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
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
Ware—March 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”
After a summer of illness culminating in a stroke, Frederic
died on October 19, 1898. Instead of calling for the doctors
Frederic during his two-month-long illness, Lyon and Athalie
Mills, practitioners of Christian Science, tried to heal him
faith. Both were charged with manslaughter and arrested, but
acquitted. Newspaper coverage of the trial lasted two months,
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.
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.
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.