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Bertram Cope's Year

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Henry B. Fuller, Bertram Cope’s Year [Chicago; 1919]

Although the selling-point for all post-1960s revaluations of Bertram Cope's Year is "the first American gay novel" (which isn't necessarily the case: Joseph and His Friend and Imre both antedate it, the former by a generation), I was delighted to find that on a purely surface level it's a superb comedy of manners, a genre not notably excelled in by US writers of the period (H. L. Mencken's review expressed not entirely sarcastic astonishment at the revelation of an American writer who is also "a gentleman"). It was Fuller's last novel: his early books, late in the nineteenth century, were divided between flowery Italianate romance (shades of Baron Corvo) and closely-observed Chicago realism (after the model of Henry James), and although it was printed by a private press, there's precious little for a censor to cavil at, even in the Comstock era of U.S. publishing. 

There's certainly a sublimated camp sensibility which anyone raised on the rapacious widows and fussy bachelors of classic Hollywood (or of British fiction) can spot a mile away: but half the humor is that Fuller sets it all in a prosaic, self-satisfied suburban university town, so that the small-town inarticulacy about emotional intimacy which a writer like Sherwood Anderson was so brutally diagnosing at the same time flares up in the middle of a glittering intricate social dance. Cope, the socially inexpert but intensely good-looking scholar from downstate, is in over his head from practically the first page, and although he does eventually appear to escape the clutches of compulsory heterosexuality (as well as a more wistful May-December gay romance), it is not due to any emotional adroitness on his part.

The decoding of Cope's sexuality (or, perhaps, romantic affinity; it seems practically impossible that any of these people have ever had sex) seems to have defeated many readers at the time, although of course Carl Van Vechten blabbed about it; it seems screamingly obvious today, but you have to know what you're looking for: gaydar is mostly just remembering that gay people exist.

The suburban university town, by the way, is a few blocks north of where I live. Being set in the north Chicagoland area, with a couple of trips down to the Indiana dunes, made the book even more charming to me: at last, the geography of a place I know firsthand, instead of the exhaustingly omnipresent pseudo-universalities of New York or London, turns up in a century-old book.

November 5, 2017