Fiction

Gilded Age White People Problems: Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers: Book Review

Whatever happened to melodrama? A hero, a villain, a damsel in distress—a histrionic trinity entangled over late rent payments, potentially besmirched honor, and the inevitable train track bondage scene. Well, life got complicated, and so did melodrama, spawning the sordid storylines of Scandal, The Good Wife, House of Cards, et alia, that would give our 19th century granite-chinned hero and wicked villain the vapors. Somewhere in the middle we have Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), a well-written if dated read, and the first offering in the Chicago Review of Books’ new line of historical reprints.

The intro admits that The Cliff-Dwellers shows its age, but rightfully notes its occasional well-crafted snapshots of a long-gone Chicago that nonetheless casts a long shadow into our own time. The characters may be wearing corsets, bustles, sleeve-garters, and handlebar mustaches, but their actions and attitudes are quite recognizable 125 years on. My only quibble is that the book’s individual denizens could have been drawn better, and their circumstances better described. However, in a saving grace, Mr. Fuller portrayed his main character, the city of Chicago, in a memorably nasty, snappish way that rankled his fellow Chicagoans but endeared him to the literary intelligentsia of his day.

The title’s cliff-dwellers are businessman residents of the entirely made-up Clifton Building—based somewhat on the Monadnock—which was never ever located on LaSalle Street. Buying, selling, and hatching schemes on their respective floors, each tries to carve out their chunk of the Big Onion while shivving and backstabbing each other. Truthfully, I’m making it sound spicier than it is. Save for a surprisingly ungentlemanly last few chapters, The Cliff-Dwellers is very much a product of its time; a series of set pieces in which the villainy is mostly implied. By the end we’re left with a string of broken, ruined men and women who, like myself, wondered how it all happened.

Fuller’s life makes for more interesting reading. A mostly forgotten, but still deeply respected author, he was born to a reputable, financially flush Chicago family in 1857, producing 13 novels and short story collections in his life. Fuller was gay—though it’s unclear how out he was—and notched a few firsts as a writer. The Cliff-Dwellers is considered, by those who decide such things, to be the first true Chicago novel. Some sources say he wrote and published the first gay novel—Bertram Cope’s Year, slyly and secretly set in Evanston and Northwestern University—though others suggest he only wrote the first good gay novel. Either way, the man could sling ink, and was respected and befriended by the likes of Thornton Wilder and Jane Addams.

As a relic of its time, the Cliff-Dwellers is a perfectly respectable read, but as I proceeded I pondered what might have been if Fuller had had a freer hand or taken the time to fully explore his dramatis personae. The third work of a youngish writer, the characters are not fleshed out—in melodramas they rarely are—and most seem interchangeable. We have several middle-aged businessmen, conducting transactions Fuller tends to blip over. Suffice to say, they are bankers, real estate men, and producers of widgets, stuffing their waistcoats with prosperous girths through banking, real estating, and widget producing. The second layer consists of young mustachioed men, attempting to establish themselves by working for the aforementioned Clifton Building magnates. Among them we have Fuller’s closest attempt at a central character: George Ogden, a waspish Bostonian, who came to Chicago to seek his fortune, find a wife, and establish a household—as 19th century men were wont to do. George is quite dull, prone to mulling on the street or on boats, and often being acted upon rather than acting himself. At least until the final chapters.

Ogden, actually doing something.

Finally, The Cliff-Dwellers presents a group of similar young women. The ladies exist primarily to be married off to the aforementioned young men, taking on new roles as social doyennes, spousal punching bags, or bringers of financial ruin vis-à-vis excessive redecorating. Fuller’s female characters are insubstantial creatures—plot-drivers who show up after the men have stopped chatting over brandy and cigars. Two exceptions are the coltish Jesse Bradley (who appears and fades much too quickly) and Cornelia McNabb, a bright burning comet of social-climbing zest. I would have liked to see Cornelia rather than George in the spotlight. She’s a sassy 19th century “new woman” and an anti-Lily Bart, unashamed of her ambitions. But Fuller provides only brief bursts of McNabb’s charismatic luminescence, her arc rising and rising mostly off-stage. Pity.

Research reveals that much is made of The Cliff-Dwellers being the first “true” Chicago novel. It certainly is, in terms of describing the self-aggrandizement the city has long indulged in, the cesspool of greed it continues to be, and its hideous weather. Notably, while Fuller was a true-born son of the city, most of his characters are East Coast transplants whose sentiments about the Windy City rise and fall with their moods. Fuller records their walks through 1893 Chicago’s sucking-mud streets and their bitching about the cold and damp (one elderly character even succumbs to the lake’s more murderous effects). Overall, Chicago fails to appear as a shining city on a hill:

The lake, weltering under the gray skies of March, dashed its viscious (sic) spray high over the sea wall, and sent its cruel blasts dashingly through the streets that ended on its confines. And at such signals asthma and bronchitis and pneumonia  dug their clutching fingers  into the throats and lungs of thousands of tender sufferers.

And yet The Cliff-Dwellers is also punctuated by a sort of ur-boosterism reflecting the zing, zeal, and zowie Sinclair Lewis satirized in his Babbitt some 30 years later.

Why not?” Returned Fairchild. “Does it seem unreasonable that the state which produced the two greatest figures of the epoch in our history, and which has done most within the last ten years to check alien excesses and un-American ideas, should also be the State to give the country the final blend of the American characters and its ultimate metropolis?”

Or…

“—the name of the town, in its formal ceremonial use, has a power that no other word in the language quite possesses. It is a shibboleth, as regards its pronunciation; it is a trumpet-call as regards its effect. It has all the electrifying and unifying power of a college yello.”

Or, in an impressive bit of jabbering Gilded Age zen

“Chicago is Chicago,” he said. “It is the belief of all of us. It is inevitable; nothing can stop us now.”

The empty cheers and ballyhoo of the city’s comfy folks haven’t changed much, have they? One imagines the novel’s biggest (though mostly absent) villain Vibert plugging Chicago in such terms as he plots to build Sir Elonious Musk’s new De Luxe Subterranean Horse Trolley.

Fuller does make mention of the town’s immigrant working class—the folks putting in the hours, blood, sweat, tears, and lost body parts to ensure the white businessmen’s businesses don’t fail—but rather unkindly. Seeking shelter from the rain in the library, Ogden encounters a miasma of odors from his fellow Chicagoans, described by Fuller thus:

During the enforced leisure of his first weeks he had gone several times to the City Hall, and had ascended in the elevator to the reading-room of the public library. On one of these occasions a heavy and sudden down-pour had filled the room with readers and had closed all the windows. The down-pour without seemed but a trifle compared with the 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 all contributed to it.

The universal brotherhood of man appeared before him, and it smelt of mortality—no partial, exclusive mortality, but a mortality comprehensive, universal, condensed and averaged up from the grand totality of items.

Ogden/Fuller’s library B.O. screed is vintage evidence of the two Chicagos—or more like 200—that persist to this day. Side note, Ogden’s biggest concern in the middle part of the novel is his wife’s overspending on a set of fancy doors.

The characters eventually experience various downturns and downfalls, much of it erupting toward the end, but it’s all so very…Victorian. Mostly public opprobrium following embezzlements for the men and the loss of “honor” (fixed with a quick marriage) for the ladies. Infants perish; wives beautifully wither away; prodigal sons dissipate; and of course, a couple of impressive murders occur. Or maybe just one-and-a-half murders. It’s hard to say with the second one.

Is The Cliff-Dwellers an important book? In regards to capturing an extended moment in the city’s history and collective personality, definitely. Is it a great book? Not so much, though it carries the frisson of coming across your great granddad’s diary and discovering what shenanigans the old bastard was up to in the days of yore.

Buy The Cliff-Dwellers for $12 from Chicago Review of Books Press.

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