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  • The Nervous Economy of The Damnation of Theron Ware
  • David Tagnani

In tracing the causes of eponymous disorder in American Nervousness, George M. Beard claims the "chief and primary cause of this development and very rapid increase of nervousness is modern civilization."1 In The Damnation of Theron Ware, by contrast, Harold Frederic's protagonist seems to owe his nervous collapse to his own provincialism, his utter naïveté in the face of modern civilization. Theron's downfall clearly is precipitated by his encounters with the cosmopolitan ideas of the late-nineteenth century, but the causal chain to determine accountability for his ruin is less clear. His conservative town of Octavius and Theron's orthodox Methodism stand in contrast to industrial, urban American civilization. What then is the cause of his damnation—uneducated provincialism, cosmopolitan modernity, or something else?

In his study of Beard's American Nervousness, Tom Lutz recognizes the use to which other authors have put Beard's theories, often as a means "to criticize, to excoriate aspects of modern society."2 Frederic, however, employs neurasthenia in a more nuanced way. He uses Theron's nervous disorder not as part of a polemic against modernity but as the axis in a complex meditation on the conflict and incongruity in fin de siècle America's bifurcation between rural provincialism and urban cosmopolitanism. At the same time as Frederic's novel looks forward to the enlightened rationalism of modernity, it casts a nostalgic glance back at the serenity of pastoral simplicity. Theron's fall is not inherent in one or the other of these poles; it is the tension between them that undoes him. Theron occupies a tense position at the contact zone between two distinct yet interrelated dichotomies: a religious dichotomy between conservative Methodism and progressive [End Page 1] Catholicism and a secular dichotomy between pastoral Romanticism and urban Modernism. Frederic, following Beard, employs economics as both a figurative and literal device to explain Theron's failure to successfully resolve these tensions. This device marks the novel as an important literary expression of the positivist, materialistic, naturalistic attempt to understand human nature in the secularizing post-Darwinian world. In this light, Theron Ware and American Nervousness stand as flawed but prescient attempts to wrestle with the questions and problems raised by America's headlong plunge into industrialization, urbanization, and modernity.

Other scholars have touched on the dichotomies in Theron Ware. Indeed, the essentially bifurcated nature of the novel might be best encapsulated by its respective titles for publication in America and England: The Damnation of Theron Ware and Illumination. As Jane Thrailkill states it, the alternate titles represent the novel's central conflict, which is whether Theron "is embarked on a sexually suspect moral decline or an aesthetically inspired spiritual awakening."3 John Henry Raleigh, too, implicitly recognizes these concurrent tensions when he labels Theron an anachronistic embodiment of the "emotionalism" that was ascendant during the first half of the century, an emotionalism composed of Methodism and "the Romantic love of Nature."4 He goes on to delineate how Father Forbes, Dr. Ledsmar, and Celia Madden represent three trends in late-nineteenth-century culture opposed to the early-nineteenth-century emotionalism that Theron embodies, thereby bringing about his downfall in a rough analogy to the same general trends in American culture at large. Samuel Coale, too, saw an inherent bifurcation in Theron Ware, labeling the dual parts of his character as products of an impoverished Protestant education on one hand and an "American innocent" on the other.5 Coale examines how this twofold personality functions to throw Theron into a moral chaos where sexuality, spirituality, and aesthetics become confused and amalgamated. Frederic himself explicitly outlines this contact zone, presenting the landscape of Octavius as a "jumble of primitive rusticity and urban complications."6 These analyses are generally congruent with the assumptions from which I will proceed. But I will diverge from them by focusing on ways in which Frederic uses economics as a central conceit that gives Beard's theories of nerve-force from American Nervousness a central role in the characterization of the protagonist. This economic conceit demonstrates that The Damnation of Theron Ware is, at bottom...


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