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From Cather Studies Volume 13

Big Steel and Class Consciousness in "Paul's Case"

Class consciousness, George Lukács proposes, is a systematic practice governing the whole of life. As the driving force behind capitalism, class consciousness guides individuals in their day-today activities as they navigate class distinctions and the materiality of history. From the beginning of his analysis, Lukács emphasizes, as did Karl Marx, that class consciousness is constructed in relation to economic conditions and the social institutions created by these conditions, which combine to form the ideological struggles of a profit-driven society.[1] This ideology, made visible through the public structures it creates, is a product of power and embodies the aesthetic appeal and illusory attraction of any philosophy or work of art. “Regarded abstractly and formally, then, class consciousness implies a class-conditioned unconsciousness of one’s own socio-historical and economic condition” (Lukács 52). Producing an ongoing contradiction between our (un)conscious thoughts and actions and the interests of capital, capitalism depends on class signifiers for order and control in a world where, as the Pittsburgh teenager Paul comes to realize, “money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted” (232). While class consciousness may inspire the individual to strive to achieve success, it may also have the reverse effect, as it does in “Paul’s Case,” causing the subject not only to resist the demands of labor, but to rebel against them in an attempt to disrupt the directives constituted by capitalism. “Paul’s Case,” entrenched in the social economy of turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh, is a study of the ways in which this latter form of resistance, this “revolt against the homilies by which the world is run” (234), is an inevitable yet futile response to the inequities of a class-based society.

Although all U.S. cities faced the divergences of capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century, Pittsburgh, due to its unparalleled success in the steel industry and the philanthropic influence of tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, embodied the conflicts of capitalism in a way few other industrialized cities did, permitting the inherent disparities of class to play out against the backdrop of a fin-de-siècle aestheticism propagated by privilege and exclusion. I examine these contradictions through an analysis of three landmarks essential to the development of Cather’s experience of the American class system: Pittsburgh’s Central High School, the Carnegie Music Hall, and the Hotel Schenley. These places and their economic histories, when read in relation to Paul’s class consciousness, delineate the impact Cather’s time in Pittsburgh had in forming her early understanding of the dynamics of wealth and social mobility.

Upon moving to Pittsburgh in 1896, Cather saw firsthand how the “City of Dreadful Dirt” (Selected Letters 33) was transformed into a cultured, yet conflict-ridden metropolis with elastic class divisions and a thriving art scene. The city’s transformation was due in large part to the reform efforts of the urban elite living in Pittsburgh’s East End neighborhoods, which, by 1900, were among the world’s richest suburbs (Skrabec 9). Unlike the aristocracy of New York’s Fifth Avenue, many of whom inherited their place in the world, the majority of Pittsburgh’s ruling class was from Scottish and Irish immigrant families who earned their wealth through hard work, industry, and inventiveness. According to Edward K. Muller and John F. Bauman, prosperous Pittsburgh families, inspired by the City Beautiful Movement of the late nineteenth century, “espoused a philosophy that equated environmental quality with elevated moral behavior” (132). Disgusted by the tangle of “streets, mills, department stores, rail yards, warehouses, courthouses, jails” and the web of slum housing in the central city, these reformers embarked on a crusade for municipal improvement, creating parks, removing billboards, and installing public baths to better represent the standards of good taste and to extend the order of the East End to downtown Pittsburgh (Muller 123).[2] These developments were accompanied by the continued efforts of the glass, steel, coal, oil, and banking giants to create a sophisticated city in which their industries could thrive. As Francis G. Couvares states, Pittsburgh capitalists understood that “civic improvement was just good business” (95). These benefits, however, were not extended into the community judiciously. Localized renewal ultimately functioned to isolate workers living in increasingly sectionalized boroughs, deepening the divide between the suburban neighborhoods and the proletarian districts.

The city’s inequitable distribution of wealth, as the Pittsburgh Survey revealed, was magnified by its topography, with its hills, ravines, floodplains and bluffs, making it difficult for immigrant families to fully engage in civic life (18). This geographical exclusion was mirrored in the workplace, where capital controlled labor by pitting workers in competition with one another, successfully instilling segregation and discrimination into the fabric of the community. Carnegie’s introduction of cost-saving technologies further split laborers into skilled and unskilled categories, spreading friction and hostility among workers, departments, and neighborhoods. The Homestead plant and town, which Cather visited in 1898 and wrote about as the guest editor of the Courier in 1901, illustrates the alarming consequences of these advancements and the social hierarchies they produced. In her article “The Real Homestead,” Cather discusses the wage and living discrepancies between the skilled chemists and draftsmen on one hand, and the unskilled day laborers on the other, who suffer the greatest of indignities during the notorious “double turn”: “There are plenty of cases on record where a substitute stood his ground for sixty-four hours without sleep and with few breathing spells. It would seem that Mr. Carnegie’s sense of humor must be deficient when he supplies Herbert Spencer and Wagner for these men” (857). Referring to the opulent Carnegie Library of Homestead, outfitted with a music hall, swimming pool, and billiard room, Cather is pinpointing one of the essential incongruencies generated by the “benevolence” of the industrial elite who exhibit art and present music in elaborate spaces when the majority of their workers are overworked and underpaid. She plainly states that the men and women working at the plant and raising families at Homestead have no “margin left” in their lives for social relaxation. Due to the stress and demands on their labor, their free time is so limited “that clubs and libraries established in their interests seem almost absurdities” (856).

From the perspective of the union workers, the challenging working conditions at Homestead went well beyond the unevenly distributed luxuries of the library and began when Carnegie introduced the open-hearth facility. Although this innovation brought incomparable commercial success, the low placement of the furnaces was a “return to some of the most nightmarish concepts and consequences” of plant and pit work (Kobus 173). The nation received a detailed account of the hazardous “man-killing” working conditions at Homestead through an article published in McClure’s in 1894 by an anonymous workman who painstakingly exposed life in the “frightfully hot pit,” in which the laborers’ “clothes smoke” and “the skin contracts and seems about to burst” (qtd. in Kobus 177–78). The increased mechanization of the steel industry brought “jobs so physically demanding that the work was nearly impossible to accomplish without an extremely low-paid crew that quickly became depleted by the brutal conditions” (Kobus 179). As the labor force continued to be populated by men with fewer skills, the unions, representing generations of craftsmen, lost power while management and employers gained the financial dominance of increased productivity.

The tension between laborers and bosses culminated in the Homestead Strike of 1892, during which the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers fought against the Carnegie Steel Company, led by the formidable Henry Clay Frick. The drama and violence of the strike, exacerbated by Carnegie’s use of Pinkertons and then National Guardsmen to break the union, greatly weakened labor organization in the mills and forever changed the contour of working-class neighborhoods. Most notably, as more immigrants with distinct languages and cultures took these jobs, steel masters further segregated the city by playing groups against one another in order to squelch organizing across ethnic lines. While Big Steel continued to expand, metropolitan Pittsburgh became demarcated by new configurations of class and ethnicity as Slavs, Italians, and African Americans from the South replaced the Irish, German, Welsh, and English who had moved up the ranks of the work force and established themselves in the streetcar suburbs as middle-class Americans. With a rising leisure class and a vast and alienated polyglot work force, turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh became a capitalists’ haven motivated by the logic of labor surplus.

Moving easily between classes, Cather witnessed these vicissitudes and the imbalances they created, observing the way in which Pittsburgh’s dominant members influenced everything from the city’s culture and revenue to its politics and entertainment. Cather’s initial experience of the city was “cut up between” long hours as the editor of The Home Monthly magazine and “the craziest possible diversions” such as bicycling and attending the local stock company productions at the New Grand Opera House Theater (Selected Letters 49). She spent many nights at the Carnegie Music Hall and the Casino Summer Theatre across the avenue during her first summer, and her life was, by her own account, more socially “pleasant than it ever” had been (Selected Letters 44). Nevertheless, she was often preoccupied by financial concerns and the need to balance her own sense of freedom with her work and personal commitments. In a letter to Mariel Gere, in 1898, Cather writes: “O I have grown enamoured of liberty! To be wholly free . . . to do with one’s money what one likes, to help those who have helped me, to pay the debts of one’s loves and one’s hates!” (Selected Letters 49). Cather’s salient enthusiasm for the independence she gained in Pittsburgh is thus shadowed by the worrisome feeling that she owed her family and needed to send money home, placing fiscal strain on what was otherwise a happy period of her life.

Fig. 5.1. Central High School, 1916, Pittsburgh Public Schools. Courtesy of Detre Library & Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Although Cather’s financial burdens decreased in 1901 when she moved from a boardinghouse into the well-heeled home of Isabelle McClung and her parents, the social dichotomies of her life were magnified by her new teaching job at Central High School. Splitting her time between the affluent Squirrel Hill neighborhood and the densely populated Hill District in which Central was located, Cather’s daily life was marked by both the economic boundaries of the city and a challenging work environment. The school, originally founded in 1855 as an exclusive “People’s College,” was once known, as Jake Oresick explains, for sending graduates to elite universities and was resented by the “working-class” public as a haven for wealthy students studying Roman mythology and Greek grammar while “their own children went to work at age fourteen” (6). By the time Cather began teaching there, however, the upper middle class were sending their sons to elite prep schools while immigrant families began to see the value of their children’s extended education, causing the poorly maintained Bedford Avenue building to become overcrowded (Oresick 11), with every room having at least one-third more pupils than normal capacity (Oresick 171). The school’s injurious facilities, cramped classrooms, and demanding curriculum exhausted Cather physically and mentally. As she tells George Seibel, she was so worn out by the “year’s hard work,” the horror of final exams, and the stifling heat that she was twenty pounds thinner and was left with that “good for nothing feeling” (Selected Letters 60).

The congested atmosphere of the decaying building was directly related to the astonishing evolution of capitalism in Pittsburgh and its contiguous growing population; more jobs lured more laborers and lowered wages, resulting in higher profits and hardened social hierarchies. As the population swelled and the downtown neighborhoods became increasingly dense, a new social geography was created; tensions between these classes and ethnicities were inevitable. The character of everyday life was thus experienced in relation to the pyramids structuring one’s position and place in the mill, plant, or office. Neighborhoods like East Liberty, which is featured in “Paul’s Case,” were inhabited by like-minded families whose lives centered on productivity and gain. Accordingly, homogeneity and separation shape Paul’s Pittsburgh, where each subdivision is clearly distinguished from the other. Take for example, Cordelia Street, modeled after Aurelia Street, which was made up of a “solid wall of elaborate Queen Anne homes” (Toker 250) with identical dormers:

It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where businessmen of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived. (209)
There are no boundaries here among home, work, or church, as all are appendages of capital, preparing children, with mathematical precision and mechanical uniformity, to follow their fathers into business; to produce is therefore also to reproduce. From the perspective of Paul, the lack of variation among the houses highlights the uninteresting lives of the businessmen and their offspring who stand in stark contrast to the local stock company and its colorful performers.

This distinction is exaggerated in the loathsome characteristics Paul gives to his home and to his father: after a late night working as an usher at the Carnegie Music Hall, Paul dreads returning to his “ugly sleeping chamber; the cold bath-room with the grimy zinc tub, the cracked mirror, the dripping spigots; his father at the top of the stairs, his hairy legs sticking out from his nightshirt” (211). Paul’s heightened sensitivity to decay parallels his fear of middle-class masculinity as he chooses to sleep in the basement despite being wet, cold, and “horribly afraid of rats” (210) so as to avoid his father’s questions about his late arrival home. This self-induced exile fuels Paul’s fear of potential violence as he envisions his father mistaking him for an intruder and regretting “that there had been no warning cry to stay his hand” (211). Paul is simultaneously repulsed and crudely fascinated with the brawny power of his father and extends these conflicted feelings to the men of Cordelia Street, whom he perceives as suffocating examples of the ethics of big business and hard work: on a Sunday afternoon, paunchy men sit on their stoops discussing prices and sharing tales of their wise “chiefs and overlords” (212). Intertwining “legends of the iron kings with remarks about their sons’ progress at school, their grades in arithmetic, and the amounts they saved in their toy banks,” the “burghers” of Cordelia Street fill their day of leisure with talk of work and the hope that their children, already attuned to the logic of numbers and the benefits of durable employment, will grow to surpass their fathers in wealth and status.

Like his neighbors, Paul’s father is not poor, but has a “worthy ambition to come up in the world” (212) and wants his son to do the same. Paul’s father hopes he will pattern himself in the footsteps of a young neighbor who is a clerk “to one of the magnates of a great steel corporation and was looked upon in Cordelia Street as a young man with a future” (213). Clerks were an essential part of the growing steel economy, replacing craftsmen as key players in the modern mill, with direct ties to management, resources, and production (Couvares 88). Carnegie claimed that “nothing was more profitable than clerks” for keeping track of workers in the mills, taking note of “who saved material, who wasted it, and who produced the best results” (qtd. in Couvares 88). At once bookkeeper and informant, Paul’s neighbor represents everything Paul does not want to be: a “mere rivet in the machine” (226). Having sired children with an unattractive wife, the young man abdicated the rights of youth to devote himself to his career and his boss, who is currently cruising on a yacht in the Mediterranean, heroically working as much on his vacation as he does at home (213). While Paul finds his father’s “wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life” tedious (216), he is charmed by the “triumphs of cash boys who had become famous,” savoring the “high play at Monte Carlo,” while having “no mind for the cash-boy stage” (214).[3] These stories of luxury and excess fuse with Paul’s vivid imagination, intensified by the stimuli of Carnegie Hall, to create Paul’s sense of himself as distinct from the practical men of Cordelia Street.

This aversion to middle-class authority is most striking at school, where Paul’s class consciousness proves to be the governing force of his temperament. After all, Cather establishes Paul’s character not in the streets of Pittsburgh but in the principal’s office of Pittsburgh High School where he is being reprimanded for “various misdemeanours” (199). From the moment the story opens, there is a disconnect between the insurgent Paul, who disrupts the seriousness of the occasion with his suave demeanor and theatrical dress, and the rigidity of the authorities who state their concerns with “rancour and aggrievedness” (200). Paul responds to the charges as he does to all confrontations not just by lying, but also by brandishing his flamboyant disregard for rules and regulations: “he seemingly made not the least effort to conceal” his condescension; his “physical aversion” to his teachers was “involuntary and definitely personal” (200–201). The instructors are so disturbed by Paul’s lack of contrition and by his impertinence that they leave the “inquisition” in despair and humiliation, unable to fully “put into words the real cause of the trouble” (200). While the thing not named here may allude to Paul’s adolescent sexual indeterminacy, as Chang-Hao Ku maintains, or the “gender liminality” betraying his homosexuality, as Eve Sedgwick suggests, it is also Paul’s disruption of class-based logic, I propose, that makes his behavior uncanny. His style and mannerisms are unintelligible to his teachers because they violate the expectations and authorized codes through which capital gains authority and compliance. His teachers lack the language to successfully normalize his “hysterically defiant manner” (200), as the discourse surrounding Paul’s interrogation is confined by the heteronormative systems and uneven superstructures, both economic and linguistic, enforced by Pittsburgh High School.

Disrupting conventional protocol, Paul’s protest against mediocrity is embodied by his perverse costuming, which allows him to move freely between ranks with a smug feeling of superiority. His scandalous red carnation, opal pin, and outgrown, velvet-collared overcoat, distressed and shabby, symbolize his flippant attitude toward propriety, merging bourgeoisie signifiers in unpredictable ways. Although Terrell Scott Herring sees Paul as “a well-dressed vagabond” who engages in “a queer form of slumming,” Timothy Bintrim reads Paul as a dandy, flaunting “convention and academic censure by adorning himself with jaunty neckwear” (4). Noting Cather’s opening description of Paul who has, despite his worn-out vestments,“something of the dandy about him” (199), Bintrim employs Charles Baudelaire’s genealogy of the dandy to inform his analysis of Paul’s combative attitude and perpetual ennui. Paul is both stylized and mockingly self-assured, his very body, his “forced animation” (201), and sly smirk deployed as signs of aversion to all that is commonplace. Incorporating Dick Hebdige’s punk semiotics, I regard Paul’s attire as a form of bricolage which consciously juxtaposes previously unconnected commodities. For Hebdige, subcultures like punks and mods style themselves in “obviously fabricated” ways, displaying, abusing, and modifying codes to “go against the grain of mainstream culture” (101–2). Parodying the lifestyle and bourgeoisie beliefs of his accusers, Paul undermines authoritative discourse with his defiant gestures and punk apparel, which combine, in the language of Hebdige, to signal a “[r]efusal” (3) to participate in the status quo.

If Pittsburgh High School represents the smothering and dull values of a striving middle class, Carnegie Music Hall in the city’s Oakland neighborhood epitomizes the infinite possibilities of class mobility for Paul; it is “his secret temple, his wishing carpet,” transporting him, “blue league after blue league” (217) away from “all the stupid and ugly things” (216–17). Built in 1895, the Carnegie complex had an “explicit social agenda: to define, create and disseminate the highest culture” (Couvares 105). The Music Hall, Carnegie insisted, was for the masses who had an appreciation and love for the music which the “prosperous already enjoyed” and was built by a man who himself was a wage-earner and who had “the good of that class greatly at heart” (Nasaw 502). Its location in the Oakland section of the city, midway between downtown and the streetcar suburbs it abuts, served to establish Oakland as a “pivot for the middle class,” a frontier of East End culture, and a “staging ground for new efforts” to elevate and civilize working-class sensibilities (Couvares 105–6). Not surprisingly, labor organizers were critical of the endeavor and would continue to associate the Carnegie complex with the antilabor rhetoric of the Homestead Strike and its ensuing trials.[4] Although “this cluster of enlightened agencies,” as the Pittsburgh Survey notes, magnified the economic inequalities of the city, the Carnegie campus, specifically the Music Hall with free weekly organ recitals, also gave coherence and shape to the spirit of citizenship (18); Paul’s connection with the Music Hall exemplifies this schism alongside an exaggerated awareness of cultural exclusion to fabricate a chain of contradictions characteristic of class consciousness.

As Sara Nadal-Melsió emphasizes, class consciousness is not an end in itself, but the beginning of a series of oppositions manufactured by bourgeois thought, where the subject, unaware of her agency, is always at odds with the objects around her (74). Cather captures the institutional conflicts inherent in the Music Hall in the decisive scene in which Paul’s English teacher unexpectedly appears in the aisles to be seated by Paul. The teacher’s trespass, “with checks for the seats which a prominent manufacturer had taken for the season,” exposes the uneven social structure of the Carnegie Music Hall by making a statement about belonging and patronage (205). Although Paul ultimately concludes she has “about as much right to sit there as he had,” he must first define himself in opposition to her as the gatekeeper of the people in his section (205). The arrogance feigned by both participants here attests to the fallacy of identity politics, which is a fetishistic form of bourgeoisie thought having nothing to do with the subject or object they claim to represent and are “an expression of the reproductive potential of ideology” (Nadal-Melsió 71). Making palpable what was previously an unconscious abstraction, both Paul and the teacher are made suddenly aware of their place by seeing each other out of context. In the Music Hall, which Paul envisions as a utopia, he can pretend to be who he is not: a “charming boy” hosting a “great reception” (204–5). Similarly, the teacher, with tickets most likely “sent to her out of kindness” for seats she cannot afford, is assuming a position outside her class with “a hauteur” that will embarrass her later (205). The teacher’s reaction to Paul makes her “feel very foolish,” leaving Paul with the upper hand as he looks her over critically, deciding she is a fool to be sitting “downstairs with such togs” (205). As a conduit of capital enterprise, the Carnegie Music Hall is a place where the “masses” come to enjoy the rewards of their labor, yet, as this scene reveals, pleasure is employed by and for the bourgeoisie as an ideological apparatus sustaining the economic divisions and interests of the Carnegie class.

Paul is caught between the reality of this division and the fantasy of escape until the music begins and he is able to lose himself, freeing “some hilarious spirit within him; something that struggled there like the Genius in the bottle found by the Arab fisherman” (205). For David Carter, Cather’s reference to the fairy tale here “serves to undercut any possible evaluation of [Paul] as artistically serious or mature” (602). Unable to appreciate the work and skill inherent in the creative process, Paul is trapped within a myth of his own making and wants nothing more than the imaginative possibilities,“the indiscernible thrill” he obtains from the music (217). The allusion to the “Genius in the bottle,” I suggest, doubles as a reference to Carnegie Hall, “Paul’s fairy tale,” and to his unfulfilled wish of “doing or saying splendid, brilliant things” (215). Without any substantial interest in the artistic merit of the symphony, Paul simply admires the instruments as they fuse together to create a blaze of “unimaginable splendor,” disconnecting him from the actual work of the performers (206). Paul’s limited imagination, as Claude Summers suggests, “distorts his capacity to perceive clearly his relationship to society and others” (113). The dancing lights and energy of the performers permit Paul to feel a “zest for life,” but he is incapable of transferring this experience to the world beyond the stage. Dependent upon the intoxication and stimuli of Carnegie Music Hall, the “delicious excitement which was the only thing that could be called living at all,” Paul is “irritable and wretched” once the concert is over and hurriedly changes out of his uniform in pursuit of his next distraction (206).

“Pacing rapidly up and down the walk” like a stage-door Johnny, Paul refuses to let the night come to an end and quickly channels his energy into catching a glimpse of the soloist coming out of the Music Hall. But the singer receives little attention here, as the real star is the Hotel Schenley:

big and square through the fine rain, the windows of its twelve stories glowing like those of a lighted card-board house under a Christmas tree. All the actors and singers of any importance stayed there when they were in the city, and a number of the big manufacturers of the place lived there in the winter. (206–7)
Fig. 5.2. Hotel Schenley, 1910. Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Archives Photograph Collection, 1810–2006, UA. Photos, University Archives, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System. Cather conveys the regal presence of the hotel by delineating the way in which Paul, always an outsider waiting and watching, accesses the hotel as both an idea and concrete, lived experience, as if his knowledge of who goes in and goes out allows him to be a witness as well as a participant of privilege. Yet the reader, unlike the naïve Paul, is aware that this establishment epitomizes yet another wish that will never come true; analogous to the miniature house under the Christmas tree, the hotel projects an image of an ideal that Paul cannot attain. Off-limits to Paul, the Hotel Schenley, with its “glistening surfaces and basking ease,” enkindles Paul’s appetite for wealth in a way no other Pittsburgh site does. Although his imagination failed him earlier in the evening, it does not fail him here, as Paul imagines himself entering the hotel and going up the steps “into the warm lighted building, into an exotic tropical world” (207). Inspired by his longing to transcend the boundaries of his class, Paul follows his fantasy further into the dining room, picturing the “mysterious dishes” and “green bottles in buckets of ice, as he had seen them in the supper-party picture of the Sunday supplement” (207). Hunger permeates this imagined reflection, which serves to enhance Paul’s fictional sense of belonging while simultaneously differentiating him as an interloper. Drawing on the work of Raymond Tallis, this palpable hunger for food, for the satisfaction of a fine meal in a beautiful warm room, leads to other hungers, namely the intoxicating desire for money, which promises limitless possibilities and is the “most potent agent of insatiable consumption” (68). Paul is so seduced by the infinite variety of pleasures shining through the window that he is shocked to find himself “still outside in the slush of the gravel driveway” (208). With the rain beating down on his face, Paul’s trance is temporarily broken; still, his desire for the “fairy world” of the Hotel Schenley and the indulgences it affords is affirmed “tangibly before him” (208).

The hotel’s majestic allure reflected Edward Manning Bigelow’s City Beautiful vision of the Schenley Park area as a retreat from the “mechanized, brutal world of the city” (Muller and Bauman 132). Bigelow, who was appointed by his cousin, politician Christopher Lyman Magee, to be the director of the Department of Public Works in 1888, created Pittsburgh’s first park by convincing Mary Elizabeth Croghan Schenley to donate three hundred acres of land to the city on the condition that the park be named after her (“Schenley Plaza” 1–2).[5] He then hired British landscape architect William Falconer to design a “romantic landscape,” introducing Pittsburgh to the most “advanced and modern botanical standards of botany, horticulture, and landscape architecture” (“Schenley Plaza” 2). The park would expand over time to include bridle paths, a lake for boating, a lily pond, a music pavilion, and the hotel, which was built in 1898. With the financial backing of the industrial elite, Franklin Niccola, a member of the Civic Club of Allegheny County, conceived of the Hotel Schenley “as a cornerstone of his design for a Pittsburgh ‘White City’ in Oakland” (Muller and Bauman 133). To this end, the hotel served as a towering example of fin-de-siècle architecture, combining the Beaux Arts ethos of an exquisite estate with a cosmopolitan passion for urban environmentalism. Landscaped by the Olmsted brothers, whose father was the renowned designer of New York’s Central Park, the circumference of the hotel featured formal and informal pathways, an ordered assembly of trees, and a hedge of closely planted shrubs protecting the lawn and serving as a barrier between the communal sidewalk and the more regulated entrances of the hotel. At once a private and public institution, the hotel exemplified the paradoxes of the reform movement that, fearful of social disorder, pushed the boundaries of concern for beauty and safety into larger, shared social spaces, which were nonetheless off-limits to the majority of Pittsburghers.

The restrictedness of the hotel, as well as its connection to Big Steel, was underscored on January 9, 1901, when eighty-nine executives of Carnegie companies gathered in the Schenley Hotel ballroom on the eve of the formation of the United States Steel Corporation. Worried that the steel industry “was facing a potentially ruinous crisis of overproduction” that would lead to “lower prices and vanishing profits” (Nasaw 584), Charles M. Schwab worked diligently to smooth negotiations between Carnegie and Pierpont Morgan, pleading “industrial peace and growth through consolidation” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh: 1758–2008 54). Although Carnegie did not initially want to do business with Morgan, he eventually changed his mind and sold his company for $480 million, establishing U.S. Steel as the first corporation in the United States worth more than one billion dollars, a deal that would make several dozen attendees millionaires and grant Carnegie the status of being the richest man in the world.[6] The much anticipated “Meal of Millionaires,” a celebration of private accumulation and corporate dominance, showcases the exclusivity of the Hotel Schenley and its entitled guests. Cather underscores this connection in the 1905 version of “Paul’s Case” in which Paul perceives the hotel doormen as “mocking spirits” forbidding his entry.[7] Magnifying the foreboding omnipotence of wealth alongside Paul’s fascination with his own exclusion, these ghostly figures correlate to the unpredictable mutations that occur within the historical evolution of capital whenever massive financial power is assembled.

Fig. 5.3. R. W. Johnston, Carnegie executive dinner, Schenley Hotel Ballroom, where guests sit at tables arranged in the shape of a railroad rail cross section, 9 January 1901. Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Archives Photograph Collection, 1810–2006, UA. University Archives, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System.

With or without these taunting guards, the looming presence of the hotel operates as a material marker of Paul’s class consciousness as it moves imperceptibly from the present to the future: “Tangibly before him, like the fairy world of a Christmas pantomime” (208), the hotel represents the immeasurable, embellished affluence of the elite—and is as unreal and enticing to Paul as a Christmas pageant. This childlike wonder is accompanied by Paul’s dread of a future in which he is destined “always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it” (208). While in one sense, the “it” here is the opulence of capital,represented by the Hotel Schenley,“it”also refers to the destination to which Paul aspires, foreshadowing his transition from standing outside the “Waldorf of Pittsburgh” to residing, however temporarily, in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, where Paul, now a fugitive, will wonder how “there were honest men in the world at all” (226). This maneuver and the criminality it entails were inspired by a story in the Pittsburgh newspapers, in which a nineteen-year-old clerk, James J. Wilson, stole between fifteen hundred and two thousand dollars from the Denny Estate. Wilson fled to Chicago with his friend Harold Orr; once there, the young men indulged in “aristocratic” extravagances, buying designer clothes and jewelry and staying in high-priced hotels (Bintrim and Madigan 112). Similarly, Paul uses the money he steals from Denny & Carson to immerse himself in the lavish lifestyle he feels he deserves, replete with the accoutrements of shiny trinkets and gourmand meals. Feeling “a good deal more manly, more honest,” Paul may now “dress the part” without remorse for his crime or the need for “boastful pretensions” (228–29). But these illusions quickly evaporate once news of the heist is circulated in the Pittsburgh papers and Paul spends the last of his money in a frantic, drunken haze.

When Wilson was caught by the police on 17 November 1902, the Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph quoted him as saying, “I cannot explain why I took the money. I seemed to be in the power of some unforeseen force” (Bintrim and Madigan 113). This indescribable “force” corresponds to the magical thinking,“the childish belief in miracles” (230), that buoys Paul along the shores of disillusionment until he is no longer capable of manufacturing the images necessary to sustain him: “the picture-making mechanism was crushed” (234). Paul’s decision to commit suicide raises questions regarding values and how the choices we make establish our values, our design for living. As David Harvey notes, Marx maintained “that there is a certain kind and measure of value which is being determined by a process that we do not understand and which is not necessarily directed by our conscious choice” (21). Unpacking the manner in which these standards are being imposed is crucial if we are to comprehend where we are in “this maelstrom of churning values” (Harvey 21). Cather’s ten years in Pittsburgh gave her the opportunity to witness how these values and the aesthetic ideals they create are fueled by inequality and the establishment of a ruling, leisure class. In “Paul’s Case,” Cather has exposed the historical geography and economic development of Pittsburgh to underscore the influence of institutions in the construction of a class consciousness that relies on the problematic relationship between the materiality of Cordelia Street and “the glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth” (225), leaving the reader to decide if the price is worth the cost.


 1. For Lukács, capitalism creates societies with “a purely economic articulation,” which allows class consciousness, previously concealed in precapitalist periods, to emerge as the driving force of history and production (58–59). (Go back.)
 2. Many of these reformers, like Isabelle McClung, were members of the Civic Club of Allegheny County, which was founded in 1895. (Go back.)
 3. On 12 January 1902, the New York Sun, under the headline “Schwab Breaks the Bank,” reported that Charles M. Schwab, president of the U.S. Steel Corporation, had been seen playing roulette in Monte Carlo, winning “75,000 francs on two successive coups” and dropping several thousand dollars. Carnegie was shocked by the news of Schwab’s gambling and wrote a letter to J. P. Morgan suggesting Schwab resign from his position; however,“Morgan made light of the matter” (Nasaw 638). (See John A. Garraty, “When the Headlines Said: Charlie Schwab Breaks the Bank,” Heritage, vol. 8, no. 3, 1957). Carnegie felt personally betrayed, as he had spent a lifetime trying to dispel the image of capitalists as gamblers. The fact that “his chief protégé had been caught red-handed” was his “worst nightmare” (Nasaw 638). (Go back.)
 4. Judge Samuel A. McClung, Isabelle McClung’s father, presided over the trial of Alexander Berkman who had tried to assassinate Henry Clay Frick a week following the Battle of Homestead; the judge gave Berkman the most extreme sentence allowed under law (Lewis 52). (Go back.)
 5. Heiress Mary Elizabeth Croghan Schenley inherited a thousand acres of choice land in Pittsburgh from her grandfather but chose not to live there. Eloping with a captain in the British navy when she was fifteen, she lived the rest of her sixty-two years in France and England (Toker 80). Although she remained loyal to Pittsburgh, she never returned to the city and was unpopular “with most Pittsburghers, who regarded her estate as a ‘parasite’” (Oresick 16). Oresick claims that the modern myth of her popularity is a symptom of historical forgetfulness (16). (Go back.)
 6. An immediate success, the company made two-thirds of the country’s steel, controlling every aspect of the steelmaking process, from the materials to the ships carrying the steel. (Go back.)
 7. As Carpenter and Woodress discuss, Cather revised “Paul’s Case” extensively between its 1905 publication in The Troll Garden and its later appearance in Youth and the Bright Medusa in 1920. (Go back.)


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