Henry Blake Fuller’s landmark urban novel, The Cliffdwellers, was published just as the 1893 Columbian Exposition was coming to a close. Native-born Chicagoan Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929) was riding a wave of literary success from the publication of two European historical romances based on his travels in France and Italy: The Chevallier of Pensieri-Vani, in 1890 and the subsequent, but less popular, The Chatelaine of La Trinite in 1892. In 1893, however, Fuller’s writing took a new course and the first of his Chicago novels was published.
Chicago Literary Renaissance
Chicago at the turn of the century was a tough city of urban squalor; stink from the stockyards, exploited workers, unchecked poverty, amorality and massive government corruption. It was unchecked urbanization with its most disastrous results and making money had become an art form. Fuller observed it all.
People flocked to Chicago from the farmlands seeking a new life and writers also cast their critical, non-picturesque eye on the rural areas from which they came. But, it was the “tales of the city” that truly defined the first phase of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. Frank Norris unmasked the Chicago Board of Trade and the economic forces behind worldwide grain distribution in The Pit in 1903. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 gritty and disturbing expose on the exploitive meatpacking industry and the Chicago Stockyards, The Jungle, was shocking.
The Cliffdwellers: An Attack on Chicago
But, the first urban novel reflecting the social and economic trends of Chicago was Fuller’s The Cliff-dwellers published, to the chagrin of the city, in the year the Columbian Exposition, or the Chicago World’s Fair as it is sometimes called. This book introduced Chicago to the world in a negative light when it wanted to put its best foot forward. That wasn’t exactly what Fuller had in mind. Fuller’s book was an attack on the city. He had little to say in its favor, and it fully illustrated his disgust of the commercialism that he felt had eroded the progressive and romantic ideals of the Exposition.
Fuller applied the term “cliffdwellers” to the people who lived and worked in the new skyscrapers that had begun being built after the Great Fire of 1871. Fuller hated the buildings, to put it mildly. Focusing on the residents of the fictitious Clifton Building (based on the Monadnock Building built in 1891), Fuller describes the businessmen and their families as they grasp for wealth, power and status all within the confines of the building. For Fuller, the skyscraper was a symbol of the ruthlessness that often characterized business and modern life in the city. This was not the image that the Chicago Columbian Fair Committee wanted projected to the visiting world.
But, Fuller also had a strong belief in the artistic community that was an off-shoot of the Fair.
Fuller chronicled the cities positive accomplishments in “The Upward Movement in Chicago” published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1897. Fuller characterized the fair as “a kind of post-graduate course for the men at the head of Chicago’s commercial and mercantile interest; it was the city’s intellectual and social annexation to the world at large.” Fuller carefully listed and acknowledged the city’s cultural progress.
But, in the fall of 1893 when Fuller’s critical eye focused on the affect that urbanization had on the residents of Chicago, his novel The Cliffdwellers crowned him father of urban literature.