In the early 20th century Henry Blake Fuller was one of Chicago’s most famous writers, with a number of prominent realist novels under his belt and friendships with leading lights such as Thornton Wilder, Jane Addams, and Carl Van Vechten. He worked for the Saturday Evening Post, the Chicago Evening Post, and the Chicago Record Herald and wrote essays and reviews for the Nation, the New Republic, the New York Times, and the New York Herald Tribune.
In 1919, at the age of 62, he published his masterpiece, Bertram Cope’s Year, a dark social comedy about thinly veiled homosexual romance at an even more thinly veiled Northwestern University. And it failed–like, Moby Dick-level failure. Fuller burned the manuscripts and pledged never to write fiction again, a promise he kept until the year before his death.
Fuller is by no means a well-known writer now, but he’s survived, at least, mostly on the reputation of The Cliff-Dwellers, a so-so realist satire about life in a Chicago skyscraper. It’s deservedly considered a minor work of the era–as Michael Miner wrote in 1994, “to know anything about it is to stand guilty of effete intellectual snobbery.”
Perhaps, but Chicagoans love their city, so the book has hung on as a period piece. A search of the Tribune‘s post-1984 archive finds him name-checked in an outstanding essay by Alfred Kazin on the city’s literature (worth the trouble of tracking down, which is free and easy if you have a library card), and Bill Granger wrote a short biographical sketch centering on The Cliff-Dwellers, which ran alongside an excerpt from that book in the Trib in 1996.
Nowhere in the piece does Granger mention Bertram Cope’s Year–despite quoting the great literary critic Edmund Wilson from an essay he wrote about the genius of the book, which Wilson described as the best work of turn-of-the-century social realism in the pages of the New Yorker. Admittedly Wilson didn’t think much about that period of American literature in general (I’m with him–it’s hella boring), but his evaluation does put Fuller’s novel over classics from Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and others.
This is a book that deserves to get its due. For one thing, it’s historically important–from what I’ve read, the consensus seems to be that it’s the first gay novel of any literary merit. And it’s also good.
The novel centers around a pretty, vapid graduate student, Bertram Cope–a man without qualities, to use Robert Musil’s phrase. Everyone likes him, everyone wants him, but no one’s really sure why, and out of the college community’s vanity and boredom, he becomes the center of romantic intrigue directed at him from both men and women.
That Fuller took pains to conceal the homosexuality of many of the book’s main characters doesn’t hurt the work; it actually helps it, in odd ways. The great flaw of literature from that period–or at least what I hate about it–is how broad all the gestures are, how all the authors of that time all decided at once that a book should beat the reader into submission because stuff really mattered and they had to tell you about it. This has a lot to do with why The Cliff-Dwellers sucks. Due to the sensitive nature of his subject in BCY, Fuller had to take a different approach, but he didn’t just switch the characters’ genders, like Proust in In Search of Lost Time. Instead, he just makes sure not to identify anyone as homosexual, and all the romantic machinations between the male characters are written as social interactions.
If Fuller hadn’t had subtlety thrust upon him, Bertram Cope’s Year could have turned out as insufferable as Kate Chopin’s proto-feminist novel The Awakening. Fuller’s natural style, as a person and as a writer, was dark reserve and light irony, and it simply didn’t work in the typical style and subject matter of the period.
It was, however, a natural fit for a book that couldn’t explicitly state its subject matter–not to mention one set in an incestuous, clever academic community. The result is like Jane Austen without the happy ending, and it’s the one work of Fuller’s, perhaps even of the literary period, that seems utterly timeless.
Bertram Cope’s Year is available in full-text online, but you can also order a handsome reprint, put out in 1998 by New York-based Turtle Beach Press to almost total silence in Chicago. You can read a short bio at the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame’s Web site, to which Fuller was inducted posthumously.