Harold Frederic: His Fictive Imagination and the Intellectual Milieu

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Harold Frederic reflects in his novels and stories the intellectual milieu of the latter nineteenth century. Most of the major philosophic concerns of the age are present in one way or another in his fiction: metaphysical idealism, Comtian positivism, Darwinism, the Higher Criticism, pragmatism, and, as the power of reason-indeed reason itself-came more and more into distrust, a voluntarism deriving from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. While Frederic tended to synthesize ideas rather than to develop his own systematic philosophy, the psychological penetration of his characters evidences his awareness of such concerns. He is a careful craftsman in the drawing of his fictional personalities, and he often makes explicit note of the inclusion of intellectual elements in their delineations. Frederic's atypical writing possibly reflects his atypical lack of artistic isolation. His continued journalistic activity as well as his membership in various literary and political clubs might account for his remaining highly responsive to contemporary politics, economics, and religion. His fictional canon reads like a small compendium of the thought of the century's closing decades, tracing its broad diverse movements and interrelated philosophic strands. His early writing was vitalized by the new currents of thought generated by sociologists and economists in revolt against the social Darwinists, and by new approaches instituted by the Bible exegetes. Included among these were the views most compatible with his own liberalism and his optimistic attitude toward life. Later such hopes as they inspired found themselves weighed in the dramatic balance of his fiction against an unvanquished Darwinism, a spreading skepticism, as well as the darker visions of voluntarism. His final work, while yet bearing witness to an open, inquiring mind, shows a receptiveness to the blending of the spiritual and scientific conceived by American pragmatism. Frederic's writing, according to Walter Taylor, "anticipates the mingled realism, naturalism, and disillusion of the twentieth century." It is to employ a wrong set of terms, however, to assess him, as Charles Child Walcutt does, as "a kind of naturalist manqué," making implicit comparison thereby with, say, Crane or Dreiser. More to the point is the statement by Austin Briggs that "in the works of no other American novelist does one so fully sense what it was like to be alive in those turbulent years."