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The Professor's House by Willa Cather

The Professor's House (1925)

by Willa Cather

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  1. 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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A quiet novel, but somehow a compelling one. The descriptions are beautiful but never overwrought or cliche. The characters are human, by turns delightful and flawed. ( )
  brleach | Jan 26, 2015 |
How do we gradually slip away from simple uncluttered lives into a more and more complex existence, full of busyness and things, but one in many ways less rewarding and challenging than that lived by our younger selves? Often the individual changes are incremental and unnoticed, yet layered one of top of another their weight can overwhelm. Then one day we wake up and wonder how it all happened. Is it possible to go back, to regain some modicum of our better selves?

This was the dilemma facing Professor Godfrey St Peter. The professor was highly respected in his field of Spanish American studies, a published author. He worked in his much admired garden in the French style in the summers, or travelled for research. His two married daughters did him credit and his wife kept the family engaged socially.

These social ambitions, however, were the source of his current difficulty. His wife had decided they needed a house more reflective of their standing in the community. When Godfrey won the Oxford prize for history, his wife had a house built for them: one with separate bedrooms and bathrooms, separate closets, all the latest in plumbing and electricity.

Now Godfrey was faced with moving from his cramped attic study in the old house. He had shared this study twice a year for the past twenty years with Mrs St Peter's seamstress for three weeks each time. Her dressmaker's forms and patterns were there year round. He had endured cold winters and stuffy summers. Still, it had been good enough to allow him to write his award winning eight volume Spanish Adventurers in North America. He loved this room for the peace it gave him. Now, something in him rebelled. He would keep his awkward study, even if it meant continuing to rent the rest of the now unoccupied house just to have it.

The family was horrified. They did not understand. "...don't you think it's a foolish extravagance to go on paying the rent of an entire house, in order to spend a few hours a day in one very uncomfortable room of it?" His landlord was annoyed, and worried about insurance. The sewing lady thought it a great and unusual joke. St Peter dug in and kept renting the old place just to use that attic.

Juxtaposed against St Peter's story is that of Tom Outland, the best student the professor had ever known. "Just when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off for him, along came Outland and brought him a kind of second youth." Tom had made an important discovery which unknown to him would later become highly lucrative. He then died in battle in World War I, leaving the rights to the professor's daughter Rosamund. Tom would never suffer age, routine and committees. "He had escaped all that. He had made something new in the world--- and the rewards, the meaningless conventional gestures, he left to others"

This is a melancholy book, filled with loneliness and reflection. St Peter is aware of the costs both of continuing on the way things had been going, or of reclaiming that better self. Cather's skilled writing avoids slipping into the maudlin, giving the novel and the reader the strength to believe that individual redemption is possible, while recognizing the price to be paid.
2 vote SassyLassy | Nov 3, 2014 |
The Professor's House is a short novel that Cather based around a short story she had previous written about a drifter named Tom Outland who finds an ancient Indian ruins in the mesas of the Southwest. He and a friend excavate the site and have a falling out along the way. Cather takes this as a centerpiece and adds a long beginning and short ending about how Outland's appearance in a Midwestern college town affects the life of the Professor and his family. The part about the Professor explores changing family relationships as children age and marry, and also the influence of unexpected wealth. Outland's influence is felt though he is not present during the action.

This is a quirky little book. I very much enjoyed it while reading it, but the more I think about it subsequently, the more I question the wisdom of the format. The two stories don't really gel as well as they should and I felt that there were too many loose ends at the end of the book. I love Cather's writing, she has beautiful descriptive passages and interesting characters, but I'm not sure how well this book really worked. ( )
1 vote japaul22 | Jul 20, 2014 |
The Professor's House by Willa Cather is really two stories: that of midwestern university Professor Godfrey St. Peter and his family, and that of Tom Outland, a successful inventor who grew up in New Mexico, became a student and friend of St. Peter, and died in WWI. As to the first story, set in the 1920s, the Professor's successful series of books on "Spanish Adventures in North America" has brought financial comfort and a lovely new house. However, the Professor isn't ready to let go of his old house, especially his attic study, and is re-assessing his life. He has two daughters, one now rich from an engine invented by Outland, and successfully commercialized by her new husband. The other daughter married a journalist and is jealous of her sister's life. Neither is a comfort to the Professor, and he also is becoming estranged from his practical wife as he increasingly seeks solitude.

He loves that cramped attic study and its view: "From the window he could see, far away, just on the horizon, a long, blue, hazy smear - Lake Michigan, the inland sea of his childhood. Whenever he was tired and dull, when the white pages before him remained blank or were full of scratched-out sentences, then he left his desk, took the train to a little station twelve miles away, and spent the day on the lake with his sail-boat; jumping out to swim, floating on his back alongside, then climbing into his boat again."

The Professor is trying to edit for publication Tom Outland's diary of his days in New Mexico. That provides the framing for the beautiful central section of the book, a description of Tom's days as a railroad call boy, then a cattle herder. Eventually Tom finds a route up to the top of a high mesa, and discovers cliff dwellings there.

"The hill-side behind was sandy and covered with clumps of deer-horn cactus, but there was nothing but grass to the south, with streaks of bright yellow rabbit-brush. Along the river the cottonwoods and quaking asps had already turned gold. Just across from us, overhanging us, indeed, stood the mesa, a pile of purple rocks, all broken out with red sumach and yellow aspens up in the high crevices of the cliffs." Up there he finds "a little city of stone, asleep", with all that the original dwellers left behind.

This is not a long book, but she packs a lot in. Some readers will relate strongly to the Professor's questioning of his life, along with his observations of money's effect on his family members, and of the various family rivalries (including that of the sisters' husbands). For me, the book's major reward was the section on Tom's time in New Mexico, which contains some of the author's most breathtaking descriptions of the southwest, and vividly conveys the wonder of Tom's experience.

She is simply a superb writer. Although for me the juxtaposition didn't totally work, the book is a forceful and memorable read. I haven't been to New Mexico in ages, and now I want to go back to experience the territory she writes about. ( )
2 vote jnwelch | Jan 16, 2014 |
Well, this was very pleasant and all, but...have you ever heard of a bridge version of a book? Don't feel bad if you haven't; I just made it up. What it is is you know how there are abridged versions of books, where they include the important and exciting parts and chop out some of the meandering and tangential stuff? Have you ever wondered what happens to that stuff they chop out? Well, that ends up in a bridge version of the book, and that must be the version I read because nothing fucking happened. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:06 -0400)

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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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