The Cliff-Dwellers

The Cliff-Dwellers (1893) was Henry Blake Fuller‘s third novel and his most widely read. While his first two novels were satirical romances set in Europe with almost no dialogue, The Cliff-Dwellers was radically different — a realistic drama set in Chicago on the eve of the world’s fair. The story was originally serialized chapter by chapter in Harper’s Weekly from June to August 1893, as part of their coverage of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, then published as a hardcover volume later that year by Harper & Brothers in New York.

The book primarily takes places in the fictional Clifton Building, an 18-story “skyscraper” (at the time) on LaSalle Street inspired by the Monadnock and the Tacoma. The title is a nod to the Indigenous cliff-dwellings of the American Southwest, which Fuller compares to the denizens of Chicago’s first skyscrapers. The Cliff Dwellers Club — a private arts organization in Chicago founded by Fuller’s friend Hamlin Garland, and which is still around today — was allegedly named after the novel, though members of the club still disagree on whether this is true.

The illustrations were drawn by Thure de Thulstrup for the original magazine serialization and then republished in the 1893 hardcover volume, as well as most subsequent editions.

Fuller was originally going to write a third novel along the lines of his first two, The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani (1890) and The Chatelaine of La Trinité (1892), set in Spain this time. He even took a research trip to Spain in May 1892. After returning to Chicago that June, he wrote the first chapter, and later repurposed it for Gardens of This World (1929), but abandoned the novel in the fall of 1892 due to his interest in realism, and well as his fascination with the architecture of the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition.

According to Fuller’s notes, The Cliff-Dwellers was originally a novelette called Between the Mill-Stones, written for a Chicago newspaper competition “which wished a realistic story with a local flavor.” That version of the story was much bleaker, ending in the suicide of the protagonist. Fuller didn’t win the competition, but he did repurpose some of the narrative “a few years later” when the world’s fair created an appetite for Chicago fiction. According to his journals, Fuller wrote The Cliff-Dwellers between January 11 and February 23, 1893, a few months before the world’s fair opened in May, from his home at 3343 South Park Avenue (now Martin Luther King Drive).

Fuller says most readers missed the main theme of the book, which he describes as: “Is it better for a young man to marry a girl who has pleasant, well-disposed family connections, yet who is rather flimsy and deficient herself, or for him to marry a girl who is much finer and stronger in herself, yet who has a disadvantageous and even disreputable set of relatives?”

One of Fuller’s biographers, John Pilkington Jr., calls The Cliff-Dwellers Fuller’s “case against Chicago,” inspired by his disgust with the city’s obsession with making money, its lack of arts and culture, and its skyscrapers, which he viewed as inferior to the neoclassical architecture of the world’s fair.

Like some of his other work, The Cliff-Dwellers also reveals Fuller’s misogyny and xenophobia. Female characters are often superficial, small-minded, and ridiculed by male characters. Fuller’s theory of “the aristocracy of sex,” first laid out in The Chatelaine of La Trinité, is another underlying theme here. Fuller seems to have resented and envied wealthy women he viewed as living lives of leisure while men like him were forced to toil away at business.

Meanwhile, a scene in the Chicago Public Library describes a large group of immigrants as a “confused cataract of conflicting nationalities within, and the fumes of incense that the united throng caused to rise upon the altar of learning stunned him with a sudden and sickening surprise—the bogs of Kilkenny, the dung-heaps of the Black Forest, the miry ways of Transylvania and Little Russia had contributed to it.” Later, Fuller’s protagonist George Ogden veers into white supremacy, wondering aloud, “Aren’t we New England Puritans the cream of the Anglo-Saxon race? And why does the Anglo-Saxon race rule the globe except because the individual Anglo-Saxon can rule himself?”

Characters

George Ogden. A pale, slender, 24-year-old bachelor from Boston, just arrived in Chicago to start a new job at the Underground National Bank on the first floor of the Clifton. He lives in Union Park boarding house until Walworth convinces him to move to a Rush Street boarding house to be closer to his social circle. Brother of Kittie Ogden.


Erastus Brainard. President of the Underground National Bank, obsessed with money, and Fuller’s Ebenezer Scrooge-esque villain. Father of Burt, Abbie, Mary (Mayme,) and Marcus. Moved to Chicago from Little Egypt in downstate Illinois, known to be corrupt, spent time in prison. The Brainard family lives in a yellow Joliet limestone mansion in Union Park.


Burt Brainard. Erastus’s eldest son, nearing 30. He is a brusque businessman who works in the Underground National Bank as his father’s eventual heir. He hires Cornelia McNabb to work as a stenographer in the bank, then marries her and buys her a palatial home on Lake Shore Drive. He is a bully to his younger brother Marcus and cold to Ogden and everyone else.


Abbie Brainard. Erastus’s eldest daughter, around 25 years old. Erastus’s favorite daughter and the only Brainard who is kind to her brother Marcus and to her sister Mayme. Erastus tries to match Abbie with Ogden by plying him with a promotion and time off. Despite Ogden’s initial disinterest, Abbie remains loyal to him throughout the novel.


Mary “Mayme” Brainard. Erastrus’s younger, 18-year-old daughter. She becomes engaged to Russell Vibert, much to her father’s disapproval. Erastus exiles her from the Brainard household, even after she suffers physical and emotional abuse from Vibert. After Vibert disappears, she gives birth to his son, and eventually marries a man named Briggs.


Marcus “Mark” Brainard. Erastus’s youngest son, an alcoholic who Erastus and Burt ridicule as a failure because of his interest in art and theatre. He winds up living out of dive bars and pool rooms and boarding houses, and schemes with Russell Vibert to steal money from his father Erastus. He spends some time in jail and returns at the end of the novel seeking vengeance on his father and brother. As a man who hates business and seeks a career in the arts, Marcus has a lot in common with Fuller himself.


Eugene H. McDowell. A corrupt real-estate baron on 12th floor of the Clifton who marries Ogden’s sister Kittie. He steals money from Ann Wilde after she invests in his South Side subdivision, wages financial war on Erastus via competing parcels of land on the West Side, and robs the Ogden family of its inheritance after the death of George and Kittie’s father, plunging them into poverty.


Russell Vibert. A choir-member at St. Asaph’s Church who works in an insurance office in the Clifton. Despite a beautiful singing voice and his popularity at church, he “hang[s] around race-tracks and loaf[s] in pool-rooms.” He marries Mayme Brainard against her father’s wishes, but is soon revealed to be a con-man who was already engaged to another woman in Toronto. He disappears when his Brainard con is discovered, but continues scheming with Marcus Brainard to take down Erastus.


Jessie Bradley. Frances Walworth’s tall and blue-eyed cousin. From a modest family in Hinsdale, Illinois, she dreams of becoming a wealthy socialite like Cecilia Ingles, wife of the Clifton’s owner. She marries George Ogden, but spends all of his money trying to emulate Cecilia Ingles by renovating their home and throwing parties. More than any other character, she represents Fuller’s misogynistic theory on the “aristocracy of sex,” first articulated in The Chatelaine of La Trinité, whereby men toil away at business to please idle and selfish women.


Cornelia McNabb. An ambitious waitress at Ogden’s boarding house in Union Park from Pewaukee, Wisconsin. Determined to climb the social ladder, she gets a job in the Acme Lunch-Room on the first floor of the Clifton, then becomes a freelance stenographer for the Underground National Bank and the Massachusetts Brass Company. She eventually marries Burt Brainard and moves into a French-inspired chateau on Lake Shore Drive.


D. Walworth Floyd. Head of the Chicago office of the Massachusetts Brass Company on the 10th floor of the Clifton. A 30-year-old, underachieving Boston Brahmin, exiled to the westernmost office of the family business. Lives on Pine Street (North Michigan Avenue), south of the Water Tower with his wife Frances. He introduces Ogden to most of the other characters in the novel.


Frances Floyd. Walworth’s “lean and anxious” wife and a regular subject of ridicule for Fuller. She is portrayed as an absent-minded shrew who doesn’t know her way around Chicago. She is also Jessie Bradley’s cousin.

Ann Wilde. Frances Floyd’s sister, “a stout woman who was nearing 40.” She keeps changing her name and her career, from poet to boarding-house keeper to real estate investor. She buys real estate from McDowell, loses most of her money thanks to his malfeasance, and takes out her frustrations on his brother-in-law, Ogden.

Fairchild. A grey-haired cashier at the Underground National Bank and Erastus’s third in command after Burt. He is a sympathetic character who shows loyalty to Ogden and

Freddy Pratt Brower. Ogden’s boarding-house roommate and friend, who works as a messenger in the Clifton. He attempts to steal money from the Underground National Bank, which Erastus uses as leverage to blackmail Brower into testifying against Russell Vibert in court.

Atwater. Architect of the Clifton.

Arthur J. Ingles. Owner of the Clifton, with an office on the 12th floor.

Cecilia Ingles. Wife of Arthur and a noted Chicago socialite that Cornelia McNabb and Jessie Bradley are enamored with.

The Clifton Building

Fuller describes the Clifton as an 18-story skyscraper on LaSalle Street, “not two blocks” away from City Hall (which was then, as now, between Washington and Randolph). It was designed by an architect named Atwater for Arthur J. Ingles to be “an architectural monument that would be a credit to the town.” All four sides have “good street-fronts” according to Ingles, meaning it took up an entire block and featured decorative entrances on all sides.

Fuller was inspired by Chicago’s early skyscrapers — Burnham & Root’s 16-story Monadnock Building and Holabird & Roche’s 13-story Tacoma Building.A central, open-air courtyard acted as a light well in the middle of the Clifton, not unlike the real-life Rookery Building (though the Rookery’s light court is covered by skylights, while the Clifton’s was not).

From the Clifton’s rooftop observatory, George Ogden looks south down LaSalle Street to see the old Chicago Board of Trade, similar to this view from Rand, McNally & Co.’s Bird’s-Eye Views and Guide to Chicago (1893).

The red arrow indicates the Rookery Building, which like the fictional Clifton stood along LaSalle Street a few blocks north of the Chicago Board of Trade. Many of the buildings here featured central courts like the Clifton. This Board of Trade building was demolished in 1929 and replaced with Holabird & Roche’s art deco version in 1930, which still stands today.

According to the architect, 13 construction workers were killed in the process of building the Clifton, and it caught fire three times.

  • 18th floor – A barber shop and Atwater’s architecture offices, underneath massive skylights.
  • 12th floor – McDowell’s real estate office and Ingles’s building office.
  • 10th floor – The Massachusetts Brass Company, where D. Walworth Floyd works.
  • 6th floor – Freeze & Freeze probate office, Erastus’s lawyers.
  • 5th floor – Vesuvian Fire Insurance Co., where Russell Vibert works.
  • 1st floor – The Underground National Bank where Erastus Brainard, George Ogden, and Fairchild work, as well as the Acme Lunch Counter where Cornelia McNabb works, and Darrell & Bradley Printing and Lithography, which “supplied the La Salle Street banks and insurance offices with ledgers, ink, and blotting pads.” There is also an interior court at this level, covered in mosaic tilework and surrounded by glass windows.
  • Basement – A beer hall.

Summary

In early 1893, a 24-year-old bachelor named George Ogden moves from Boston to Chicago for a new job at the Underground National Bank on the first floor of the Clifton Building. He soon realizes his boss, Erastus Brainard, is a cruel and corrupt businessman. But Ogden does finds friendships courtesy of another Clifton tenant, D. Walworth Floyd, who convinces Ogden to move from Union Park to Rush Street in order to join his family’s social circle. Ogden also befriends Cornelia McNabb, a clerk in the building’s cafe.

Erastus Brainard’s younger daughter, Mayme, marries a choir-singer named Russell Vibert against Erastus’s wishes. Vibert abuses and abandons Mayme soon after their wedding, and Erastus discovers he was already engaged to a Canadian woman. Erastus takes Vibert to court to have the marriage annulled, and the press catches wind, leading to a detailed investigation and public expose of Erastus’s own past.

Ogden’s family, including his sister Kittie and his parents, soon move to Chicago from New England. Kittie becomes engaged to a real estate baron in the building, McDowell. But three months after their arrival, Ogden’s father dies of pneumonia, and McDowell secretly steals the vast majority of the Ogden estate under the guise of handling their business.

Cornelia McNabb becomes a stenographer at the Underground National Bank, where she meets and eventually marries Burt Brainard, Erastus’s eldest son. Ogden begins spending time with both Abbie Brainard and Jessie Bradley, and seems torn between the two, but eventually marries Jessie Bradley. Ogden and Bradley move into a modest house near Lake Michigan, but Bradley begins to annoy Ogden by spending too much money and obsessing over becoming a socialite akin to Cecilia Ingles, the wife of the owner of the Clifton (see Fuller’s misogynistic theory on the “aristocracy of sex”).

Walworth’s brother (?) Winthrop comes to town and forces him to cut expenses by moving out of the Clifton and canceling his home renovations. Jilted, Atwater upcharges Ogden on his own home renovations to make up for the lost revenue. However, Bradley hates being near the lake, so very soon after they spend a fortune on renovations (on a rented home, no less), she and Ogden move into a North Side apartment a little further inland.

Marcus Brainard suddenly appears in Union Park one night near the Brainard home, where he is drunk and furious, and tells Abbie and Cornelia he is going to kill his father Erastus for treating him so poorly in comparison to Burt.

Jessie Bradley begins growing ill before having a baby daughter. The baby dies soon after her birth, and Ogden spends what little money he has left on a burial and funeral, leading him to the financial brink. Thanks to Bradley’s overspending, McDowell’s theft of his father’s estate, Atwater’s upcharging for his home renovations, and Ann Wilde’s reporting his estate taxes (as vengeance for McDowell’s stealing her own funds, since Ogden is his brother-in-law), Ogden is forced to secretly borrow money from his employer, the Underground National Bank, for a few weeks until he can return the funds. But Erastus Brainard was watching his accounts like a hawk due to paranoia after Brower’s incident, and catches Ogden in less than two weeks.

In a gathering in Erastus’s office at the Clifton, Fairchild, Abbie Brainard, Ogden, and Ogden’s mother beg Erastus for forgiveness, and to allow Ogden the opportunity to repay the loan. But Erastus is still furious with Ogden for marrying Bradley instead of his daughter Abbie, and humiliated that his overtures were spurned (Ogden’s raise and promotion). Desperate and desolate, Ogden takes the elevator up to McDowell’s office, confronts him about the theft, and attacks him with an office chair, leaving McDowell “crushed and bleeding on the floor.”

Erastus’s lawyers’ office (Freeze & Freeze) is closed by the time the gathering is over, so he returns home for dinner and calls them to his house. But before they arrive, a rain-soaked Marcus Brainard appears and confronts Erastus for years of emotional abuse, then stabs Erastus in the neck before escaping out the window. In the span of a few weeks, Erastus dies from blood poisoning and Marcus hangs himself in the family horse stable. After their deaths, Burt squanders his inheritance and the bank’s holding on a risky investment, and he and McNabb are forced to move out of their home, only saved from financial ruin by their sister Abbie, who sacrifices her portion of the inheritance to keep them afloat.

Meanwhile, Jessie Bradley dies, leaving Ogden a widower, though the death of Erastus means his incident with the bank never goes public, and Fairchild allows him to repay the loan. Ogden moves out of his apartment and leaves the bank and the Clifton altogether to become a real estate agent. He visits Abbie Brainard, apologizes for spurning her, and they are soon married.

Some time later, Ogden and Abbie attend a concert where Cornelia and Burt are also in attendance, though they do not see each other. Both couples are now living much more modestly than before. They all notice when the Clifton architect (Atwater) and owner (Ingles) appear in a balcony along with their wives. Cornelia and Abbie both notice Cecilia Ingles, the socialite Jessie Bradley tried so hard to emulate (and that Cornelia still aspires to). When Abbie asks who she is, Ogden pretends not to know. The novel ends with on a striking note of misogyny that aligns with Fuller’s recurring theme on the “aristocracy of sex”:

But he knew perfectly well who she was. He knew that she was Cecilia Ingles, and his heart was constricted by the sight of her. It is for such a woman that one man builds a Clifton and that a hundred others are martyred in it.

Contemporary Reviews

“A work of very great power . . .Chicago may feel no thrill of vanity in Mr. Fuller’s work, but I can fancy her quite large-minded enough to feel a glow of pride in it.” —William Dean Howells, Harper’s Bazaar

“Mr. Fuller’s romance is wonderfully suggestive. You catch from this volume a better appreciation of what are the ways of the most wonderful of modern creations. You may not like Chicago, might not want to live in it, but still it must have its fascinations, because, say what you will, it is American and sui generis. It is your own fault, if, thrown into it, you halt and cannot keep up with the pace… Mr Fuller’s style has a charm and grace peculiar to him, and he has that all-round acquaintance with things which never permits him to be careless in details. The real estate business in The Cliff-Dwellers shows knowledge. In architecture, of course, he is proficient, and so the brief descriptions of Mr. Atwater, the crach and affable architect of Chicago, are very happy… The Cliff-Dwellers should hold a distinguished place as a typical American book, because of its decided originality.” —The New York Times, October 1, 1893 (no byline)

Editions

  • Serialization (1893), Harper’s Weekly, New York. Full view courtesy of Pennsylvania State University (1 and 2, search for “Fuller”).
  • First edition (1893), Harper & Brothers, New York. Full view courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
  • Scholarly edition (2010), Broadview Press, Calgary. Edited by Joseph Dimuro. Purchase link. Includes lengthy appendices full of Fuller’s related writings, contemporary reviews, essays, and more.
  • 125th anniversary edition (2018), Chicago Review of Books Press, Chicago. Includes a brief introduction by Adam Morgan. Read an excerpt here.

Links

  • View or download the full text at Project Gutenberg
  • Read Fuller’s original introduction at Arcturus magazine
  • “Henry Blake Fuller and the Cliff Dwellers: Appropriations and Misappropriations” by Ann Massa, JSTOR, 2002
  • “Is This a Classic Chicago Novel?” by Kathleen Rooney, The Paris Review, June 6, 2018
  • “Gilded Age White People Problems” by Dan Kelly, Third Coast Review, June 21, 2018

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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