Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103

Harold Frederic was born on August 19, 1856, in Utica, a small city of then about twenty thousand people, situated in the picturesque Mohawk Valley of upstate New York. His family tree reached far back into colonial times to Dutch and German farmers and artisans, and he could proudly point out that all four of his great-grandfathers had fought in the Revolutionary War. When Frederic was only a year and a half old, his father died in a train derailment; his mother, however, was energetic and capable and kept the family above water until she remarried. She was a somewhat severe woman, not given to spoiling her children, and Frederic always remembered the early-morning chores he had to do in the family milk and wood businesses before setting out for school. He also remembered the Methodist upbringing he received and the unseemly bickerings among the parishioners of his neighborhood church.

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Like many children at the time, Frederic did not receive extensive schooling and graduated from Utica’s Advanced School at the age of fourteen. For the next two years, he worked for local photographers, slowly progressing from errand-boy to retoucher. He then tried his luck in Boston, dabbling in art and working for a photographer, but in 1875, he returned to Utica and changed his career by becoming a proofreader for the town’s Republican morning paper, shortly afterward switching to its Democratic afternoon counterpart. By this time, Utica had almost doubled its population and had become a political center of the first order, giving the state a governor in Horatio Seymour and the country two senators in Roscoe Conkling and Francis Kernan (it would later add a vice president in James Sherman). Frederic became a firm Democrat and took a lively interest in politics. He soon became a reporter for his paper and also began writing fiction; it was sentimental and imitative beginner’s work, but enough of it was published to encourage him.

The centennial celebration of the Battle of Oriskany in 1877 proved to be an intellectual milestone in Frederic’s life. He helped prepare the occasion, convinced that the battle had been a turning point of the war and not merely a minor skirmish away from the major battlefields. As he listened to Horatio Seymour’s call for a greater awareness on the part of the living of their proud and important history, Frederic resolved to write a historical novel that would give the Mohawk Valley its due and its present inhabitants the historical connectedness Seymour demanded. The regionalist Harold Frederic had come into being, even though In the Valley was not published until 1890, respectively and affectionately dedicated to the memory of the late governor.

That fall, Frederic married his neighbor, Grace Williams. At that point, he was able to support a family because of his financial success at the Observer, becoming news editor in 1879 and editor in 1880, a seasoned and successful journalist before he turned twenty-four. During that time, Frederic’s Methodism was softened through his friendship with Father Terry, an accomplished Irish Catholic priest with a modern and unorthodox outlook who introduced him to Utica’s growing Irish community. For the rest of his life, Frederic would be a champion of the Irish, and he paid literary tribute to Father Terry and his circle of friends a few years later in his finest novel.

In 1882, Frederic took another step ahead in his career in becoming editor of the Evening Journal in Albany, the state capital. Barely settled in town, the Democratic editor made his Republican paper bolt the party line, thereby helping Grover Cleveland become governor. Cleveland appreciated the support and took a genuine liking to the young newspaperman. Frederic was even bolder—and quite prophetic—the following year when he wrote that Cleveland ought to run for president. In early 1884, the paper changed ownership, and Frederic lost his job. Helped by the recommendation of Cleveland’s chief lieutenant, he secured a position as foreign correspondent with The New York Times and sailed for England with his wife and their two daughters.

Frederic’s position with the respected American paper and a letter of introduction from Governor Cleveland soon established him in London. A daring tour of cholera-stricken southern France made him a celebrity, and Cleveland’s accession to the presidency made Frederic a person of importance. He was admitted to a number of London clubs, where he met many of England’s political leaders, the men behind Irish home rule, and the foremost intellectuals, artists, and writers of the day. In this milieu, being only a newspaper correspondent was not satisfactory to Frederic; he set about his literary career with great determination and energy, hoping to become financially independent of journalism and famous as well.

From 1887 on, Frederic’s novels appeared in rapid succession, and while they brought him considerable contemporary reputation (The Damnation of Theron Ware was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean), they did not bring him financial independence. That would have been hard to do even if the sales had been bigger, since Frederic enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle and had a growing family to support. In fact, he had to support two families, for in 1890, he met and fell in love with Kate Lyon, a fellow upstate New Yorker, openly established a second household, and subsequently had three children with her. For some time, Harold and Grace Frederic had been drifting apart. While he split his time between his two families, it was Lyon’s place that became the center of his intellectual and artistic life, and it was there, for example, that he entertained his friend, Stephen Crane.

Financial necessities put a great strain on Frederic. Between his continuing journalistic work (which he carried out thoroughly and faithfully and which involved several extended trips to the Continent), his writing (for which he continued to educate himself by reading widely), his club life, and his family life (including return visits to the United States and to his beloved Mohawk Valley as well as vacations in Ireland), he simply wore himself out. Of imposing physique, he drew upon his strength so recklessly that he suffered a stroke in August, 1898, from which he never recovered. Lyon’s resistance to doctors and her trust in a Christian Science healer led to a widely publicized manslaughter trial after Frederic’s death on October 19; eventually, the defendants were acquitted. Heavily in debt, Frederic had left his family in such financial trouble that friends took up a collection. Five months later, Grace died of cancer. In 1901, the ashes of Harold and Grace Frederic were brought home to their native valley.

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