Journal of Modern Literature 25.3-4 (2002) 40-57
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Repression, Inversion and Modernity:
A Freudian Reading of Henry Blake Fuller's Bertram Cope's Year
When we think of the influence of Sigmund Freud on the development of Modernism, our focus tends to be thematic and formalistic. One of the clearest effects of Freudian ideas on literature in the post-Interpretation of Dreams era, for example, would seem to be the development of the stream of consciousness as a narrative technique. It is also true that familiarization with Freudian concepts and ideas allowed critics to reinterpret literary texts in new ways, finding symbols and sublimated expressions of consciousness in the fiction of writers of the modern era and of those who came before them. The rediscovery and rereading of such nineteenth-century novelists as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, enriched by Freudian approaches and interpretations, amply demonstrates this. Yet at least one aspect of Freudian influence has been somewhat overlooked: the freer expression of sexuality in their texts — more specifically, homosexuality — following Freud's analysis of the so-called "alternative" sexualities. A prime example is the work of Henry Blake Fuller, a very traditionally minded product of the American genteel school, who found himself living through changes in thought and the understanding of the psyche that created the modern world.
As a gay man and writer, Fuller had been unable and unwilling to address the subject of his private life for the first thirty years of his career. However, in 1919, he wrote Bertram Cope's Year, the only novel of Fuller's that is still in print as we enter the twenty-first century. In this book, Fuller wrote of homosexuality, society's reaction to it, and its continued and necessary obfuscation in the modern world. In writing the novel, Fuller does address his sexuality, although he is still unable to discuss it completely and openly. Thus, we see a struggle between the facts of life and the way in which a writer — once hailed by Theodore Dreiser as the father of modern realism — felt able to deal with them. The novel reveals the influence of Freud's approach to the role of sexuality in a civilization and within a fixed section of society, along with Fuller's sublimation and repression of it, even while it is the central theme of his book. Making this assertion challenges the view expressed by [End Page 40] Edmund Wilson in his New Yorker article, "The Art of Making It Flat." Wilson disputes the assertion by a contemporary reviewer of Fuller's book that it is about a "sublimated irregular affection," claiming instead that Fuller, "merely in writing of the power exerted by a charismatic personality, extended what was then the conventional range." 1 The "conventional range" to which Wilson refers is the philosophical one, rather than the subject matter or a psychological study of such an "affection." Wilson is right to a certain extent, but he is talking primarily about the theme of the book. It is possible to argue somewhat differently, by claiming that while the theme is overt, the execution of the narrative itself is the act of suppression: it is the novel itself that is the act of sublimation of Fuller and his homosexuality, not the theme and fictional characters engaged in the "irregular affection" within the book. Bertram Cope's Year demonstrates a mid-point, one where the pulling and pushing of ideas about sexuality and the expression of it creates a tension in which we can see Modernist and Freudian ideas playing off each other, so demonstrating the birthing of a modern era.
Fuller's novel was not the first to deal with overt homosexuality in American fiction, but it was the first in the modern, Freudian age. Both James Levin in The Gay Novel in America, and Roger Austen in Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America demonstrate that there were novels written and published before 1900 that can be seen...