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Later Novels: A Lost Lady / The Professor's…
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Later Novels: A Lost Lady / The Professor's House / Death Comes for the…

by Willa Cather

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Having finished "The Professor's House," my first Cather work, I've become an instant fan of the author. This odd, slight, but highly moving tale draws in, with increasing interiority, like the unwrapping of a set of Russian nesting dolls, on its true subject: its protagonist's need to cope with a life that has lost its meaning.

That protagonist is Professor St. Peter, a history professor at a small college in the midwest. In the first book, "The Family," St. Peter is introduced, along with the family and friends whom we naively assume provide sufficient meaning to his world, and to the novel. His wife, daughters, sons-in-law, and colleagues are painted with warmth but candid awareness of their limitations, even while the point of view hovers more closely and sympathetically around St. Peter.

The book's most important character, after the Professor himself, is revealed elliptically and gradually; through dinner table conversation we come to understand that the Professor's son-in-law, Louie, is daughter Rosamond's second husband. First husband Tom Outland, a young man of mystery and brilliance, was killed in the World War I. This almost mythical figure, even though absent, gradually assumes ever greater importance throughout the novel, and ultimately overshadows everyone else in the Professor's world.

By the second book, "Tom Outland's Story," all of the family members save St. Peter are off on a trip to Paris, neatly removing them from the novel for its duration. St. Peter, having forsaken his usual scholarship, has decided to edit and annotate Tom Outland's diary for publication, and it is in St. Peter's remembrance of the young man's remarkable story, shared with the reader here, that we come to understand the reason for its importance, and for its centrality in the novel.

Cather uses the literal separation of St. Peter from his family to make a distinction of moral worth: the book turns to St. Peter and his relation to Outland's story because this is where the true meaning of the novel arises. While the first Book reads like a novel of manners, rooted in the preoccupations of a comfortable family in 1920's America, as we read on, those early chapters seem trivial and dated in retrospect. Perhaps this is Cather's aim or perhaps, like St. Peter, she is not really comfortable herself in that claustrophobic world. At any rate, it serves primarily as contrast. In Book Two the writing as well as the story takes on new beauty as it focuses on these two central characters, and on the vistas of the Southwest that provide its setting.

What distinguishes St. Peter and Outland is their relationship to money. Every other character fails Cather's litmus test on this subject. While she takes pains to paint Louie Marsellus as sympathetic and generous, not the easy mark who usurped Tom's wife and fortune, and while she makes it clear that Crane, colleague to St. Peter and Outland, has reasonable aspirations to benefitting from Outland's work, neither can ultimately find a higher value than the monetary. When Roddy, Outland's partner in the discovery of ancient relics in the southwest, sells them out for $4,000, unbeknownst to Outland, we understand the qualitative difference between the two men. Roddy is not an evil man, but he is a materialist.

Ultimately Outland gives up trying to explain to Roddy what the relics meant to him, irrespective of their monetary worth. Cather gives us to understand that Outland's legacy has assumed something of the relation to St. Peter that the relics had for Outland: the monetization of Outland's invention, while reasonable enough in the light of day, in some sense devalues the man by putting a price on his work, and all who benefit from that, himself included, lose favor in St. Peter's eyes.

The novel's final section, entitled "The Professor," is remarkable for its understanding of loss. St. Peter's attempts to prepare for his family's return force him to face the disjunction between the social creation that he has become during years of adulthood and the more essential self with which he is now connecting.

In part because he realizes that none of his relationships can meet the high bar set by his friendship with Outland, St. Peter seems to be confronting loss without hope.

"Perhaps the mistake was merely in an attitude of mind. He had never learned to live without delight. And he would have to learn to, just as, in a Prohibition country, he supposed he would have to learn to live without sherry. Theoretically he knew that life is possible, may be even pleasant, without joy, without passionate griefs. But it had never occurred to him that he might have to live like that." (p. 271)

Somehow, Cather shows us a stoicism without pathos; St. Peter can at least take consolation in knowing what he has lost. Through him, Cather discriminates between what matters and what does not, and shares her subtle understanding with her lucky readers.
  AlexRussell | Jun 26, 2014 |
I have read most of the novels in this collection and love them all. I really want this collection.
  lucybrown | Dec 29, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0940450526, Hardcover)

The six works in this volume--"A Lost Lady," "The Professor's House," "Death Comes for the Archbishop," "Shadows on the Rock," "Lucy Gayheart," and "Sapphira and the Slave Girl"--are at once intensely lyrical and highly controlled. Their fascination with the American Southwest, early Canada and Catholicism reflects the older Cather's search for alternatives to the grasping civilization she felt was increasingly replacing the spirit of the early pioneers. validation-form-field.keypoints: The Library of America is an award-winning, nonprofit program dedicated to publishing America's best and most significant writing in handsome, enduring volumes, featuring authoritative texts. Hailed as "the most important book-publishing project in the nation's history" (Newsweek), this acclaimed series is restoring America's literary heritage in "the finest-looking, longest-lasting edition ever made" (New Republic).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:01 -0400)

Here are some of the most powerful and enchanting works by this renowned Southern author, contrasting grace and old-world charm with a new generation.

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