John N. Swift, Occidental College
A Personal Note
The Professor's House was my first Willa Cather novel: the first that I read, the first that I taught, the first that I wrote about as a scholar. I liked it for its unblinking depiction of middle-aged dissatisfaction, for its gloomy fatalism, but most of all for the interlude of "Tom Outland's Story," which seemed to me-and still seems-magical and luminous, a glimpse into another, brighter world. I have re-read it more frequently than any other work by Willa Cather.
The advice that follows is mainly directed toward teachers of The Professor's House, but students may find it interesting also.
The Novel and its Plot
Cather wrote The Professor's House mainly in 1923 and 1924 (although she had probably begun work on its centerpiece, "Tom Outland's Story," eight or nine years earlier, on a trip to the Southwest and Wyoming). It was published in 1925, the seventh of her major novels. It tells the story of Godfrey St. Peter, a fifty-one-year-old history professor at a fictional college north of Chicago near Lake Michigan, as he contemplates his growing alienation from his wife and two married daughters, and from the busy, materialistic culture of the 1920s that they represent. The novel's first section, "The Family," describes his descent into depression, illuminated occasionally by memories of his one passionate friendship, nearly twenty years earlier, with his unusual student Tom Outland, a brilliant, idealistic young man killed in World War I. In the second part, "Tom Outland's Story," the narrative shifts abruptly into the voice of Tom himself, perhaps as St. Peter remembers him speaking, telling the story of his boyhood discovery (before meeting the Professor) of the relics of an abandoned civilization in the cliffs of the Blue Mesa in the Southwest. And in the third, "The Professor," Godfrey St. Peter thinks about his own boyhood, nearly dies in an accident with his study stove, and concludes that he must now learn "to live without delight."
The Large Question
This summary of a downward emotional spiral sounds pretty grim. What can we as readers learn from a story as unremittingly pessimistic as this one? From beginning to end it deals in disappointment--about things not working out as one might want (and this is as true of the plot of "Tom Outland's Story" as it is of the Professor's narrative): what does it affirm?
Fortunately, it's an exceptionally readable book, and my students have almost always enjoyed it: Cather's prose is (as usual) beautifully lucid, and her characters are interesting, puzzling, and often sympathetic. Many students find the descriptions of the Blue Mesa haunting, as I do. But in the end the novel presents us with a disturbing opacity: is that all there is? Are failure and disappointment the only human truths?
Some Approaches and Questions
I have always found it useful to see The Professor's House alongside the work of the other great American "modernists" of the 1920s, who, like Robert Frost in his 1920 poem "The Oven Bird," saw as their task "what to make of a diminished thing." The "diminished thing" was modern life itself, and the problem for Frost, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and others was how to live significantly in a world that seemed often without significance. Many of my beginning students have some familiarity with one or more of these writers, or with the famous cultural disillusionment of what Fitzgerald called "the Jazz Age" or what Hemingway had Gertrude Stein call "the lost generation."
Here are some suggestions for lines of inquiry, discussion, or research that may help to answer the big question above--or at least to understand it better. All of them work best if students can begin by searching out very specific passages describing characters or events in the novel, and by analyzing them in some detail. Page numbers are taken from the first edition published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1925.
What are the terms of the Professor's quarrel with modernity?
Why does he prefer his old house to the new one that Lillian has fitted out for him? What does he think is wrong with modern university education (54-57), or, for that matter, modern university architecture (143)? What's wrong with his family and their relationships with one another? Students might want to analyze his famous classroom lecture on religion and science, which begins with "I don't think much of science as a phase of human development (67)." Is he right? How does the rest of the book comment on his desire for better, nobler things? How does "Tom Outland's Story" respond to this desire?
How is Cather like other writers of the 1920s?
Students who know other modernist writers might want to do specific comparisons: how, for example, does the overly-intellectual St. Peter resemble T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock? Does he prefer books and thoughts to people? Is Cather commenting on this? One might think, for example, about the importance of his isolation from his family in the attic study: the story of Kathleen's bee-sting (88) is instructive here. Or is there a way in which the St. Peter/Tom Outland relationship can be seen as resembling the Nick Carroway/Jay Gatsby relationship in The Great Gatsby: a realist looking longingly at a doomed idealist? Finally, there's a real link to Robert Frost, whom Cather admired, whose 1920 poem "Wild Grapes" Cather liked a great deal (and paraphrased when she inscribed a copy of The Professor's House to Frost, calling it a book about "letting go with the heart"). I have sometimes found it useful to have my students read Frost's much later poem "Directive" (1947) as a way of thinking about the distinction between a busy, trivial present and a noble, redemptive past.
How and why does Cather use the idea or the structure of the "break" in The Professor's House?
In 1936, in the Prefatory Note to her collection of essays called Not Under Forty, she very famously said that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts"--in other words, a year or two before the setting of The Professor's House. And the idea of the break, or the fragment, or the ruin, is everywhere among the writers of the 1920s, as if nothing in experience quite coheres: "These fragments I have shored against my ruin," as Eliot said at the end of "The Waste Land," also in 1922. In The Professor's House, Cather introduces thematic breaks: St. Peter's childhood loss of Lake Michigan; World War I, the "great catastrophe [that] swept away all youth and palms, and almost Time itself" (260); the mysterious disappearance of the people of the Cliff City; and more. And breakage or incoherence seems essential to the novel's very structure: early critics in particular complained about the abrupt inexplicable insertion of "Tom Outland's Story."
What does the Cliff City represent in the novel, for Tom and for the Professor?
Cather appears deliberately to juxtapose the lost city with both the town of Hamilton and, in Tom Outland's narrative, with Washington D. C.; what are the characteristics of the cliff dwellers as a society? How are they inferred? How are they different from what we see in the modern world? What is the importance of the final disappearance of the artifacts (when Roddy sells them to the German collecter), and how is this related to Tom's experience of wholeness on the Blue Mesa (250-52)?
What does the novel say about the possibilities for human relationship?
Why has Godfrey's and Lillian's marriage become distant? How do his daughters disappointment him? His sons-in-law? Does he have any friends? How does he define his relationship with Tom Outland, and how is it different from any of his relations in the present setting of the novel? How is Tom's friendship with Roddy Blake--"Noble Roddy"--treated? Based on all of this evidence, what does Cather understand to be "authentic" or "true" friendship or love, and what makes it so difficult? Is the only option "falling out of all domestic and social relations, out of [one's place] in the human family, indeed" (275)? And what is the meaning of St. Peter's final recognition of something solid in his relation with Augusta? "There was still Augusta," he thinks to himself: "a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound" (281).
Selected Further Resources:
[I have not here listed specific critical articles, book chapters, or books on The Professor's House, of which there have been literally hundreds in the last forty years. In general, criticism has moved from concentrating on the novel's form, often explaining it through psychology or biography, to a focus on the historical and social contexts in which Cather wrote. To get a sense of the enormous volume and range of Professor's House scholarship, readers should consult the MLA Bibliography. It's also possible to browse past issues of Cather Studies online at the Willa Cather Digital Archive listed below: these include many significant essays. A few truly indispensable resources follow.]
Cather, Willa. "On The Professor's House." In Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. Foreword by Stephen Tennant. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949. Pp. 30-32. Cather commented on the structure of The Professor's House in a 1938 letter to her publisher's son, which she later allowed to be published. Here she famously compared the work a sonata, and then to Dutch paintings in which an open window lets a larger world in to an enclosed, stuffy interior, and suggested that "Tom Outland's Story" was such a window.
---. The Professor's House. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, The Professor's House is now available in a Scholarly Edition from the University of Nebraska Press, with a historical essay by James Woodress, explanatory notes by Woodress and Kari Ronning, and textual editing by Frederick M. Link. The essay and notes provide important starting points for serious research on Cather and the novel.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. Lewis was Cather's longtime companion, and her informal memoir includes a section (93-99) on the visit that she and Cather made in 1915 to Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, whose cliff dwellings were part of the inspiration for "Tom Outland's Story."
The Willa Cather Archive. The archive is maintained by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (Cather's alma mater), and it presents a broad selection of primary and secondary resources for Cather scholars. These include the online version of Janis Stout's and Andrew Jewell's Calendar of Letters, a searchable set of paraphrases of all available letters written by Willa Cather (her will prohibits publication of her exact language); various biographies, including the Woodress biography recommended below; full texts of many of Cather's novels and other writings; an extensive gallery of photographs of Cather, her family, friends, and sites related to her life and works; and past issues of Cather Studies, Teaching Cather, and The Mower's Tree, publications respectively representing current scholarship, teaching approaches, and the work of UNL graduate students.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. Woodress's biography is the best single source for understanding Cather's life in relation to her work, and it has very complete critical summaries of all of the major works. His section on The Professor's House is particularly interesting in the autobiographical parallels that he finds in the novel. (The biography is also available online in its entirety at the Willa Cather Digital Archive.)
About the Contributor:
John N. Swift is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he teaches undergraduate courses in Anglo-American modernism 1890-1940, psychoanalytic approaches to literature, and the history and culture of Los Angeles. A past president of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation Board of Governors, he has published many essays on Willa Cather, including several on The Professor's House. With Joseph R. Urgo, he is the editor of Willa Cather and the American Southwest (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001). His current research involves American regional literature and its relation to literary modernism.