Harold Frederic was, for fifteen years, the New York Times London correspondent. On the side he wrote fiction, including at least one unusually good comic novel, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), in which a talented but naïve young Methodist minister is sent to Frederic’c home town of Utica, New York, where he is corrupted in various entertaining ways.
Theron Ware is a reversed bildungsroman. The character does not grow, but shrink. The more he learns, the worse he becomes, until everyone is sick of him. The title is ironically hyperbolic, although on the last page a dark joke makes the word almost literal, in a metaphorical way, the one time the novel turns into horror fiction. Mostly, we watch Reverend Ware become a huge jerk.
Some representative quotations:
Thereon Ware was extremely interested in the mechanism of his own brain, and followed its workings with a lively curiosity. (Ch. 4)
With his tender compassion for himself there mingled now a flutter of buoyant prescience, of exquisite expectancy. (Ch. 18)
He had not comprehended at all before what wellsprings of spiritual beauty, what limpid depths of idealism, his nature contained. (Ch. 24)
These should suggest the primary sins that that Ware’s seminary education did not really prepare him to fight, or even encouraged.
Generally, the fundamentalists get banged pretty hard for pettiness and narrow-mindedness. The great contrast is with a Catholic priest who is educated and thoughtful, but does not seem to believe in Christianity, although he believes strongly in the Catholic Church.
Frederic’s style is like that of William Dean Howells but rougher. This could easily have been a Howells novel. There is plenty of dead wood, passages that could just be cut:
The Rev. Mr. Ware found Levi Gorringe’s law-office readily enough, but its owner was not in. He probably would be back again, though, in a quarter of an hour or so, the boy said, and the minister at once decided to wait. (Ch. 12)
So dull. But Frederic gets off some good comic metaphors.
The Bishop droned on laboriously, mispronouncing words and repeating himself as if he were reading a catalogue of unfamiliar seeds. (Ch. 1)
The “unfamiliar seeds” actually return as part of the plot.
I am not sure how to visualize this one, exactly, but it’s funny:
Sister Soulsby gave a little involuntary groan of impatience. She bent forward, and, lifting her eyes, rolled them at him in a curve of downward motion which suggested to his fancy the image of two eagles in a concerted pounce upon a lamb. (Ch. 14, Ware of course considers himself to be the lamb)
Frederic is good with dialogue, giving it some authentic upstate flavor (as if I have any idea how people spoke in Utica in the late 19th century):
“Why, man alive, that’s the best part of it. You ought to be getting some notion by this time what these Octavius [that’s Utica] folks of yours are like. I’ve only been here two days, but I’ve got their measure down to an allspice.” (Ch. 14)
I have never heard that last idiom, and for all I know Frederic invented it, but I love it and hope to use it frequently.