Harold Frederic Essay - Critical Essays


Harold Frederic was not one of those writers who burst upon the scene with a magnum opus and then fade from view; rather, his writing steadily improved from Seth’s Brother’s Wife to his masterpiece, The Damnation of Theron Ware. Ever since the Oriskany Centennial, Frederic’s ambition had been the writing of In the Valley as the great American historical novel. The preparation for this book was so slow and painstaking that it took years, as well as the experience of writing Seth’s Brother’s Wife first, to complete the Revolutionary War novel. In the Valley interprets the Revolutionary War as more of a struggle between the democratic American farmers and the would-be aristocratic American landed gentry than as a conflict between crown and colony. It gives a stirring description of the Battle of Oriskany, but its plot is trite, pitting the sturdy Douw Mauverensen against the slick Philip Cross as political opponents and rivals for the same woman.

In his uniform-edition preface, Frederic states that he firmly controlled everything in Seth’s Brother’s Wife and In the Valley, but that in The Lawton Girl, “the people took matters into their own hands quite from the start.” More than one great novelist has insisted that in truly great fiction, the author does not prescribe to his characters but rather allows them to unfold as they themselves demand, integrating them into the whole. The Lawton Girl is a respectable book, despite some plot and character contrivances, for the longer rope Frederic had learned to give to his characters and for his continuing ability to ground his work in regional authenticity.

Before The Damnation of Theron Ware appeared, Frederic had published The Return of the O’Mahony, a playful work that expresses his strong interest in Ireland and Irish home rule. Even in this pleasant book, there is, as Austin Briggs and others have noted, the abiding sense of a past that conditions the present, a theme familiar from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851).

March Hares (published under the pseudonym George Forth), is a comedy of mistaken identities in a make-believe world. These light works were followed by the weightier novels Gloria Mundi and The Market Place. Gloria Mundi is essentially concerned with an investigation of the English aristocracy, which Frederic shows as a hollow, outdated remnant of medieval caste structure. This major theme is accompanied by a variety of probing social observations, at the end of which stands the insight of the new duke of Glastonbury: A man is only a man after all. He did not make this world, and he cannot do with it what he likes.There will be many men after me. If one or two of them says of me that I worked hard to do well, and that I left things a trifle better than I found them, then what more can I desire?

This distillation of Frederic’s ultimate philosophy of life is evident as early as Seth Fairchild, but it is not a view shared by Theron Ware or the central figure of The Market Place, Joel Stormont Thorpe. Ware has visions of greatness and power; Thorpe is the most ruthless and most successful of financiers and prepares by way of sham philanthropy to go into politics and rule England. Frederic’s final assessment of people in this world is therefore a very balanced and realistic one: One would like to have the Seth Fairchilds without the Theron Wares and the Stormont Thorpes, but the wish is not going to make those who want to do with the world what they like desist or disappear. The present will always have to find its own way against the past and will always in turn become the next present’s past; so passes the glory of the world, and so also does the world go on and on in continuous struggle between good and evil.

Seth’s Brother’s Wife

Seth’s Brother’s Wife has all the strengths and weaknesses of a respectable first novel, but only in the late twentieth century did critics begin to take it as something more than a mixture of realistic regionalism and sentimental melodrama. Its very title is confusing, since Seth Fairchild, not Isabel, is the book’s main character, since personal integrity rather than amatory complication constitutes the book’s principal theme, and since—as the subtitle, A Study of Life in the Greater New York, signals—the book’s compass reaches well beyond the three people mentioned in the title.

Set in the Mohawk Valley region in the early 1880’s, Seth’s Brother’s Wife is the familiar story of a young country lad who goes to town, experiences sometimes severe growing pains, but in the end prevails because of his basic personal decency and his values, which, though tested to the breaking point, hold and are therefore rewarded. Frederic called the novel a romance, and one does well to see it in a line of American stories of initiation that begins, if not with Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography (1791), then withCharles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn (1799-1800), and reaches Frederic by way of Hawthorne.

One of three brothers, Seth comes from a farming family whose fortunes have been declining. His brother, John, is editor of the local paper; his other brother, Albert, who is college-educated, is a successful New York City lawyer and comes home to establish residence and a political base for his bid to be a congressman. Albert finds Seth a job with the area’s leading daily newspaper; reminiscent of Frederic’s own career, Seth eventually becomes editor and is instrumental in the paper’s bolting from its traditional political adherence. Seth finds himself opposing his brother, to whom he owes his position in the first place, and supporting his friend, Richard Ansdell, a principled reform candidate who has done much for Seth’s intellectual and moral growth.

In a powerful sequence of chapters all set during the same night, the ruthless Albert corners the well-meaning but immature Seth. Seth has fallen under the spell of Albert’s young, neglected, city-bred wife, Isabel, and although he never fully succumbs to the temptation, Seth feels the sting of Albert’s attack on his political purity: How hypocritical that Seth stand on ethics in politics when he was about to make love to his brother’s wife. As Albert leaves to discuss with his henchman, Milton Squires, a scheme of buying the nomination, Seth stumbles out into the darkness conscious of his weakness and foolishness, finds his old love, Annie, and proposes to her on the spot to save himself from himself.

The nominating convention is ruled by the area’s political boss, Abe Beekman. Beekman rebuffs Albert’s attempt to buy him off (he is in politics for the fun, not the money) and decides to have Ansdell nominated. When news of Albert’s death arrives, Beekman turns into the driving force behind the investigation, and after many melodramatic plot complications—including a suspicion that Seth took revenge on his brother—all ends well: Squires is convicted of murdering Albert to get the buy-off money; Seth is united with Annie; Isabel leaves the uncongenial countryside and goes to Washington where, in a pointed undercutting of the validity of happy endings, she will marry Ansdell.

A plot summary of this action-packed book is inadequate to clarify Frederic’s major concerns and accomplishments. The conflict between city and country, which is so essential to Arthur Mervyn’s initiation, is developed here with forceful realism and admirable balance. Life on the farm is dispiriting, squalid drudgery amid often incredibly vulgar exemplars of humankind, but it is also the smell of blossoms in the orchard and the rustle of autumn leaves underfoot and the taste of fresh cider. Life in the city means not only new cultural and intellectual dimensions but also the distraction of the beer hall and, down the dark alley, the depths of prostitution. In politics, honesty and expediency are played against each other without a facile conclusion; most important, Beekman is no saint and Ansdall no...

(The entire section is 3354 words.)