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From Cather Studies Volume 13

Cather's Pittsburgh and the Alchemy of Social Class

In Willa Cather’s stories of Pittsburgh, we expect to find a discourse of social class that explains the characters’ climbs up and down the hills and the social register. What we might not expect to find is alchemy—that ancient practice of transmutation of one substance into another, both for financial gain and for spiritual symbolism. Indeed, in Cather’s time, the city seemed full of such transformations—iron and coal into steel; sand, soda, and lime into glass; Scottish immigrants into capitalist kings. The history of alchemy is marked by magnificent hope, scurrilous fraud, and fantastic failures. It is also full of symbolism, spirituality, and sludge. It is difficult to gauge how much Cather knew about alchemy, but its concepts appeared in the works of many authors she admired and in the works of her contemporaries.[1] The highs and lows of Pittsburgh’s topography and the fortunes of characters in Cather’s Pittsburgh stories mirror the up-and-down motion of substances in alchemical practice and the refinement process common to both industry and culture. Two Pittsburgh stories written more than twenty years apart, “Paul’s Case” (1905) and “Double Birthday” (1929) demonstrate how Cather used alchemical symbolism over time to contrast genuine transformation through cultural purgation with the false transformations created solely through increasing wealth.

There have been many critical studies of “Paul’s Case” but fewer of “Double Birthday,” and though none of them focus on the subject of alchemy, some place their emphasis on dialectics and divisions between opposites. Several critics have seen “Paul’s Case” as a case study of Paul’s condition, essentially at odds with his station in life (See Wasserman 121). Paul may be understood as “a glutton in Bohemia because he is famished for spiritual, aesthetic, and emotional food in Presbyteria” as Sharon O’Brien argues (283), or a social outcast because of either his perceived homosexuality or a personality disorder (Rubin 127; Saari 389). Timothy Bintrim has explored Paul as adhering to Baudelaire’s category of dandy and being welcomed or reviled for this “disguise” (23). Whatever the approach, critics see Paul as an outsider, a misfit preferring the arts to the mundane reality of commercial and industrial work. I will show that this same polar division of the world into the refined and the base underlies the metaphysics of alchemy in the story.

Studies of “Double Birthday,” the late story so infused with Pittsburgh, focus mainly on Cather’s attitude toward the city and her friendship with the Seibels, whose house and activities are reflected in the residence of the namesakes, the two Albert Engelhardts (Byrne and Snyder 21–22; Woodress 119). Cather herself was enthusiastic about the story and wrote to her sister Elsie that she hoped her sketch of Dr. Tyndale (uncle of her college friend Fritz Westermann) as the older Albert Engelhardt would not annoy the doctor (Selected Letters 412–13). Critics find many instances of division and doubling as the main characters move between social classes and from attitudes of extreme commercial devotion to utter Bohemian culture-worship. Joseph C. Murphy states that the story “portrays the artist-intellectual trying to domesticate the city by bringing its spatial and historical coordinates into dialogue” (253). Joshua Doležal, however, looks for clues to Cather’s attitude toward the future and her progressivism. He claims that Cather “was in some senses progressive but that she looked ahead by looking back” (412). It is this mix of looking back while projecting into the future that makes Cather’s use of the ancient lore of alchemy suited to her era—one in which alchemy was experiencing a modernist resurgence.

Though alchemy had, by the early twentieth century, been discredited as a pseudo-science, its combination of magic, science, and charlatanism pervaded Western thought. Alchemy appeared in many works of art, literature, and philosophy at the time of Cather’s sojourn in Pittsburgh and well beyond. Because Cather never wrote specifically about alchemy, it is important to prove that she must have been aware of its reputation as well as its spiritual application in her own time. Most of the early works of literature that featured the character of the alchemist and his practices treated it as the province of con artists. Dante Alighieri relegated alchemists to the eighth circle of hell in Canto 29 of The Inferno. The Canon’s Yeoman of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales exposes alchemy’s misdeeds, causing the canon to abandon plans to con the pilgrims. Shakespeare’s The Tempest shows Prospero using some of the techniques of alchemy, and the Bard’s Sonnet 33 renders the dawn tinting all with gold by performing “alchemy.” Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), according to a recent study, “ridicules alchemists and especially the gullibility of those who are willing to sacrifice everything for the promise of quick riches, while taking aim at the hypocrisy of contemporary society” (Ziolkowski 50).

Cather knew well the legend of Faust that arose in the Middle Ages and was first published in 1587. Early versions represented Faust as an alchemist, frustrated with his inability to achieve alchemical transformations, turning to a devil character who promises him greater knowledge in exchange for his soul (“The Legend of Faust”). Images of Faust in art and literature connect him with fire and distillation equipment. Modern dramatizations of the story did not please Cather universally. She objected to the emphasis on the “garden scene,” which she calls “one of the stupidest and most monotonous of all love scenes. There is absolutely no action, no obstacle to overcome, nothing to call out great emotion, no great temptation” (Kingdom of Art 279). She absolutely rejected any attempt to lighten the plot, to turn the story’s tragic magnificence into anything comedic. Indeed, she preferred Goethe’s poem to any English translation or dramatization (280).

Cather also knew the operatic version of Faust’s tale by Gounod that was loosely based on Goethe’s poem. Goethe’s Faust, unlike earlier manifestations of the character, was not explicitly an alchemist, but Goethe himself had direct experience with alchemy, and “the figure of the alchemist plays a major role in two key passages” of the tale, notes Ziolkowski (90). Faust’s dark magic, provided by a covenant with Mephistopheles that gives Faust an elixir of youth and enables him to live transformed, is often conflated with alchemy.

Many French writers of the nineteenth century, for whom Cather had a confessed enthusiasm, made use of the figure of the alchemist and put in motion a new emphasis on the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the practice. In Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Claude Frollo places all his faith in alchemy; Alexandre Dumas (père) wrote a five-act verse drama, L’Alchimiste in 1839; and Honoré de Balzac’s The Quest of the Absolute (1834) presents a practitioner obsessed; all include alchemist figures in a spiritual configuration (Ziolkowski 105, 106, 109). Some of these authors were favorites of the reading gatherings between Cather and the Seibels whose house doubled as the Engelhardts’ in “Double Birthday” (Seibel 11– 21). Even Gustave Flaubert, one of Cather’s idols, tried his hand at the figure of the alchemist early in his career with the short story “Dream of Hell” (1835).

In the United States, too, the figure of the obsessed alchemist was evident in nineteenth-century literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne referenced the elixir of life in his short story “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” and images of the forge are used for self-transformation in “Ethan Brand.” Most explicitly, Hawthorne showed the alchemist figure in “The Birth-Mark,” in which scientist Aylmer experiments on his wife to remove her birthmark. The story specifically mentions “alchemy” and Aylmer’s reading of Paracelsus. When the wife/victim reads the journals of her husband’s experiments, she learns that they were all failures. Hawthorne even provides readers a glimpse of the alchemical equipment that was thought typical of the practice:

The first thing that struck her eye was the furnace, that hot and feverish worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of soot clustered above it seemed to have been burning for ages. There was a distilling apparatus in full operation. Around the room were retorts, tubes, cylinders, crucibles, and other apparatus of chemical research. An electrical machine stood ready for immediate use. The atmosphere felt oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science. (100)

Hawthorne’s story uses the archetypes of the madness of the alchemist and the grotesque, idiot-savant lab assistant. With all these depictions of alchemists and alchemy Cather found in her reading, she would likely have been aware of the key elements of the practice: transformation of base to pure through distillation, obsessed practitioners, and failed experiments.

Cather did not need to have a deep historical knowledge of alchemical history and signification in order to manipulate these well-known symbols. First in importance is the refinement process by which alchemists planned to bring about transformations of base materials. Even casual readers knew that alchemists attempted to transform lead into gold. Indeed, the earliest alchemists believed that all material substances were composed of four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) in different proportions. That natural philosophy suggested that one material could be changed into another by adjusting its proportions of the various elements (Atwood 26). Gold and silver had monetary value, to be sure, and some alchemists were primarily after the financial gain that would come from turning lead into gold. This conviction opened the gullible and greedy believers to the risks and ridicule of being taken in by con artists, as happens in Ben Jonson’s comedy. The purer practitioner of alchemy was motivated by knowledge and for the spiritual edification of refining base materials into fine ones (Atwood 27). The dual nature of alchemy—one aspect metallurgical and one spiritual—permits it a rich base of symbolism.

Most alchemical processes required heat and vessels (a flask or tube or other device) to bring about the combination of materials and the distillation of those combinations. One symbol, the Star of David, also held special significance in that it shows the interlocking importance of up (the triangle pointed upward) and down (the opposite triangle). The base materials would be purified up through heat and evaporation and then sink down as they cooled. Once purified, the distillate would need to be remixed with base materials and subjected to the process again for further purification. The alchemist Henning Brand, in 1669, isolated the first chemical element, phosphorus, by performing similar processes on human urine. By leaving urine to evaporate and decay, then refining it through a series of distillations to produce a glowing, beautiful substance, Brand seemed to confirm that a lot of smelly sludge could be transformed into something ethereal (Morris 70–71).

In the process of refinement, base materials were thought to go through a series of color shifts: first blackening (nigredo), then whitening (albedo), and finally reddening (rubedo). The blackening represents the phase known as “putrefaction,” in which the mystical marriage occurs between opposite elements, sulfur and mercury (also known as quicksilver). Sulfur, the masculine (active) element, was associated with heat or fire, while mercury, the feminine (passive) element, flowed like water. The union of the two would fecundate the mixture and bring about a new creation. This new life was known as “genesis in the retort” (Roob 146). The psychological significance of this type of change fascinated Carl Jung, who wrote extensively on the symbolism of alchemy. When his conclusions were published posthumously in 1970, they compared this transformation to the psychological process of individuation (170).[2]

The artist, analogously, seemed able to transform base materials into refined ones with the stroke of a brush or pen. Though he came to his conclusions rather later in the century, Marcel Duchamp—hero of the Armory Show—became fascinated with alchemy and produced a number of works that he believed demonstrated the artist’s alchemy. In fact, the poem that inspired Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending a Staircase was “Encore à cet astre” by Jules Laforgue.[3] According to John F. Moffit, this poem

is full of blatantly alchemical motifs. . . . The climax of [the] poem metaphorically represents a false procedure, one that has led to the loss of the elusive Philosopher’s Gold. As a consequence, the resulting alchemical material becomes a mockery of its original intention: darkened, spotted, blemished, eaten up, and corrupted due to a lack of spiritual integration. (50–51)

In this poem and others, the alchemist must have pure motives in order to effect the full transformation. A forced, or fake transformation—not to culture, but to the trappings of wealth that often accompany it—drew Cather’s interest in “Paul’s Case.”

Paul’s frustrated attempts to transform himself into an elite member of society drive him to impersonate the gold standard of the wealthy elites. Edward Pitcher has compared Paul’s “self-destructive acts” to “Faust’s electing to sell his soul for the gratification of his desires” (543). According to Pitcher, Paul’s theft of Denny & Carson’s deposit is the moment he sells his soul, like Faust, for the temporary advantages in this world (543). Moreover, the heat and cold of Paul’s pursuit, his elevation and descent, correspond to evaporation and condensation, and his color scheme, moving from black, to white, to red, all identify him with the failed alchemist.

Paul’s last arc of suicide at the end of the story demonstrates that his attempts at self-transformation are a failure. Like Faust, Paul rejects the Great Work of slow learning, the actual change that comes from hard work and education, to take a shortcut to gaining his desires. Paul’s teachers report his many “misdemeanours,” chief of which is the “contempt which they all knew he felt for them” (199, 200). He seems not to regret the loss of their esteem, for it is “the Soldiers’ Chorus from Faust” that Paul is whistling as he “ran down the hill” from the Pittsburgh High School (203). Paul’s downward motion parallels Faust’s putrefaction in the deal with Mephistopheles.

Paul nourishes his dreams in a land of fantasy, the theater, where he helps actor Charley Edwards get into costume and complete the artificial transformation that the theater requires. He rehearses his own apotheosis, imagining himself magically going “after [the German soprano up the steps into the Schenley Hotel,] a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease” (207). But an hour later he is shivering in the basement of his father’s house “down one of the side streets” from Fifth Avenue and “sinking back forever into the ugliness and commonness” of Cordelia Street (208, 209). The motion of going up to the theater and the Schenley should signify Paul’s alchemical purgation through fire, and his sinking back to Cordelia Street should represent his remixing with base materials to begin anew the purification process. But they do not. Though he is “delicately fired” by the performances he witnesses, he repudiates “the natural” world, which is the basis of the alchemical transmutation. He needs instead a “certain element of artificiality” in order to see beauty—he prefers the fake transformation (216)—perhaps a signal that his whole transient pursuit is wrong-headed.

His escape to New York, then, is based on fraud and theft, though he regards his solution as “wonderfully simple” and feels freed from the “meshes of the lies he had told” as well as the fear they occasioned (222). His ascent to the ultimate upper-class luxury hotel—the Waldorf—relies on a false transformation, that can only result in apparent, not real, refinement. The ingredients and colors of alchemy are there for his transformation. The sulfur and heat lie in his desire for luxury; he goes out looking for entertainment “hot for pleasure,” and he burns “like a faggot in a tempest” (225). The cold of the swirling snow and champagne, “that cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass,” like laboratory glassware, should cool and condense his finer temperament (226). But the flaws in his design involve both his motivation and his goal. Éliphas Lévi, French popularizer of the artist-as-alchemist theory in the late nineteenth century, insisted that “the alchemically symbolizing Artist . . . is poor. His poverty arises because he has voluntarily renounced material wealth, pursuing instead the immaterial goals of his inspired imagination” (Moffit 42). The alchemist should not be motivated by a lust for wealth, but rather a quest for purification and real refinement. Paul, surrounded in luxury unearned, instead “wondered that there were honest men in the world at all.” He concludes that luxury is the goal, that “this was what all the world was fighting for” (226).

His failure of self-refinement is punctuated by a suicide and by the mockery of the color transformation characteristic of alchemical theory. The blackening phase that should represent putrefaction and fertility, for Paul corresponds to the reality of Cordelia Street, which, after he realizes his fraud is exposed, falls on him “like a weight of black water” (231–32). This is the juncture at which he adopts his false faith, “that money was everything” (232). The whitening of alchemy should represent the purification through fire and the joining of opposites in a mystical marriage. In Paul’s story, it is merely the snow—the numbing element in which he eventually buries the ruins of his red carnation, before he leaps in front of a train. The red carnation, which should then be the proof of the success of the transformation, is subsumed in the sterile white of the snow. In the moments after he jumps into the path of the oncoming train “the folly of haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone” (234). In the one moment before his death, Paul realizes that his rush toward the appearance of transformation left him with the Great Work of his life “undone,” like many an alchemist before him.

“Double Birthday,” written more than twenty years later, is also filled with characters trekking up and down Pittsburgh’s fabled hills, some tempted by the outward shows of success, and the Alberts, at least, refining themselves in cultural terms. It seems Cather linked Pittsburgh, whose forges produced mythical quantities of steel and glass by merely chemical means, with these attempts at alchemical transformations; a return to Pittsburgh means a return to the laboratory and the arising to and falling from social, financial, and cultural success. The tale focuses on two main figures. The elder Albert Engelhardt, or “Uncle Doctor,” as he is known, escapes his obsessive drive to transform a woman, while the younger namesake, Albert Engelhardt, falls from the heights of Allegheny City and a family glass fortune of his youth, to a genteel poverty; however, his transformation seems at least partially successful in the end. Though Judge Hammersley looks on the spending of the Engelhardt fortune as a great waste of resources, the purity of both Alberts by the estimation of the judge’s daughter Margaret Parmenter must prove that their lives, by Cather’s measure, were well spent.

Doctor Albert is connected with alchemy in both his name (perhaps a reference to Albertus Magnus, great alchemist of the thirteenth century), as well as through his clear identification with Doctor Faustus, who made a pact with Mephistopheles to court a much younger, innocent woman named Margaret (or Gretchen)— Marguerite Thiesinger, in Cather’s story. Doctor Albert’s attempts to turn his “cabbage rose” into a great soprano are limited by the girl’s weak imagination and by the constraints of nature. After years of treating the throats of traveling singers whose voices were damaged by the “Pittsburgh air” that was “not good for the throat,” Doctor Albert met his base material in Marguerite (48). He falls in love with her voice before even seeing her, and after only a short period of observation, he decides to “finance her” and “stake everything upon this voice” (50). His willingness to risk financial ruin to foster an artist proves his pure motives, yet he hopes to master a young woman and purify her, instead of himself—a move which proves damaging.

At first, the doctor realizes that Marguerite has “no ambition” and is “not very intelligent” but urges her to have “application and ambition” (49, 51). She is his base material that he wishes to transform through culture to a refined product. Her humility, like that of Goethe’s Marguerite, nearly frustrates the designs of the older doctor when she elopes with an insurance agent, but just as jewels persuade Faust’s Gretchen, eventually Marguerite develops a desire to be famous, to be trained by a New York teacher as Doctor Albert had offered (51). Unlike Paul’s superficial transformation, Marguerite’s is to be one of substance and true artistic mastery. Doctor Albert, the throat specialist, swallows his pride and counsels her: “Take note, Gretchen, that I change the prescription. There is something vulgar about ambition. Now we will play for higher stakes; for ambition read aspiration!” (51). But the alchemical process is strewn with unexpected disasters. After two years in New York, the great changes she shows are ones of illness and dissolution; cancer cuts short her life, and she regrets that she wasted time “running off with Phil” and not completing the work in the world of the arts (52). Her incomplete transformation is what haunts Uncle Albert’s twilight years and makes him toast the young woman as his “Lost Lenore” (47). Uncle Albert attempts to refine another person, and in doing so becomes more like Faust or Hawthorne’s Aylmer than the successful artist-alchemist. Though the elder Albert’s motives seem pure, his result is consistent with the fact that alchemy often fails due to faulty materials.

Only young Albert Engelhardt—whose features have “a quicksilver mobility” (suggesting mercury, one of the elemental ingredients of alchemy)—seems able to make the full transformation into the refined object Cather admires. He starts his journey on a height—as Judge Hammersley remembers with scorn, the Engelhardt brothers “began with a flourishing glass factory up the river, a comfortable fortune, a fine old house on the park in Allegheny, a good standing in the community; and it was all gone, melted away” (42). In the alchemical iconography, a fortune “melted away” is as conspicuous as it is for a family of glassmakers, in which melting is the first step in creating something new, beautiful and strong. Indeed, in the crucible of youth and cultural growth, Albert moves from a well-to-do industrialist’s child to a true lover of the arts. He moves up culturally—“always running over to New York,” the judge remembers, and eventually makes his way to one of the pinnacles of cultural life—Rome (42). When the judge suggests to his daughter that Albert had “better have been in Homestead,” Margaret recoils, pointing out that “Albert would never have been much use in Homestead, and he was very useful to Mrs. Sterrett in Rome” (44).[4] To the judge, the usefulness of a man is measured by the fortune he makes in upper management. Among the “heavyweights” of the wealthy families congregating in Rome, too serious and successful by Mrs. Parmenter’s measure, “There must be some butterflies.”She reminds her father that Albert “had a gorgeous time” and “learned to speak Italian very well” (44). The staid and gruff judge finds this kind of cultural elevation a waste of time, especially in a city as devoted to material wealth as Pittsburgh then was.

After meeting the judge at the courthouse, Albert cools and descends socially to his home on the South Side.[5] While the judge “was settling down,” isolated in his large home,“empty for himself and his books,” Albert sits up “in a garnet velvet smoking-jacket” at his “upright piano, playing Schumann’s Kreisleriana for his old uncle” (45). The red jacket signifies the successful search for the philosopher’s gold, or culture, which he preserves in his home, among the humble dwellings of his modest neighborhood. Cather makes clear the contrast between the splendor of Albert’s castle-like Allegheny home and the humble stature of his current home: “They lived, certainly, in a queer part of the city, on one of the dingy streets that run uphill off noisy Carson street, in a little two-story brick house, a workingman’s house, that Albert’s father had taken over long ago in satisfaction of a bad debt” (45). It is a multifamily dwelling that Albert and his uncle share with “an old German glass engraver” who worked for his father. But into this modest home, Albert has crammed a wealth of culture from his lifetime: a “Degas drawing in black and red—three ballet girls at the bar,” fine rugs and his “collection of books . . . large and very personal.” He keeps “a complete file of The Yellow Book,” a British periodical featuring the works of Aesthetic writers. Indeed, he also treasures works of various artists of the period: “drawings of Aubrey Beardsley—decadent, had they been called? A slender, padded volume—the complete works of a great, new poet, Ernest Dowson” who coined the phrase “they are not long, the days of wine and roses,” and works by Oscar Wilde (45– 46; Dowson 1)—known for his ardent pursuit of art for art’s sake. Albert recognizes what Paul could not, that the values of refinement are not sartorial and luxurious, but inherently evanescent.

His recognition of this fact is what allows young Albert to make the walks around Pittsburgh, to navigate the ups and downs of financial success, as well as the “solve et coagula” of the purification process, without regret or rancor. Albert might feel physical discomfort by having to walk uphill in the snow to the judge’s home to retrieve two bottles of wine for Uncle Albert’s birthday, but the judge’s embarrassment makes no impact on him. As he looks on the homes of Squirrel Hill, he “did not feel sorry for himself” (54) because he knows his cultural and spiritual refinement outweigh the advantages of the wealthy:

He thought he had had the best of it; he had gone a-Maying while it was May. This solid comfort, this iron-bound security, didn’t appeal to him much. These massive houses, after all, held nothing but the heavy domestic routine; all the frictions and jealousies and discontents of family life. Albert felt light and free, going up the hill in his thin overcoat. He believed he had had a more interesting life than most of his friends who owned real estate. . . . [H]e had lived to the full all the revolutions in art and music that his period covered. He wouldn’t at this moment exchange his life and his memories . . . for any one of these massive houses. . . . If Mephistopheles were to emerge from the rhododendrons and stand behind his shoulder with such an offer, he wouldn’t hesitate. Money? Oh, yes, he would like to have some, but not what went with it. (55)

Albert’s successful alchemical transformation enables him to reject the offer of ease and young women that Mephistopheles placed in front of Faust, and instead proceed with his life of genteel poverty, free of envy. As critic Titus Burkhardt explains, “That is the spiritual threshold which the alchemist has to cross. The ethical threshold . . . is the temptation to pursue the alchemical art only on account of gold. Alchemists constantly insist that the greatest obstacle to their work is covetousness” (31–32). As young Albert walks home to celebrate his old uncle’s birthday, he crosses that threshold in the form of the Smithfield Street Bridge and looks on “the sheer cliffs of Mount Washington, high above the river,” not with greed, or the desire to mine its rich coal deposits for industrial gold, but with imagination and pleasure, as he did when he was a boy, and thought of the place as “some far-away, cloud-set city in Asia; the forbidden city” (57).

The celebration of the double birthday is ultimately satisfactory because it is full of “good wine, good music and beautiful women,” that Doctor Albert says are “all there is worth turning over the hand for” (62). Another beautiful and appreciative Margaret (Mrs. Parmenter) has come to them with lush praise and red roses of alchemical success. Both Alberts have foregone financial success in lieu of true cultural refinement and have reaped their reward.

Paul exits his story having been taken in by the fraud of wealth, its false refinement, regretting not using his ardor to create a purer, more refined life. Conversely, the two Alberts of “Double Birthday” work throughout their lives to attempt transformations of hardship into true cultural refinement—to gamble everything material on the hope of change. Finally, it is their ability to give up material prosperity that allows both Alberts the chance to become adepts, to learn the mystery of alchemical success. This knowledge is shared by the two men in a moment of reflection, after their guest has gone home, when Uncle Albert makes reference to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Church-Yard,” a poem that reflects on the need of the dead to have their work and life remembered. He cites the last line of the most alchemical of the poem’s passages:

On some fond breast the parting soul relies, Some pious drops the closing eye requires; Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires. (ll. 89–92)

The spiritual element of nature that burns to ashes yet lives on is the ideal for alchemical imagery. It signifies purification to the point of becoming the elixir of life, or the philosopher’s stone. The artwork of the living will ensure the eternal life of those who have gone. For Willa Cather, as for many of her artist contemporaries, it is only through the spiritual elevation and purification brought about by the artist-alchemist, that human beings can hope to avoid the false idol of material wealth, and instead live a life of true transformation.


 1. In his account of Cather’s involvement in amateur theatricals in Red Cloud, James Woodress notes that she “appeared as the old alchemist in the Merchants’ Carnival,” an appearance sponsored by her then employer, Cook’s Drugstore (58). Even as a teenager, she was exploring the role of the alchemist. (Go back.)
 2. Jung began his writings on alchemy in 1942 with his “Paracelsus als geistige Erscheinung” Paracelsica: Zwei Vorlesungen über den Arzt und Philosophen Theophrastus (Zurich: Rascher, 1942). There is no evidence that Cather ever met Jung, but her good friend Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant studied with him in the mid-1930s, according to the Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant papers, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library. (Go back.)
 3. Cather seems not to have known Duchamp personally, though her traditionalism was compared to the modernism of Duchamp in a review by Katherine Ann Porter in 1952, as is examined by Janis Stout (153). (Go back.)
 4. The timing of young Albert’s visit to Rome (circa 1904) did not correspond to the 1892 Homestead Strike, nor would the Battle of Homestead have been of recent memory to readers of “Double Birthday” in 1929, but the gritty, reputation of the mill town remained. The judge and his daughter disagree about how a man can make himself useful, given his family inheritance and the spirit of the times. Young Albert’s sacrifice to higher culture goes to the alchemical goal of transforming the rough materials with which one begins. (Go back.)
 5. There is some question as to the relative elevation of the courthouse in those years in relation to the South Side Flats neighborhood. The elevation of the courthouse was altered so the South Side may have been in fact a few meters higher. Nonetheless, Cather and her readers would have certainly recognized the lower socioeconomic status of the Flats and seen it as “lower.” (Go back.)


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