Is This a Classic Chicago Novel?


Arts & Culture


The newly established publishing arm of the Chicago Review of Books identifies itself as “a small press to republish classic Chicago literature in beautiful new editions.” But of what can a classic be said to consist? Looking at the etymology of the term, one finds that the meaning “of or belonging to the highest class; approved as a model” dates to the seventeenth century and derives from the Latin classicus, “relating to the highest classes of the Roman people”—in other words, superior. The obvious questions arise: superior to what and according to whom? Like so many highly subjective designations, the clearest definitions of classic are usually ostensive. The definer simply points to examples and says, That—that’s what we mean.

The text toward which Chicago Review of Books Press points to inaugurate their new series is Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers, which they declare to be “the first great ‘Chicago novel’ ” and cite as having been listed by Chicago magazine as number six in their 2010 list of “The Top 40 Chicago Novels.” In his introduction to the reissue, the Chicago Review of Books’s editor in chief, Adam Morgan, quotes Dr. Joseph Dimuro of UCLA as calling The Cliff-Dwellers “arguably the first important novel of the American city.” 

Henry Blake Fuller was born in 1857 and died in 1929 and was, as the bio accompanying this newest edition explains, Chicago’s “first LGBTQ novelist, and the author of With the Procession, Under the Skylights and Bertram Cope’s Year, often considered the first American gay novel.” Cliff-Dwellers is Fuller’s third novel but his first to view the world through the lens of social realism. The story was “so shocking and unsparing in its depiction of the city’s crude industrialization, corrupt businessmen, and dysfunctional upper-class families, no Chicago newspapers would run it,” Morgan notes in his introduction. The novel was originally serialized chapter by chapter in the New York–based magazine Harper’s Weekly from June to August 1893, the same year as the Chicago World’s Fair. In reply to my request for a review copy, Morgan volunteered that “it’s … an interesting novel, for sure, if only for its historical perspective of that slice of Chicago society in 1893. We only hear about the fair, so I ate up all the references to other parts of town. It hasn’t aged well in other respects, so it would be fascinating to see a contemporary critic’s take on it.”

The book’s loose and intervallic structure follows the ambitious and acquisitive George Ogden, a young businessman from Massachusetts who seeks his fortune in the Windy City. The main action, however, revolves around the Clifton Building, a fictional eighteen-story structure in the Chicago Loop based on the 1891 Monadnock Building, which was and still is the tallest load-bearing brick edifice ever constructed. The book unfolds in a detached narrative voice. Fuller regards his city with a cool eye and a cold heart.

I must confess to being a Chicago enthusiast. Perhaps not as much so as Odgen’s love interest, Jessie Bradley—who “had the one infallible local trait—she would rather talk to a stranger about her own town than about any other subject”—but close. So I appreciated Morgan’s efforts to manage my expectations. Then again, he and the Chicago Review of Books staff transcribed the entire 277-page novel word for word from an old public domain scan, so there must be something in those pages worth seeing. But what? When a book from more than a century ago gets rereleased and even its rereleasers can recognize the work as important but flawed, one has cause to wonder: What literature from the depths of history is worth preserving? And what can readers receive from second-tier classics?

When I asked Morgan what the notion of “classic” in this case means to him, he said, “I think most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of an imposed literary canon these days. For this project, the term ‘classic’ signifies a book that has stood the test of time—a work that has remained valuable for one reason or another—but isn’t widely available for modern readers. We don’t intend to republish ‘the best’ Chicago books in history (many of those are still in print), just the ones we believe have been undeservedly forgotten.” He added that “instead of canon-building, I see it as Chicago-celebrating. I want more readers to realize how long and varied and interesting our literary history is.”

So titled because of its setting among the rapidly rising skyscrapers of the urban landscape and the rampant social climbing of the residents therein, The Cliff-Dwellers was hailed at the time by the novelist and critic William Dean Howells as “a work of very great power.” The book takes as its subject the corrosive and dehumanizing effects of capitalism and is unsparing in its depiction of the ruthless competitive maneuvering of the upper classes. Read from a contemporary perspective, the book manages to feel both audacious and restrained, expansive and provincial, relevant and quaint.

The book records in granular detail how the roots of many of America’s twenty-first-century challenges extend deeply into the past. A third-generation Chicagoan, Fuller’s family was descended from the Mayflower Pilgrims, and his prose wears his Waspy prejudices as conspicuously as a pair of buckled shoes. Through the eyes of his protagonist, he evinces disgust at America’s great cities becoming the proverbial melting pot. Take, for example, Odgen passing nauseated judgment on “a range of human types completely unknown to his past experience”:

During the enforced leisure of his first weeks he had gone several times to 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 downpour had filled the room with readers and had closed all the windows. The downpour 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 contributed to it.

Elsewhere, Fuller has Ogden muse, “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?” Fuller also engages in casual sexism, writing of the character Ann Wilde that “like all women, she embraced the personal element in every affair,” and of the character Mrs. Brainard’s penchant for chess, “To those who object that chess is an intellectual game, one may simply put the question: have you ever seen it take up by an elderly invalidated female who has rested content with mere learning of the moves?” And while Fuller’s impulse to criticize capitalism, consumerism, and social stratification stands as admirable, the scornful tenor of his authorial voice can make the book feel hectoring and ultimately a bit tedious.

Early on, of some visitors to an office within the Clifton, for instance, Fuller writes disdainfully: “They are often Jacks or Toms, whose fathers are social pillars in Boston and large landowners in Wyoming and Dakota, and Jack and Tom—birds of passage in Scotch cheviots and billycock hats—are given to alighting for a brief breathing spell on this lofty perch, where they reproach the slipshod dress and careless speech of their friend’s small office by the trim neatness of their own clothes and conversation.”  Undoubtedly, Jack and Tom seem pompous and annoying, but so, too, does Fuller, who is consistently contemptuous toward virtually every character.

Although the book contains passages of impressive writing and warts-and-all tableaux of life in the fin de siècle metropolis that feel indelible, it is perhaps less than the sum of its parts and thus potentially of more scholarly or niche interest than some of the texts that the cultural apparatus has identified as the top-tier classics. But then again, in this current age of interrupted hierarchies, aren’t all interests in some sense niche interests?

And that may be one of the most exciting aspects of the reissuing of this particular novel: in addition to having the opportunity to revisit a lost book from America’s literary past, the 2018 edition of The Cliff-Dwellers offers readers a chance to consider different approaches to the category of classic. A press with a mission to reprint them is pulled between two poles: the evaluative versus documentarian, or perhaps the elitist versus the completist. The former might assert something like, Read this because it’s a nonpareil, a pinnacle of its tradition or flawless specimen of its type; whereas the latter might assert something along the lines of, Read this because it existed and was influential, or even if you don’t read it, know we’ve made it available because it’s historically significant.

Met with glowing reviews in its era, The Cliff-Dwellers remains largely forgotten today. As Morgan points out, it fades from view

when compared to the Chicago novels of the next two decades, like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915), and Sherwood Anderson’s Windy McPherson’s Son (1916). And yet, many of these writers (particularly Dreiser), were heavily influenced by the inward-facing social realism that Fuller pioneered, as evidenced by their own correspondence and the work of literary scholars. In fact, if Chicago literature has a single, definitive point of origin … you now hold it in your hands.

Will you want to hold it in yours? Maybe or maybe not. But thanks to Chicago Review of Books Press, you once again have the option.


Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of the typewriter-poetry-on-demand collective Poems While You Wait. She is the author, most recently, of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte.