Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Damnation of Theron Ware: The Platypus Reads Part CXLVII

My string of discovering lost classics continues with the 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic.  It's a realistic novel set in upstate New York and focuses on corruption of a foolish and naive Methodist minister who comes into contact with a group of worldly socialites.  On a deeper level, the story serves as a metaphor for America as an emergent world power at the turn of the twentieth century.

I'm a fan of most things that involve New England or the immediate vicinity.  I also have an interest in American regionalism in general.  The world Harold Frederic evokes strikes me as an accurate representation of the "bones" upon which the contemporary North East is built.  The roll of Irish immigrants, Catholicism and their interaction with older Anglo families and Protestantism struck me in particular as well as the prominence of class distinctions.  My ancestors were Irish Catholics and I recognised much in Frederic's report of the plight of the Irish in his day that reminded me of my own family traditions.  These details of place give the work a solid and creditable backdrop against which the story can take place.

As said earlier, that story is The Damnation of Theron Ware, Methodist clergyman.  Ware's transition from beloved Evangelical minister to play-acting Liberal is an intriguing tale in its own right, but it also serves to highlight the state of American religion in the late nineteenth century.  Science and the higher criticism loom large, though they seem to persuade more by appealing to the spirit of the age than to logic; a damning criticism of the religion of the era in itself.  By the end of the book, however, Ware becomes more than just a commentary on American religion, he assumes the role of America itself: naive, ambitious, and over-confident, and emerging into a world dominated by older and more sophisticated powers that it cannot hope to understand but desperately wants to join.

As a final note, the subtitle of the work is Illumination. I have some ideas as to what this might mean, but I want to hold off on stating them.  I imagine few people have read this book.  It's worth reading and I would hate to give too much away.  Hopefully what's here is enough to peek your interest.  If you've already read it, however, let me know.  I'd love to see what you think!   

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