A few of us were in a coffee shop talking about Ted Haggard, Darlene Bishop and other right-wing Christianistas. One of the guys thought that I could gain some perspective and also stoke my outrage by reading Harold Frederic's 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware. I recognized the title -- it had appeared on reading lists when I was a student in the 1950s and 1960s -- but I'd never turned a single page. Well, better late than never; Theron Ware is a truly splendid book.
Here's a sample of its satirical spirit. Youthful, ignorant Theron Ware meets the governing elders when he arrives to take up his ministry at the Octavius Methodist Church:
"We are a plain sort o'folks up in these parts," said Brother Pierce.... We walk here... in a meek and humble spirit, in the straight an' narrow way which leadeth unto life. We ain't gone traipsin' after strange gods, like some people that call themselves Methodists in other places. We stick by the Discipline an' the ways of our fathers in Israel. No new-fangled notions can go down here. Your wife'd better take them flowers out of her bunnit afore next Sunday."
It's a wonderful speech, especially that last oppressive sentence, set without pause or punctuation against flimsy pretenses to meekness. Harold Frederic leaves us in no doubt that Brother Pierce and his Methodist co-religionists worship only at the altars of joylessness and petty tyranny. Theron Ware would like to rebel against these sour Puritanisms, but he's devoid of the necessary intellectual resources. He's backwoods ignorant. He does after a while acquire and read Renan's Life of Jesus and for a few chapters it seems as though he's going to tread the familiar nineteenth-century path from narrow sectarianism toward a less restrictive spirituality. But the author has many surprises in store. Ware encounters Father Forbes, an intelligent, informed and (gasp!) Roman Catholic priest and he also develops a painful crush on a dashing rich free-spirited young and (horrors!) Irish-American beauty named Celia Madden. Ware is unable to grasp that these two sophisticates treat him not as an equal, but as a kind of mascot puppy. Wonderful and embarrassing complications ensue.
Frederic creates some full and rich and modern characters. Father Forbes is a 1890s decadent with roots in Pater and perhaps even in Huysmans, while Sister Soulsby is a practical, energetic no-nonsense entrepreneur whose trade just happens to be promoting Methodism. Most interesting of all is Celia Madden, who plays Chopin and admires George Sand, and who is as up-to-the-moment as anyone in The Woman Who Did (and who would have been perfectly at home discussing aesthetics in Bloomsbury). Theron Ware's encounters with her are painfully amusing. It's as if Frank Merriwell had somehow blundered into Madam Merle's drawing-room.
The town of Octavius is modeled on Utica, New York, where Harold Frederic was born and spent his young manhood. Utica is a place I know very well, but I don't believe I've ever come across a Frederic monument or a "Harold Frederic lived here" plaque. Perhaps the city fathers aren't eager to remind us that Utica is portrayed as gossipy, narrow, ignorant, and exceedingly philistine.