] who held him to be even a tighter man than Loren Pierce in the matter of a mortgage”; and Levi Gorringe, a mysterious lawyer, independently wealthy, who had never professed religion, but who the Methodists elected trustee anyway, “partly because he was their only lawyer, partly because he, like both his colleagues, held a mortgage on the church edifice and lot.” Theron had already gained a reputation for oratory, and they caution him: “We don’t want no book-learnin’or dictionary words in our pulpit, […] no nonsense about science, such as tellin’ the age of the earth by crackin’ up stones” or “preachin’ that our grandfathers were monkeys.” And “your wife’d better take them flowers out of her bunnit afore next Sunday.”
It’s no wonder, then, that when Theron runs into the first Catholics he’s ever met, the charismatic Irish priest, Father Forbes...read more