Henry Blake Fuller

Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929) was a novelist, dramatist, short story writer, critic, composer, and editor. Best known for his 1893 novel The Cliff-Dwellers, he was the first Chicago writer to garner national (and international) attention from critics and readers. He also wrote one of the first published plays with queer themes in the United States, “At Saint Judas’s” (1896), and one of the earliest American gay novels, Bertram Cope’s Year (1919). He helped Harriet Monroe launch Poetry magazine in 1912, and served on its editorial staff for years. He was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 2000 and into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2017.

Despite his success (particularly in the 1890s), Fuller’s diaries reveal he struggled with loneliness and depression throughout his life as a result of his distaste for Chicago, his yearning for (and later disillusionment with) Europe, his often unrequited love for men, a paradoxical desire for solitude, and various perceived creative failures. He died at the age of 72 in Chicago on July 28, 1929 due to a heart attack “aggravated by the heat.”

Books by Henry Blake Fuller

  • The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani (1890), a novel set in Italy
  • The Chatelaine of La Trinité (1892), a novel set in the Alps
  • The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), a novel set in Chicago
  • With the Procession (1895), a novel set in Chicago
  • The Puppet Booth (1896), twelve plays
  • From the Other Side (1898), short stories set in Europe
  • The Last Refuge (1900), a novel set in Italy
  • Under the Skylights (1901), short stories set in Chicago
  • Waldo Trench and Others (1908), short stories set in Italy
  • Lines Long and Short (1917), a collection of free verse
  • On the Stairs (1918), a novel set in Chicago
  • Bertram Cope’s Year (1919), a novel set in Evanston
  • Gardens of This World (1929), a novel set in Europe
  • Not on the Screen (1930), a novel set in Chicago

Biography

Early Years

Henry Blake Fuller was born in Chicago on January 9, 1857, in a house on the present-day site of LaSalle Street Station. He was the last direct male descendant of Dr. Samuel Fuller (1580-1633), a Mayflower pilgrim who became an influential church deacon and physician in the Plymouth colony.

Both sides of Henry’s family came from wealthy New England stock, particularly Boston. His grandfather, Judge Henry Fuller (1805-1879), migrated to Chicago in 1849 when it was still a frontier town, and made a fortune by constructing the Illinois Central, Rock Island and Pacific Railways, laying the first 40 miles of water pipes beneath the city, and serving as superintendent of the Chicago City Railway. Henry Blake Fuller’s father, George Wood Fuller (1831-1885), was Secretary of the Southside Railway Company, and later Vice President of the Home National Bank. His mother, Mary Josephine Sanford (1836-1907), was a descendant of the Connecticut Sanfords.

According to Constance Griffin, “From earliest childhood Fuller was a solitary figure. He was quiet and delicate, preferring the company of his books to the boisterous games of boyhood. His school days provide an illuminating picture of his intense and unboylike preoccupation with study, his unending striving for perfection, and the grim tenacity with which he held to his self-imposed tasks.”

At the age of 15, Fuller graduated from the Mosely School in 1872, and then attended Chicago High School, the Branch South Division High School, and the Allison Classical Academy, a boarding school in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. where he resented having to room with loud and messy boys who interrupted his reading. His first article in print appeared in the Chicago Tribune during his senior year. He graduated from high school in 1876 at the age of 19 and did not attend a university.

For the next three years (1876-1879), Fuller held various desk jobs in Chicago, all of which he hated. He spent a year at Ovington Brothers (122 State Street), another year as a messenger at the Bank of Illinois, and one more at the Home National Bank where his father worked.

Grand Tours of Europe

Bored by the ruthless monotony of Chicago business, Fuller began making detailed plans for a year-long trip to Europe, where he would collect experiences write travel articles, at that time a very profitable and popular genre in American newspapers. His father encouraged him to “take in all that is desirable, even if it cost more.”

At the age of 22, Fuller left New York on August 19, 1879 on the Royal Mail Ship Scythia. After landing in Liverpool, he spent a month traveling through England, another month in France, and then seven months in Italy. He kept detailed travel journals throughout his trip, and many of his notes during this tour were later repurposed when writing The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani (1890) and The Chatelaine of La Trinité (1892). He then traveled across Switzerland, Germany, Holland, and back to England again before returning to Chicago in mid-August, 1880.

If he disliked Chicago before traveling abroad, he loathed it now. During the next decade (1880-1890) between his first tour of Europe and his first novel, Fuller did not work many further desk jobs beyond tending to his family’s business matters after the death of his father in 1885. While living in his family home off LaSalle, he spent the majority of his 20s writing and traveling, including a second tour of Europe from April to September, 1883, during which he revisited England, France, Italy and Switzerland. He then lived in Boston for a few months, at 51 Hancock Street, drawn to the city’s arts, culture, and publishing, which he found depressingly absent from Chicago. In Boston and later at home in Chicago, he wrote articles, essays, ballads, burlesques, and even two light operas, Mariquita and Pipistrello, which were never produced.

In 1886, as he was approaching 30 years of age, Fuller was working out of an office on Lake Street (it’s unclear whether he had taken a temporary desk job or if he was working on his family’s business). To alleviate a period of “considerable discomfort and depression,” one day he took an envelope out of his office wastebasket and wrote the opening lines of what would become his first novel, The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani. He finished the manuscript in early 1887, and continued other writing pursuits over the next few years while trying to get it published.

Literary Career

In 1890, when Fuller was 33, the Boston-based J.G. Cupples Company published Fuller’s first novel, The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani, at Fuller’s own expense. Thanks to glowing reviews from Boston’s literary elite, it was republished by the Century Company in New York two years later alongside Fuller’s second novel, The Chatelaine of La Trinité. Set in Italy and the Alps, respectively, both novels were short satires of late Victorian society that conveyed Fuller’s love affair with Europe, disgust with American industrialization, and hostility toward women.

Both novels received critical acclaim, but Fuller’s next two works of fiction — The Cliff-Dwellers in 1893 and With the Procession in 1895 — were his most widely read and celebrated for their realistic look at Chicago’s brutal brand of capitalism. He followed these with a collection of plays in 1896, The Puppet-Booth, and a collection of short stories in 1898, From the Other Side. Alongside Lorado Taft, Hamlin Garland, and others, Fuller co-founded the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony in 1898 near Oregon, Illinois.

Here’s Hamlin Garland on a thirty-something Fuller at the height of his literary career in A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921):

“Henry B. Fuller, who in The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani had shown himself to be the finest literary craftsman in the West, became (a little later) a leader in our group and a keen delight to us all. He was at this time a small, brown-bearded man of thirty-five, whose quick humor, keen insight and unfailing interest in all things literary made him a caustic corrective of the bombast to which our local reviewers were sadly liable. Although a merciless critic of Chicago, he was a native of the city, and his comment on its life had to be confronted with such equanimity as our self-elected social hierarchy could assume. Elusive if not austere with strangers, Henry’s laugh (a musical “ha ha”) was often heard among his friends. His face could be impassive not to say repellent when approached by those in whom he took no interest, and there were large numbers of his fellow citizens for whom the author of Pensieri-Vani had only contempt. Strange to say, he became my most intimate friend and confidant—antithetic pair!”

Links

Sources:

  • The Henry Blake Fuller Papers, Newberry Library
  • Henry Blake Fuller: A Critical Biography by Constance M. Griffin
  • Henry Blake Fuller by John Pilkington Jr.
  • A Varied Harvest: The Life and Works of Henry Blake Fuller by Kenneth Scambray
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