The Damned Love Their Department Stores: On Harold Frederic's "The Damnation of Theron Ware"
Harold Frederic | The Damnation of Theron Ware | Belt Publishing (Revivals) | October 2, 2018 | 302 Pages
The Damnation of Theron Ware, a forgotten treasure of the American realism movement written in 1896 by Harold Frederic, returns this month as a new edition from Belt Publishing. The book follows young Methodist minister Theron Ware, who begins to call his faith, life’s work, and other truths into question after being appointed to the church pulpit in the small town of Octavius. The novel is being “revived” as part of Belt Publishing’s Belt Revival series, which includes titles such as Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White, Hamlin Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads, and Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company. For the publisher, these are under-appreciated and overlooked works; in her introduction, Belt’s Anne Trubek has stated that “they are now tales of the Midwest, and geographic inequality, and the shift from agricultural to industrial life. They are books about small towns and small minds, the rise of large companies, and the constraints of being a woman.
Theron Ware exemplifies the American literary realist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which consisted of work by authors such as Rebecca Harding Davis, Mark Twain, and Upton Sinclair. As Anne Trubek explains, “For these authors, realism, or naturalism, was a way to express a specific political conviction and leaning, to move the country towards progressivism...to rub the gilding off the age and give away flecks to the needy.” These works respond in part to the rampant greed and moral problems that developed along with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the aptly named “Gilded Age” of the post-Civil War era. Theron Ware contributes to this discussion in its frank examination of the absurdities of American consumerism and the American dream, showing us the pervasiveness of money in American culture and providing us with a naive and delusional character who suffers on account of these absurdities.
Ruth Graham explains in the introduction to this new edition, “Money—mistakes with it, lust for it, anxiety over it—emerges as a major theme. (Is it possible to imagine American life otherwise?)” At the beginning of their marriage, Theron and Alice are both young and naive, lacking the wherewithal to successfully balance a budget. In their first year in the town of Tyre, they went $800 into debt--approximately $24,000 today. To remedy this, the couple dismissed their “hired girl,” sold Alice’s treasured piano, and stopped receiving company or going out, but the sudden shift in quality of life struck them. With the debt hanging over Theron and Alice’s heads, “They never laughed now, and even smiles grew rare.”
Debt doesn’t curse Theron and Alice forever, and good fortune blesses them before they leave Tyre when a wealthy, elderly parishioner steps in to relieve the entirety of their burden. This assistance allows the couple to start anew, but financial concerns remain constant. Shortly after moving to Octavius, Theron meets with the three church trustees, who make no effort to hide that the church is a business and that debts and profit margins are an ongoing concern. The trustees outline the specific financial figures of the church with Theron and make note of the church’s substantial debt, which will necessitate the intervention of a “debt-raiser” later in the year. They quickly turn to the expenses directly related to Theron. Brother Pierce suggests that Theron’s $800 annual salary is excessive, while the trustees suggest that Theron should be responsible for the recent sidewalk repairs outside his home and for payment of his own gas bill and imply that they’ll shut his gas off if he isn’t. Theron’s status as minister is supposed to exempt him from these fees.
Theron also embodies American consumerist culture. Alice becomes depressed shortly after moving to Octavius, and Theron decides to remedy the illness by hiring “help” and by procuring a piano for his wife, despite his low salary. Theron’s decision immediately uplifts his spirits. He doesn’t reflect on his course of action, and he doesn’t communicate with his wife about the true root of the problem.
Theron decides to buy the piano from Thurston’s, the new local department store, via an installment plan. Thurston’s, however, polarizes the town population by outselling local shopkeepers at substantially lower prices. Theron originally took concern with this phenomenon after a conversation with a local bookseller in town, who explained that his store was losing money because of Thurston’s, including in its usually successful stationery sales. Theron resolutely told Alice to boycott Thurston’s, and he even drafted a sermon about the peculiarity of “admiring the great for crushing the small,” but this sermon was never used, and within only a couple of weeks of his conversation with the bookseller, “he walked with a blithe step unhesitatingly down the main street to ‘Thurston’s,’ and entered without any show of repugnance...” While there, he postpones purchase of the piano but buys stationery, despite his plan to buy stationery from the bookseller. Theron was so charmed by the customer service of the employees in Thurston’s that when they asked if he needed anything else, he couldn’t say no to them. Theron is easily swayed by the allure of consumerism and very much believes in the promise of material goods and services to right wrongs and procure happiness.
Theron’s foolishness and naïveté renders him susceptible to the toxic promises of the American Dream, a narrative that suggests that American society’s freedom, equality, and opportunity, along with hard work, will result in prosperity for any individual. To European colonizers in the early modern era, America was a vast and shapeless frontier, and if you could get there, your destiny was in your hands. As America became settled by Europeans, this idea carried over into the allure and promise of the western frontier, as argued by Frederick Jackson Turner as part of his “Frontier Thesis” in 1893. Throughout American history, the notion of the American Dream has taken many forms, associated more and more with the acquisition of wealth and social status, often couched in discussions of so-called “upward mobility.” However, the perceived viability of the American Dream has come under great scrutiny. As James Surowiecki wrote for The New Yorker in 2014, a recent study conducted by economists from Harvard and Berkeley suggests that upward mobility is relatively uncommon. Surowiecki explains, “This is most obvious when you look at the prospects of the poor. Seventy percent of people born into the bottom quintile of income distribution never make it into the middle class, and fewer than ten percent get into the top quintile.” The study suggests that simple hard work doesn’t matter if you don’t also have some good fortune.
In a scenario where most people have no hope to achieve upward mobility, the Dream itself can be toxic. Aside from the fact that most people will fail to achieve it and will be rendered disheartened and possibly scarred by it, it makes the assumption that success is the improvement of your financial and social ranking, and from this, happiness should follow. It ignores the fact that happiness doesn’t have to come from a life of wealth and upward mobility; it can be achieved with a life of very modest means. The pursuit of wealth and status can be dangerous in itself, as it proves to be for Theron. The allure of wealth and an improved social status are partly the motivators behind Theron falling in love with Celia Madden, the beautiful, free-spirited daughter of the richest man in town, Jeremiah Madden. Her wealth isn’t what initially draws Theron to her, but it certainly develops into a powerful factor. As Theron explains late in the novel:
“A wonderful romance had come to me. The most beautiful young woman in the world, the most talented too, was waiting for me...She was very rich, and she loved me, and we were to live in eternal summer, wherever we liked, on a big, beautiful yacht...It seemed almost too good for me...Oh, how happy I was!”
This imagined romance derails Theron’s previously happy marriage to Alice. Alice worships Theron and is sweet, kind, and gentle. The undoing of their marriage has nothing to do with Alice, because although she is generally unhappy with living in Octavius, she still loves Theron wholeheartedly and treats him well. But Celia’s wealth is too much of an allure for Theron, and he lets the allure ruin his previously happy marriage with Alice.
Toward the end of the novel, when it is clear that Theron can’t return to the ministry, he is set up with a job in real estate by Brother Soulsby, the husband of the debt-raiser Sister Soulsby. The job is in Seattle, and this leaves Theron to dream about the possibilities of living in Washington. He quickly latches onto the idea of politics, musing, “‘What Soulsby said about politics out there interested me enormously,’ he remarked to the two women. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if I found myself doing something in that line...I may turn up in Washington a full-blown senator before I’m forty. Stranger things have happened than that, out West!’” Theron can’t just accept the idea of a modest life working in real estate. He ponders the idea of becoming a senator almost instantly, because as a prototypical American, he needs to be moving toward something, building himself up to something better.
But the catch here is that Theron has no experience to speak of that would suggest that he can or knows how to do this, and his delusional belief in his specialness suggests that he will underestimate the work needed to achieve this goal. If Theron’s aim is to be a senator, he will likely fail. He may be able to rationalize this and realize that the odds were stacked against him, but if he is truly adhering to the American Dream, then it is also possible that if he fails, he will judge himself to be at fault, forever leaving him to reconcile a failed pursuit and wonder, “What if?”
If most people don’t have a hope of improving their economic and social standing in life, then an ideal that suggests that you didn’t work hard enough if you fail is damaging. It can be used by entities in power, or those with the most money, to suggest that you must accept your lot in life because it is all your fault. If a person buys into this, then they won’t question these entities and will accept the societal infrastructure as it currently is, no matter how inequitable or damaging. On another level, it can be damaging to the individual, who, in their failure, may decide that they didn’t work hard enough, leaving this failure to haunt them. It also can be simply misdirecting. Upward mobility doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness, and if an individual isn’t facing poverty, then there’s a possibility to find happiness regardless of social and financial status.
And yet the American Dream offers the bright, glittery allure of a better future. Maybe this is how we survive. Maybe this is why the myth of the American Dream continues to live on, why we coddle the rich and idolize the famous, because many Americans will forever believe that they are only a step away from such an elite status. It allows us to persist on against the mediocrity, obscurity, and struggle that are destined to fall upon the vast majority of us, and maybe, this is why the Dream continues to survive. However, as long as Americans buy in wholeheartedly to the Dream and unrepentantly participate in our consumerist culture, we are destined to continue to suffer.