The years from 1900 to 1910 witnessed great growth in business and industry in America. Fortunes were made producing steel and iron: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and J. P. Morgan all made vast amounts of money during this period. They were the most famous of the “robber barons,” those whose wealth was created by questionable labor practices and whose businesses were favored by the government since they were fundamental in creating the infrastructure necessary for the United States to become a world power. In “Paul’s Case” such industrial leaders appear in references to the “iron kings” discussed on Cordelia Street on Sunday afternoons.
With fewer government regulations on business than there are now, industry leaders ruthlessly pursued profit. Their profits allowed them to become voracious consumers of material goods. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe such ostentatious display of money and luxury through clothes, travel, cars, and architecture. This use of wealth is most apparent in “Paul’s Case” in the section devoted to New York—the Waldorf Hotel, Paul’s dress clothes and silk underwear, his champagne and opera. Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth, published the same year, also deals with the era’s high society, focusing on a beautiful and young upper-class woman who seeks to secure her fortunes by marriage but can bring herself to sacrifice neither love nor wealth.
Still, some of the wealthy found ways to spend their surplus in ways that benefited society as a whole. Andrew Carnegie established himself as the country’s leading philanthropist by granting money to libraries, foundations, and venues for the arts, including music halls that bear his name in New York City and, as described in “Paul’s Case,” Pittsburgh.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Willa Cather, Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.