Willa Cather's stature as cultural icon is inextricable from the iconography of her settings. Her fiction famously engages the spectacles of the Divide and the Southwest, but it draws equally and fundamentally upon those of the modern city. Cather's modern cities are in a sense anti-iconographic: they resist as well as attract the eye. They instill desire in characters who can weather their anonymity and competition; still, their treasures hide behind walls of concert halls and museums, fog and memory, at times as inaccessible as the dead cities of the Southwest that set them in cultural relief. As Susan J. Rosowski has demonstrated in her essay "Willa Cather as a City Novelist," Cather's urbanites tend to be reluctant sojourners in cities rather than devoted metropolitans. For Anton Rosicky the city is an extended stopover on a life journey that begins and ends on the land; for Jim Burden it is only a practical point on the larger, continental map of his imagination; for Thea Kronborg the city fires the imagination and the will but gives no personal repose; and for Lucy Gayheart it is a deception, a "city of feeling" masking the "city of fact" (24). Surveying this field, one wonders whether it is possible for the "eyes [to drink] in the breadth of" the city as Alexandra Bergson's do the land in O Pioneers! (64). Is a radical—that is, rooted—city life possible for Cather? Can one settle in the city as one might settle on the land? Cather's 1929 story "Double Birthday," set in Pittsburgh, offers a response to these questions. "Double Birthday" stands out among her portrayals of modern cities in the way her protagonists, a nephew and uncle both named Albert Engelhardt, define themselves imaginatively in terms of urban geography and history.
Among Cather's fictional representations of Pittsburgh, the one we find in "Double Birthday" is unique for its sophistication and range. "The Professor's Commencement" (1902), "Paul's Case" (1905), and "A Gold Slipper" (1917) each portray an almost unbridgeable gap between art culture and commercial values (although the professor tries to build that bridge). Set on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, "Uncle Valentine" (1925) regards the city furtively as a menacing "black pillar of cloud" (24). By contrast, "Double Birthday" portrays the artist-intellectual trying to domesticate the city by bringing its spatial and historical coordinates into dialogue. In his introduction to The Best American Short Stories of the Century, where "Double Birthday" is the Cather selection, John Updike characterizes Cather's Pittsburgh here as "a great city as cozy and inturned as a Southern hamlet" (xvii). The protagonists' relationship to Pittsburgh is not oppositional but rather dialectical—in Walter Benjamin's sense that capitalist society can be reimagined by reading its fragmentary forms against the grain of progress.
The Jewish messianic Marxist critic's world might seem remote from Cather's, but Benjamin's life span (1892 - 1940) falls within her own, and both harshly criticized modernity while drawing vital energy from it. Benjamin loved cities not for what they show but for what they conceal. For him the modern city, the epitome of progress, is lost in an extended dream fueled by its commercial and industrial engines. Awakening requires stepping through the city in syncopated rhythm, distractedly, close-up—the perspective of the flâneur, the walking city observer—to discover dialectical images. Dialectical images juxtapose past and present forms, expose the vanity of what is called progress, and project a possible future invisible to those caught in the machinery of modern life. In his great unfinished work, The Arcades Project, Benjamin applies this method of analysis to the Paris arcades: glass and iron commercial passageways that represented modernity to the nineteenth century but lay in ruins by the 1930s. The rise and fall of the arcades epitomizes for Benjamin the transience of capitalism at large. "With the destabilizing of the market economy," he writes, "we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled" (Arcades 13). This recognition creates a space for imagining "the utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions" (4-5). Benjamin studies this urban phantasmagoria in Baudelaire's depictions of Paris in the era of high capitalism. For Benjamin, Baudelaire is an allegorist who rummages through the fragments of modernity "and tests to see if they fit together—that meaning with this image or this image with that meaning" (368). Each epoch, Benjamin argues, dreams the next in dialectical images. By brooding upon history rather than transcending it, the urban allegorist finds grounds for hope where the city appears most frangible. "[T]here are no periods of decline," Benjamin writes. "[E]very city is beautiful to me" (458).
"Double Birthday" resonates with Benjamin's dialectic because it seeks a realignment of community and values within a city that is in various ways disintegrating. Poised, unconsciously, on the brink of the Great Depression (published in February 1929), looking back to the turn of the century, the story spans the heyday of the industrial affluence that occasioned Cather's arrival in Pittsburgh in 1896 as a young editor. Its unifying event is the shared birthday of uncle and nephew Albert (hereafter "Uncle Albert" and "Albert"), born twenty-five years apart on 1 December. Uncle Albert, at eighty, is a retired throat doctor, and Albert, fifty-five, is the last surviving son of a wealthy glass manufacturer. Albert appears to have styled his life upon Benjamin's premise that industrial capitalism—and paradigmatically, glass—yields meaning only in its ruins. Since his father's death, Albert and four brothers have squandered the family's fortune, liquidating the glass factory and substantial real estate— "all gone, melted away" (42). Structurally, the story requires a dialectical reading through the mutual illumination of points in space and time. Remembering her wide-ranging experiences there as editor, writer and teacher, Cather integrates four sections of Pittsburgh—South Side, Squirrel Hill, Allegheny, and downtown—conventionally separated by forces of class and history. The story also reaches beyond Pittsburgh—to New York, where Uncle Albert's sponsorship of Marguerite Thiesinger's vocal training was cut short by her death, and to Rome, where Albert spent three golden years of youth. These locations exist in a dialectical tension that draws upon but reconfigures the hierarchy of the industrial capitalist city. Each of the four sections of Cather's Pittsburgh is anchored in a house—a house that is divided against itself, yet stands.
The two Alberts now live together "in a queer part of the city, on one of the dingy streets that run uphill off noisy Carson Street" (45). They share "a little two-story brick . . . working-man's house," an overlooked property of Albert's father that has become their last refuge (45). Cather modeled this house on the South Side residence of editor George Seibel and family at 114 South Seventeenth Street, where she found a social and intellectual refuge, far exceeding its modest address, during her Pittsburgh years. Cather read French and German literature at the Seibels, and she brought Dorothy Canfield there for a memorable Christmas visit in 1896 (Byrne and Snyder 18-26; Sullivan 22-23; Bennett 66-69). For their part, Cather's two Alberts have likewise patched together on the South Side an unusual family that defies class definition. They rent the downstairs to a former workman in the glass factory and his wife, who keeps house while Albert goes to work, and their granddaughter, who humors old Uncle Albert. Ashes fall in the yard from neighboring chimneys, while the winds of history and culture blow through Albert's rooms. His writing table, rugs, books and pictures, the piano he still plays daily—"[a]ll the years and the youth which had slipped away from him still clung to these things" (45). For Albert, to be free is to feel the friction of history passing and to reflect upon it: "[H]e had lived to the full all the revolutions in art and music that his period covered" (55). Their fragments collect in his apartment—the fin de siècle decadence of Beardsley, Dowson, and Wilde, "works which, though so recent, were already immensely far away and diminished. The glad, rebellious excitement they had once caused in the world he could recapture only in memory" (45).
Albert moves into the future with his eyes fixed on the accumulating debris of the past, much like the Angel of History, Benjamin's allegorical figure in "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1940). Benjamin's description of this figure, based upon Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus (1920), warrants full quotation for the light it sheds on Albert's outlook, and on Cather's as well: His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Illuminations 257-58) Like Benjamin's Angel, Albert reads history against the grain of progress that pushes him ineluctably into the future. Rejecting progressive history, he incorporates the refuse of that history— the fragmented, the unfinished, the outmoded—into his daily life. Albert lives with memories of his own expended youth, and of the youth of modernism, even as he lives, physically, with a worker his father once employed, long after the factory has shut down. Likewise, he lives with memories of the truncated career of his piano teacher, Rafael Joseffy, while Uncle Albert lives with his "lost Lenore," Marguerite Thiesinger, in a perpetuated state of mourning that carries her severed youth into his old age. From Benjamin's perspective, these mournful fixations—although they do not "awaken the dead" or "make whole what has been smashed"—are hopeful because they militate against the oblivion of progress. Benjamin's urban allegorist is a "brooder" whose "memory ranges over the indiscriminate mass of dead lore. Human knowledge, within his memory, is something piecemeal—in an especially pregnant sense: it is like the jumble of arbitrarily cut pieces from which a puzzle is assembled" (Arcades 368). Albert's lifestyle, and Cather's narrative of it, bespeaks an alternative history and an alternative future. Uncle Albert's closing reference to Thomas Gray sounds the note of the entire story: "E'en in our ashes live their wonted fires" (Gray 92).
Judge Hammersley, a friend of Albert's late father, looks down upon Albert from a substantial house on posh Squirrel Hill, the story's second residential coordinate. This house is modeled on the Squirrel Hill residence of Judge Samuel McClung, father of Cather's friend Isabel McClung, at 1180 Murrayhill Avenue, where Cather lived from 1901 through 1906 (Byrne and Snyder 39-40; O'Brien 234-38). Shaded by old oaks, the Judge's house is "comfortable in the old-fashioned way, well appointed," with a library of divinity, philosophy, and early American history (43). The Judge "didn't think highly of what is called success in the world today," but he laments that Albert has "nothing whatever to show" for his fifty-five years (42). Hammersley has his own rightful piece of the show, but Cather subverts it by portraying him in lockstep with "the machinery of life" (43), by viewing Squirrel Hill from Albert's bohemian perspective, and by culminating the action with the joyful visit of the Judge's daughter to the Alberts' South Side home. Walking past the "massive houses" holding "nothing but the heavy domestic routine[,] all the frictions and jealousies and discontents of family life," Albert "felt light and free" (55).
In the dialectic between South Side and Squirrel Hill, Cather at once deploys and undercuts the contrast between "bohemian" and "Presbyterian" Pittsburgh she drew in an 1897 article in the Nebraska State Journal: "Now all Pittsburgh is divided into two parts. Presbyteria and Bohemia, and the former is much the larger and more influential kingdom of the two" (World and Parish 2: 505). According to Sharon O'Brien, Cather meant by "Presbyteria" "the mutually reinforcing Protestant ethic and spirit of capitalism that denigrated emotion and art." "Bohemia" was "Cather's alternative, marginal world of art and artists who worshipped truth and beauty with aesthetic and emotional fervor rather than mercantile piety." Although Cather knew that the art world depended upon wealth generated by business, she believed Bohemia also depended upon values of "passion, creativity, and spontaneity" antithetical to "Presbyterian" culture (O'Brien 224-25). Cather, O'Brien argues, passed easily between these two camps during her Pittsburgh years, but gradually she retreated from Bohemia, eventually landing in the house of eminent Presbyterian Samuel McClung. In Albert, Cather portrays a character who moved quite intentionally in the opposite direction—from Presbyteria to Bohemia—but "Double Birthday" is really about the upsetting of such categories.
A third house, where the Engelhardt boys grew up, rises from turn-of-the-century Allegheny in section 3. This house "of many-colored bricks, with gables and turrets," "striped awnings," and "glittering gravel," situated on the Park and near the market, is a fantastic complement to the surrounding industrial city (48, 57). Whereas South Side and Squirrel Hill exemplify the present-day separation of working class and bourgeoisie, here class divisions and mercantile striving are suspended on a kind of Olmstedian middle ground. In its transitivity the house embodies Benjamin's concept of modern urban experience. As in Benjamin's account of Naples, life in the Engelhardt house is "dispersed, porous, commingled. . . . [E]ach private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life" (Reflections 171). Welcoming to shop boys, to common Marguerite Thiesinger, to the Judge's daughter in her youth—who appreciated that the Engelhardt boys "enjoyed" a woman "aesthetically" rather than "grab[bing]" her "brutally"—the place has now passed into memory (57). Its openness to what Uncle Albert calls "aspiration" rather than "ambition" (51) is symbolized in the large stained-glass window on the west side, "representing a scene on the Grand Canal in Venice, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute in the background, in the foreground a gondola with a slender gondolier" (48). The house opens into Venice, the world city of fluid passageways. As stained glass, the window contrasts with the industrial glass that made the family fortune, glass called "brutal" in Marguerite's deathbed scene in a New York hospital for its teasing combination of transparency and confinement: "Pourquoi, pourquoi?" he [Uncle Albert] muttered, staring blindly at that brutal square of glass" (52).
The fourth section of Cather's Pittsburgh (actually the first chronologically) is downtown, and its signature house is the "gray stone Court House" where, as the story opens, Judge Hammersley awkwardly encounters Albert (41). Although the building is not specifically named as such, Cather's faithfulness to the actual cityscape would identify this as the Allegheny County Courthouse, a late, great work of Henry Hobson Richardson, whose bold Romanesque-American architecture, like Cather's art, fashioned modernity from the forms of the past. By beginning at this courthouse Cather, portrays Pittsburgh's public square as one of justice, but Richardson's subtle blending of modernism and tradition, and his multitude of rhythmically interdependent arches—each casting its own trajectory—counsel against simplistic judgments. Indeed, Cather distinguishes her authorial judgment from the ideology of progress by which the Judge sizes up Albert. "Even in American cities, which seem so much alike," she begins, "where people seem all to be living the same lives, striving for the same things, thinking the same thoughts, there are still individuals a little out of tune with the times—there are still survivals of a past more loosely woven, there are disconcerting beginnings of a future yet unforeseen" (41). Cather evaluates Albert's peculiarity according to a dialectical vision of the city: the vestige of the past typifies the future, the "disconcerting" sound strikes the key of a remote harmony. Benjamin writes: "Historical 'understanding' is to be grasped, in principle, as an afterlife of that which is understood" (Arcades 460).
Cather's retrospective modernism would have found common cause with the City Beautiful movement embraced by urban planners in the early 1900s. Inspired by the magisterial White City at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, and culminating in Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago (1909), the City Beautiful sought order and visibility through spectacular civic centers and axial boulevards unifying previously separate urban districts (Rybczynski 127-48). "Double Birthday" resonates with this movement by bridging different urban sections and by interweaving the lives of characters from these sections. Further, by alluding to Venetian and Roman scenes (in the Allegheny stained glass, and in Albert's memories), the story shares the City Beautiful's enthusiasm for what one of its historians calls "the importable architectonic triumphs of Venice and Rome" (Wilson 85). Although in Pittsburgh the ideal of beauty was stymied by industrial priorities, the city did pursue a comprehensive, long-range plan (beginning with recommendations by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and others in 1910, and continuing into the 1930s) to knit together its metropolitan area, centralize public buildings, and clean the air and rivers (Lorant 364, 368). Beginning in the 1890s, Cather experienced the early philanthropic inklings of this movement toward civic clarity and order in Andrew Carnegie's concert hall, museum, and library in Pittsburgh's Oakland section, an important refuge for Cather on the ground as for her protagonist in "Paul's Case." "Paul's Case" is instructive for understanding Albert's case in "Double Birthday." Civic improvements notwithstanding, for neither Albert nor Paul does Pittsburgh pave an open road to liberation: the paths linking the Alberts' home to the larger city are as personal as the one Paul beats between Carnegie Hall and Cordelia Street. The city intensifies private experience, to a degree that is fatal for Paul, but salutary for Albert, whose realism and maturity are beyond Paul's adolescent reach. For Benjamin, too, the flâneur's private vision always outruns the intentions of the city planner. Although Benjamin perceives Haussmann's nineteenth-century boulevards in Paris as forms of social control, he nevertheless finds there new outlets for the urban allegorist's dialectical vision (Arcades 11-13). Likewise, Cather's Pittsburgh fosters dialectical convergences and afterimages beyond the comprehension of any formal civic plan.
The city's public passageways provide the settings for these personal illuminations. In contrast to the reclusive Judge, who travels by private car, the Alberts are continually ranging across the city in the public way. Albert first appears in the text as an uncanny face emerging from the crowd—"one of these men whom one does not readily place" (41). He commutes between South Side and his downtown clerkship on foot and on streetcar; and when he trudges up Squirrel Hill to accept the Judge's beneficent champagne, he finds it easier to dodge the Prohibition laws than the private automobiles that cut in his way. In his prime, Uncle Albert was a walker in Pittsburgh and New York. To this habit he owes the discovery of Marguerite Thiesinger, that "one Voice" sounding from the open windows of Allegheny High School as he strolled by (48). When she died, he was sitting on a bench in Central Park. Even now Uncle Albert still ventures into the street, with Elsa, the housekeeper's granddaughter, "to join him and see him over the crossings" (53). Occasionally his nephew takes him by streetcar up Mt. Oliver to a German graveyard, presumably where Marguerite is buried. Elsa mimes the urban "crossings" of the Alberts in the "cross-stitch" she practices while chatting with Uncle Albert (54)—underscoring the relationship between urban space and domestic textiles suggested by Cather's opening remark about unusual urbanites typifying "a past more loosely woven" (41). For Benjamin, the flâneur domesticates urban space, immerses himself in its fleeting images and interstitial spaces, and glimpses its inner life. "[F]lanerie can transform Paris into one great interior," Benjamin suggests. "[O]n the other hand, the city can appear to someone walking through it to be without thresholds: a landscape in the round" (Arcades 422). Cather builds an ethics of crossing into her city, where the courage to step into its passageways is rewarded by discovery, and where assisting another there is an expression of charity. This is the meaning of the mysterious, slender gondolier in the stained glass at Allegheny, the image of those who bear the cross of others by bearing their crossings. Uncle Albert bore the cross of Marguerite's death. "That struggle took place in my body," he says. "Her dissolution occurred within me" (53).
Now Albert has assumed the role of gondolier for his aging uncle. But in another sense, Albert is his own passenger, negotiating interior crossings within a city whose dominant values are not his own. Two scenes illustrate his internal struggle in relation to bridges and public transit. In the first, Albert, en route to the Judge's, takes the streetcar across the Twenty-second Street Bridge past "the blazing steel mills" (54). There ensues a scene of confusion that exposes the economic realities over which Albert's life is suspended: "As he waited on Soho Hill to catch a Fifth Avenue car, the heavy frosty air suddenly began to descend in snow flakes. He wished he had worn his old overcoat; didn't like to get this one wet. He had to consider such things now. He was hesitating about a taxi when his car came, bound for the East End" (54). Albert's vulnerability is exposed at the seams of the city—the bridge and transit exchange. In The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch invests such transitional sites with special significance in the urban landscape: "The junction, or place of a break in transportation, has compelling importance for the city observer. Because decisions must be made at junctions, people heighten their attention at such places and perceive nearby elements with more than normal clarity" (73). Albert's hesitation causes the reader, too, to pause and look around. One feature that stands out is those "blazing steel mills," which relate to Albert in a double sense. Earlier the Judge has commented that Albert would have done better to work in the steel mills than to fritter away his youth in Rome. In a larger sense the mills represent the city's great industrial engine, over which Albert has renounced his rightful control in favor of a middle age spent playing in its disapproving glare. In its confluence of economic anxiety and water crossing, this scene recalls an image of Uncle Albert crossing Jersey ferry to New York to oversee Marguerite's singing career: "He often shivered as he crossed the Jersey ferry; he was afraid of Fate. He would tell over her assets on his fingers to reassure himself" (51). Whitman—like, he is "a self-important man . . . standing by the rail of the ferry boat" (51). As Uncle Albert knows, it is such "disconcerting" folk who distinguish that "one Voice" calling through the city's open windows. For both Alberts, the city challenges but ultimately supports a life lived at crosscurrents with its economic norms.
Cather replays the same elements—water crossing, chill, anxiety, contemplation, resumption—in a final scene. It is the anticipated double birthday, and Albert, fighting off the "shiver" of another year, is walking home across the Smithfield Bridge: A thick brown fog made everything dark, and there was a feeling of snow in the air. The lights along the sheer cliffs of Mount Washington, high above the river, were already lighted. When Albert was a boy, those cliffs, with the row of lights far up against the sky, always made him think of some far-away, cloud-set city in Asia; the forbidden city, he used to call it. Well, that was a long time ago; a lot of water had run under this bridge since then, and kingdoms and empires had fallen. Meanwhile, Uncle Doctor was hanging on, and things were not so bad with them as they might be. Better not reflect too much. He hopped on board a street car, and old women with market baskets shifted to make room for him. (57) Albert's passage over the waters of the Monongahela River typifies the dialectical structure of the story. Suspended between downtown and déclassé South Side, Albert sees in a single image the dream city of his privileged childhood and the actual city of his reduced middle age. He absorbs this contrast in the context of larger historical upheavals ("kingdoms and empires had fallen") and seems to recognize that his privileged witness to these changes is more precious than any illusion of control over history or of insulation from it. "Better not reflect too much": dropping the subject, Cather's narrative voice merges with the consciousness of her character, achieving a casual, "loosely woven" prose that suspends resolution in step with Albert's own suspense. Like Benjamin's Angel of History, Albert is propelled reluctantly into the future, unable to "make whole what has been smashed." He resumes his journey by mounting a streetcar and casting his lot with a feminine populace who "shifted to make room for him." The flâneur, writes Benjamin, "demanded elbow room" (Illuminations 172). So too, Albert glimpses and passes on, descending into the crowd but maintaining his uniqueness. Albert does not need to reflect, because, through his dialectical vision, the city reflects him, as it has supported his individuality and his freedom to be "out of tune with the times" (41).
"Double Birthday" has been considered a companion story to "Neighbour Rosicky," which Cather wrote immediately before and published just after (Slote xxx; Arnold 126-27), and it is worth asking why Rosicky seeks his fortunes beyond the city while Albert seeks his within it. It comes down to a matter of seeing. On a fateful Fourth of July, Rosicky experiences the sudden emptiness of lower Manhattan, "like the stillness in a great factory when the machinery stops and the belts and bands cease running." The change is "too great," and the city appears "blank" to him (29). Like Rosicky, Albert experiences the ruptures of urban life—that emptiness after the machinery stops— but whereas Rosicky removes to rural Nebraska, Albert bridges the gap and rejoins the urban crowd. Albert sees more deeply. He sees through the city's historical upheavals to the unorthodox social and geographical patterns to which his city life, and this story, bear witness, sketching what Cather calls "a future yet unforeseen." This vision lacks the clarity with which Alexandra Bergson's eyes survey the prairie and foresee its development in O Pioneers! Albert's vision, like Benjamin's, follows the oblique and shifting contours of a modern city where no overarching perspective, of time or space, is possible. Rather, he finds meaning and identity in the chance encounters and fragments of memory that give "Double Birthday" its form.
Cather called Pittsburgh her "birthplace" as a writer ("And Death Comes")—that second artistic birthday, which, as Thea Kronborg discovers, is longer and more personally demanding than the first (Song of the Lark 175-76). Pittsburgh was the first big city where Cather learned to embed personal expression into architecture and social geography, and to grapple with industrial capitalist America from the standpoint of art. Its strategic location, connecting the eastern seaboard to the continental interior; its rivers and dramatic, urbanized heights; its bridges and transit lines; its ethnic diversity and domestic retreats—all of this appealed to her imagination. In "Double Birthday," her final Pittsburgh-set story, Cather portrays a city that reflects as much the geography of her mature fiction as it does the city she experienced as an emerging author. Like her character Albert, fifty-five when the story appeared in 1929, with a December birthday, she perceived a city unified not by progress but by spaces and relationships struck across the currents of change, receding into the future. This imagined Pittsburgh is in a sense the space from which Cather was passing beyond modernity, from which she crossed to those ideal cities at Santa Fe and Quebec that she likewise constructed from the ruins of the past.