Source File: cat.cs009.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 9

Chicago's Cliff Dwellers and The Song of the Lark

Cather throws Thea, the heroine of The Song of the Lark, into the cauldron of social, economic, cultural, and artistic forces bubbling in 1890s Chicago. When Thea needs to recuperate from the exhaustion and illness caused by working in Chicago, she spends time at the Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings in Arizona. Her physical movement from Chicago to the cliff dwellings connects the novel’s Chicago chapters and the Panther Canyon chapters and suggests that the two sections inform each other historically and metaphorically.

This essay will show how Chicago embraced the Anasazi Indian cliff dwellers in the years immediately following Richard Wetherill’s discovery of the Cliff Palace of Mesa Verde in 1888. By 1893 the phrase “cliff dwellers” had multiple meanings in Chicago: the culturally advanced Anasazi, or “Ancient Ones” of Mesa Verde; Henry Blake Fuller’s cliff dwellers, who in his novel of the same name are those members of Chicago society who perch at the tops of the city’s skyscrapers; and ideally, the provincial immigrant who has been lifted to a more lofty perch through education, which in turn lifts the higher life of the entire city. The idea of the cliff dwellers also expresses the 1890s concern that the lifted immigrant might knock the cliff-dwelling old European off his perch, and that the entire process of uplift might cause the opposite effect of its stated intents: cultural extinction. I will then examine how reading The Song of the Lark through the metaphor of cliff dwelling reveals Thea to be an unknowing participant in Chicago’s larger civic project of the “higher life.” I will trace her upward trajectory through the novel and then demonstrate how the novel relies on an understanding of Chicago club history to show how fully enmeshed Thea’s awakening is with her participation in the business of constructing a higher life for Chicago. This essay argues that the novel develops the Chicago meanings and associations of the cliff dwellers in order to critique the Chicago scene that expects art to be useful (whether as social realism or to raise the city’s higher life), treats art as business, and destroys artists by using them up. Cather uses the metaphor of cliff dwelling in the post-fair Chicago sense in order to examine the threat of extinction for the artist contained in the notion of cultural uplift.

In the 1890s, in large cities across America, spiritual, political, and civic leaders began voicing concerns about the “higher life.” What they meant was the need to raise the quality of a city through the presence of social projects, social and art clubs, education and intellectual institutions, and moral clubs, institutions, and instruction. Jane Allen Shikoh explains how the idea of the higher life emerged from the fusion of Evangelical Christianity’s spiritual project of raising all souls to a higher plane with Darwinian-based ideas about social evolution (3–11). Concern for the “higher life” of the cities was a concern for the spiritual, physical, intellectual, cultural, and artistic evolution of America’s cities as almost sentient beings.[1]

Shikoh sets Chicago apart from the other large cities in the United States, writing that “during the 1890s, Chicago was more self-conscious about its ‘higher life’” (81). She notes: “Journalists, ministers and others in speaking of Chicago, often mentioned that although in the past the city had been preoccupied with its material growth, it was finally arriving at a ‘higher and maturer stage of civic existence’” (81). The Great Fire of 1871 had only recently destroyed Chicago. By the early 1890s, Chicago’s boosters announced that the city had successfully rebuilt itself from the ashes with the newest technology available. Before a great deal of the reconstruction had been completed, civic engagement meant bringing wealth to the city, through building and promoting the city as the site for the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893. Now that the boosters had rebuilt the city, at least according to the promotional rhetoric, Chicagoans could shift their sights from physical construction to promoting and raising the cultural wealth of the city. Chicago’s elite, who provided the economic wealth of the city, were most interested in promoting the kind of art that would raise Chicago’s higher life.

Henry Blake Fuller was fascinated by Chicago’s focus on the higher life and its treatment of artists and art. In “The Upward Movement in Chicago,” published in the October 1897 Atlantic Monthly, he critiqued the optimism of Chicago politicians and boosters: “The civic shortcomings of Chicago are so widely notorious abroad and so deeply deplored at home that there is little need to linger upon them, even for the purpose of throwing into relief the worthier and more attractive features of the local life” (534). He then clarifies the plight of the Chicagoan who cares about art: “We are obliged to fight—determinedly, unremittingly—for those desirable, those indispensible things that older, more fortunate, more practiced communities possess and enjoy as a matter of course” (534). For Fuller, Chicago does not know how to create this higher life that seems to come so easily to older, more established cities. The city’s artists must fight for recognition against the naive and unsophisticated sentiments of the Chicago patrons of the arts, whose conception of culture was overwhelmingly utilitarian.

Fuller’s ideas about the negative aspects of Chicago’s push for the higher life play out in his earlier novel The Cliff-Dwellers (1893). The novel describes the inhabitants of the fictitious Clifton Building, who struggle with business and domestic failures as they attempt to raise themselves up against Chicago’s oppressive and hostile atmosphere. Ann Massa has shown that “the presence at the Fair of a Cliff Dweller exhibit, and the exposure it gave to that culture’s problematisation of issues of evolution and progress, convinced Fuller of the aptness of the Cliff Dweller analogy to express his reservations about the modern cliff dwellers” (80). She concludes that “Fuller was less interested in the Cliff Dwellers per se than in the critical light they allowed him to shed on what Chicago and America had achieved by 1893” (84).

Fuller’s novel used the cliff dwellers as a metaphor for the elite Chicagoans who occupied skyscrapers and worked high above the city’s immigrant hordes. He may have derived the metaphor from earlier versions of the ideas about the Anasazi Indians contained in the catalog put out by the H. J. Smith Exploring Company to accompany the cliff-dweller exhibits at the World’s Fair of 1893. The catalog describes the cliff dwellers as “by far the most highly civilized representatives of the ‘stone age,’ antedating the Aztecs and the Toltecs, and exhibiting almost as high a degree of civilization. . . . They are a mythical race, exhibiting in the relics found, rare powers and refined tastes at variance with the common idea of aborigines” (1). The legend continues, “They were not a warlike people—their fighting was simply done in defense. Arrows of reed . . . were their chief implements of war, and the small number of these found is indicative of their naturally quiet and peaceable natures, which only rose up to defend themselves against the attacks of their foes” (7–9). The catalog concludes with an interpretation of part of the exhibit that repeats the ideas of its first pages: “Several fine specimens of feather-cloth and buckskin garments denote their fondness for ease and comfort, and the rare stone axes, bows, arrows, and slingshots found give additional proof to their peaceful pursuits and may also give a cue to the mysterious disappearance of this once great nation, which was possibly annihilated by more warlike tribes surrounding it” (19).[2]

The catalog draws the Anasazi Indians’ position on the high cliff as a reminder of the cliff dwellers’ cultural superiority to the surrounding, newer tribes bent on attacking the more peaceful, artistic civilization. The catalog transcribes the cliff dwellers’ physical location into a cultural position: they took up a defensive position to protect their culture not just physically, but culturally. The legend of the cliff dwellers, then, demonstrated to Chicagoans that climbing upward serves as a form of cultural self-protection.

Guy Szuberia observes that, “Like many ofw his contemporaries, Henry Blake Fuller frequently paired his ideas and fears of the ‘new immigrant’ with the spectre of a declining or dispossessed ‘native American stock’” (246). He argues that Fuller’s novel expresses his grave concerns that if the cliff dwellers uplifted too many immigrants to join the ranks of the elite members of cultural circles, their numbers would overwhelm and eventually deplete those who raised them in the first place (250–52). The cliff-dwelling conceit in the novel also serves as a warning to the elite citizens of Chicago, who, like the Anasazi, may become extinct if they continue to participate in the futile project of using art to uplift others to their position.

Chicago’s struggle with and self-conscious examination of the “higher life” explains why Chicago patrons, artists, and the artgoing public embraced The Eight, a group of New York urban realists known derisively in the New York art scene as the Ashcan painters. First shown at the Macbeth Gallery in New York in 1908, their paintings portray immigrant city street life, rendered in broad, spontaneous brushstrokes and vivid colors intended to give a vivacious and celebratory cast to the gritty scene. Patrons of the New York art scene considered the paintings’ subject and presentation too crude and inappropriate, but in Chicago, the Art Institute, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, and the Arts Club of Chicago all held regular exhibits of the group (Weininger 54). George Bellows, a student of the original Eight, painted The Cliff Dwellers (1913) using bright colors to illuminate immigrant tenements and life on New York’s Lower East Side. The painting succeeds in transforming the cliff dwellers from Fuller’s Europeans perched at the top of Chicago’s downtown buildings into immigrants hanging out of windows in the Bowery. Susan S. Weininger asserts: “After 1910 George Bellows exerted the strongest direct influence of any contemporary American artist on Chicago’s progressive painters” (54). By 1919 he was made a temporary professor at the Art Institute, and in 1922 he was offered a permanent position, which he kept until his death in 1925 (Moser 202). The Cliff Dwellers, as a statement about immigrants in urban populations, spoke directly to a Chicago, rather than a New York, sensibility, because it employed the metaphor of cliff dwelling in a way already legible to Chicagoans.

Cather, too, uses the metaphor of cliff dwelling in a way that would have been legible to turn-of-the-century Chicagoans, as a way of informing Thea’s upward trajectory in The Song of the Lark. Initially, Cather uses the idea of uplift to demonstrate how exposure to art will better Thea and ultimately allow her to escape the provincial world of Moonstone. Before giving a piano lesson, Wunsch “conducted her at once to the piano in Mrs. Kohler’s sitting-room. He twirled the stool to the proper height, pointed to it, and sat down in a wooden chair beside Thea” (26). He elevates her seat so that she will sit at the proper height during her exposure to European classical music, in turn suggesting the heightening effect of the music on this little girl. His conducting connects him to two other important conductors in her life: Ray Kennedy and Theodore Thomas. Ray’s money allows her to travel to Chicago, and she sees Thomas conduct at a crucial moment in her artistic development in Chicago. Both men will help raise her to greater heights as well by allowing invisible currents to conduct through them. However, Wunsch and Ray do not want anything from Thea in return and do not believe her singing talents will raise the profile of Moonstone, separating Moonstone’s ideas about raising artists from Chicago’s idea about using them to achieve the higher life.

When Thea moves to Chicago, Mr. Harsanyi makes an important discovery: Thea should train to be an opera singer. The discovery changes Thea’s relationship to Chicago’s creation of its higher life and allows the novel’s critique of the Chicago art world to begin. Loretta Wasserman notes: “After finishing The Song of the Lark, Cather had more to say about opera singers. What fascinated her was the difference between performing artists, who must please and charm the public, and artists such as herself—writers or painters—who work in private or even anonymously” (9). Uplift does not apply to solitary pursuits such as writing or painting, but only to those activities that may elevate a considerable portion of the population. Thea thinks her fate is hers alone, but when she becomes a performer, an opera singer, she has the potential to lift up large audiences who hear her, in turn, raising others around her to a higher plane.

The Song of the Lark does not echo the anxiety expressed by Fuller, who is unable to assess whether the immigrants who are lifted up through introduction to European culture are a good thing for Chicago’s art and culture or if their uplift will destroy the very culture that did the heavy lifting. The novel addresses Fuller’s issue with one line: “She had often heard Mrs. Kronborg say that she ‘believed in immigration,’ and so did Thea believe in it” (186). Instead, the novel turns the concern inward onto its artist and asks whether the particularly Chicagoan model of uplift is good for its artists, a question that also troubled Fuller. Cather uses the metaphor of cliff dwelling, in the post-fair Chicagoan’s sense, to examine the ways in which cultural uplift threatened an artist’s spirit and in turn predicted extinction for the artist.

The cliff dwellers make their first appearance in the novel imagistically. Ray, who will be the first to tell Thea about the Anasazi Indian cities, takes her family out to the desert where she sees heifers. The young cows “were magnified to a preposterous height and looked like mammoths, prehistoric beasts standing solitary in the waters that for many thousands of years actually washed over that desert;—the mirage itself may be the ghost of that long-vanished sea” (44). Thea sees for the first time how the females of a species can be raised up to heights larger than the role into which they are cast because of their gender. The passage invokes the “prehistoric” Anasazi Indians, who “vanished” because of their upward movement according to Chicago lore. Thea’s observation casts an ominous gloom over the novel’s discussion of her upward trajectory and artistic growth. The passage warns against reaching “preposterous heights” that will result in extinction for those who reach them. Thea later declares she only wants “impossible things” (205), a signal that the heights to which she will be lifted will guarantee her destruction.

When Thea moves to Chicago, her metamorphosis into an uplifted Chicago artist begins and the novel continues to employ and expand the metaphor of cliff dwelling to indicate the complexity of her transformation. One night, she leaves Orchestra Hall and a man accosts her. The Chicago wind racing off of Lake Michigan balloons up her cape and almost lifts her into the sky (171). The strong wind, a uniquely Chicago phenomenon, forces Thea upward violently and against her will, as if she is meant to glide upward onto the tops of the skyscrapers that surround her as she stands on lower Michigan Avenue. If she ascends, she may develop into, in one sense, one of Fuller’s cliff dwellers, the uplifted immigrant who has become a resident of Chicago’s skyscrapers.

At the same time, she wants to hold on to what she has learned and gained from hearing the symphony, and directs her anger at those who want to steal the new knowledge from her. She “glared round her at the crowds” (171) and thinks: “All these things and people were no longer remote and negligible; they had to be met, they were lined up against her, they were there to take something from her. Very well; they should never have it. . . . As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height” (171– 72). In her anger, Thea employs the same metaphors used by the H. J. Smith Exploring Company catalog produced for the Columbian Exhibition to describe the Anasazis’ defensive position. She has learned that she must ascend the heights in order to defensively guard against those other, less civilized people who want to destroy what she has now found: the higher culture she obtained at the symphony. Thea seems to embrace the idea of the higher life that Chicago art patrons believe will elevate its immigrants.

Thea’s metaphorical uplift transpires because she just heard one of Theodore Thomas’s “heavily symphonic programs” (Miller 409). The conductor of the Chicago Symphony believed fervently in the project of uplift and participated by bringing classical European music to Chicago. Donald L. Miller writes: “As Rose Fay wrote to him on the occasion of his death in 1905: ‘He not only disciplined his musicians, but he disciplined the public, educating it sometimes perhaps against its will’” (409). Thea’s uplift also takes place because on the next page, Harsanyi asks Thomas who Thea’s next teacher should be for voice training (173). By juxtaposing Thea’s experience outside the Auditorium Theater with Harsanyi’s request to Thomas inside the same building, the novel skillfully ties together the idea of Thea’s cultural uplift with the Chicago businessmen’s manipulation of the art world through contacts and money.

Thea’s angry reaction to being accosted by the man and the upward thrust of wind can be read as her reaction to being uplifted by Theodore Thomas’s baton against her will. It is at this point that the novel begins to articulate the damage done to an artist when she must defend herself against those who want to use her, including Chicago’s art patrons who will mold her for the purpose of uplifting others. The novel’s paradox emerges here. Thea has benefited from being exposed to Western art and to those engaged in the project of uplifting her, but she suffers from those same contacts that construct her talents as useful, and her art as engaging in public service.

When Thea meets Fred Ottenburg, he continues to manipulate the Chicago business scene for her artistic career. Through her involvement with Fred, Thea becomes introduced to the cliff dwellers and their dwellings: the Anasazi Indians and Fuller’s cultural elite of Chicago. While Fred and Thea are “waiting for their tea at a restaurant in the Pullman Building, overlooking the lake” (241), he tells her that his family owns “a whole canyon of cliff dweller ruins” (242). The conversation draws attention to their perch at the top of the Pullman Building, one of the earliest steel-framed skyscrapers in what was called the business canyon of Chicago. Thea and Fred are now Chicago cliff dwellers, in the sense used in Fuller’s novel.

Mark A. Robison observes that from the high altitude, Thea gazes at the Art Institute and at “a lumber boat, with two very tall masts . . . emerging black and gaunt out of the fog” (241). Her gaze links the Art Institute with a symbol of Chicago commerce, the lumber boat, and Robison declares that “in one perceptive moment, Thea’s urban present and rural past merge with her artistic future” (207). The trajectory promised by her gaze from the heights contains the seed of her own downfall, the merging of art and commerce. The appearance of the boat foreshadows Thea’s dreadful appearance to Dr. Archie at the end of the novel, dressed in black, “deeply lined,” and looking “forty years old” (344–45).

The novel suggests that Thea’s angry, defensive posture against the attacking hordes will crumble as it does for forty-year-old Madame Necker, whom Thea replaces on the stage: “Her voice was failing just when her powers were at their height. Every fresh young voice was an enemy, and this one was accompanied by gifts which she could not fail to recognize” (389). The future threatens extinction for the artists who reach the top, just as it did for the Anasazi cliff dwellers and Fuller’s skyscraper inhabitants who climbed up the high cliffs to ward off their enemies. Ann W. Fisher-Wirth notes that “Cather’s writing has always betrayed a keen sense of loss. At the center of her fiction . . . is the story of the Garden and the Fall. The lives of most of the major characters enact a recurrent tragic pattern, a sense of dispossession, exile and longing” (37). In The Song of the Lark, the cliff-dweller metaphor deepens the sense of loss by showing how the artist gains and loses simultaneously, which causes the tragic pattern Fisher-Wirth identifies playing out in Cather’s later novels.

In The Song of the Lark, Thea will lose because she learns how to be an artist and receives her fundamental training in Chicago. The novel suggests that those who stand at the highest levels in the Chicago art and business scene cannot raise themselves to a higher cultural level because they expect their art to be useful in some way, whether as social realism or to raise the city’s higher life. The novel draws this ambivalence about Chicago from Fuller’s novel and replicates his doubts about whether Chicagoans can achieve the higher life. The cliff-dweller conceit operates as a double-sided metaphor that at once allows the wealthy and cultured citizens of Chicago to stand above the masses, as Thea does at the top of the Pullman building, and simultaneously allows for the wrongheadedness of their ideals to use art to accomplish the business of raising Chicago.

In order to accomplish its critique of the Chicago art scene, The Song of the Lark relied on an intrinsic understanding of the 1890s Chicago club scene and the knowledge that the Cliff Dwellers was also a men’s club, started in 1907 by Hamlin Garland. In 1890s Chicago, two kinds of clubs existed: the men’s clubs, at which businesses were built, bought, and sold, and the women’s clubs, which were interested in the project of social uplift. The contacts and power provided by the men’s clubs allow Thea to continue her work and her ascent. The novel shows her commodification beginning in earnest at the Chicago Club, the most prominent of all the Chicago men’s clubs. Fred reveals that he belongs to the club, as befits his status and wealth, when he takes Bowers there to discuss Thea. She overhears “the young brewer ask Bowers to dine with him at his club that evening, and she saw that he looked forward to the dinner with pleasure” (228). Thea, oblivious to the machinations of the Chicago art scene, wonders: “If he’s such a grand business man, how does he have time to run around listening to singing-lessons?” (228). For her, art stands apart from business, so her question highlights her ignorance as to the relationship between art and business in Chicago. Bower’s boasting and excitement over Fred’s invitation makes it evident that the invitation is to the Chicago Club and that Thea is a worthy topic of business. The invitation also underscores that Bowers does not have his own membership to the club, further illustrating his place in Chicago’s business world. Fred’s place is indicated by the fact he does not sit at the millionaire’s table with Potter Palmer, George Pullman, and Marshall Fields, but does belong to the same club. It was said that all business done in Chicago happened at this table, and perhaps Fred’s friendship with the extraordinary Nathanmeyers has allowed Thea to be brought to this table.

The millionaire’s table had an established interest in the business of art. The club first housed the Art Institute, before it moved across the street into the building designed after the Columbian Exhibition. They brought Theodore Thomas to Chicago to conduct the music program at the fair, and then brought him permanently to Chicago with the prospect of his own symphony and the construction of Orchestra Hall. Business discussion at the club traditionally happens in the dining room, over a meal, just as Fred invites Bowers to discuss Thea. When Thea thinks about the men later that night, “she looked up from her grammar to wonder what Bowers and Ottenburg were having to eat. At that moment they were talking of her” (228). Melissa Homestead has demonstrated that “The language of finance and investment permeates the thoughts and speech of both Dr. Archie and Fred Ottenburg” (xi), and the passage implies that their topic, Thea, will be consumed right along with their food. The novel condemns the way Chicago’s men’s clubs treat art as business and artists as a commodity to be chewed up and swallowed.

Fuller’s cliff-dweller conceit warns that Chicago’s temperament and attitudes toward art would result in the cultural destruction of the city. He wrote The Cliff-Dwellers while a member of the loose group of artists who first met in Bessie Potter’s top-floor studios in the Fine Arts Building, next to the Chicago Club, the Auditorium Building, and across from where the Art Institute would be when it moved out of the Chicago Club. He designed his club to be like a salon, a place that sheltered artists against the harshness of the Chicago business world. The club formalized around the name “The Little Room” and derived their name from a short story by Madeline Wynne that appeared in Harper’s Monthly in 1895. Membership included Jane Addams, Lorado Taft, Allen B. and Irving K. Pond, Anna Morgan, Ralph Clarkson, Hamlin Garland, and others interested in creating a literary and artistic club in Chicago.

When Thea tells her teacher, Bowers, “I have to hunt a new boarding place,” and Bowers asks, “What’s the matter with the Studio Club? Been fighting with them again?” (213), she reveals her temporary stay in the Fine Arts Building. Even Fuller’s club causes Thea to become angry and demoralized as she fights with the other members of the club, who, it turns out, buy into the Chicago belief that art has a use-value to raise the artistic standards of Chicago. She answers, “The Club’s all right for people who like to live that way. I don’t.” When Bowers asks, “Why so tempery?” (213), her reply provides further evidence that she may be staying with members of this uniquely mixed gendered club: “I can’t work with a lot of girls around. They’re too familiar” (213).

In 1907, Garland started a formal men-only club that would deliberately drain away the male members of the Little Room.[3] He made it new club business to “tender an invitation to join the new club” to all Little Room male members.[4] According to Henry Regnery, a Cliff Dweller Club member who published the club’s history in 1990, at the first gathering of interested and like-minded men, including most of the male members of the Little Room, Garland laid out the plan: “This club will bring together men of artistic and literary tastes who are now widely scattered among the various social and business organizations of Chicago and unite them with artists, writers, architects, and musicians of the city in a club whose purposes are distinctly and primarily aesthetic” (9). Garland’s club would bring together artists and businessmen with artistic tastes in a union that made formal the alliance that characterized Chicago’s art scene to Fuller’s and Cather’s displeasure. Because it was perched at the top floors of the newly constructed Orchestra Hall, the members called the new club the Attic Club. The group would decide on the name the Cliff Dwellers Club two years later.

As the members of the Attic Club anticipated, Fuller declined to join the Cliff Dwellers Club. The minutes of the 27 June 1907 meeting reveal: “Henry B. Fuller asked to serve as temporary secretary. Mr. A. B. Pond to act in case of the refusal of Mr. Fuller to serve.” Fuller scholarship has made much of Fuller’s refusal to join the club that bore the name of his most popular novel. Most recently, Massa argues that Garland’s arrogance and insensitivity caused Fuller to “boycott” the club (73–74). Her interpretation is highly plausible, given Garland’s deliberate destruction of Fuller’s club and his later boasting that he, not Fuller, was a founding member. The Attic Club minutes also show that Fuller’s attitude toward the club and presumably its founder was well known even before the Attic Club changed its name to the Cliff Dwellers Club.

Cather, who disliked Garland and was “irritated” by is work, was probably not surprised by his utter disregard for Fuller. In the 26 January 1896 Nebraska State Journal she wrote a review of James Lane Allen’s “The Butterflies” that turns into one of many attacks she made on Garland: “It is just the sort of thing that poor Hamlin Garland is always trying and failing to do. And the reason thereof is that Mr. Allen has just two things that Mr. Garland has not, imagination and style. . . . Art is temperament and Hamlin Garland has no more temperament than a prairie dog” (“Passing Show” 331). When Cather wrote The Song of the Lark, Garland’s Cliff Dwellers Club was well established, and Chicago readers, hearing that the novel made use of the cliff-dweller conceit, would think immediately of Garland’s club. Because Garland was the president of the Cliff Dwellers Club, he would have represented Chicago’s worst sins regarding art for Cather: social realism, the blending of art and business, the commodification of the artist. Cather seems to be writing specifically against Garland each time the novel suggests that the Chicago cliff dwellers have worn Thea out with their consumption of her art.

The names of the clubs—Little Room, Attic Club, and Cliff Dwellers Club—correlate with the significant rooms that Thea moves through in the novel. She “was allowed to use the money—her pupils paid her twenty-five cents a lesson—to fit up a little room for herself upstairs in the half-story” (51). She moves from her little room or attic room through a series of very unsatisfactory rooms, until she has the opportunity to also fit up the Cliff Dwellers room. Sharon O’Brien notes, “In her attic retreat Thea begins to discover the voice or self that is her own” (85), and she traces the discovery in a line that culminates in Thea’s epiphany in Panther Canyon. But Homestead points out: “Even Thea’s nonproductive months alone in Panther Canyon are entangled in Fred’s finances. The canyon is part of a ranch owned by his father, so proceeds from the family beer empire underwrite her artistic awakening” (xii). If the rooms Thea moves through as she discovers her own voice are metaphorically Chicago businessmen’s clubrooms, then the novel shows the art and business worlds woven together so tightly that the entire trajectory of her spiritual awakening has also been underwritten by the Chicago business world.

In Chicago, Fred manages to introduce Thea to the one character who wishes Thea to hone her own voice: Mrs. Nathanmeyer. He tells Thea, “You’ll be all right with her so long as you do not try to be anything that you are not” (231). Cather based Mrs. Nathanmeyer on Bertha Palmer, who, with her husband, Potter Palmer, was “so rich and great that even” someone like Thea would have “heard of them” (230). The Palmers built a road to the northern section of Chicago, which would become Lake Shore Drive, and built “The Castle” at its end. The Palmer House, the largest and most modern hotel in Chicago, was her husband’s wedding present to her. She was the only Lady Manager at the World’s Fair, was known for her Parisian tastes in art and clothing, and with her husband she acquired a magnificent art collection through annual trips abroad. In Paris she met Mary Cassatt, who introduced her to Manet and the other impressionist painters in his group (Miller 414–15).

Fred stops Thea to admire the “Rousseaus and Corots” hanging on the Nathanmeyers’ walls, and in the hall he stops her “before a painting of a woman eating grapes out of a paper bag, and had told her gravely that there was the most beautiful Manet in the world” (232). Though Polly P. Duryea has identified the painting Fred points out as Manet’s Street Singer (1862), which Bertha Palmer never owned, Palmer was a friend of Manet’s and was known for her large collection of his work (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). A reading public that knows 1890s Chicago society would easily recognize Mrs. Nathanmeyer as a version of Mrs. Palmer, the only woman in Chicago who owned Corots, and who could own Manets too, if she chose.

Mrs. Nathanmeyer’s “standards . . . that have nothing to do with Chicago” are also those of Bertha Palmer, whom Fred seems to be describing (231). She “would not confine herself to established standards, but rather visited artists’ studios and current exhibitions, consulted with experts and subscribed to the major magazines in order to explores recent developments” (Germer 177). Her standards, as well as her strong feminist ideas, led Palmer to create salons for young artists, particularly female artists who did not fit into the more realistic and gritty Chicago art scene. It is at one of these salons that Thea first meets her, “and this seemed a remarkable opportunity” (230). It certainly is, because Mrs. Nathanmeyer/Palmer has the status and connections to orchestrate Thea’s training and career in New York and abroad, as well as her disgust with the Chicago way of coupling business and art together.

While at the canyon, Fred recalls Mrs. Nathanmeyer, to whom he had introduced Thea in Chicago (268), and on the next page “an eagle, tawny and of great size,” flies directly over the canyon and inspires Thea to rise to her feet with the realization that the Anasazi Indians, though a “vanished race,” have left behind “fragments of the their desire”: their art (269). Fred’s recollection makes even more explicit the link between the eagle and Mrs. Nathanmeyer, the “heavy, powerful old Jewess, with . . . an eagle nose, and sharp, glittering eyes” (232). While Mrs. Nathanmeyer’s eagle nose is an anti-Semitic caricature, the image of the eagle soaring far above the canyon replicates her position in relation to the cliff dwellers perched at the top of Chicago’s skyscrapers. She soars far above them with superior standards “that have nothing to do with Chicago” (231). Cather’s representation of this Jewish character is deeply marked by an ambivalence that Susan Meyer has shown as being at work in the representation of Louie in The Professor’s House.

The Palmers were not Jewish, so Cather made a deliberate choice in making Mrs. Nathanmeyer Jewish. Many scholars, most recently Loretta Wasserman, have cited the character as an example of anti-Semitism in Cather’s writing. However, Wasserman claims that the Nathanmeyers “are not significant in Thea’s fate” (8) and concludes her longer reading of “The Diamond Mine” by suggesting that the Jewish characters in that narrative are present because Cather “needed an image to convey the dangers of human commodification, and she chose that cartoon figure” (13). The novel frames Mrs. Nathanmeyer in a repulsive stereotype because her power comes from her relationship to her husband’s money and the Chicago businessmen’s dealings in the art world. However, in The Song of the Lark, Fred’s description of Mrs. Nathanmeyer’s standards makes them sound like Cather’s own: that art was a “search for something for which there is no market demand . . . where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values” (“Art of Fiction” 103). Cather constructs the character through her salons, attitudes, connection to Bertha Palmer, and metaphorical appearance in the canyon as a positive force in Thea’s career. The novel’s ambivalence toward the character of Mrs. Nathanmeyer sharpens the critique of the relationship between art and commerce in Chicago by containing the tension in one character.

The eagle’s presence indicates that, symbolically, Mrs. Nathanmeyer watches Thea from behind the scenes and is most likely pulling strings at that moment to allow her to rise to even greater heights in the art world far beyond the limited vision of those businessmen who control the art scene in Chicago. This is the second time Mrs. Nathanmeyer has caused Thea to rise up, inspired, and not angry or feeling used from being raised into Chicago higher life. The first was when she supplied her with a low dress for singing. Thea “laughed and drew herself up out of her corsets, threw her shoulders high and let them drop again” (235). The gift allows Thea to breathe deeply in while singing, providing inspiration, giving life to her spirit, and releasing her from the drudgery of corsets. If the novel ends, as it does in its first version, after Thea’s experience in Panther Canyon, Mrs. Nathanmeyer’s presence as the eagle might be a sign that Thea will escape the clutches of the male, Chicago business art scene.

Yet even the eagle must struggle against the boys who try to snare it in nets. Thea sees “a watch-tower upon which the young men used to entice eagles and snare them with nets. Sometimes for a whole morning Thea could see the coppery breast and shoulders of an Indian youth there against the sky; see him throw the net, and watch the struggle with the eagle” (253). Because the novel does not end with the Thea’s stay in Panther Canyon, her time spent there is not an escape from the Chicago clubs. Instead, it serves as a reminder of just how fully enmeshed her awakening is with her participation in the business of constructing a higher life for Chicago.

At the novel’s end, Dr. Archie notices that Thea has been successfully become a cliff dweller. He gazes at her top-floor apartment in New York: “the fourteen stories of the apartment hotel rose above him like a perpendicular cliff” (341). He also notices in the next paragraph that inside the Metropolitan Opera House, “the height of the audience room, the rich color, and the sweep of the balconies were not without their effect upon him” (341). Even though Thea makes her debut in New York and has been trained in Europe, the particularly Chicagoan use of the metaphor of cliff dwelling cloaks her success and indicates that she has succeeded because of the Chicago business world: Theodore Thomas, the Nathanmeyers, the Chicago Club, and Fred, who had the entry into Chicago’s club scene to orchestrate it all. The metaphor also promises that Thea, like Madame Necker and the Anasazi Indians, will eventually disappear.

It is unclear whether Thea recognizes the significance of the Chicago phase of her training and whether she even understands the multiple connotations of the phrase “cliff dweller” in Chicago. But for Cather, the multiple meanings of the phrase allow her to construct a subtle yet biting critique of the Chicago art scene. She pushes back against their belief that art and artists are commodities to be bought, sold, and traded. In doing so, Cather examines the threat of extinction for the artist contained in the notion of cultural uplift.


The seed of this essay was written in response to Guy Reynolds’s call for papers for the Twelfth International Cather Seminar on Cather, Chicago, and Modernism. I would like to thank the conference organizers for the inspiring theme. Thanks are in order to John Swift, Ann Romines, and Michael Schueth for their positive feedback and encouragement.

 1. See Whyte for a current reassessment of the European idea of the city from 1880 to 1960. (Go back.)
 2. I wish to thank the Chicago Historical Society for granting me access to the official catalog of the Cliff Dwellers exhibit at the Columbian Exhibition. (Go back.)
 3. I wish to thank Alison Hinderliter, Manuscripts and Archives Librarian, and Roger and Julie Baskes, Department of Special Collections at the Newberry Library, for their help and for granting me access to the records of the Attic Club and the Cliff Dwellers Club. (Go back.)
 4. Minutes of the Attic Club, 3 July 1907. (Go back.)


Cather, Willa. “On the Art of Fiction.” Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as Art. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988. 99–104.
“The Passing Show.” Nebraska State Journal 26 Jan. 1896: 9. Reprinted in The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893–1896. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966. 330–31.
The Song of the Lark. 1915. Ed. Sherrill Harbison. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Duryea. Polly P. “Paintings and Drawings in Willa Cather’s Prose: A Catalogue Raisonné.” Diss. U of Nebraska. 1993.
Fisher-Wirth, Ann W. “Dispossession and Redemption in the Novels of Willa Cather.” Cather Studies 1. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990. 36–54.
Fuller, Henry Blake. The Cliff-Dwellers. 1893. Rpt. New York: Hardpress, 2008.
Fuller, Henry Blake. “The Upward Movement in Chicago.” Atlantic Monthly Oct. 1897: 534–47.
Germer, Stefan. “Traditions and Trends: Taste Patterns in Chicago Collecting.” The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde: Modernism in Chicago, 1910–1940. Ed. Sue Ann Prince. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 171–91.
H. J. Smith Exploring Company. “The Cliff Dwellers/The H. Jay Smith Exploring Company, World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893.” Official Catalog. 1–19. Chicago Historical Society. Chicago il.
Homestead, Melissa. Introduction. The Song of the Lark. Ed. Melissa Homestead. New York: Signet Classics, 2007. v–xiii.
Massa, Ann. “Henry Blake Fuller and the Cliff Dwellers: Appropriations and Misappropriations.” Journal of American Studies. 36.1 (2002): 69–84.
Meyer, Susan. “On the Front and at Home.” Cather Studies 6: History, Memory, and War. Ed. Steven Trout. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2006. 205–27.
Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Moser, Charlotte. “‘In the Highest Efficiency’: Art Training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.” The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde: Modernism in Chicago, 1910–1940. Ed. Sue Ann Prince. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 193–208.
O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Papers of the Cliffdweller’s Club. Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections. Newberry Library. Chicago il.
Regnery, Henry. The Cliffdwellers: The History of a Chicago Cultural Institution. Evanston: Chicago Historical Bookworks, 1990.
Robison, Mark A. “Transcending the Urban-Rural Divide: Willa Cather’s Thea Kronborg Goes to Chicago.” Regionalism and the Humanities. Ed. Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009. 190–210.
Shikoh, Jane Allen. “The ‘Higher Life’ in the American City of the 1890’s: A Study of Its Leaders and Their Activities in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, and Buffalo.” Diss. New York U, Oct. 1972.
Szuberia, Guy. “Henry Blake Fuller and the ‘New Immigrant.’” American Literature 53.2 (1981): 246–65.
Wasserman, Loretta. “Cather’s Semitism.” Cather Studies 2. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. Lincoln U of Nebraska P, 1993. 1–22.
Weininger, Susan S. “Completing the Soul of Chicago: From Urban Realism to Social Concern, 1915–1945.” Chicago Modern 1893–1945: The Pursuit of the New. Ed. Elizabeth Kennedy. Chicago: The Terra Foundation for American Art, 2004. 53–65.
Whyte, Iain Boyd, ed. Modernism and the Spirit of the City. New York: Routledge, 2003.