Best Under­appreciated Chicago Novel

Critics' Picks

Bertram Cope’s Year

by Henry Blake Fuller

In 1919, at the age of 62, Henry Blake Fuller was one of Chicago’s leading literary lights—the author of several novels and a contributor to publications such as Harper’s and the Dial who counted among his friends and admirers figures like Jane Addams, Hamlin Garland, and Thornton Wilder. Despite his reputation, however, he was forced to self-publish his sixth novel, Bertram Cope’s Year, one of the first American literary works about homosexuality. It failed miserably, and Fuller consigned the manuscript and proofs to the fire.

In later years the novel picked up fans like Carl Van Vechten and Edmund Wilson, who lamented the lack of respect accorded Fuller in general and Bertram Cope’s Year in particular—both considered it the best of his works. Following Wilson’s critical appraisal, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1970, the book faded into obscurity again, until it was reprinted by Turtle Point Press in 1998 with an afterword by Andrew Solomon. It was greeted as “an important discovery for the gay literary canon” and “a lost fragment of American literary history,” and then, save for the occasional academic appraisal, it disappeared again.

Too gay for its time and too closeted to be ahead of it, it seems that Bertram Cope’s Year is destined to be rediscovered as a historical curio every couple decades, but it deserves better. Fuller was at his best when his prose was at its most dry and ironic, and taboos forced upon his writing a subtlety lacking in the overwrought realist fiction of the era. The result is a tragicomedy of manners centered on an ambiguous young grad student at a thinly-veiled Northwestern University, and the futile desires projected on him by the community—think Death in Venice by way of Jane Austen.

“If Theodore Dreiser had written this book, it would certainly have been suppressed,” wrote Van Vechten. “If Ben Hecht had written it, he would probably be languishing in jail.” Fuller’s light touch kept him out of the clink, but it’s also kept him and his quiet masterpiece out of the Chicago canon for far too long.