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The Professor's House (1925)

by Willa Cather

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,958478,613 (3.81)217
Willa Cather's lyrical and bittersweet novel of a middle-aged man losing control of his life is a brilliant study in emotional dislocation and renewal. Professor Godfrey St. Peter is a man in his fifties who has devoted his life to his work, his wife, his garden, and his daughters, and achieved success with all of them. But when St. Peter is called on to move to a new, more comfortable house, something in him rebels. And although at first that rebellion consists of nothing more than mild resistance to his family's wishes, it imperceptibly comes to encompass the entire order of his life. The Professor's House combines a delightful grasp of the social and domestic rituals of a Midwestern university town in the 1920s with profound spiritual and psychological introspection.… (more)
  1. 10
    Stoner by John 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 47 (next | show all)
This mid-career Cather (which I found in this fun 1973 Vintage paperback edition) is a bit of an odd triptych in construction, the first panel being a sort of university novel featuring Professor St. Peter, the middle panel being a story of discovery in the beautiful isolation of the New Mexican landscape starring a past student at the university, Tom Outland, and the final panel a psychological novel’s conclusion bringing us back into St. Peter’s life.

For me the main theme of the novel is the attraction of isolation and an abandonment of contemporary social life. St. Peter in the first section feels the distance that has grown up in his comfortable marriage and while he loves his two grown daughters he feels exhausted by their, and his sons-in-law, company. His wife at one point asks him what he’s thinking about as he has just smiled to himself. “I was thinking,” he answered absently, “about Euripides; how, when he was an old man, he went and lived in a cave by the sea…”

Tom’s section then comes at this theme from the point of view of youth rather than age. Tom and his close friend Roddy discover the centuries old ruins of an abandoned stone city inside a miles long inhospitable mesa in the middle of New Mexico’s wilderness. Tom goes to D.C. to try to interest experts in the find but encounters only disappointment and disillusionment.
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… they spent their lives trying to keep up appearances… there was always a struggle going on for an invitation to a dinner or a reception, or even a tea-party.


Tom returns to New Mexico and spends the following summer alone in a cabin on top of the mesa, a high point in his life.

I can scarcely hope that life will give me another summer like that one. It was my high tide. Every morning, when the sun’s rays first hit the mesa top, while the rest of the world was in shadow, I wakened with the feeling that I had found everything, instead of having lost everything. Nothing tired me. Up there alone, a close neighbour to the sun, I seemed to get the solar energy in some direct way.


Finally, back to St. Peter, the professor remains behind while his family leaves for an extended European vacation, and psychologically feels that his life is done and over with, while identifying once again with the boy he was in childhood.

The Kansas boy who had come back to St. Peter this summer was not a scholar. He was a primitive. He was only interested in earth and woods and water… He seemed to know, among other things, that he was solitary and must always be so; he had never married, never been a father. He was earth, and would return to earth. When white clouds blew over the lake like bellying sails, when the seven pine-trees turned red in the declining sun, he felt satisfaction and said to himself merely: “That is right.”


Other themes are undoubtedly present in the novel, including quite possibly a queer theme in the relationship between Tom and Roddy, perhaps too in that between St. Peter and Tom. This is the one however that sticks out most to me in this reading. ( )
  lelandleslie | Feb 24, 2024 |
Pretty good novel. Tom Outland's story, within the frame of the novel, is the most interesting. He explored a mesa in New Mexico with old ruins. It's the most poetic part. Professor is kind of jaded at end of his career, and wished his friend and student Tom had survived WW I. ( )
  kslade | Dec 8, 2022 |
I found myself somewhat at sea with this one. Every time I thought I knew where it was going it would head off on something else. Professor St. Peter seems at some kind of crossroads, unhappy with the things happening around him and constantly annoyed by his, fairly, very annoying family. He won't let go of the attic study he has worked in even though they have moved to a new house but that doesn't really seem to end up as the theme I thought it would, He remembers former student Tom Outland with an almost mythic . Then we suddenly have a large section of Tom's story in New Mexico. That writing was more of what I expected from Cather but the return to St. Peter felt rushed and the end was very open ended. I don't think most of this would be a problem if I really cared about the characters but I never did. Okay, I did enjoy thoroughly despising Louie but who wouldn't? Just a bit too esoteric for me.
  amyem58 | May 14, 2022 |
Summary: The move to a new home, academic success and his daughter’s marriages, and a deceased former student and son-in-law, precipitate a crisis for Professor Godfrey St. Peter.

The first sign was when the Professor paid up the rent on his old house so that he could still use his spartan old study, furnished only with a table, a sofa with Tom Outland’s old blanket, a couple seamstress’s forms left by Augusta, the family seamstress, and an unreliable heater that required leaving a window open for safety’s sake. The lavish new home had plenty of room since his daughters had married. But this was the place where he wrote the multi-volume history, Spanish Adventures in North America, that was the cornerstone of his academic success and the awards that followed that made the new house that Lillian had always wanted possible. Up until then, any niceties had come from her inherited income.

St. Peter’s older daughter Rosamond had originally married a former student, Tom Outland, who died in the war, but not before leaving her a patent that her new husband, Louie Marcellus, has commercialized, with lavish profits that he uses to lavish favor on Rosamond and her family. The younger daughter, Kathleen, less vain and more sensitive has married a journalist. There is tension between the two, particularly as the Marcelluses take their parents on trips, including a proposed trip to Paris.

St. Peter decides not to go, pottering about in his old study, revising Tom Outland’s journals. The book takes a break at this point with Tom speaking in the first person about a magical season of discovering an ancient indigenous people’s village high up on a mesa in the Southwest, cataloging his discoveries. His partner stakes him the funds (gambling winnings) to visit Washington to recruit researchers to come, to no avail. He then returns, only to find his partner sold them out, resulting in their final alienation. Tom then migrates to the college where St. Peter is professor, works with a physics professor on his invention, graduating with a patent. Part three of the book returns to the professor, and a crisis in his life with which the book concludes.

The book is fraught with the tensions that are pulling at St. Peter’s life. There is the spartan life of the scholar (and of Tom on the mesa which St. Peter had visited) in contrast with the life of luxury that both Lillian and her elder daughter Rosamond craved, that St. Peter’s success and Marcellus’ business acumen made possible. There is the tension between the elder and younger daughter and their husbands, the younger of which, St. Peter trusts, despite, or perhaps because of his modest means. There is the growing coolness between Godfrey and Lillian as neither can embrace the life of the other. St. Peter’s stubborn hold on his study and his refusal to go to Paris, which he loves, is a kind of passive resistance after acceding to the life Lillian desires. Tom seems to represent something of an ideal that St. Peter had not had the courage to pursue.

The summer of the Paris vacation was a last respite before returning to his teaching and the comfortable life Lillian wanted (or perhaps the growing awareness of their estrangement). As their return approaches, he experiences a weariness for which the doctor can find no bodily cause, setting the stage for his final crisis.

The structure of the book seems disjointed, with the second part a separate narrative in which Tom Outland is the main character. The only thing I can think is that it explains St. Peter’s fixation with Tom by setting their lives in contrast. The question remains of how or whether St. Peter will resolve the tensions in his life, tensions such as all of us live with, tensions that can fray to the breaking or result in creative resolutions. ( )
  BobonBooks | Apr 18, 2022 |
I read this long before I moved to Pittsburgh. Now that I live in Pittsburgh & I've heard that Cather also lived here at some point I'm even more interested in her. This bk was probably more subtle than bland but I remember it as the latter. I hope to read more by her so I can form a better opinion. ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Willa Catherprimary authorall editionscalculated
Byatt, A.S.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Link, Frederick M.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mitchell, SusanCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sturman, Sally MaraCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph

A turquoise set in silver, wasn't it?. . . Yes, a turquoise set in dull silver."
-Louie Marsellus
Dedication
First words
The moving was over and done.
Quotations
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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Willa Cather's lyrical and bittersweet novel of a middle-aged man losing control of his life is a brilliant study in emotional dislocation and renewal. Professor Godfrey St. Peter is a man in his fifties who has devoted his life to his work, his wife, his garden, and his daughters, and achieved success with all of them. But when St. Peter is called on to move to a new, more comfortable house, something in him rebels. And although at first that rebellion consists of nothing more than mild resistance to his family's wishes, it imperceptibly comes to encompass the entire order of his life. The Professor's House combines a delightful grasp of the social and domestic rituals of a Midwestern university town in the 1920s with profound spiritual and psychological introspection.

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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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