- “Adonis all over again”Literary and Botanical Sexuality in Henry Blake Fuller’s Bertram Cope’s Year
In Henry Blake Fuller’s Bertram Cope’s Year (1919)—a campus novel set in the late 1910s about the eponymous character’s one-year stay in Churchton, a college town evocative of Evanston, Illinois—two senior bachelors talk about the twenty-four-year-old main character. When Basil Randolph visits his almost blind friend Joseph Foster the day after Bertram’s unexpected fainting, Joseph feels like reading “about Adonis, or Thammuz, whose mishap ‘in Lebanon’ set all the Syrian females a-going.”1 Alluding to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), Joseph compares Bertram to the Syrian shepherd Thammuz, who—gored to death by a boar in Lebanon—dyes the river Adonis purple with his blood and spawns scarlet anemone flowers. In Milton’s poem, Thammuz’s untimely death gives rise to women’s worship of the boy as a vegetation god. In Fuller’s novel, however, Joseph uses the allusion to criticize his half sister (Medora Townsend Phillips) and her female boarders (Amy Leffingwell, Hortense Dunton, and Carolyn Thorpe) for their lugubrious sympathy for Bertram. Waxing lyrical, Joseph recalls another religious festival he saw twenty years ago near Florence: “There was a kind of grotto in the church, under the high altar; and in the grotto was a full-sized figure of a dead man, carved and painted—and covered with wounds; and round that figure half the women and girls of the town were collected, stroking, kissing . . . Adonis all over again!” (117). Joseph thus sees Adonis as the prototype of the kind of beautiful, passive (dead or fainted) boy that women lament over, and he is disgusted by such female idolatry. For Joseph, Bertram’s swoon is emasculating: “Well, the young fellow began by roaring through the house [End Page 163] like a bull of Bashan, and he ended by toppling over like a little wobbly calf” (117). The forty-seven-year-old bachelor puts the young bachelor in his place.
Of course, Joseph could be jealous of Bertram. A fellow bachelor, he is largely ignored because of his senior age and current disability. By comparing Bertram to Adonis, Joseph means to put down a boy who draws undue attention. But Joseph’s allusion to Paradise Lost, together with many other literary references in Fuller’s novel, also gestures toward what Christopher Looby calls “literary sexuality.”2 By comparing Bertram to Adonis, Joseph renders Bertram’s sexuality literary, typological, and premodern: Bertram is likened to a mythological character and represented as a type of boy from a much earlier historical period. Here, the modern discourse of sexuality—that is, the sexological classification of homosexuality and heterosexuality invented at the turn of the twentieth century—cannot aptly capture Bertram, because he does not sexually pursue women or other men. Although Bertram treasures his friendship with Arthur Lemoyne, it is unknown whether the two boys see their same-sex intimacy as implicitly homosexual. At the same time, it is Joseph—not Bertram himself—that alludes to Adonis. If Bertram compared himself to Adonis, a few questions would ensue. Does he see himself as a premodern being in modern times? What is it about Adonis that leads him to make such a comparison? And does he deliberately distance himself from the modern discourse of sexuality? But since Joseph makes the comparison, he might or might not be right about Bertram. Although it is important to parse the implications of Joseph’s comparison, the premodern allusion does not inevitably bespeak Bertram’s sexual being.
Before I further explore the implications of Joseph’s allusion, it is crucial to distinguish Looby’s ideas of literary sexuality from my ideas of literary sexuality in Fuller’s novel. In “The Literariness of Sexuality: Or, How to Do the (Literary) History of (American) Sexuality,” Looby coins the phrase “literary sexuality” to delineate particular characters’ presexological expressions of desire or intimacy in American literature of the long nineteenth century. For Looby, characters might declare that reading a certain book fashions their erotic choices (Stephen Calvert in Charles Brockden Brown’s unfinished novel Memoirs of...