Illuminating Damnation: A Classic American Novel of Sex and Religion

By Nancy Forbes RomanoNovember 28, 2012

The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic

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, and his friend and protégée, the beautiful, flamboyant Celia Madden, he is strongly attracted. Add to this duo the atheistic, non-practicing Dr. Ledsmar, and Theron is hit broadside with an elite mini-society that beglamours him. Influenced by the now nearly forgotten radical theologian Ernst Renan, Father Forbes accepts a Jesus divested of divinity, and yet continues to perform his pastoral duties with high-handed authority. Celia claims she is more Greek than Christian and flaunts her free-thinking behavior with an arrogance powered by being the daughter of the wealthiest man in town. And Ledsmar, a serious Darwinian, performs unholy drug experiments on his Chinese servant, yet dines with Father Forbes several times a week.

Theron, the naïve product of an intellectually and culturally barren society, falls hard for these new, sophisticated friends — especially the red-headed Celia.

But Theron is married, to the adoring and playful Alice. Starting from their first days in Octavius, however, when the trustees forbid her to wear flowers in her “bunnit,” the marriage starts losing its luster for her. Alice’s alienation intensifies as Theron begins appropriating the attitudes and airs of his secret Catholic friends, losing all interest and even respect for his pretty farmgirl wife.

Frederic builds a sly, almost insidious case against Theron, even as he keeps us in sympathy with him. The shrewd Methodist trustees, as well as Alice’s small-town prejudices, make us want to cheer for Theron’s “awakening” to a wider, worldlier understanding, even if it’s full of prurience and pretensions of its own. His awkward affectations have a poignancy that makes us cringe. When he hears that George Sand lived openly with Chopin, he casually drops the reference to Celia. “I am interested in Shopang,” he says to her. “He lived with — what’s his name — George something. We were speaking about him only this afternoon.” She looks at him “at first inquiringly, then with a grin about her lips. ‘Yes — George something,’ she said, in a way that mystified him.”

Theron’s bedazzlement reaches a peak of psychosexual delirium when Celia invites him to her room. The scene is 15 pages long. It begins with Theron glancing furtively down the street to make sure he’s unobserved, and then going with Celia into her family’s mansion. She leads him to her own private wing, which she has decorated with plush divans, heavy curtains, female Greek statuary, and paintings of the Virgin Mary. Once inside, Celia performs a rapturous piano recital while Theron lies back on a couch and “surrender[s] his senses to the mere unthinking charm of it all.” Then he begins to really look around in the dim candlelight, turning his head “to scrutinize one by one the statues in the corner.“

One of them, the figure of a broad-browed, stately, though thick-waisted woman, bending slightly forward and with both arms broken off, was decently robed from the hips downward. The others were not robed at all. Theron stared at them with the erratic, rippling jangle of the waltz in his ears, and felt that he possessed a new and disturbing conception of what female emancipation meant in these later days.

During a break in the music, Theron approaches Celia and dares to put his hand on her shoulder.

She seemed not to mind his hand on her shoulder, and he kept it there […] She looked up at him and smiled. He read unsuspected tendernesses and tolerances of friendship in the depths of her eyes, which emboldened him to stir the fingers of that audacious hand in a lingering, caressing trill upon her shoulder […] “You are getting on,” she said to him. There was an enigmatic twinkle in the smile with which she continued to regard him. “We are Hellenizing you at a great rate.”

Hellenizing indeed. Theron mistakes Celia’s friendly, if patronizing, attentions for sexual promise. When he says with passion, “I want to be a Greek myself, if you’re one. I want to get as close to you — to your ideal, that is, as I can,” she barely disguises a yawn and sends him on his way. But a few pages later, she impulsively bankrolls a piano Theron is buying, which he accedes to without allowing himself to acknowledge how it compromises him. With the carelessness of the very rich, Celia shows no regard for the devastations she’s wreaking on her friend’s life.

Into this atmosphere of inchoate arousal blows a breath of fresh air, the Soulsbys, and with them a new American type is born: the professional fundraiser. Candace Soulsby spent her shady youth knocking around in the West, dabbling in show business, and finally settling down with the can-do Mr. Soulsby, with whom she travels from parish to parish, raising money for Methodist churches. The Methodists have hired the Soulsbys to whip up their dwindling congregants at the annual revival meeting. Her showmanship is impeccable.

What Sister Soulsby said did not matter. The way she said it — the splendid, searching sweep of her great eyes; the vibrating roll of her voice, now full of tears, now scornful, now boldly, jubilantly triumphant; the sympathetic swaying of her willowy figure under the stress of her eloquence — was all wonderful. When she had finished, and stood, flushed and panting, beneath the shadow of the pulpit, she held up a hand deprecatingly as the resounding “Amens!” and “Bless the Lords!” began to well up about her.

A few moments later, “The psychological moment was upon them. Groans and cries arose, and a palpable ferment stirred the throng." The exhortations of the revivalist “seemed to quiver in the very air,” and “above the confusion of penitential sobs and moans, and the hysterical murmurings of members whose conviction of entire sanctity kept them in their seats, could be heard the voices” of the Soulsbys.

The following day Sister Soulsby seals the deal at the debt-raising meeting. She begins by locking the congregants inside the church, and in a classic bait-and-switch move, makes a pitch for money: “You think you can’t raise $1,500, but you’ve got to.” Winning them over with a charming joke,

She set them all laughing; and then, with a twist of the eyes and a change of voice, lo, and behold, she had them nearly crying in the same breath. Under the pressure of these jumbled emotions, brethren began to rise up in their pews and say what they would give.

In a fit of what Frederic calls “benevolent hysteria,” the men start to pledge.

With songs and jokes and impromptu exhortations and prayers she kept the thing whirling, until a sort of duel of generosity began between two of the most unlikely men — Erastus Winch and Levi Gorringe.

When Candace Soulsby closes the meeting, the Church is once more in the black. Theron will even get a raise. But then he discovers that the bidding war between Winch and Gorringe (whom Theron suspects of having designs on Alice), was just a set-up, and Winch retracts his offer in the subsequent trustee meeting. Theron must cast the deciding vote to let Winch off the hook, and under the guidance of Sister Soulsby, he does it, to his own shame. Seeing a pep-talk is needed, Candace talks frankly to Theron.

You say it’s hurt your conscience to do just one little hundredth part of what there was to be done here [….] That is to say, you wanted all the dirty work done by other people […] Did you ever see a play? In a theatre, I mean. I supposed not. But you’ll understand when I say that the performance looks one way from where the audience sits, and quite a different way when you are behind the scenes […] That doesn’t prove that the play, out in front, isn’t beautiful and affecting, and all that. It only shows that everything in this world is produced by machinery — by organization.

She tells him not to be such a goose, and he takes it to heart declaring he will leave the ministry. She tries to dissuade him.

I’ll tell you something. It’s about myself. I’ve got a religion of my own, and it’s got just one plank in it, and that is that the time to separate the sheep from the goats is on Judgment Day, and that it can’t be done a minute before.

Candace Soulsby’s smart, down-to-earth exhortations are rather lost on Theron, because of his stubborn disgust for his hysterical flock and the hypocritical trustees, and, most painfully, because he has to witness his wife Alice accepting Jesus side by side with Levi Gorringe. What he does manage to salvage is Candace Soulsby’s explanation of why the hymns she and Soulsby sing together are so affecting:

I invented that scheme of finding tunes which the crowd didn’t know, and so couldn’t break in on and smother. I simply took Chopin — he is full of sixths, you know — and I got all sorts of melodies out of his waltzes and Mazurskas and nocturnes […] Now that’s machinery, management, organization. We take those tunes, written by a devil-may-care Pole who was living with George Sand openly at the time, and pass ‘em off on the brethren for hymns. It’s a fraud — yes; but it’s a good fraud.

It is this allusion that Theron drops when he spends the evening with Celia.

The final half of the book shows Theron disaffected from his own earlier aspirations and attachments and seeking a new exalted life with Celia. Suspicious of her relations with Father Forbes, he visits Dr. Ledsmar and the priest in turn, trying to wheedle out information about the nature of their intimacy. Contemptuous of his insinuations, they both reject him. When Celia’s brother dies and she takes off for New York City on some private business with Father Forbes, Theron, completely beside himself, steals money from the recently enriched Methodist coffers, and stalks Celia to the very hotel room where she is staying. Here Theron confronts Celia, demanding that she account for her flirtations. “In a single word, Mr. Ware,” she finally tells him, “we find that you are a bore.”

Crushed to the bone, Theron seeks out Candace Soulsby, who is also in New York City. She revives him with her common sense humanity. “As long as human life lasts, good, bad, and indifferent are all braided up together in every man’s nature,” she tells him, “and every woman’s too. You weren’t altogether good a year ago, any more than you’re altogether bad now.”

Now that Theron has burned his bridges as a minister, Candace and Mr. Soulsby set Theron up in the real estate business in Seattle, Washington. In the closing page of the novel, Theron’s irrepressible self-regard has lead him into a new reverie for his future: politics. “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 forty. Stranger things have happened than that, out West!”

Harold Frederic died at the age of 40. He had been a star reporter in and around Albany before relocating to England where he was the London correspondent for the New York Times. A prolific writer, having produced between 1887 and 1898, 1500 articles, features, and reviews, 23 short stories, two volumes of non-fiction and 10 novels. His work was well received critically, but his masterpiece was Damnation, which was also a best seller. I was introduced to the book in graduate school by the great advocate for American realism, Irving Howe, who placed the novel among those of Henry James, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Theodore Dreiser.

Frederic’s personal life reflected a stubbornly independent spirit. Having married Grace Green Williams in 1877, he had five children with her, but in England, took up housekeeping with Kate Lyon, a fellow expat, with whom he had another three children. He died in 1898 of an illness that his Christian Scientist mistress refused to treat medically. His death remains a strange disjunct between his own atheism and his faith-healer partner.

In Damnation, his last and best novel, Frederic hit a note that resonates even now. Theron’s impulse to a kind of hit or miss self-creation, his facile slide from one identity to a more expedient one, highlights a very American tendency. In the last pages of the book, Theron fantasizes about his new career, his dreams of becoming a senator, and in so doing heralds a perhaps dubious phenomenon of preacher-turned-politician that is still very much with us. Frederic’s prescience is undeniable.


LARB is reader supported.  Click here to donate.

LARB Contributor

Nancy Forbes Romano's book reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Nation. She lives in Santa Monica with her husband, screenwriter and fellow LARB contributor John Romano.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!