Henry Blake Fuller ( 1857—1929 ) , author, editor, poet, critic and composer, has been praised by three generations of literary critics and is mentioned in every significant work on Chicago history, yet he remains virtually unknown. His significance to Chicago is his contribution to our unique literary heritage in his novels and short-story collections set in this city—The Cliff-Dwellers ( 1893 ) , With the Procession ( 1895 ) , Under the Skylights ( 1901 ) , and On the Stairs ( 1918 ) .
Fuller's play At Saint Judas's from his collection, The Puppet-Booth: Twelve Plays ( 1896 ) , is effectively the first play on a homosexual theme published in America. The one-act play is set in a church sacristy. The Bridegroom and the Best Man, both in uniform and wearing swords, are embroiled in a revealing conversation in front of a surrealistic tableau vivant of stained-glass windows representing the seven deadly sins and the fall of Lucifer. The exposition reveals homoerotic love and jealousy that end in a fatal sword fight. The difficulty of staging the moving windows prohibited its performance in its day. At Saint Judas's was reprinted in Lovesick: Modernist Plays of Same-Sex Love, 1894—1925, compiled by Laurence Senelick ( 1999 ) . Senelick is a drama professor and former Chicagoan who earned his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University. In his introduction to the play, he decries the neglect of Fuller and ranks him as a figure equal to Henry James or E.M. Forster in the pantheon of gay writers of the period. The play received its first performance of record, staged by local impresario David Zak, at Bailiwick Repertory's first annual Trailblazer Awards in 2000.
Fuller was 62 when he courageously published a philosophic novel centered on homosexual characters, Bertram Cope's Year ( 1919 ) . Young college English teacher Bertram is pursued by an older man and a woman with marriageable females in tow. He partners-up for a time with a rather nellie young thing who does drag in a Blackfriars-like production at a thinly veiled Chicago university. While described by later critics as “Fuller's best work” and as “full of dynamite scrupulously packed,” it was illreceived and largely ignored in his lifetime. His disillusionment over its reception drove Fuller to destroy the manuscript and kept him from writing another novel for 10 years. Turtle Point Press issued a reprint of the novel in 1998; the publisher had been alerted to the work by Bruce Kellner, a professor of English and executor of the estate of Carl Van Vechten ( 1880—1964 ) , a novelist, critic and photographer best known for his association with the Harlem Renaissance. Van Vechten had been unrestrained in his praise of the novel and of Fuller's stature in literary history. In an afterword, Andrew Solomon suggests that the book does a great service by portraying the “normative homosexuality” of the era.
Fuller was “an old settler,” a third-generation Chicagoan and the last male in a family descended from Mayflower Pilgrims. His grandfather was a successful merchant, and his father organized the city's first trolley car system. His grand father's cousin Margaret Fuller, who published Around the Lakes, a book about her travels in our area in the 1800s, also wrote: “I believe that a man can love a man and a woman can love a woman.”
Fuller had a love-hate relationship with Chicago and its crass commercialism, stockyards, and dirt-spewing industries. He was prescient in his vision of a city with “rushing streams of commerce” channeled into the man-made cliffs towering along the lakefront, leaving behind a decimated prairie. He wrote that Chicago was “the only great city in the world to which all its citizens have come for the one common, avowed object of making money.” He was an outspoken critic of America's imperialistic tendencies and racism. Unlike other writers who left town after making a name for themselves, Fuller stayed and “tried to break the chains which enslaved Chicago to New York, America to Europe, and the present to the past.”
Fuller is an enigmatic figure. He was the first Chicago author to gain positive critical attention from the Eastern literary establishment, but today is little known outside academia and those interested in that period of literary history known as the Chicago Renaissance. He has been the subject of four biographies, a dozen or more chapters in books of literary criticism, and innumerable references in local biographies and works on Chicago history. In writings since 1970 it was generally assumed that Fuller was gay; Kenneth Scambray clinched it in his definitive A Varied Harvest: The Life and Works of Henry Blake Fuller ( 1987 ) .
In his best-known Chicago novel, With the Procession ( 1895, reprinted in 1965 by the University of Chicago Press ) , his brother-and-sister characters, Jane and David Truesdale, can be viewed as both sides of Fuller's nature. He tells the city's story from the Prairie Avenue perspective, handling the machinations of the marriage market, the entrenched old guard, and the newly rich merchant class as adroitly as Jane Austen.
An experimental author, Fuller wrote novels about Americans in Europe ( novels compared favorably to those by Edith Wharton and Henry James ) , was said to be the “Father of American Realism” for his novels set in Chicago, and was something of a muckraker in his diatribes against American imperialism in Cuba, Mexico, the Philippines and Panama. He was a sharp critic of the Chicago merchant-class social scene and an early environmentalist as he watched the increasingly polluted city eating up the prairie.
On the personal side, Fuller was a social plus, a witty raconteur. He entertained at the piano and was always welcome in stately homes. His friends described him as a gentleman of taste, cultivation and great personal charm. Fuller was at the center of Chicago's first “arts” club, The Little Room, and was associated with Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg's Little Theatre. He wrote satire, reviews, editorials and criticism for local and national journals. He also wrote short stories and poetry, serving for a number of years as editor of Harriet Monroe's legendary Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. He liked to visit the studio of his friend, sculptor Lorado Taft, and meet the new students at the long luncheon table. He was a fixture at the Indiana Dunes summer home of University of Chicago friends, always overflowing with young people. Sometimes he would meet young men on the sandy beaches such as William Emery Shepherd, 40 years his junior, who accompanied him on his last trip to Europe. He would cultivate young men of talent and breeding such as Mark Turbyfill ( see related article ) .
Among his papers at the Newberry Library are a handful of letters from a young Canadian friend who was apparently having trouble finding suitable men. Fuller had advised him to hold out for “commercial travelers,” perhaps a class of men he met in his own circumspect life. His protégés Turbyfill and Shepherd were among the 70-plus contributors to a memorial volume published by drama pioneer Anna Morgan as a tribute to her friend. Other contributors included Carl Van Vechten, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Meeker, Lorado Taft and Jane Addams. Fuller had volunteered at Hull House and had partnered with Addams as a peace activist.
The significance of noting Fuller's sexual orientation lies in its effect on his work. The disapprobation of homosexuality led to self-censorship, coding, alternative expression and sometimes self-destruction. There was a consensus among some who knew Fuller well, and among recent critics, that his seemingly natural reticence was exacerbated by his homo - sexuality. The most telling contribution to his memorial volume came from his old Poetry magazine friend Harriet Monroe, who wrote: “Henry Fuller found it impossible to tell his whole story. He could not give himself away, and therefore it may be that the greatest book of which his genius was capable was never written.”
Copyright 2008 by Marie J. Kuda
From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.