Harold Frederic opens The Damnation of Theron Ware with a congregation packed leg to leg, waiting in anticipation for its beleaguered bishop to announce fresh appointments of clergy to a late 19th century Methodist community under pressure from the Presbyterians. The suspense of the Protestant faithful, so masterfully sketched, whets the suspense of Frederic’s audience, whether he was targeting the true believer or a more cosmopolitan mien.
There is room enough for both in this remarkable novel, which utilizes a man’s fall from grace as its template. Theron and his wife Alice are fresh faces, both eager for social distinction. Yet they are a relatively unsophisticated couple, balancing pressure from church elders on one side, and the financial constraints of ministering to a poor community like Octavius, significantly populated by Irish Catholics, they themselves under the possibly less than benevolent authority of Father Forbes.
Theron falls under the influence of Forbes after visiting the home of a mortally injured worker, where he meets Celia Madden, a classic femme fatale whose family falls under the rubric of local American gentry. Celia is roughly comparable to a younger Hedda Gabler, but where Hedda’s dark impulses lead invariably to self-destruction, Celia’s lead to the corruption of a man’s calling and beyond.
Besides that of Father Forbes, Celia’s clique contains the Darwin-ish Dr. Ledsmar, and in tandem the trio bandy Reverend Ware about like a fresh amusement, at first with good humor, then with an increasing sense of affront, one which Theron believes he can control.
Frederic lived a scandalous life. Joseph Conrad deemed him to be “a gross man who lived grossly and died abominably,” a notorious turn of phrase containing a backhanded jab of envy, but if Harold Frederic’s appetites were too large for the age in which he lived, they nonetheless enabled him to be a unique observer of how American fundamentalism merged with avarice and status to give us the country we have today, chasing after Jesus in glitter domes. Both the man and the work deserve more sustained canonical attention.