Willa Cather and Modern Cultures

By Melissa J. Homestead; Guy J. Reynolds | Go to book overview

5 Chicago’s Cliff Dwellers and
The Song of the Lark

MICHELLE E. MOORE

Cather throws Thea, the heroine of The Song of the Lark, into the cauldron of social, economic, cultural, and artistic forces bubbling in 1890s Chicago. When Thea needs to recuperate from the exhaustion and illness caused by working in Chicago, she spends time at the Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings in Arizona. Her physical movement from Chicago to the cliff dwellings connects the novel’s Chicago chapters and the Panther Canyon chapters and suggests that the two sections inform each other historically and metaphorically.

This essay will show how Chicago embraced the Anasazi Indian cliff dwellers in the years immediately following Richard Wetherill’s discovery of the Cliff Palace of Mesa Verde in 1888. By 1893 the phrase “cliff dwellers” had multiple meanings in Chicago: the culturally advanced Anasazi, or “Ancient Ones” of Mesa Verde; Henry Blake Fuller’s cliff dwellers, who in his novel of the same name are those members of Chicago society who perch at the tops of the city’s skyscrapers; and ideally, the provincial immigrant who has been lifted to a more lofty perch through education, which in turn lifts the higher life of the entire city. The idea of the cliff dwellers also expresses the 1890s concern that the lifted immigrant might knock the cliff-dwelling old European off his perch, and that the entire process of uplift

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