The timing is perfect for a couple of reasons.
The year 2021 is the 125th anniversary of the publication of The Damnation of Theron Ware. On this anniversary, this book’s relevance is making a commemorative surge, even if I am the only person who is noticing this, and maybe the only person on the planet who has reread this book several times.
Theron Ware is a young Methodist minister from humble origins who is trying to launch his career. He is naïve, ambitious, and curious, and that turns out to be a combination that makes him very susceptible to unconstrained enchantment when he encounters aspects of life that are entirely new to him: Science! Catholicism! Art!
As Theron Ware has exhilarating experiences he had never before imagined, he thinks he is getting more sophisticated and also more adept at manipulating audiences. As the prominent word “damnation” in the book’s title would suggest, he is not doing a great job at appraising the changes he is undergoing.
But why on earth am I urging you to read a book about an innocent, enterprising young minister in upstate New York at the end of the nineteenth century?
*Because this book is an intense and haunting exploration of American innocence, and the mishaps and missteps that can occur when the hazy, dreamy version of that innocence collides with the solid world of human complexity.
*Because the book is wonderfully creepy in its undertones and undercurrents (wait till you read the part where the scientist Dr. Ledmsar names his lizard; this occurs at the end of Chapter 21, but don’t look ahead).
*Because Sister Soulsby and Brother Soulsby are two fictional characters who you will yearn to have as your next-door neighbors, or at least as friends you frequently chat with on Zoom.
*Because the book, at the end, suddenly evokes the American West.
After bringing miseries upon himself and upon everyone in his proximity, Theron Ware regains his dangerously innocent ambition and directs it westward. In a “daydream,” he imagines himself relocated to “a formless sort of place” in the West, where a vast audience responds to his words and gestures “with a mighty roar of applause, in volume like an ocean tempest.”
Intoxicated by this vision, Theron Ware then speaks these ominous words to his beleaguered wife Alice and to the Soulsbys, the two good folks who rescued him from his innocence-driven folly:
Who knows? I may turn up in Washington a full-blown senator before I’m forty. Stranger things have happened than that, out West!
Now for the last reasons why we should this book:
*Because it permits us to place our well-based anxieties—about our nation and its character—in a longer reach of time by contemplating a historical era that seems both remote and immediate.
*Because we would all find relief in thinking about and talking about a calamity that somebody made up and put in a novel, rather thinking about and talking about a calamity that occurred in real life.
If you read The Damnation of Theron Ware and want to join in a discussion, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you also noticed this, or have any other reflections you’d like to share, we would love to hear from you. Please email us at email@example.com.