Making Modernism

Letter from P.J. McFadden to Henry Blake Fuller

This letter from Parmalee J. McFadden, the secretary at New York publishing syndicate McClure, Phillips & Co., to Chicago novelist Henry Blake Fuller sheds light on the literary networks of turn-of-the-century Chicago and underscores the boosterism among the city’s publishers and literati.

Fuller first achieved success with the publication of his romances, The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani (1890) and The Châtelaine of La Trinité (1892). Reacting to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, he turned to realism with The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), a satire of modern Chicago commercialism whose characters’ lives intersect in a downtown skyscraper. The Cliff-Dwellers is regarded as the first American city novel; it paved the way for texts such as Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) and Frank Norris’s The Pit (1903).

Fuller was an active member of the Chicago arts scene. With Hamlin Garland—also mentioned in this letter—he organized the social club The Little Room, which included sculptor Lorado Taft, Poetry editor Harriet Monroe, and many other writers, architects, and artists. Later, Fuller worked as the proofreader for Poetry.

In this 1901 letter, McFadden responds to Fuller’s essay, “Chicago’s Book of Days,” recently published in The Outlook, a weekly magazine from New York that focused on social issues and, notably, serialized Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. The essay—like The Cliff-Dwellers—offers a critique of Chicago’s commercial ambitions. Fuller addresses the destruction of the natural world through industrialization and urban growth. “Nowhere, after all, do mere land and water present themselves in a more negative, more featureless aspect,” Fuller writes, “and nowhere, on the other hand, are man’s activities more exclusively regnant.” For Fuller, the city’s pollution and crowds, the coexistence of “the arc lamps of the avenues and the myriad incandescent lights of the retail shop fronts,” which outshine the moon, define Chicago’s “aggressively, vociferously, repellently picturesque” modernity.

McFadden admires the essay primarily “as a New Yorker” but also “as a Chicago has been,” for he worked in Chicago as the Western manager in General Electric’s meter department before embarking on a career in publishing. As Fuller’s friend, he also recognizes “the delicious Fulleresqueness” of the satire.

A certain McCormick who is clearly a mutual acquaintance, however, has claimed not to appreciate the piece. Given McFadden’s sarcastic comment about the “Record Herald Building” being an “attractive feature” of the city, he is likely referring to Alexander Agnew (A. A.) McCormick Sr., who at the time was general manager and secretary of the Chicago Record Herald. A. A. was a member of Chicago’s elite McCormick family, who were important to the city’s philanthropic, industrial, and publishing worlds for generations. A. A. McCormick himself was a prominent donor to Jane Addams’s Hull-House Settlement, the secretary of the Chicago Merchants’ Club, and a director and later vice president of the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association.

If McCormick postured dissatisfaction with Fuller “for hitting only the sore spots,” then perhaps entrenched Chicago boosterism is partly to blame. New York’s “Chicago has beens,” McFadden implies, have enough distance to criticize their former city. McFadden notes that he showed the essay to another “has-been”: W. W. Denslow, the cartoonist best known for illustrating The Wizard of Oz. He likely “happened to drop in at [McFadden’s] desk” because McClure’s was publishing his illustrated edition of Mother Goose in 1901.

But unlike McFadden and Denslow, who were coincidentally both born in Philadelphia, Fuller was descended from early Chicago pioneers. Despite offering biting critiques of his native city, Fuller remained a Chicago resident his entire life.

-Sophia Bamert, University of California-Davis

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