Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Cliff-Dwellers by Henry Blake Fuller

Social climbers in young Chicago
Chicago novelist, poet, and playwright Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929) may not be a household name among today’s readers, but he is still well-respected by scholars of American literary naturalism. Though Fuller was not the first to write a novel set in Chicago, he may have been the first successful author to actually have been born in Chicago, where he lived his entire life.

Fuller’s novel The Cliff-Dwellers, published in 1893, depicts the Windy City at a time when it was just starting to come into its own as a metropolis. Though Easterners still looked down on the city as a dirty Western backwater town of factories and slaughterhouses, Chicago was beginning to build an economic, cultural, and social environment to rival its cosmopolitan counterparts on the Atlantic Coast. One of the distinctive aspects of Chicago at the time was its rapid explosion of skyscrapers. The Cliff-Dwellers centers on one such eighteen-story high-rise dubbed The Clifton, a swanky downtown office building housing various enterprises in banking, real estate, insurance, and manufacturing. George Ogden, a Bostonian, arrives in Chicago armed with letters of introduction that secure him a banking job within the Clifton. After reaching out to a small social circle of fellow emigrants from Massachusetts, Ogden soon becomes acquainted with some of the most prominent families in Chicago high society.

Besides Ogden, the ensemble cast includes several other men who work in the Clifton building, as well as their families. The novel not only follows their work lives but also their home lives in various Chicago neighborhoods. Other novels have focused on the residents of a particular building, but usually the edifice in question is a residential one—Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot and Emile Zola’s Pot-Bouille come to mind. The Cliff-Dwellers may be the earliest book to revolve around an office building, using the skyscraper as a microcosm of modern urban life. As a naturalist, Fuller writes about how the conditions and conventions of modern urban society affect, control, and sometimes even enslave his characters. As in Zola’s Pot-Bouille, everyone in The Cliff-Dwellers is struggling to reach a higher rung in the ladder of social status and are willing to use questionable means to do so, whether unethical business practices, outright crime, spending beyond one’s means, or engaging in marriages of convenience. Unlike most naturalist writers, however, Fuller totally ignores the laboring and servant classes, resulting in a myopic novel about social conditions that really only applies to the relatively well-off.

The Cliff-Dwellers proved a surprisingly difficult novel to read. Though the book is written in roughly high school-level vocabulary, Fuller employs many century-old idioms and slang into his prose. What’s worse, Fuller has a way of writing dialogue that makes it very difficult to tell who is speaking and whom is being spoken about. He uses way too many pronouns and not enough antecedents. Some passages required reading two or three times to figure out what was going on. Fuller’s ambiguous phrasing even led me to believe that one character was dead, only to discover her speaking a few pages later.

Some regard The Cliff-Dwellers as one of the greatest of Chicago novels, but it doesn’t measure up to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Frank Norris’s The Pit. Nevertheless, this is still a noteworthy work of regional realism. Besides being one of Chicago’s pioneering men of letters, Fuller’s other claim to fame is that he wrote the first American novel about homosexuality, Bertram Cope’s Year, published in 1919.
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