Posted by: zhiv | October 4, 2011

Walter Edmonds and Harold Frederic: Is In The Valley an American Henry Esmond?

There’s more to say about Drums Along the Mohawk, which is an odd title and topic on which to be sidetracked, but whatever. I’m reading a little about Walter Edmonds, whose “project” was to paint a broad canvas of historical fiction in Central New York. The brief “appreciation” I read mentions that Utica produced three important literary figures, counting Edmonds: the others are Edmund Wilson and Harold Frederic. I always find Edmund Wilson interesting, especially in his connections to Mary McCarthy and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I wouldn’t mind exploring his ties to “Upstate,” which is one of his books. But the Harold Frederic stuff turns out to be more interesting and surprising.

Frederic’s 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware has been on my shelves for a few years, but I don’t remember why I bought it. I suppose i was just a late-century, somewhat significant book and author that I hadn’t heard of. As it turns out, Frederic is little-known more because his career had a significant journalism component and was also short, as he died in 1898 at the age of 42. His dates are similar to Chekhov. At the end of the biographical note in my 2002 Modern Library edition of Theron Ware, it says that “his work was largely forgotten until mid-twentieth century scholars rediscovered and revalued his significant contribution to the rise of literary realism and the nineteenth century American novel.” I could have bought this book when I was reading Howells and The Rise of Silas Lapham, but I think it was more random than that. Joyce Carol Oates, in her introduction, mentions Kate Chopin and how The Awakening was banned and panned, while Theron Ware was a bestseller, and “in his time, Frederic was favorably compared with William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, Theodore Dreiser. He will strike a contemporary reader as “modern” in ways that these writers, with the exception of Crane, do not.”

Okay, fine, here’s a good book in hand that’s worth reading, and I’m trying to decide between it and May Sinclair’s The Creators. But I wouldn’t care about Frederic, I don’t think, except that my cursory research says that his third novel (Theron Ware was his fifth or sixth) was “In The Valley: A Story of 1777.” So there it is: Harold Frederic, a fine but rather obscure American literary figure, also wrote a historical novel about the Revolutionary War in the the Mohawk Valley, and Frederic’s story apparently climaxes at the Battle of Oriskany. More stuff I didn’t know–and by the way, c’mon, how many people knew that? Plenty, I guess, depending on how you look at it.

My guess is that reading Theron Ware would make one excited about Frederic as a writer, and that my own interest in the subject matter of In The valley will make me quite keen, if I get that far. But the point is that it’s too simple to say that Walter Edmonds was rewriting James Fenimore Cooper, by way of Tolstoy. Edmonds was also rewriting and expanding on the work of Harold Frederic, which seems slightly quaint and somewhat odd. Edmonds came of age when Frederic still mattered, at least to a degree, and he mattered to Edmonds much more because of the geographical setting of his novels, as his regionalist predecessor. Frederic wrote his first books in the local color and regionalism period, and Up in the Valley blends that focus with history. Somewhere I saw it mentioned that this historical novel of pivotal Mohawk Valley history was Frederic’s original, high-minded fictional story, and that he was trying to write an American Henry Esmond. I should pin that down to its source, as it occurs to me now to put it in the title of this post.

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Responses

  1. Plenty knew about it way back when…it’s nice for me to finally discover that.

    I read Theron Ware about 5 years ago and really enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it made me excited about Frederic as a writer. Although I may have to explore some more thanks to your posts on him and Edmonds.

    • Post on Theron Ware coming up. Haven’t gotten to the point of checking around to see who else has read it, and other comments. I’m pretty fired up about it, and Frederic is interesting as well. Not quite compelling or first rate, but a strong dark horse I guess. Thanks for stopping by, and I’d love to see you comment on the Theron Ware post.

  2. Thanks, I love being reminded of this book because…well, I won’t say why since it shows my provincialism since I think Frederic does this subject much better than some authors writing later.

    Fortunately someone has put together a wonderful study guide: http://helios.acomp.usf.edu/~rrogers/index.html — highly recommended.

  3. […] Yes, In The Valley is very much an American Henry Esmond, or at least it’s a determined attempt to be such while making its own statement about personality and race and the formation of the American republic. It’s an extremely ambitious book, with a theme and topic that outstrips both the young novelist’s powers and skill, but shows the workings of how he is discovering his gifts and metier at the same time. […]

  4. […] perhaps because he was a regionalist who returned to Central New York after his college years. Regionalist writings seem like a 19th century literary phenomenon, but it must have been a viable tradition and […]


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