Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Bertram Cope’s Year by Henry Blake Fuller

Landmark gay novel and a fun comedy of manners
Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929) was a Chicago author known for regional realist novels like The Cliff-Dwellers. Fuller was also gay, which in itself is not so remarkable, but he has left his stamp on history with what some literary critics have called the first gay novel in American literature: Bertram Cope’s Year, published in 1919 (although at least two other books can vie for that title: Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend [1870] and Xavier Mayne’s Imre: A Memorandum [1906]). In recent years, Fuller has been posthumously recognized for his achievements by induction into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame and the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

What’s amazing about Bertram Cope’s Year is how Fuller was able to cleverly write a realist novel about a gay man’s life and same-sex relationships without ever overtly mentioning either. The prudish world of American literature in 1919 would not have stood for explicit descriptions of physical affection or even verbal expressions of romantic love between two men, so Fuller does not include any, yet he gets his story told nonetheless. I suppose it is possible that some quite clueless reader of a century ago might read this as a story of platonic relationships, but one would have to be truly naive indeed to miss what Fuller implies between the lines.

Bertram Cope is a young teacher pursuing a PhD. He works as an adjunct instructor at a university in the town of Churchton, which is likely meant to be a lakeside suburb of Chicago, though that’s never overtly specified. Cope realizes he must work the college-town social scene if he wishes to advance his academic career, so he befriends local society hostess Medora Phillips and makes further connections with those who frequent her salon. Like many a handsome young man, Cope unwittingly draws the attention of straight young women who, unaware of his sexual orientation, try to snare him for a husband. Cope is also pursued by Basil Randolph, a 50-year-old businessman who enjoys the company of college men. Meanwhile, Cope carries on a long distance relationship with his boyfriend in Wisconsin, whom he hopes to persuade to relocate to Churchton. All of these relationships complicate the mild-mannered Cope’s life as he tries to live discreetly as a gay man while keeping up the appearance of a heterosexual bachelor.

Bertram Cope’s Year is not a comedy in the laugh-out-loud sense but it is a comedy of manners that satirizes social conventions. Fuller maintains a wry and dry humor throughout. Most of the characters in the novel end up looking foolish, and not simply because of the way they fall all over Cope. Fuller lampoons the very society that Cope is trying to fit into, with its constricting code of etiquette, annoying obligations, and matrimonial negotiations. Cope himself comes across a bit ridiculous as he reluctantly and bemusedly navigates this social landscape of dull cocktail parties, unwanted heart-to-heart confabs, and obligatory country outings.

Bertram Cope’s Year may not actually be the first gay novel in American literature, but it is nevertheless a groundbreaking and genre-founding work. Beyond its historical importance, however, it is quite an entertaining read with an enjoyably ironic sense of humor. This novel of manners calls to mind the earlier satirical melodramas of Honoré de Balzac or Anthony Trollope, but Fuller updates the genre for the modern era by pioneering a more inclusive representation of American society. This lesser-known work from a century ago is a pleasantly surprising gem.
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