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The Professor's House by Willa Cather

The Professor's House (1925)

by Willa Cather

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1,387275,481 (3.78)182
  1. 00
    Stoner by John Edward Williams (Petroglyph)
    Petroglyph: Both "Stoner" and "The professor's house" deal with a small-town university professor vaguely comfortable with his family life, who fits uneasily in a new life that sorta kinda happened to him while he was focusing on his work. Both present compelling immersions in bittersweet nostalgia and the ever-present sense that life could have gone entirely different (and perhaps it should have).… (more)
  2. 02
    The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (2below)
    2below: These are both poignant stories about the disruption and disorder that results from not being where we want to be in life and living in denial of that sad truth.

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Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
A beautifully introspective little novel, in The Professor’s House Cather introduces us to Godfrey St. Peter a mid-western university professor. St Peter and his family have lived for many years in an ugly though rather loved house which they are finally moving out of – their two daughters married and off their hands, finally Mrs St Peter can have the house she has dreamed of. As the contents of the old house are moved into the new house, the Professor remains in his study in the old house – surrounded by the objects he has lived with for so long. Books, papers, his old couch, and the dress making forms left behind by Augusta with whom Professor St Peter has shared his study twice a year – and now feels oddly at home with.

“The low ceiling sloped down on three sides, the slant being interrupted on the east by a single square window, swinging outward on hinges and held ajar by a hook in the sill. Walls and ceiling alike were covered with a yellow paper which had once been very ugly, but had faded into inoffensive neutrality. The matting on the floor was worn and scratchy. Against the wall stood an old walnut table, with one leaf up, holding piles of orderly papers. Before it was a cane-backed office chair that turned on a screw. This dark den had for many years been the Professor’s study.”

As the summer continues the Professor is less and less inclined to make that one last move – and relocate his attic study to the new house. Instead he keeps on the old house, making his way each day to his beloved study – surrounding himself with the objects with which he is most familiar. Here Professor St Peter recalls his life, and the people he has loved; his wife Lillian, his daughters; beautiful, pretentious Rosamond and Kathleen lost in her sister’s shadow, but the person he remembers most is Tom Outland.

“But now that the vivid consciousness of an earlier state had come back to him, the Professor felt that life with this Kansas boy, little as there had been of it, was the realest of his lives, and that all the years between had been accidental and ordered from the outside. His career, his wife, his family, were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him. All these things had nothing to do with the person he was in the beginning.”

Tom, a brilliant young pioneer, whose discoveries relating to a gas have brought about great engineering advances. Tom’s legacy is now quarrelled over, the subject of jealously and betrayal.

Rosamond was engaged to Tom before he went off to the First World War and is killed. Now Rosamond is married to prosperous engineer Louie Marsellus, as his heir Rosamond was able to pass on her former fiancé’s discoveries, and the couple have benefitted greatly. Meanwhile Kathleen is married to a less wealthy man, Scott McGregor a journalist – who was once also a friend of Tom Outland’s. So, when Louie waxes lyrical at dinner about Tom – a man he never met – and reveals the house he is building is to be called Outland – Scott and Kathleen are more than a little irritated.

The Professor is a tired man, torn between the past and the modern progresses he sees around him – like the new house, so much better appointed and convenient a real step up – he doesn’t really want to be there.

The book is told in three sections – of unequal length – the first section; ‘The Family’ being the longest, the middle section tells Tom Outlands story, taking us to the beautiful landscapes of New Mexico. Here a young Tom while exploring the mesas of New Mexico finds carved into the rock, long abandoned villages – evidences of an earlier civilisation. Learning more about these cliff dwellers becomes all consuming, and leaving his friend Rodney Blake behind to take care of things Tom sets out for Washington to find someone to take his finds seriously. The final section – just called ‘The Professor’ – sees Godfrey St Peter contemplating his own place in the world – as, with the rest of the family on holiday he spends all his time in his study.

“He could remember a time when the loneliness of death had terrified him, when the idea of it was insupportable. He used to feel that if his wife could but lie in the same coffin with him, his body would not be so insensible that the nearness of hers would not give it comfort. But now he thought of eternal solitude with gratefulness; as a release from every obligation, from every form of effort. It was the Truth.”

The Professor’s House is a quiet novel, a novel of memory, loss and which contrasts modern advances with more traditional living. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | May 29, 2017 |
Very good original story about aging. ( )
  mahallett | Feb 25, 2016 |
What happens when a house is much more than a house, triggering feelings and a longing that a newer, more modern house cannot replace? Even more, these feelings remind one of an old self that had been lost and a price to be paid if one should keep this restored self.

In “The Professor’s House”, Professor Godfrey St. Peter has reached a new success with his Spanish history books, resulting in a new comfortable house with all the modern conveniences – in which he is reluctant to work and live. Though his family is lovely, wife and two well-married daughters, it is the deceased Tom Outland who occupies his thoughts. Tom was the Professor’s best student, confidante, and ex-almost-son-in-law, who had died young; Tom’s imprint is evident by, "Just when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off for him, along came Outland and brought him a kind of second youth." In a complex and sometimes circumferential manner, we learn Professor’s hesitation with the direction of his life despite how it looks storied and accomplished.

I am highly conflicted on whether I like or would recommend this book. A couple of dislikes: The book alluded to at least one twist that never materialized. Even the Professor’s own melancholy was circumferential and easily more of a not-old-enough yet too stubborn man of 52. It would be more interesting if he just had an affair, rather than pining for a life not lived. But I still like Willa’s writing – the descriptiveness and the character relationships. I found myself drawn to Roddy Blake, Tom’s friend, whom Tom dismissed for an honest, well-intentioned mistake. My emotions raised, feeling his hurt, and angry at Tom’s treatment of his first real and only friend. (Does Tom really understand what he did??) Any book that stirs emotions have got to be worth something, right?

Some quotes:

On fortunes and rewards (from the wealth generated by commercializing Tom’s patent):
“If Outland were here to-night, he might say with Mark Antony, My fortunes have corrupted honest men.”
“…He had made something new in the world – and the rewards, the meaningless conventional gestures, he had left to others.”

On shopping – I laughed:
“…Too much is certainly worse than too little – of anything. It turned out to be rather an orgy of acquisition… She was like Napoleon looting the Italian palaces.”

On pretentiousness – gawd, I have met a few of these in my days:
“...I was amazed and ashamed that a man of fifty, a man of the world, a scholar with ever so many degrees, should find it worth his while to show off before a boy, and a boy of such humble pretensions, who didn’t know how to eat the hors d’oevres any more than if an assortment of cocoanuts had been set before his with no hammer.”

On office jobs – this hits home in the modern world:
“…How it did use to depress me to see all the hundreds of clerks come pouring out of that big building at sunset! Their lives seemed to me so petty, so slavish…”
“…I left Washington at last, wiser than I came. I had no plans, I wanted nothing but to get back to the mesa and live a free life and breathe free air, and never, never again to see hundreds of little black-coated men pouring out of white buildings. Queer, how much more depressing they are than workmen coming out of a factory.”

On life and death – I can relate:
“He did not regret his life, but he was indifferent to it.”
“But now he thought of eternal solitude with gratefulness; as a release from every obligation, from every form of effort. It was the Truth.” ( )
1 vote varwenea | Jan 31, 2016 |
Godfrey St. Peter, by all accounts, is doing well. He is a professor of history with a distinguished publishing record, a beautiful wife, two married daughters one of whom has become surprisingly wealthy, and over the years he has had a few pleasant colleagues, a handful of good students, and one very important, even transformative, relationship with a student, protege, and later fiance to his oldest daughter. Unfortunately, Tom Outland then went off to do what he could in the First World War and died there, leaving all his worldly possessions, including a patent on a gas that would become very lucrative, to St. Peter’s daughter. At the opening of the novel, Godfrey and his wife are in the process of moving into a new house that he has built with money his multi-volume historical work on Spanish adventurers has won. But Godfrey is uncomfortable in his new house and wants to keep his pokey study in the old house that they rented. The truth is that Godfrey is uncomfortable in his own skin, and like his former protege, he would like to shed it.

The novel follows Godfrey over the course of a year with one extended intermission telling the story of Tom prior to his arrival in the university town of Hamilton. It is utterly fascinating. Characters step forward and recede without a later nod. St. Peter’s daughters and their spouses reveal admirable and not so admirable facets of character but without apparent purpose. Indeed, all are merely window dressing for the existential crisis that Godfrey is about to undergo.

I’m astounded by the surety of Cather’s writing and the fact that every novel of hers that I read seems to be a new departure. As is the case with all challenging novelists who challenge themselves. Well worth reading, pondering, and then reading again. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Dec 30, 2015 |
  living2read | May 12, 2015 |
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A turquoise set in silver, wasn't it?. . . Yes, a turquoise set in dull silver."
-Louie Marsellus
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The moving was over and done.
That night, after he was in bed, St. Peter tried in vain to justify himself in his inevitable refusal. He liked Paris, and he liked Louie. But one couldn't do one's own things in another person's way; selfish or not, that was the truth.
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Book description
Godfrey St Peter, a professor in a Mid-western American university is a scholarly, compassionate man who finds the tranquil and ordered life of his middle years threatened by worldy success. His family have now abandoned the shabby but beloved house where he has done his greatest work. But he cannot, and in its attic study through one long summer he reflects upon his life and the people he has loved:Lillian, his charming, elegant wife; his two daughters - Rosamond, beautiful but pretentious, Kathleen, sympathetic but lost. Most of all he remembers Tom Outland, the brilliant young pioneer whose discoveries have revolutionised their lives; whose greatness inspired renewal and passionate love but whose legacy is corruption - and betrayal. This haunting novel examines human love and human isolation in all its manifestations, expressing, without rancour, the inevitable anguish of ideals destroyed, love extinguished. A parable which records the decline and fall of her own heroic tradition, this is Willa Cather's most fascinating and beautiful work of fiction.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679731806, Paperback)

A study in emotional dislocation and renewal--Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a man in his 50's, has achieved what would seem to be remarkable success. When called on to move to a more comfortable home, something in him rebels.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:11 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The professor's house was published in 1925, when she was fifty-two. At the time she was an author with a worldwide reputation, having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of ours. Reaching the top of her profession had produced a letdown, and she later wrote that around the time she won the Pulitzer she had felt that for her the world had broken in two. The situation of the professor in this novel reflects the troubled time in Cather's own life. Behind this story of Godfrey St. Peter, a man who, despite his successes, has at mid-career experienced a profound disappointment with life, is the fierce story of how he decides to continue living despite his disappointment. Sandwiched between St. Peter's stories is the thrilling tale of his one brilliant student, Tom Outland, who discovers the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. Profound and disturbing, The professor's house has taken its place as one of its author's most important works.… (more)

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