“Dynamite Scrupulously Packed”: A Revaluation of Henry Blake Fuller’s Bertram Cope’s Year
University of Regina
The essay proposes a reinterpretation and revaluation of Henry Blake Fuller’s 1919 novel Bertram Cope’s Year and argues that it deserves permanent currency within the canon of gay fiction. My reinterpretation and revaluation of it is based on the premise that readings of it over the past 50 years (since Edmund Wilson’s 1970 essay on Henry Blake Fuller’s fiction in the New Yorker) have failed to understand its representation of homosexuality. Criticism of the novel has been based on post-Stonewall assumptions of what a ‘gay novel’ should be and what cultural work is should perform. The post-Stonewall paradigm of the gay novel is that it is a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman, focused on a protagonist who, through a process of self-discovery, arrives at an acceptance and affirmation of his sexual identity. The prototype is Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, with E. M. Forster’s Maurice a precursor. To appreciate Bertram Cope’s Year, we must, I argue, abandon post-Stonewall presuppositions of what we should expect from a gay novel. Bertram Cope’s Year is not a coming-of-age novel. Rather it is a comic novel formed from Fuller’s successful fusion and subversion of the romantic comedy, the comedy of manners, and the campus novel. Bertram Cope is a comic hero who ultimately triumphs over the efforts of a college town, presided over the matchmaking socialite Medora Phillips, to marry him to one of the three young ladies in her circle. He is rescued from this unwanted marriage by his boyfriend, who arrives to save him from the unwanted marriage. Fuller successfully exploits the conventions of the comic novel to tell a story that anticipates one of the aspirations of the gay liberation movement half a century later. As such, it deserves permanent currency.
Keywords: Henry Blake Fuller, Bertram Cope’s Year, gay canon, comedy of manners