The often controversial and always turbulent course of Harold Frederic’s life centered on his struggle to be recognized as a novelist. Born the son of a freight conductor in Utica, New York, in 1856, Frederic rose from relatively humble beginnings. His father died before Frederic was two, and lacking substantial resources, Frederic got little education beyond high school. Like so many of the noted American writers of his time, Frederic began writing as a journalist. His strong political views almost immediately led him into a series of controversies, and he changed papers frequently, eventually landing at The New York Times, where he received acclaim for his work as London correspondent. Life was never smooth, however, for Frederic. Late in life, he endured constant criticism for his extramarital affair with a woman who bore him three children. Even his death inspired scandal. Bedridden in 1898 with a stroke, Frederic requested a doctor, but his Christian Scientist mistress summoned a faith healer who proved ineffective in preventing Frederic’s death. The mistress and faith healer were acquitted of manslaughter, but not before their highly publicized trial received international notoriety.
Throughout his life, Frederic sought artistic recognition. Although he published several novels, few received any acclaim. The Damnation of Theron Ware nevertheless enjoyed commercial success and earned critical recognition during the author’s lifetime. Its stature continued growing after his death, and by the middle of the twentieth century, the novel had come to be seen as a literary masterpiece. A fine example of literary realism with strong elements of naturalism, The Damnation of Theron Ware creates a biting portrait of life in post-Civil War America, as drawn from the author’s varied experiences and acquaintances. Read superficially, The Damnation of Theron Ware offers an excellent story, but this often delightful surface rests on a complicated web of elements that supports multiple interpretations. For example, the novel can be read as a representation of the intellectual and theological turmoil of the late nineteenth century and as a sophisticated psychological study of a flawed individual.
The characters of the novel can symbolize conflicting social and ideological forces in post-Civil War America. For example, Theron’s congregation at Octavius, and the Methodist establishment in general, represent a middle America which, in Frederic’s view, has stubbornly maintained the traditional forms of Protestantism...
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