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The Professor's House by Willa Cather

The Professor's House (1925)

by Willa Cather

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    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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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 |
Divded into three short sections, this modernist novel, which is written in the pared down and symbolic style for which Cather strived, is very clearly her greatest masterpiece. An unsparing critique of materialism, a paean to Native American culture, and a celebration of the self-sacrificing, imaginative, and joyous life of Tom Outland.
  corinneblackmer | Oct 10, 2011 |
Odd but moving story. The mid-section about the Anasanzi ruins more affecting than the tale around it. ( )
  Perednia | Oct 8, 2011 |
by Jill Swenson

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. ( )
1 vote SwensonBooks | Jun 4, 2011 |
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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)

(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)

» see all 2 descriptions

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