Henry Blake Fuller and the Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement

This is part of a series on Chicago writers based on introductions in two of my Chicago books, Smokestacks and Skyscrapers (with David Starkey) and Black Writing from Chicago.  The links here take you to two lists comprising all the writers written about.


Born to a wealthy Chicago family in 1857, Henry Blake Fuller had a knowledge of and access to the world of successful businessmen and gentleman authors which informs much of his work.  Though some considered Fuller a rather polite writer who shied away from the deepest recesses of the human psyche, his work nonetheless brought a measure of renown to Chicago when its literature was at an early stage.  Moreover, his second novel The Cliff-Dwellers (1893) is probably the first novel ever set in a skyscraper, and certainly one of the first focusing on American urban life.  This novel, as well as 1895’s With the Procession, use Chicago’s explosive growth as their setting and are considered by many to be the earliest examples of American realism.  Even during the days of his own prominence, Theodore Dreiser called With the Procession the first piece of American realism he had encountered and considered it the best of the school.

In his literature, Fuller rebelled against the blatant commercialism of post-Chicago Fire Chicago, questioned the wisdom of upward sprawl, and explored themes of homosexuality in a time when to be so was strictly unacceptable. His boldness and commitment to high literature made him one of, if not the, most important first Chicago writers.  In addition to the two novels mentioned above, Fuller’s other notable works include the story collection Under the Skylight (1901), On the Stairs (1918), and Bertram Cope’s Year (1919).  Fuller also provided friendship and encouragement several other Chicago literary figures, including Hamlin Garlan and Harriet Monroe.  Though he travelled much, he died in his hometown in July 1929, just months before the Great Depression forever transformed the city he found so fascinating.

In our book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing, David Starkey and I included a fragment from With the Procession, which concerns merchant David Marshall’s relationship with his three children: Truesdale, the oldest, Jane, the dutiful daughter, and proud, pragmatic Roger.  Though much of the novel is concerned with the nuances of social status, it begins energetically enough with a description of Truesdale’s return to Chicago, a description which reflects the American realism Fuller helped pioneer:  “The grimy lattice-work of the drawbridge swung to slowly,  the steam-tug blackened the dull air and roiled the turbid water as it dragged its schooner on towards the lumber-yard of the South Branch, and a long line of waiting vehicles took up their interrupted course through the smoke and the stench as they filed across the stream into the thick of business beyond….”  Like Truesdale, Fuller came home to Chicago after living abroad with an artistic sensibility and snobbish attitude, and With the Procession seems to gently satirize an earlier, less discerning version of the author himself.

At present I’m on the board of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame (CLHOF).  Its mission is to honor Chicago’s literary past by inducting our literary greats who have passed on into the Hall of Fame, nurture our future by reaching out to youth, and celebrating our greatest living writers with a Lifetime Achievement award named after Henry Blake Fuller.  (You can watch an edit of our most recent Fuller award ceremony celebrating the great novelist and lawyer Scott Turow HERE. I emceed parts of the show.)  The actual award, according to the CLHOF website, is a statuette “based on Hephaestus, the Greek god of the blacksmith’s fire and patron of all craftsmen. According to legend, Hephaestus was the only god who worked, and he was honored for having taught mankind that work is noble and one should excel at their craft.” It’s a fitting symbol for writers working their craft, a craft one of whose earliest practitioners in Chicago was Henry Blake Fuller.

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