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Critical Reception of The Damnation of Theron Ware

Harold Frederic’s novel met, for the most part, with favorable critical reception upon its publication in 1896. A selection of contemporaneous reviews by fellow authors, journalists, and critics is provided below to give readers an appreciation of the literary atmosphere in which Frederic’s novel appeared. Following this glimpse of the late-1890s zeitgeist is a summary of the more than four dozen reviews published in 1896 and a list of journals in which one can find contemporaneous reviews of The Damnation of Theron Ware. Lastly are excerpts from three 1960s reviews of reprinted editions of the novel, which ushered in a resurgence of popularity for Frederic’s novels.

Here, as in other portions of my project, I owe a debt of gratitude to Thomas F. O’Donnell, Stanton Garner, and Robert H. Woodward for their compilation of reviews in A Bibliography of Writings By and About Harold Frederic (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1975).

Select Contemporaneous Reviews of The Damnation of Theron Ware

Howells, William Dean. “My Favorite Novelist and His Best Book.” Munsey’s Magazine 17 (Apr. 1897): 28. Rpt. in W. D. Howells as Critic. Ed. Edwin H. Cady. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. 268-30.

American novelist, editor, critic, and poet William Dean Howells lists The Damnation of Theron Ware among his favorite books. Howells’ comment on Frederic’s novel is often quoted by critics: “I was particularly interested in the book, for when you get to the end, although you have carried a hazy notion in your mind of the sort of man Ware was, you fully realize, for the first time, that the author has never for a moment represented him anywhere to you as a good or honest man, or as anything but a very selfish man” (qtd. in Cady 278).

“Four New Novels.” Atlantic 78 (Aug. 1896): 269-76.

The unidentified critic writes, “This minister, Theron Ware, with his ambition and his immaturity, is partially introduced [in the opening chapters]; at least so the reader comes to think afterward, for on looking back, at the end of the story, he is reminded of the rather slight intimations given of Theron’s native character before it is brought to the test” (270). The critic praises Frederic’s depiction of Reverend Ware as “a task performed with unusual skill” and the depiction of Father Forbes as convincing. However, the critic argues that “in the half-sketch of Dr. Ledsmar there is too much left for [. . . readers] to guess” and the characterization of Celia Madden is a “distortion of nature.” The character of Michael Madden, on the other hand, is “admirably drawn,” as are the “highly entertaining” Soulsbys. “Theron Ware damns himself,” argues the critic, while the trio “seem to get off scot-free” (272). (For an electronic version of this review, click here for link.)

Peck, Harry Thurston. Bookman 3 (June 1896): 351-52.

---. “A Literary Event and its Significance.” Cosmopolitan 21 (August 1896): 438-39.

American classicist, poet, writer, and translator Harry Thurston Peck wrote two reviews of Frederic’s novel. The first untitled review claims The Damnation of Theron Ware “is distinctly a great novel,” but that the author “borrowed the theme that forms the central motive from Robert Elsmere.” In the later review, Peck writes, Frederic’s “vivid, strong, and masterful delineation of a corner of American life as it actually is—the good and the bad, the fine and the crude, the enlightened and the ignorant—in one finely drawn, consistent picture imbued with penetrating power” makes The Damnation of Theron Ware “a literary event of very great importance” (qtd. in O’Donnell, et al. 175).

Waugh, Arthur. “London Letter.” Critic N.S. 25 (2 May 1896): 316.

English publisher, editor, and critic Arthur Waugh argues that The Damnation of Theron Ware is one of the best books of the year: “Were it not for a few blemishes, and those removable, [it] ought to be called a masterpiece” (qtd. in O’Donnell, et al. 176).

Zangwill, Israel. “Men, Women and Books. Mr. Frederic’s ‘Illumination.’” Critic N.S. 26 (12 Sept. 1896): 156.

English author and Jewish leader Israel Zangwill judges Frederic’s novel as “not only a good novel, but a good novel of the best kind.” While Zangwill expresses slight discontent with the depictions of Celia Madden and Alice Ware, he praises the sketches of the Methodist society, the Soulsbys, and Jeremiah Madden as “memorable” (qtd. in O’Donnell, et al. 176).

Payne, William Morton. “Recent Fiction.” Dial 20 (1 June 1896): 336.

Critic, teacher, translator, and Associate Editor of the Chicago Dial from 1892 to 1915, William Morton Payne describes The Damnation of Theron Ware as “one of the most striking and impressive novels of the year, or of several years,” with its title character the subject of “one of the subtlest studies of moral disintegration that have been made” (qtd. in O’Donnell, et al. 176-77).

Hutton, Laurence. “Literary Notes.” Harper’s 93 (Sept. 1896):   Supplement 3-4.

Author and critic Laurence Hutton compares The Damnation of Theron Ware to Robert Elsmere: “Ware would have worked out the serious problems of his life if Mr. Elsmere had never existed.” Hutton concludes, however, that Theron Ware is an “original creation” (qtd. in O’Donnell, et al. 177).

Bridges, Robert [“Droch”]. “A Letter to a Gibson Girl.” Life 27 (28 May 1896): 442.

American journalist, poet, and Scribner’s Magazine editor Robert Bridges, who wrote under the nom de plume “Droch,” claims, “The novel is a remarkable piece of what is called realism, and shows the degeneration of a certain kind of flabby, masculine mind when brought in contact with an advanced modern woman of a rather unusual type” (qtd. in O’Donnell, et al. 178).

Porter, Charlotte. “Notes on Recent Fiction.” Poet-lore 8 (Aug. 1896): 459-61.

Editor of Shakespeariana, Charlotte Porter characterizes Frederic’s writing method as “impressionistic” and “‘up-to-date’ [. . .] in that it is so shiftily based on an element in life peculiarly appreciated by the modern mind—relativity” (qtd. in O’Donnell, et al. 181).

Mabie, Hamilton W. “Some Estimates of the Year’s Literary Output.” Review of Reviews 14 (Dec. 1896): 742.

Author and critic Hamilton W. Mabie writes, The Damnation of Theron Ware’s “popularity is easily explicable; it is unconventional in matter, direct and forcible in style, and it deals with material of no common kind.” While the novel is “full of energy, vitality and originality,” it is “not free from crudity and a certain coarseness of method which jars the nerves of the reader” (qtd. in O’Donnell, et al. 182).

Johnston, Charles. “The True American Spirit in Literature.” Atlantic Monthly 86 (July 1899): 29-35.

Critic and journalist Charles Johnston criticizes American novelists writing in Europe in general and Frederic’s novel in particular for its “religious atmosphere” and “higher culture,” or treatment of aristocracy. Johnston claims that there is no place in the American spirit for such elements. He concludes, however, that Frederic “has written one of the very best stories in the American spirit, which one could very well use, to show how new and how excellent that spirit is” (33). (For an electronic version of this essay where Frederic is mentioned only briefly, click here for link.)

An Overview of Contemporaneous Reviews of The Damnation of Theron Ware

A Bibliography of Writings By and About Harold Frederic lists 51 contemporaneous reviews of Frederic’s novel. Of these, 55 percent are clearly favorable. Critics have judged The Damnation of Theron Ware as “a great novel,” “the strongest book of the year” (Bookman [New York], June 1896; Nov. 1896), and “a literary event of very great importance” (Critic, 25 Apr 1896). The London Daily Chronicle describes Frederic as “a man born to write fiction,” “a keen observer, a genuine humorist, a thinker always original and sometimes even profound,” and “a man who has thoroughly learned the use of his own pen” (Third Edition, May 1896).

Another 41 percent of the reviews are either mixed or neutral. Critics claim The Damnation of Theron Ware is “a great novel, though inconsistent in its presentment of the principal woman’s character” (Edinburgh Review, April 1898); not really a “good novel,” but it is a “clever work,” “original and full of pictures of ways of life with which [. . . readers] on this side of the Atlantic are not familiar” (London Morning Post, 18 Apr. 1896). Celia Madden’s characterization is “brilliant but unconvincing,” whereas that of Sister Soulsby is a “triumph” (London Daily News, 29 Apr. 1896).

Only 4 percent of the contemporaneous reviews are decidedly negative in tone. The Nation’s critic complains that the novel “leads nowhither” (3 Sept. 1896). The Independent’s critic writes, The Damnation of Theron Ware is “a rehash of what has become offensively stale in recent English fiction. [. . . After] the note of illicit love is struck, [. . .] the story is neither original nor interesting. Theron Ware shrivels into a mere nymphomaniac, dancing a lust-dance around a handsome and soulless Irish girl; and the whole story becomes an insipid echo of a hundred and one French and English novels of the past decade” (4 June 1896).

Following is a list of the journals in which Frederic’s contemporaneous reviews can be found. Most of the reviews of The Damnation of Theron Ware appeared in print between March and December 1896.

Academy (4 July 1896)
Athenaeum (21 March 1896)
Atlantic (August 1896)
Beacon (date unknown)
Bookman [London] (August 1896)
Bookman [New York] (June; November 1896)
Chicago Evening Journal (18 April 1896)
Chicago Evening Post (date unknown)
Cleveland World (date unknown)
Cosmopolitan (August 1896)
Critic (25 April; 2 May; 2 May; 12 September 1896)
Current Literature (July 1896)
Dial (1 June 1896)
Edinburgh Review (April 1896)
Godey’s Lady’s Book (July 1896)
Harper’s (September 1896)
Independent (4 June 1896; 4 June 1896)
Life (28 May 1896)
Literary Digest (30 May 1896)
Literary News (May 1896)
London Daily Chronicle, Third Edition (1 May 1896; date unknown)
London Daily News (29 April 1896)
London Daily Telegraph (date unknown)
London Morning Post (18 April 1896)
Manchester Guardian (14 May 1896)
Methodist Times [London] (28 May 1896)
Munsey’s Magazine (June 1896)
Nation (3 September 1896)
Daily Picayune [New Orleans] (13 April 1896)
New York Times (26 April; 29 April 1896)
New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art (14 November; 5 December 1896; 14 January 1899
Nineteenth Century (November 1896)
Overland Monthly (August 1896)
Pall Mall Gazette (2 April 1896)
Poet-lore (August 1896)
Public Opinion (21 May 1896)
Review of Reviews (July; December 1896)
Saturday Review [London] (21 March 1896)
Spectator (4 April 1896)
St. James Gazette (date unknown)
Westminster Gazette (date unknown)

Reviews of Reprinted Editions of The Damnation of Theron Ware

The review published in the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle is favorable: The Damnation of Theron Ware is “one of the ‘lost classics’ in our literature” (qtd. in O’Donnell, et al. 183). The review published in Modern Language Review is mixed: “The novel is much more than a period piece, even though Celia Madden’s estheticism is mishandled. Variants in usage between the American and English texts provide an interesting study in language differences at the time” (O’Donnell, et al. 183). The review published in the San Jose Mercury-News is negative: “It seems to us now like a novel in which innocence is too much like ignorance, the scientific spirit too niggling, sex—however much it shocked 1890s readers—too tepid and the church too hide-bound” (qtd. in O’Donnell, et al. 183).

Modern Language Review (October 1961)
San Francisco Sunday Chronicle, This World (18 September 1960)
San Jose Mercury-News [California] (30 October 1960)


All information Copyright © 2003 Robin Taylor Rogers.
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