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      The Artist in a Hostile Society: A Reading of Willa Cather's "Paul's Case"

      In Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" the title character tries to escape from what he considers the ugliness of his everyday, middle-class life, i.e., the "real world," into the fairy tale world of the theater and Carnegie Music Hall. As Cather puts it, "it would be difficult to put it strongly enough how convincingly the stage entrance of the theater was for Paul the actual portal of Romance." Actually it seems that Paul was fleeing from the middle-class morality that has characterized the mainstream of American life since the time of the Puritans. In the everyday "real world" of places like Cordelia Street and Pittsburgh High School the inflexible moral values of George Washington and John Calvin reign supreme -- as the values of the majority usually do -- and it seems that one important theme in Cather's story is the often tragic fate of artistic people like Paul in a "real world" society that places quite a low value on artistic endeavors.

      There is, of course, no question about it. Cather has put Paul in the very real world of early 20th Century Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Carnegie Music Hall is a real place built in 1895, and the twelve-story Schenley Hotel (although I can only count ten stories in the picture I found on the internet) was also a real place within view of Carnegie Hall. To get to his home on Cordelia Street (a real place in East Pittsburgh) Paul really would have taken the street car that ran along Negley Avenue (which is still one of the main streets in Pittsburgh). Willa Cather really taught English and Latin in a school like Pittsburgh High School, and there really was a case in a Pittsburgh high school where a young man stole money from his company, ran away, spent all the money, and then killed himself. Cather has made the ugly physical and narrative details of Paul's world very real indeed, and Paul's attitude to this part of "real world" is equally clear:

      Paul never went up Cordelia Street without a shudder of loathing. . .He approached it tonight with nerveless sense of defeat, the hopeless feeling of sinking back forever into ugliness and commonness. . .The moment he turned into Cordelia Street he felt the waters close above his head.

      As disturbing to Paul as the physical ugliness of Cordelia Street is, the moral and intellectual atmosphere distresses him even more. The terms by which Cather describes the people of the neighborhood include "flavorless," "colorless," and -- most importantly -- "respectable"; respectability is just about the last thing that an artist cares about. It is interesting to note that Paul lives next-door to the local Cumberland minister. In the late 19th and early 20th Century the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was openly and obviously supporting most of the harsh old Puritanical beliefs of the early Calvinists. Also, consider for a moment what the pictures over Paul's bed suggest about the moral views of Paul's family and neighbors. The picture of George Washington, who by Paul's day was legendary for "never telling a lie," and the picture of John Calvin, the hell-fire and brimstone religious reformer who preferred drab clothes on women and who thought much of the great art of the world was lewd and sinful and who thought human nature was basically corrupt -- those two pictures placed in Paul's room by a family member who thought them to be appropriate suggest a world where art is not only neglected and where imaginations are stunted; in that kind of world a boy like Paul, who lies regularly and steals from his employers, a boy who is only happy in the fairy tale world of the theater and the music hall -- in such a world a boy like Paul simply cannot exist.

      As Paul nears the end of his stay in New York, he realizes his father will soon come and forcibly take him home to Cordelia Street. The thought of returning to that place truly depresses Paul. He feels as if he will be cut off forever from everything that appeals to his artistic nature:

      He sank into a chair, weak in the knees, and clasped his head in his hands. It was to be worse than jail, even; the tepid waters of Cordelia Street were to close over him finally and forever. The grey monotony stretched before him in hopeless, unrelieved years -- Sabbath School, Young People's Meeting, the yellow-papered room, the damp dish towels; it all rushed back on him with sickening vividness. He had the old feeling that the orchestra had suddenly stopped, the sinking sensation that the play was over.
      Faced with no more Carnegie Hall, no more theater, no more hanging around with theater people, and definitely faced with no more chance to ever return to the fairy tale world of places like the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Paul cannot see any hope for the future. There is nothing in front of him now that could be called real living. He has tried to escape from the middle-class morality of the majority, and he has failed.


      To read other essays about "Paul's Case," click on the links below:

      The Significance of the "Flower Scenes" in Willa Cather's "Paul's Case"
      "Paul's Case": the Adolescent as Tragic Hero