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The Fuller Legacy: A Quick Look at a Literary Pioneer

by Meghan Owen

Henry Blake Fuller, though his name is not renowned within the spectrum of public media, is perhaps one of the most revered underdogs of the Chicago literary scene.  A writer of the late 1800’s and early 1900s, his work featured progressive and complicated topics for the time along with drawing attention to  new behavioral shifts occurring within American culture. With celebrated novels such as The Cliff Dwellers and his collection of plays known as The Puppet Booth, he delivered an understanding of how society is greatly affected by urban development and inked the pages of his books with an incredible sense of realism. Today his talents are honored by a new literary achievement known as Chicago’s very own “Fuller Award”.

Interestingly enough, Fuller wasn’t a romantic about Chicago’s metropolitan sprawl.  In fact, there are many accounts of him expressing great disgust at the fast-pace, stockyard-driven rhythm of the city. He happily left it behind for numerous adventures in Europe (he kept many letters and journal entries that documented this time, several of which were published in the Chicago Tribune) but eventually had to return to the Windy City for good once his father succumbed to illness and died in 1885. From then on, Fuller objectively took in the metropolis developing around him and found a fascination with the intricate and formidable culture that climbed skyward with Chicago’s architecture.

In fact, Fuller was so impacted by the social shift that came with skyscrapers and the architecture of the Columbian Exposition that they extensively shaped his politics. In the introduction to the Broadview Press edition of The Cliff Dwellers, Fuller is revealed to allegedly have said, “Too much work of a public character has been derived with haste and incompetence and executed with haste and dishonesty.” This quote illuminates how Fuller began to rebel against the consumerist culture that was being spawned by the expansion of manufacturing. Reportedly, he found this industrial surge to be the reason why society was not focused on supporting or producing collaborative art.

It was after his return to his hometown that Fuller wrote his first acclaimed novel The Cliff Dwellers.  The book was received with some smattering of shock and discomfort until Fuller’s place as an author was secured by a condoning and ecstatic review by William Dean Howells, novelist and editor of Atlantic Monthly. Because Howells was revered at this time for his socially aware and critical writing, not only was he a help to Fuller, he was also a literary paradigm. With both inspiration and fortitude, Fuller forged ahead with yet another disillusioned, Chicago-themed novel, With the Procession. Once again, his work was greeted with surprise and then reverence.

Despite all of his revolutionary work, Fuller was never a hugely popular author. This may have been a result of the fact that he is one of the few of his era to subtly discuss the subject of homosexuality within the context of his novels.  Two major works of Fuller’s that explore this topic are Bertram Cope’s Year and a short play from The Puppet Booth, “At Saint Judas’s.”  Bertram Cope’s Year follows the story of an attractive English professor at Northwestern University whose  cold, good-looks get him the attention of men and women alike. “At Saint Judas’s” documents the attempted-sabotage of a bridegroom’s wedding  by his trusted best man.

There are very clear themes between these two stories that Fuller crafted.  They both explore protagonists who live with other men and the consequences that befall these curious partners. In Bertram Cope’s Year, the housemate, Author, takes a blow to the face after making an incognito pass at a school boy while dressed in drag. In “At Saint Judas’s,” the housemate/best man commits suicide on command of the bridegroom because of his attempts to sabotage the wedding. This indicates that Fuller is exacting a social and emotional exploration of the guilt, complexity and defamation that can occur to those who consciously or unconsciously identify as homosexual. However, the majority of people at this time did not know how to deal with this exploration and thus the book embarrassed Fuller’s friends and got panned by many critics.

Fuller died July 28th, 1929 from a heart condition but his work did not end there. He had two novels published after his death and he was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2000. Truly, Fuller is a Chicago’s-own  literary figure who merits celebration long after his passing, for though his physical heart no longer beats, the pulse in his work is very much alive.

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Filed under Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe, Fuller, Hall of Fame