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The Redemption of Theron Ware

May, 2009
By Charles E. Gould, Jr.

Not long ago in these pages I reflected on rereading several novels by Sinclair Lewis that I admired in my youth and admire still. That they are “dated,” like Bach and my old flame Tallulah Bankhead (whom I met more than once but never actually dated), increases the pleasure I take in their manifest excellence. My friend who is a retired professor of English tweaks me for the respect I have for Lewis’s Babbitt and Main Street, pointing out that (unlike Carol Kennicott but perhaps not unlike Tallulah Bankhead) “today’s women graduates appear to have been marinated in testosterone for four years. And the businessman of my acquaintance [unlike Babbit] is no rube. He is slick enough to give the impression of culture to the uncultured.” That this professor (calling Lewis’s work “good only,” like a used book) is absolutely right about today’s college girl and today’s businessman only reinforces my idea that Lewis had them pegged—perhaps originally so—almost a hundred years ago: they have not changed in essence, despite their changes in appearance and stature.

Lewis had numerous literary forebears many of whom I have not read, but he alludes to The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic, and he was surely up on William Dean Howells, whom I may treat (if I am allowed to go on with this nostalgic series) in a later number. The Damnation of Theron Ware was first published in 1896 by Stone & Kimball of Chicago, printed at The University Press in Cambridge, bound in green cloth with gold lettering on both covers, gilt page edges. Handsome. By today’s standards, this trade edition was nearly a Fine Binding. The first and second editions are identical excepting the copyright page. About forty years ago I bought the pair from Allen Scott (after years in a wonderful shop on Exchange Street in Portland he is now, I regret, Net Only) in Springvale, Maine, for $65.00—a bit of an investment for a fledgling schoolmaster at the time; but I loved the novel, and I bought the books. (A dealer in Tulsa is now offering a VG+ First Edition at $60.00, so…. It is now available new only as a print-to-order paperback at almost $20.00.) Following its initial success, when it was called a “book of the year” and sold an amazing 3500 copies, the novel fell into (I think) undeserved neglect until it was republished in 1924, when it did not regain its initial popularity; it was reprinted by the Belknap Press of Harvard University in 1960…I don’t know why, for this clever, imaginative, touching, penetrating insight to the ironic pride that occasionally precedes the deterioration of the hearts and minds of men would be, I think, about impossible to teach, even in a Harvard classroom. I never tried it on a class at Kent School. It’s too subtle and too dense; but it has, if not universal acknowledgement, universal significance.

Frederic’s theme in The Damnation of Theron Ware is the self-deceptive power of pride—perhaps the subject of all serious literature except P.G. Wodehouse: Theron Ware’s pride of intellect and emotion leads to his putative damnation, for it induces him to pursue with childish intensity the invidious courses that beguile both his mind and heart. Frederic’s narrative genius invites his reader to pursue these invidious courses too, almost to the point of sharing Theron Ware’s damnable aspiration, as if to say that we all have had one. Frederic does so with the subtle, patient skill of the plot specialist (O. Henry comes to mind), yet with greater depth and moral application than a clever plot demands.

Not by coincidence, theron comes from the Greek for “wild beast” and by extension means “hunter,” while ware is from an Old English word meaning “merchandise to be kept safe.” The protagonist’s name is an oxymoron, as are his character and career. He is hunting in a wilderness for something he already has secured…but he has to learn that. To the unprecedented throng of the Nedahma Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Reverend Theron Ware has preached a trial sermon “head-and-shoulders above the others”; and he deserves to be assigned to the coveted post of Tecumseh. When he’s not, as he rightly expects to be, we share the discouraging injustice of his assignment to the deplorable parish of Octavius.

With his early troubles there the reader immediately sympathizes: his wife, Alice, is requested to remove the “new-fangled notions”—the flowers—from her “bunnit”; and they learn that milk is not delivered to the parsonage on Sundays. Frederic himself soon loses interest in depicting the external influences of small-town narrowness (as Sinclair Lewis, later, did not), and devotes his attention to the disintegration of his protagonist’s character (as I think Lewis, later, and John Updike later still) hated or found it impossible fully to do. For a time, the reader supposes that the young minister Theron Ware, by the force of his manner in the pulpit, will win over his fundamentalist congregation, and teach them that Hell at worst is no more than “a place where a Puritan has to mind his own business.” (Pretty bad place, for some I could name.)

The obstacles in the honest course along which the reader, with Theron, plods appear at first, ironically, not as obstacles but as inspirations: Celia Madden and Father Forbes, whom he first meets by accident at the Last Rites of the workman MacEvoy: in the presence of the Priest, “the girl’s Latin chant, with its clanging reiterations of the great names” affects him so unaccountably that he dismisses it as dreamlike. We soon see that for Theron to become involved, intellectually or emotionally, with these two people will require of his honest creed revisions and renunciations which, if not in themselves damning, are too demanding of his incapacious temperament and mind for him to sustain in his innocence. But, as we readers are tempted to do (as I did forty years ago and again forty years later), he falls in love with both of them. We hope that if he falls into “evil” or error the fault will not be his own, and we hope that he will be saved from damnation, which we would not wish to see pronounced upon so calm and earnest a young man.

Our heart-felt hope, generated deliberately by a novelist of egregious skill, is, as he soon proves, futile; for Theron Ware’s desire to broaden himself has the result of puffing him up, and his widening horizon distracts him from the loving honesty of his wife and the faithful safety of his religion which, by some standard however banal and untutored, are the security of his being, which in an instant he recklessly disavows. Theron Ware’s longing for the urbanity and sophistication of Father Forbes is motivated by his only vaguely-veiled lust for the priest’s friend, the entrancing Celia…whom Frederic intends to be only innocently entrancing, even as in a diaphanous gown she plays Chopin for the Reverend Theron Ware; but she does not understand her audience, and she captivates Theron unto his temporary doom. (“Can such things be,” as Shakespeare’s Macbeth asked, and “Overcome us like a summer’s cloud/ Without our special wonder?” The answer to that one is “Yes.”) We know that Theron’s development is misguided—actually not “development” in the positive sense at all; but we are more keenly aware of the specious indications that it is not misguided. Frederic involves us in Theron’s own self-deception even as we recognize it, encouraging the introspection that, however painful, makes reading fruitful. That to me is the artistic achievement of this novel.

The great strength of Frederic’s technique is that never in the narrative is Theron Ware irretrievably given over to any such thing as “evil” or even bad behavior. Even gauche seems harsh to me. The Fates are never wholly against him, and our hopes for his redemption—his salvation—are never entirely naïve or groundless. But Theron invariably makes the wrong choice. That makes him an object of sympathy, not of contempt: Frederic’s tone never varies; he never mocks his subject, though others in the novel do. Along with the self-deceptive power of pride, Theron must unconsciously—like Shakespeare’s Desdemona—sustain the arrogance of chastity, and meet the—perhaps not completely—irretrievable disaster toward which pride in innocence invites us all. Ah, well: he just didn’t know. (My own epitaph, should the occasion arise.)

At the same time, Frederic exposes the inability (or unwillingness) of the worldly priest to help the naïve minister Theron, and he exposes the inability (or unwillingness) of the essentially erotic Celia to understand him—until their damage has been done. To Frederic, these incapacities are as damning as Theron’s own. Like Celia, Father Forbes can synthesize the holy and the secular, which, ironically, for Theron have always been pragmatically the same, his religious world his only world. But at this crisis in his affairs, they suddenly become antitheses: indeed, his suddenly seeing them as antitheses is the essence of his crisis; and his thinking for a moment that he can renounce the holy is perhaps his greatest mistake.

Even here, though, Frederic offers us an ironically corrective voice, in Dr. Ledsmar who, foreseeing such renunciation as diabolic, leaves Theron no hope of redemption. He addresses the serpent in his laboratory, “long, slim, yellowish-green, with coiling tail and pointed evil head,” saying, “Your name isn’t Johnny any more. It’s the Rev. Theron Ware.” Dr. Ledsmar’s, however, is not a voice we accept unconditionally—just as we do not accept Father Forbes and Celia uncritically. He is misanthropic, reclusive, satirical; he hates Celia’s organ music; he and Father Forbes are both uncharitable toward Theron; and his serpent Johnny is, if to him an image of The Rev. Theron Ware, to us an image of… well, The Serpent. We err if we accept Dr. Ledsmar’s voice as the voice of the author.

Similarly, Frederic undercuts another indictment of Theron, lawyer Levi Gorringe’s sharply critical judgment: “He’s got a wife that’s as pure and good as gold, and he knows it, and she worships the ground he walks on, and he knows that too. And yet the scoundrel is around trying to sniff out some shadow of a pretext for misusing her worse than he’s already done.” Harsh indeed, and only half true. (If I had to state the great truth underlying this novel—and I suppose I do—I would say it is that most if not all of the Truths about any individual man or woman are only half true.) After all, we have been given evidence, albeit circumstantial, that Levi Gorringe has scandalous designs in sending, anonymously, flowers to Mrs. Ware for the parsonage garden. There is a way to misread, as Theron does, Celia’s motive in dressing in Grecian robes and playing Chopin for him, and in walking alone with him in the woods, and finally suggesting that he may kiss her. All of these seemingly holier-than-thou-Theron figures should be taken with a grain—if not a pillar—of salt.

Certainly Frederic constantly hints that a little worldliness in Theron’s school-boy nature would do him no harm. But it is this nature—the character of Theron himself—that heightens Frederic’s ambiguity to the level of ambivalence. Who, in a sense, is more worldly than a school-boy? Theron Ware is not a tragic figure, in stature or situation; but like all tragic figures (and school-boys, and people in general except, maybe, you and me) he is likeable and despicable, pitiable and insufferable, damned and redeemed at the same time.

As a fictional character the Reverend Theron Ware reminds me of another minister, the Reverend Frank Prescott, the title figure in The Rector of Justin, a novel by Louis Auchincloss (Houghton, Mifflin, 1964), another brilliant exercise in ambivalence. The Times Literary Supplement described the Auchincloss novel as “a taut and elegant study of a distinguished American whose closest friends cannot decide whether they like or detest him.” Frank Prescott, the founder and Rector of Justin Martyr—a great New England Episcopal boarding school—is (like most headmasters I have known) a scoundrel, a hypocrite, and a tyrant. He is also (like most headmasters I have known) a Saint, a Hyperion, and a Teacher. It would take more than one reading of what a New Yorker reviewer called this “daring and ambitious book” to decide which side Mr. Auchincloss is coming down on—and to make such a decision would be, I think, an error in critical judgment of some magnitude. Like Louis Auchincloss, Harold Frederic is not passing judgment. He is, as it were, creating a human being for us to understand.

Probably Theron’s biggest mistake was not to confide in his wife, Alice, not treating her as his mental equal. In their relationship, Theron proves himself a master of futile gestures, which perplex and threaten her and inflate himself with thinking that he has outgrown her and surpassed her, intellectually and culturally. But Alice has the strong and honest mind he needs. We are glad to see him setting out for Seattle to try the real estate business, although the last sentence of the novel hints that he will ever underestimate her strength: “‘Oh, it isn’t likely I would come East,’ said Alice, pensively.” “‘Most probably I’d be left to amuse myself in Seattle.’” That Alice makes this prophecy argues not only her strength, but his perpetual weakness. Again, the novelist does not ask us to hold weakness in contempt. Like Auchincloss, like Melville (as I once wrote in these pages), Frederic the true artist asks for understanding, not judgment.

At the end of the novel, Frederic’s own voice emerges in the voice of Sister Soulsby, a charismatic gospel singer who has the world by the tail. “Nobody,” she tells Theron, “is rotten clear to the core.” And, remarkably, the last words of Father Forbes in the novel seem to suggest a little epiphany of his own: “The truth is always relative, Mr. Ware.” “I walked deliberately down-hill, with my eyes wide open. I told myself all the while that I was climbing up-hill, but I knew in my heart that it was a lie” is Theron’s final judgment on himself. And here again are simultaneous damnation and redemption: he is redeemed by seeing the truth about himself, but by that very truth he is damned. He knows the right, and yet the wrong pursues: Milton’s Adam. Theron Ware’s is a terrible irony: he could have taken justifiable pride in himself if he had not so sought to be proud of himself. Learning that, at the end of the novel he remains essentially unchanged—perhaps the worst damnation, and the greatest redemption, of all.

Not everyone will agree—as I have learned by appearing in these pages regularly for sixteen years. The professor of English mentioned in the first paragraph above and the master of Greek and Latin who helped me with the name “Theron” both declare that the book is “depressing.” “Americanishly depressing” adds the professor, particularly for its drab small-town setting (somehow Agatha Christie made drab small English towns exciting villages). The English professor read it through because, as he says, “I compulsively read every book I open to the end.” The Classics master shut down after 50 pages. Both of these friendly and supremely literate readers, uncomfortable with the “winces of self-recognition” (in the professor’s phrase) made precisely the response that the unremembered genius Harold Frederic intended. “Nothing ennobling is gained by resurrecting the moribund idiocies of the past,” the professor wrote me. I’m not so sure about that, but of one thing (thanks to such novels as The Damnation of Theron Ware) I am certain: about myself I am nothing if not ambivalent.

Charles E. Gould, Jr. is a retired member of the English department at Kent School, an antiquarian bookseller, and P.G. Wodehouse specialist. He lives in Kennebunkport, ME.