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Biography of Harold Frederic (1856-1898)

Harold Henry Frederic—he dropped the “k” from his name by 1878, possibly earlier—was born in upstate New York to Presbyterian parents, attended a Methodist church, but maintained a skeptical view toward religion most of his life. Frederic was four when the Civil War began and later stated that some of his earliest memories were about the war: “recollections of the hideous anxiety which prevailed among the people round me, recollections of the effect that each piece of news from the seat of war made on my own home-circle” (qtd. in Sherard 64). Frederic dreamed of becoming an artist, but instead turned to journalism and fiction. He has, however, been described as “a worker with the brush,” capable of creating atmosphere, not mere description (Wardwell 227).

Raised primarily by his mother (his father was killed in a train accident when Frederic was only 18 months old), Frederic was encouraged to be independent and to develop habits that would lead to success. A precocious child, he claims to have taught himself to recognize the alphabet from letters on “the label on an old soap-box” and to read by “studying the tradesmen’s signboards” before the age of six (qtd. in Sherard 64). Reading was Frederic’s principal pastime as a child. Indeed, until the age of six Frederic was discouraged from playing with the other children in the neighborhood, which was a mix of German, Welsh, and Irish-Catholic families. He probably started school at age six—Frederic recalls that he was only four—and completed his education at fifteen, when he decided to learn a trade. He considered wood turning, worked briefly for a confectioner, and finally settled upon photography “as a practical outlet for his artistic talent” (Myers 9). Frederic spent the next four years as a photographic touch-up artist in his hometown of Utica and later in Boston.

In 1875, Frederic began work as a proofreader for the Utica Herald and then the Utica Daily Observer. Among his early publications in the Observer are five short stories (all appearing between 1876 and 1879) and fifteen articles, twelve of which address sensational subjects, such as murders and hangings. At the age of 24, Frederic was named editor of the Utica Daily Observer, a position he held from 1880 until 1882, when he took over the editorship of the more prestigious Albany Evening Journal.

Fiercely in favor of reform and frustrated with the machine politics that nominated Republican Charles J. Folger for Governor over the popular incumbent, Frederic, as editor of the Albany Evening Journal, was able to influence the traditionally Republican newspaper to support Democrat Grover Cleveland for Governor of New York. When Cleveland won the election, Frederic urged the Governor to recognize that he was “called to the head of the State to serve it, not as a Democrat, nor because he is a Democrat, but as a good citizen, and because his fellow citizens of New York trust him on honor not to do anything else” (qtd. in Myers 30). Frederic defended his continued support for a Democratic Governor to his Republican readers by labeling Cleveland an anomaly among Democrats, a “stray sheep” among “a gang of goats” (qtd. in Myers 31). While Frederic’s outspoken views, particularly those advocating free trade, and his favorable reportage of the Democratic President eventually cost him his job at the Albany Evening Journal—he was fired in 1884 when the paper was sold to the son of a Republican Senator—Frederic’s journalism career, and later his reputation as an author, brought him into contact with many powerful and famous people. Cleveland was elected 22nd President of the United States the same year. Frederic’s friendship with Cleveland served him well when he moved to England to become London Correspondent for the New York Times, and the President’s letter of introduction opened doors for Frederic as he established himself in England.

Shortly after his arrival in England, Frederic made his international reputation as a journalist with coverage of the cholera epidemic in France and Italy, filing over twenty stories (most of these his regular weekly dispatches) on the epidemic between mid-1884 and 1885. Freed from the burden of writing daily editorials, Frederic hoped to devote more time to writing fiction and eventually to earn “a living by honest work in good humane literature” (qtd. in Donaldson viii). He remained a journalist—credited with approximately 1,500 articles, features, and reviews—until his death in 1898, but he also published ten novels between 1887 and 1899 (the year after his death), twenty-three short stories, and two volumes of non-fiction.

Three years after relocating to England, Frederic published his first novel, Seth’s Brother’s Wife (1887)—a story involving adultery, politics, and journalism—“as an experiment” in preparation for writing In the Valley (1890), an historical novel set during the Revolutionary War that took eight months to write but, according to Frederic, “represented eleven years of work and preparation” (qtd. in Sherard 67). The Lawton Girl was also published in early 1890. Reviews of Seth’s Brother’s Wife were favorable: “The pictures of newspaper life are vivid and amusing. The story is generally admitted to be one of the best of the year” (Baltimore News, 6 Nov. 1887). Frederic was particularly pleased with In the Valley. In a letter to Cleveland, Frederic wrote, “I myself have so great a liking for its political side that if I could be sure that every young man in the United States would read it, I should feel like working day and night to provide everyone of them with a free copy” (qtd. in Myers xii). William Dean Howells judged In the Valley to be “uncommonly well written,” but not as good as Frederic’s earlier two novels (Howells 800). During the next few years, Frederic published two non-fiction volumes, The Young Emperor William II of Germany; A Study in Character Development on a Throne (1891) and The New Exodus; A Study of Israel in Russia (1892); an Irish romance, The Return of the O’Mahony (1892); two more stories set during the Civil War, The Copperhead (1893) and Marsena (1894); and a collection of sixteen sketches set in England, Mrs. Albert Grundy; Observations in Philistia (1896).

Frederic is best known, however, for his 1896 novel, The Damnation of Theron Ware, or Illumination as it was known in England, a masterpiece of fin-de-siècle American fiction. Its critical reception was quite favorable: The Damnation of Theron Ware is “the strongest book of the year” (“Chronicle and Comment,” Nov. 1896); it is “a really remarkable book” (Eccles 10). The novel became a best seller. Based on Frederic’s personal observations of the relations between Protestants and Irish Catholics, the events and characters in The Damnation of Theron Ware were also shaped by changes in scientific and religious thought that were emerging at the end of the nineteenth century. If this were the only novel Frederic had written, it would still be enough to place him alongside writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Stephen Crane in the nineteenth-century American canon.

Frederic published two more collections of war stories, In the Sixties (1897) and “The Deserter” and Other Stories; A Book of Two Wars (1898). However, all of the novels Frederic published after The Damnation of Theron WareMarch Hares (1896), Gloria Mundi (1898), and The Market-Place (1899)—are set abroad. Perhaps a dozen years as an expatriate influenced Frederic’s change of setting, or perhaps he had simply told the stories he wanted to tell about his beloved Mohawk Valley. In any case, there is no question about Frederic’s literary success.

Frederic married Grace Green Williams in 1877, and they had five children. Unfortunately, “[t]he temperaments of Grace and Harold [Frederic] were unevenly matched from the beginning.” Robert M. Myers suggests that Frederic was a bon vivant and that Grace was a shy woman who “proved to be a social liability” to her rising-star husband (19). Sometime in 1889 or 1890, Frederic met fellow-expatriate Kate Lyon, who became his mistress. Frederic and Lyon established a second household in Surrey in 1891 and lived openly together; they had three children. Despite Frederic’s position as London Correspondent for the New York Times and his success as a fiction writer, maintaining two households was financially difficult for the journalist-author as evidenced by the public pleas for financial contributions for the children after Frederic’s death. Ironically, The Market-Place, published posthumously in 1899, was a “brilliant financial success” (“Personal and Miscellaneous Gossip” 8).

After a summer of illness culminating in a stroke, Frederic died on October 19, 1898. Instead of calling for the doctors to treat Frederic during his two-month-long illness, Lyon and Athalie Mills, practitioners of Christian Science, tried to heal him through faith. Both were charged with manslaughter and arrested, but acquitted. Newspaper coverage of the trial lasted two months, during which time many of the details of Frederic’s living arrangements were made public. Bridget Bennett notes in her study of Frederic, “His life was a series of attempted escapes—from obscurity in small-town America, from newspaper journalism, from an unsatisfactory marriage. [. . .] He had set himself up as an example of successful escape but on his death—a victim, the newspapers argued, of Christian Science—he was presented as a slave to delusion and folly” (4).

Frederic, sometimes unconventional or even controversial, lived his life by his own rules. He absorbed the lessons his mother taught him and worked hard to become a successful journalist and, especially, writer of fiction. He took the statement of purpose that described the Albany Evening Journal’s political stand, “Republican, but fearlessly independent,” and made it his own credo (qtd. in Myers 30). He claimed in an 1897 interview, “I live wholly to myself because I like to live an unshackled life. A stiff shirt is to me a badge of servitude. You see that I have the courage to wear a soft one, even in town” (qtd. in Sherard 68). An anonymous writer in one of Frederic’s obituaries writes, Frederic’s death “deprives literary London, in its less conventional moods, of a man of strong activities, both in his personality and in his writings” (“Mr. Harold Frederic” 572). Fortunately, however, modern readers have the pleasure of remembering Frederic through his “great American novel,” The Damnation of Theron Ware.

Works Cited

Baltimore News. 6 Nov. 1887.

Bennett, Bridget. "The Damnation of Theron Ware or Illumination (1896)." The Damnation of Harold Frederic: His Lives and Works. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1997. 174-97.

“Chronicle and Comment.” Bookman (New York) 4 (Nov. 1896): 196.

Donaldson, Scott. Introduction. The Damnation of Theron Ware. By Harold Frederic. 1896. New York, Penguin, 1986. vii-xxx.

Eccles, F. Y. “New Novels.” Academy 50 (4 July 1896): 10.

Howells, William Dean. “Editor’s Study.” Harper’s Magazine 81 (Oct. 1890): 800-01.

“Mr. Harold Frederic.” Athenaeum 3704 (22 Oct. 1898): 572.

Myers, Robert M. Reluctant Expatriate: The Life of Harold Frederic. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1995.

“Personal and Miscellaneous Gossip.” Argonaut 45 (21 Aug. 1899): 8.

Sherard, Robert H. “Harold Frederic.” The Idler. Nov. 1897. Rpt. in Morace, Robert A. “Arthur Warren’s and Robert Sherard’s Interviews with Harold Frederic.” American Literary Realism 11.1 (1978): 52-70.

Wardwell, M.E. “Harold Frederic.” Citizen 3 (Sept. 1897): 152-53. Rpt. in O’Donnell, Thomas F., Stanton Garner, and Robert H. Woodward, eds., A Bibliography of Writings By and About Harold Frederic. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1975. 227.

Warren, Arthur. “An American Journalist in London. A Chat with Mr. Harold Frederic.” The Sketch. 13 March 1895. Rpt. in Morace, Robert A. “Arthur Warren’s and Robert Sherard’s Interviews with Harold Frederic.” American Literary Realism 11.1 (1978): 52-70.


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