Sunday, July 12, 2020

Paul’s Case

Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings

“After a while he sat down before a blue Rico and lost himself.” Above: Rio San Trovaso, Venice, 1903, oil on canvas by Spanish landscape painter Martin Rico y Ortega. Image via Meadows Museum, Dallas.

The Martin Rico painting that the protagonist of “Paul’s Case” would have seen at the Carnegie was San Trovaso, an earlier (and vertical) rendering of the above scene from a slightly different angle. Purchased by the museum in 1897 and now in a private collection, the earlier painting was described by Cather in a 1900 review of Carnegie’s gallery: “Among these graver performances, one comes upon a bit of Venice done by gay Master Rico, San Trovaso, on a sunny morning. A very blue sky, a silvery canal, white and red houses, bridges and gay gondolas, and in the foreground the dear Lombard poplar, the gayest and saddest of trees, rustling green and silver in the sunlight.”

During her lifetime, Willa Cather’s most famous short story was almost certainly “Paul’s Case,” and for many years it was the only work of fiction she allowed to be anthologized. In 1944 she wrote to John S. Phillipson, a young fan who years later became the founding editor of The Thomas Wolfe Review:
You ask me about “Paul’s Case,” I once had in my latin class a nervous, jerky boy who was always trying to make himself “interesting,” and to prove that he had special recognition and special favours from members of a stock company then playing in the town theater. You will recognize one part of Paul. The other part of Paul is simply the feeling I myself had about New York City and the old Waldorf Astoria (not the horrid structure which now stands on Park Avenue), when I first left college and was teaching latin in the Pittsburgh High School. I used to come to New York occasionally then, and that is the way the City seemed to me.
“In many ways Paul is a male version of Willa Cather,” writes Sharon O’Brien in Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. “In addition to the adolescent rebellion, she grants him her love for music and theater; her distaste for the mundane and the conventional; and her repudiation of the expected gender role.”

Cather had been working as an editor and arts critic in Pittsburgh for six years (and teaching Latin for fifteen months) when the scandal that inspired the story’s plot dominated the headlines of the city’s newspapers. In November 1902 the nineteen-year-old son of a prominent minister, who worked as a clerk for the Denny Estate, robbed the office safe of nearly two thousand dollars, fled to Chicago with his younger cousin, and checked into one of the most expensive hotels. The teenagers lived ostentatiously during the next two weeks, spending much of the money on clothes, jewelry, sightseeing, fine dining, and nightlife before they were arrested in Milwaukee and returned to Pittsburgh. Their fathers reimbursed the Denny Estate for the theft, and the charges were dropped. According to the Pittsburgh Leader, the minister’s son just wanted “to know how it would feel to have enough money to have just as good a time as any boy would care about having.”

Yet “Paul’s Case” is far more complex and subtle than a mere retelling of adolescent crime through the lens of autobiography. It is about a “very American dream, the romance of money,” as Cather scholar Loretta Wasserman puts it; in Cather’s words, Paul learns “that money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted.” The lack of autonomy that wealth could provide condemns Paul to a boring, sterile future. “Paul’s Case,” like all of Cather’s stories set in Pittsburgh, is “about the opposition between aesthetic aspirations and individualism, and the crushing, unimaginative orthodoxy of the bourgeois business world,” writes biographer Hermione Lee.

The story also deals with the ever-present struggle between morality and aesthetics. “All Pittsburgh is divided into two parts, Presbyteria and Bohemia, and the former is much the larger and more influential kingdom of the two,” Cather wrote in 1897 in a series of articles sent back home for publication in the Nebraska State Journal. The kingdom of Presbyteria “objects to enjoyment of all kinds, particularly aesthetic enjoyment”—but, as Cather made clear the previous year, she didn’t think all that much of Bohemia, either. “Bohemia is pre-eminently the kingdom of failure,” she wrote in a review of Henri Murger’s The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter, the book that helped popularize the word. “For a young man it may be a temporary abiding place whose skies are not altogether hopeless. . . . But an old man who is still hanging about the outskirts of Bohemia is a symbol of the most pitiful failure on earth.” And of all the “old men” loitering around Bohemia, the one to whom she most objected seems to have been Oscar Wilde.

In reviews and essays published in the mid-1890s, when Cather was barely twenty, she lambasted the carnation-wearing Irish “buffoon.” In one article, she praised Robert Hichens’s parody Green Carnations, “It turns and twists those absurd mannerisms and phrases of Wilde’s until they appear as ridiculous as they really are. . . . The affectation poisons his style, his vigor, and his whole personality. He loses not only his art but his manhood.” After Wilde’s conviction for “gross indecency” in 1895, she condemned him afresh: “I am not speaking of his crimes against society, which all men know. I am speaking of his crimes against literature.” In yet another column, she wrote, “We will have no more such plays as Lady Windermere's Fan, no more such stories as The Picture of Dorian Gray. We can do without them. They were full of insanity.” Yet, forty years later, when she wrote a new preface for The Song of the Lark, she acknowledged her novel’s echoes of the very book she had dismissed when she was a young author: “The life of nearly every artist who succeeds in the true sense (succeeds in delivering himself completely to his art) is more or less like Wilde's story, The Portrait [sic] of Dorian Gray.”

When Cather began to write “Paul’s Case” during the winter of 1902–03, Wilde had been dead for two years, and her sympathetic portrayal of the title character hints that her urban life in Pittsburgh, her friends in music and theater, and her own conflicted sexuality may have already softened her attitudes toward both Wilde and Bohemia. In the story, Cather introduces Paul as a “suave” student whose very mannerisms were considered “peculiarly offensive in a boy,” noting that “there was something of the dandy about him, and he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black four-in-hand, and a red carnation in his button-hole”—evoking Wilde’s ubiquitous green carnation. Because of these passages and many others, the question of whether Paul may have been, in Cather’s imagination, a closeted gay teenager has permeated discussions of the story for the past four decades. Her decision to remain vague on the subject would have been in keeping not only with the mores of her time (not to mention the demands of any respectable publisher) but also with her steady belief that “literalness” is less effective in literature, as she explained in her 1922 essay “The Novel Démeublé”:
Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, it seems to me, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the over-tone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.

Notes: Jean-François Raffaëlli was a French realist painter and sculptor; at the time of the story, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh owned at least two of his Paris street scenes, including Boulevard des Italians, Paris. Cather mentions three operas: Faust (1859) by Charles Gounod; Martha (1847) by Friedrich von Flotow; and Rigoletto (1851) by Giuseppe Verdi. The Blue Danube is a waltz composed in 1867 by Johann Strauss II.

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It was Paul’s afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanours. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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