Cather, while an undergraduate, spoke of Flaubert as a writer who "sees" (Alvin G. Johnson, quoted in Sergeant 10). She became a comparably "visual" artist herself. It is no surprise, therefore, that she used Flaubert's novel Salammbô as a foundation, a visual commentary, for her early story "Behind the Singer Tower"; but it may come as a surprise that she also drew a metaphor from Flaubert for a crisis in her artistic life.
Cather wrote "Behind the Singer Tower" while she was still thankful that she had escaped from Nebraska—not merely to the cave of the Iron Kings that was Pittsburgh but to fabulous New York City itself. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant tells us how Cather gloried in what the city had to offer: the Metropolitan Opera, the green world of Central Park, tea in an elegant hotel dining room with attentive waiters. As managing editor of McClure's, she was not only earning enough money to pay for many of the things she wanted to do, but she was also enjoying prestige, recognition, and power. She was no longer victim to the ignorant in Red Cloud; [End Page 39] she was flying high on a job she mostly enjoyed and was aware that every minute of her new life was a substantial improvement on what she had feared when, sixteen years earlier in Red Cloud, she sometimes wrote "Siberia" as the place of origin of her letters.
Cather went through a personal crisis while trying to decide if she should take Sara Orne Jewett's advice and give up the rewarding position at McClure's to devote herself to fulltime writing. Although she knew the distinction between immediate rewards and personal immortality through art, she was also aware of the odds against her or anyone else who aspired to those heights. Moreover, she had been almost morbidly aware from adolescence of the sacrifice that art exacts. At the age of twenty-three she had written to Mariel Gere, "There is no God but one God and Art is his revealer: that's my creed and I'll follow it to the end . . ." (O'Brien, "Chronology" 1303).
That was her microcosmic crisis. The other was a macrocosmic problem she preferred to distance, for although Cather scorned the way reformers abused art for ulterior motives, she could not ignore the corruption nor the monumental cost in life and pain that her defiantly vertical New York City had exacted in its erection, in its maintenance, or in the conditions of life-diminishing work that provided its economic base. Cather was, after all, managing editor of the leading muck-raking journal in her day. In McClure's one read literate accounts of sweatshop conditions, fires in tenements, and fires in locked factory lofts. Moreover, McClure's readers were often reminded that sweated labor affected almost every household beyond the city through the clothes people wore or the household goods they bought.
Cather's Baptist upbringing made her aware of how the story of the Tower of Babel, warning of the retribution for those who defy hierarchical order, applied to her own two crises. The story also tells us that punishment can descend on aspiring mortals by frustrating them in their power to communicate with one another. On a literal level it suggests that those who attempt to reach their definition of heaven through their own strength will be cast down for their pride.2 Another story Cather would have known as a Latin student is Ovid's story of the giants' piling of Pelion upon Ossa, an additional paradigm of the consequences of aspiration. And in the central work of Latin literature, The Aeneid, she read of Carthage, a city destined to rival Rome, nourished by the funeral pyre of its grieving foundress queen after she had died on her deceased husband's sword. Dido may be said to have been victim of her aspirations [End Page 40] by presuming to appropriate Aeneas to rule Carthage at her side rather than encouraging him in his destiny to found another city that would rival and eventually subdue her own.