Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Professor's House by Willa Cather

This is a novel that contains two distinct stories--one about Godfrey St. Peter, an aging history professor entering the downward slope of his life, and the other about Tom Outland, a young man lost at the peak of his potential. And like most novels that contain two main characters, the interesting parts come from when and how those two lives intersect.

Of course they intersect as a matter of plot, Tom Outland being a kind of protege of Godfrey St. Peter--a young man who achieves more fame and fortune in a life cut short that the Professor does in one of interminable length. But more interesting to me is how they intersect as a matter of theme.

It’s difficult to know where to start. This is not Cather’s best novel, and I’m not convinced it hangs together as well as she intended. But let’s start here.

When I had gone up this canyon for a mile or so, I came upon another, opening out to the north--a box canyon, very different in character. No gentle slope there. The walls were perpendicular, where they weren’t actually overhanging, and they were anywhere from eight hundred to a thousand feet high, as we afterward found by measurement. The floor of it was a mass of huge boulders, great pieces of rock that had fallen from above ages back, and had been worn round and smooth as pebbles by the long action of water. Many of them were as big as haystacks, yet they lay piled on one another like a load of gravel. There was no footing for my horse among those smooth stones, so I hobbled him and went on alone a little way, just to see what it was like. My eyes were steadily on the ground--a slip of the foot there might cripple one.

This is from Tom Outland’s Story, the long middle section of the book, a first-person narrative that describes Tom’s life as an explorer in the American Southwest before coming east to study under St. Peter.

It was such rough scrambling that I was soon in a warm sweat under my damp clothes. In stopping to take breath, I happened to glance up at the canyon wall. I wish I could tell you what I saw there, just as I saw it, on that first morning, through a veil of lightly falling snow. Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was as still as sculpture--and something like that. It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower.

It was beautifully proportioned, that tower, swelling out to a larger girth a little above the base, then growing slender again. There was something symmetrical and powerful about the swell of the masonry. The tower was the fine thing that held all the jumble of houses together and made them mean something. It was red in colour, even on that grey day. In sunlight it was the colour of winter oak-leaves. A fringe of cedars grew along the edge of the cavern, like a garden. They were the only living things. Such silence and stillness and repose--immortal repose. That village sat looking down into the canyon with the calmness of eternity. The falling snow-flakes, sprinkling the pinons, gave it a special kind of solemnity. I can’t describe it. It was more like sculpture than anything else. I knew at once that I had come upon the city of some extinct civilization, hidden away in the inaccessible mesa for centuries, preserved in the dry air and almost perpetual sunlight like a fly in amber, guarded by the cliffs and the river and the desert.

The tower is a celestial observatory--and it is significant that Tom calls it “the fine thing that held all the jumble of houses together and made them mean something.” Later, when Tom brings some of his comrades to the site, they encourage him to go to the Smithsonian in Washington with news of his find and bring their professional archaeologists out to study it properly. One of them says:

“Like you, I feel a reverence for this place. Wherever humanity has made that hardest of all starts and lifted itself out of mere brutality, is a sacred spot. Your people were cut off here without the influence of example or emulation, with no incentive but some natural yearning for order and security. They built themselves into this mesa and humanized it.”

Tom, in fact, does this. But the professional archaeologists don’t see the hidden city and the mysteries it contains the same way Tom does. In many ways, they seem insensitive to the potential of the place for a deep understanding of what makes us human and the insistent drive our species has for taming the wild around us.

For Tom, it is indeed a sacred place.

When I pulled out on top of the mesa, the rays of sunlight fell slantingly through the little twisted pinons--the light was all in between them, as red as a daylight fire, they fairly swam in it. Once again I had the glorious feeling of being on the mesa, in a world above the world. And the air, my God, what air!--Soft, tingling, gold, hot with an edge of chill on it, full of the smell of pinons--it was like breathing the sun, breathing the color of the sky. Down there behind me was the plain, already streaked with shadow, violet and purple and burnt orange until it met the horizon. Before me was the flat mesa top, thinly sprinkled with old cedars there were not much taller than I, though their twisted trunks were almost as thick as my body. I struck off across it, my long black shadow going ahead.

A place for human refinement and elucidation. Tom spends much of his time up there reading Virgil, committing long passages of the Aeneid to memory. And when he thinks of the Aeneid later, when he is far removed from that magical place…

I can always see two pictures: the one on the page, and another behind that: blue and purple rocks and yellow-green pinons with flat tops, little clustered houses clinging together for protection, a rude tower rising in their midst, rising strong, with calmness and courage--behind it a dark grotto, in its depths a crystal spring.

In essence, the ancient civilization is an achievement on par with that of Virgil’s. Tom Outland’s story is rich with these comparisons, reminding the reader of the deep and fathomless mysteries that have challenged the human mind for millennia, and the myriad ways that civilizations have tried to respond.

But what does anything of this have to do with the novel’s titular professor and his house?

To answer that, let’s start here.

“Godfrey,” she said slowly and sadly. “I wonder what it is that makes you draw away from your family. Or who it is.”

“My dear, are you going to be jealous?”

“I wish I were going to be. I’d much rather see you foolish about some woman than becoming lonely and inhuman.”

“Well, the habit of living with ideas grows on one, I suppose, just as inevitably as the more cheerful habit of living with various ladies. There’s something to be said for both.”

This is a conversation between the Professor and his wife--she chiding him for wanting to spend all his time and attention on his work.

“I think your ideas were best when you were your most human self.”

St. Peter sighed. “I can’t contradict you there. But I must go on as I can. It is not always May.”

“You are not old enough for the pose you take. That’s what puzzles me. For so many years you never seemed to grow at all older, though I did. Two years ago you were an impetuous young man. Now you save yourself in everything. You’re naturally warm and affectionate; all at once you begin shutting yourself away from everybody. I don’t think you’ll be happier for it.” Up to this point she had been lecturing him. Now she suddenly crossed the room and sat down on the arm of his chair, looking into his face and twisting up the ends of his military eyebrows with her thumb and middle finger. “Why is it, Godfrey? I can’t see any change in your face, though I watch you so closely. It’s in your mind, in your mood. Something has come over you. Is it merely that you know too much, I wonder? Too much to be happy? You were always the wisest person in the world. What is it, can’t you tell me?”

Get ready. Here it comes.

“I can’t altogether tell myself, Lillian. It’s not wholly a matter of the calendar. It’s the feeling that I’ve put a great deal behind me, where I can’t go back to it again--and I really don’t wish to go back. The way would be too long and too fatiguing. Perhaps, for a home-staying man, I’ve lived pretty hard. I wasn’t willing to slight anything--you, or my desk, or my students. And now I seem to be tremendously tired. One pays, coming and going, A man has got only just so much in him; when it’s gone he slumps.”

This is part of the last narrative arc of the novel. The Professor is feeling restless, drawn both by the excitement of his intellectual pursuits and by the obligations and rewards of familial love, but realizing that his days are growing increasingly numbered, and that he has not yet accomplished something of the significance of his young student, Tom Outland. His family is planning a trip to Europe--sailing on a ship called the Berengaria--but he begs off, deciding to stay home and make use of the time alone to advance his scholarship.

And stays home he does--except not in the new house they have recently moved into, but in his old house--the house of the book’s title--the house with the Professor’s old study at the top of the stairs. A study with drafty windows and a gas-burning stove and a dressmaker’s dummy that his wife’s seamstress still uses to block and shape her dresses.

There, and only there--like the tower standing tall among the houses in Tom Outland’s forgotten city--does St. Peter feel that he can scale the mountains of human achievement, if not in an ancient civilization of the desert Southwest, than in the pages of the books he reads and writes about the history of Spanish America. Tom’s discovery fuels his work and fuels his imagination, and as he reflects on his position late in life, he longs for a return to the region that Tom so richly revealed to him.

His family wrote constantly about their plans for next summer, when they were going to take him over with them. Next summer? The Professor wondered… Sometimes he thought he would like to drive up in front of Notre Dame, in Paris, again, and see it standing there like the Rock of Ages, with the frail generations breaking about its base. He hadn’t seen it since the war.

But if he went anywhere next summer, he thought it would be down into Outland’s country, to watch the sunrise break on sculptured peaks and impassable mountain passes--to look off at those long, rugged, untamed vistas dear to the American heart. Dear to all hearts, probably--at least, calling to all.

In many ways, I wish the novel ended there, with those words, the Professor looking west towards some mythic understanding of the American soul. But Cather doesn’t end it there. It goes on for twelve more pages, enough to allow the Professor to have a brush with death in his beloved study.

He falls asleep with the gas on, and the breeze blows the windows shut. Only the arrival of the seamstress saves him from asphyxiation, and when he recovers he has an unfortunate and somewhat forced realization.

Here’s what I mean. Before this episode, these are his thoughts about his family:

He loved his family, he would make any sacrifice for them, but just now he couldn’t live with them. He must be alone. That was more necessary to him than anything had ever been, more necessary, even, than his marriage had been in his vehement youth. He could not live with his family again--not even with Lillian. Especially not with Lillian! Her nature was intense and positive; it was like a chiselled surface, a die, a stamp upon which he could be be beaten out any longer. If her character were reduced to an heraldic device, it would be a hand (a beautiful hand) holding flaming arrows--the shafts of her violent loves and hates, her clear-cut ambitions.

And after:

His temporary release from consciousness seemed to have been beneficial. He had let something go--and it was gone: something very precious, that he could not consciously have relinquished, probably. He doubted whether his family would ever realize that he was not the same man they had said good-bye to; they would be too happily preoccupied with their own affairs. If his apathy hurt them, they could not possibly be so much hurt as he had been already. At least, he felt the ground under his feet. He thought he knew where he was, and that he could face with fortitude the Berengaria and the future.

Ask Charles Strickland why I call this realization unfortunate. As Maugham so wonderfully explored in The Moon and Sixpence, the quest for pure aestheticism too often comes at the price of domestic comfort and relations. And I’ve grown to a position in my own life where I much prefer fictional characters who attempt to scale those heights to those that settle for happily ever after.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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