- A Varied Harvest: The Life and Works of Henry Blake Fuller, and: American Writers and Radical Politics, 1900-39: Equivocal Commitments, and: The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century, and: Desire and the Sign: Nineteenth-Century American Fiction
Nineteenth-century realism, and the naturalist fiction that succeeded it, call out to be measured against the real world. The simplest interpretative relation may be biographical, whether one relates the work to a single writer or a school of writers with common concerns. It may be more productive (although more difficult) to treat a text as a cultural artifact, a product of the era in which it was written. Moving further into the abstract, one can couch one's criticism in terms of structures operating somewhere behind the human subconscious and outside the concrete world.
The rewards of the biographical approach are illustrated by Kenneth Scambray's A Varied Harvest: The Life and Works of Henry Blake Fuller. In 1895, Fuller seemed an up-and-coming man of letters. The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani, a travel romance with Utopian overtones, had won him a national reputation. He had already published two novels of life in Chicago, The Cliff-Dwellers and With the Procession—books for which Theodore Dreiser would hail him as the father of American realism. Yet, at the age of thirty-eight, Fuller had already done his best writing. Although he would live until 1929, his remaining books would be scattered and uneven. Scambray's biography provides a sad, credible portrait, one that goes far toward explaining Fuller's decline.
Earlier discussions of Fuller, Scambray finds, have treated him "as a writer who was frustrated solely by the commercial and industrial spirit that dominated his native Chicago. Actually, he led several lives: that of the writer, the sociable club man, and the private, isolated life of a homosexual in Victorian and early twentieth-century America." Scambray argues convincingly that this isolation handicapped Fuller: "No less than the materialistic values of his era, Fuller's homosexuality held him back from full participation in his society."
Describing himself as an "alien romanticist" and "studio dawdler," Fuller became a minor litterateur—someone who joined societies, attended banquets, frequented university campuses, and signed petitions. Shabbiness attended the last decades of his life, as he moved from roominghouse to roominghouse on Chicago's south side. He seldom held a steady job; his money came partly from freelance reviewing but mostly from family investments. [End Page 227]
Sexual ambivalence and self-doubt may have kept Fuller from writing other outstanding novels. He had the energy—he was an indefatigable reviewer—but he settled for satires, travel romances, and uneven short stories. In terms of his work, as Scambray concludes, "caution would only breed equivocation."
Fuller dealt with homosexuality twice: in "At St. Judas's," an early play, and Bertram Cope's Year, which he had privately printed in 1919. Both times, however, Fuller raised the issue obliquely. He made his protagonists' sexuality ambiguous. If they had male intimates, they also had female brides and admirers, and, at the end of each work, they seemed to have chosen marriage. Fuller may have been estranged from his milieu, but the resistance he offered was only half-hearted. (To be sure, the reviewers silently buried both play and novel.)
Scambray's book is solid and well-written; he is careful to balance sympathy and objectivity. Fuller's major novels could perhaps have been discussed at greater length, but this book will be hard to better as an account of Fuller's life...