Wow. what a book. I must say that I was blown away by this novel, which is as good as it is subtly advertised, a neglected gem. I’m not sure why it is that, since it was rediscovered in 1960 (roughly), it hasn’t managed to push aside some of its contemporaries and find a higher place on American Literature reading lists at some point over the last 50 years, but I suppose it’s hard to change the same old tune. In any case, I want to give it my own ranking as a superior text, just below Revolutionary Road and Stoner as books I’ve read in recent years that were engaging and affecting in the deepest possible way.
What is Theron Ware, and why is it good? I’m eager to wade into the criticism of the novel, which promises to be especially interesting because there’s so much going on in and around the text. Its 1896 publication date lies in the fin-de-siecle sweet spot of the transition from realism to modernism that I find so interesting. Certain works from the 90’s, led by Chekhov I suppose, have a clarity of vision that reads as modern, along with a sense of form and structure that signals the advent of Modernism. This is clearly one of those books, and the question is whether it’s the best of them.
I saw one note that Theron Ware marked the end of the reign of Howells’ “tea cup realism,” which seems true enough, and the book itself contains a direct critique of Henry James’ internationalist stories and heroines. It seems comprehensive somehow, inviting comparison to Hawthorne and Oscar Wilde and Thomas Hardy and all the rest, as if Frederic quietly showed up, unnoticed, at the gates of the literary pantheon with a golden ticket guaranteeing admission.
But to answer the main question about what and why, rather than how it fits and compares, I would say that Theron Ware is an extraordinary tale of romantic obsession, self-deception, and the loss of faith. It gives profound meaning to the terms “damnation” and “illumination,” taking them in the course of the story from their traditional religious meanings, and ultimately placing them firmly in a 20th century, modern context. “Damnation” was incidental, as Frederic, writing in London (where he was an important New York Times correspondent), titled it “Illumination” there, but the US publishers were never informed of the change from the working title. Damnation turns out to be a stunning concept when it’s placed in the contemporary metropolitan world, even more so when it’s tied to romantic and sexual obsession.
Theron Ware is divided into four parts, and it has intriguing formal elements that I need to study and understand more carefully. The parts follow the seasons, and the narrative is compressing quite cleanly into a single year. Perhaps it makes sense to view the first “book” as firmly rooted in the 19th century, and the innocent America of a broad characterization of the era. This opening might be costing the book readers and recognition, because the world of simple and earnest religion seems quaint, staid, stodgey and familiar, like other things we’ve read before, and it completely disguises the way in which the story will hurtle forward into the modern world like a runaway train.
Frederic does fascinating things with his hero and point of view in the final book. Somehow the direction of the story manages to come as a complete, chilling shock–at least it did to me. If Book One portrays an innocent world of hope and faith within stern religious conservatism, the middle books make the turn that includes an open heart discovering the larger world with all its possibilities, and the loss of faith that goes along with enlightenment. Ware is exposed to rationalism and higher criticism and he opens up to beauty and truth in Book Two. At the midpoint he falls into a transformational fever, an interesting episode, leaving behind his ministry and its constraints, and his attachment to his wife. In Book Three he walks about as an enlightened man of science and philosophy with great confidence, albeit with a nervous edge, seeking salvation in romance, art, and nature like any other pilgrim since Goethe. Ware has befriended the local intelligentsia, as he’s adopted and inspired by them and their freethinking in the second book. The characters are a biologist who is a doctor of science, a sophisticated and worldly priest, and an unspeakably beautiful “New Woman,” Celia Madden, who lives with Grecian freedom and embodies the pure and wild Celtic spirit that landed in Ireland 2000 years before. Not surprisingly, Ware replaces his loss of faith with worship of Celia.
What’s interesting is that we stay with Ware through these first three books, and believe in him and his changing view of the world. His progress is natural and unforced, the gaining of wisdom in the search for truth in the real world. His departure from his problematic flock and wife is a slow movement, and it seems like he will work things out somehow. The turn begins subtly, just short paragraphs at the end of the early chapters of the final Book IV, when Frederic gives the briefest of glimpses of how Ware is perceived by his new friends. First there’s a moment of mild misgiving–uh oh, where is this going–and then it turns into a revelation: Holy shit! This was all in his head! It’s all a lie! And we realize that the narrative we have been following is a closely observed version of Ware’s own self-absorbed consciousness, that there has been virtually no narrative detachment throughout the transformative middle portion, before this final section. And Theron Ware himself was wrong about everything, and he is lost and, yes, damned.
The Damnation of Theron Ware is a master text in the study of self-deception. Self-deception and its mechanics and manifestations has always been my primary critical hobby horse, and I suppose I would have freaked out about this book and its accomplishment back in the day–I’m amazed and humbled by it now. The concluding book in the novel is simply fantastic. We get direct description, in dialogue and from extraordinary characters, of Theron Ware’s malaise and descent into breakdown and madness. Subtle glimpses give way to direct statements, which then snowball into tracking Ware’s unhinged obsessive pursuit of Celia. We find ourselves in the realm of Dostoyevsky and Raskolnikov, understanding Ware and how he got here, and how he’s powerless to escape from his own internal logic. Even better and more disturbing, Ware’s obsession is romantic and sexual, and Frederic’s text is a portrait of a man driving himself to madness over a woman who absorbs his every thought, clinging to his fantasies even as every signal and intruding element from the outside world denies their reality.
The strong contrast between Books 1 and 4 continues and climaxes with Ware’s journey to the metropolis, as he stalks Celia when she makes a trip with the priest, Father Forbes, to New York City. Book One carries Ware and his wife from the bucolic innocence of their rural Methodist beginnings to the more complicated and burgeoning, industrialized town, Octavia, based on Frederic’s home in Utica, New York, seen through the prism of his decade of expatriation in London. Just as we realize that Ware has completely lost himself in Octavia, there’s nothing to prepare us for his damned descent into the hell of modern metropolitan society. Ware’s train journey and his furtive trailing of Celia from the station to her hotel is brief, but it is genuinely frightening, as Ware is a rogue narrative agent hurtling towards climax and destruction. By saving the exposure of modern urbanity to the very conclusion and giving it a decidedly hellish aspect, Frederic taps directly into fin-de-siecle fear and anxiety, and at the same time he even manages to describe quite expertly the disintegration of the self. With its “damnation” of an American innocent, this novel prefigures Eliot’s post-WW1 Wasteland as it appears in Frederic’s keen disciple F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. We’re used to hearing about Fitzgerald’s admiration for Flaubert and others, but Theron Ware seems to be a much clearer and more direct antecedent, and it would be a fantastic companion text to The Great Gatsby.
And The Scarlet Letter too, for that matter. It would be hard to find a better book to act as a bridge between the two, I would think. I suppose that some of my enthusiasm is based on a steady effort to reduce my ignorance about once-neglected women writers and their extraordinary works from the exact same period, tracking the accomplishment and importance of books like The Story of an African Farm, Country of the Pointed Firs, and The Awakening. Ethan Frome (“Hawthorne everywhere you look”) and The House of Mirth would make excellent Ware companion texts as well. Frederick’s expansive artfulness, which invites such comparison, seems to me to put his work well above Drieser and the standard post-Howells crew, including Crane’s modernity. Obviously Theron Ware is known well enough to Americanists and specialists in the period and I suppose my question is when they encounter it, and how it fits for them. So now I get to go and try to find out. This is hardly a lost book, as the fact that I owned a copy of it should attest–it’s funny to think about how I had a copy of Revolutionary Road on my shelves too, without really knowing what it was or even how it got there. And I should note that reading it was meant to be general background to my upcoming read of lesser, more obscure Frederic–his historical novel of the American Revolution, In the Valley. But The Damnation of Theron Ware is a very great book, and any one with even roughly similar tastes to my own would thoroughly enjoy reading it.