The Professor’s House by Willa Cather


Willa Cather has a voice so clear you can hear it halfway across the prairie. Plain spoken and unpretentious in her use of the English language, Cather writes in a distinctively American style. Sinclair Lewis praised Cather for making “the outside world know Nebraska as no one else has done.” Her uncanny observations of ordinary people and the deftness with which she could show the vicissitudes of big sky weather on the farmers, frontiers and immigrants remains unparalleled in contemporary fiction.

Once every decade I get a hankering for her sweet storytelling skill. O Pioneers! (1913) captured my devotion as a book worth re-reading; and I have, more than once. My Antonia (1918) revealed how words could convey the depth of emotions felt but left unspoken. The 1915 novel The Song of the Lark is the third volume which comprised her Prairie Trilogy; but I have not yet read it. I want to save something of hers about frontier life for later in my life.

Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) is still on my bookshelf unread. Instead, a decade ago I devoured Saphira and the Slave Girl (1940); the last novel she wrote is my favorite.

When it was my turn to pick the next selection for my fiction reading group I thought about Willa Cather. Instead of reading current releases, this group of friends and booklovers convenes to discuss fiction they have always meant to read, but haven’t. We are mostly folks who work in the realm of non-fiction and seek to read some of the classics for fun. Yup, fun.

When I joined this group our first reading selection was Nabokov’s Pnin. Intimidated? Me reading Russian literature? Absolutely shaking in my cowgirl boots. Until we got together and started talking; and laughing. This Russian visiting professor at Cornell University had written a hysterically funny satire of Ithaca. The jokes proved much funnier in the company of other readers. With this background in mind, I knew reading Willa Cather would be fun for us.

Most of the authors we’ve read recently have been masculine. Willa Cather does not write in a feminist fashion. Before she became a critically successful novelist, Cather earned her badges as a writer for women’s magazines. Her first book she wrote as a serial in McClures; a critical biography of Christian Science founder, Mary Baker Eddy. In her novel she offers a pretty convincing standard masculine point of view.  I don’t think of her as “women’s fiction” at all.

I wanted to read something I hadn’t read before and didn’t already know as a fan of her writing. Call it the intellectual stretch. The Professor’s House (1925) is a short book with only three chapters. Now that I read the book I recognize it as three pieces written separate and apart from one another.

The second chapter, “Tom Outland’s Story,” stood alone for many years as an unfinished work. Today it would stand alone as a captivating short story about the Southwest during the frontier days. Thirty six pages long, this voice is Willa Cather at her storytelling best. It’s the story of two young men and their archeological discovery on a mesa. A man’s story: friendship, adventure, betrayal  and loss. It’s a masterpiece of description for a time and a place; the reader is dropped into the middle of the frontier prairie landscape and its human scenery.

The first and third chapters are wraparounds. Seventy pages of narration about the professor and his family and circumstances related to Tom Outland’s premature death build up to the revelation in Chapter Two. The third chapter is only thirteen pages long and yet it’s where all the plot lines pull together.

The narrative premise pulling these three pieces written at different times is that a professor doesn’t like the direction his life has taken. Due to circumstances, Professor Godfrey St. Peter has come into more comfortable circumstances as a result of his daughter’s inheritance from Tom Outland, her fiancée, and his own writing and publishing success as a scholar. His wife, Lillian, also receives a small inheritance check every month from her family and has sustained all appearances of class for his insignificant income as a college professor.

The professor and his wife Lillian have two daughters; and now two son-in-laws. His own position with regards to his own family as he faces his 50s is at stake. His wife moves into their new house, but he decides to keep his old study in the rackety-trap attic in the old house. He’s stuck. He’s stuck because of what transpired with Tom Outland. There is mention of a patent  and his invention as a student there in the college; the professor and his family had taken Tom in as an unschooled youth and he proved a scientific genius. The exact financials are kept rather discretely; implications are that it makes the professor quite uncomfortable.

The professor won’t accompany his family on their trip to Europe for the summer. He spends it in the old house in his study doing as he pleases for the first time since his youth. Seeing Lillian fall in fondness with their sons-in-law, he recognizes he has long ago fallen out of love with his wife.

He finds in the seamstress a confidante over all the years they shared the attic for their “work.” She is never sexualized, but throughout the first and third chapters she is the female heroine to the professor. Augusta is St. Peter’s rock.

In the third and final chapter, the Professor finally falls prey to the dangers of his woodstove and the weather in his attic. He collapsed into a sleeping stupor in the midst of a rain storm after spending the afternoon and evening contemplating the meaningless of his family relations and career; carbon monoxide filled the room. He welcomed the easy escape, before Augusta rescues him just in time for his family to arrive home from Europe.

Perhaps this felt like a cob job because I bought a crappy paperback edition. The corrupted fonts resulted in a variety of typos and pages 68-72 were duplicated passages. Something tipped me off that the narrative flow was more than a little contrived. It isn’t Cather’s best novel. Novella is even a stretch. Triptych maybe.

I take some solace in seeing one of my heroines trying to make a living wage from her work. Like many writers, pieces and fragments of our best work lie outside that which is easily marketable. This shows she tried to take one of her gems and work it into a fine piece of jewelry; didn’t quite work, but the gem is apart from its setting. And you see how the stone is distinct from the steel. As a reader and a writer I liked looking at more of her writing and career as I see how hard it remains to make a living at this craft of writing.

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