Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Professor's House, Willa Cather's exploration adventure novel

I’m going to do this backwards, writing about The Professor’s House (1925), which is not a prairie novel, first and then go back to A Lost Lady and so on.

Do you remember the fun we all had, way back in 2012, with the MLA International Bibliography and its possible uses as a way to measure the academic reputation of books and authors?  If I put in “American Literature” right now, I see that Willa Cather ranks #17 with 2,384 papers, books, etcs. tagged with her name since the beginning of the database in 1946.  Faulkner, James and Melville blow everyone else away, but #17 is high.  There is also a list of the top individual works – I can only see the top 50 – and two of them are Cather’s, My Ántonia, obviously, and The Professor’s House.  Were you expecting The Professor’s House to be the second-most studied work of Cather’s?  I was not.

The novel is short, 170 pages in the Library of America volume, and is even shorter than it looks.  The first hundred pages are about Professor St. Peter and his family.  They live in a city that may have a shadowy coexistence with Milwaukee.  The professor has just completed a life’s work, a multi-volume history of the Spanish in the American Southwest, something along the lines of Francis Parkman’s seven volume France and England in North America (1865-92).  He is casting about for a purpose.  One task is to edit a journal left to him by his best student, Tom Outland, who was killed in the war and also by chance made the professor’s family enormously rich with a patent for a mysterious gas.  There is some soap opera stuff there that I did not enjoy much.

That’s right, Tom Outland.  His journal is about that time he discovered the Anasazi ruins now known as Mesa Verde, in southwestern Colorado, one of America’s great treasures.  What, lots of important explorers have names like Tom Outland.

I thought the journal was terrific.  It was a completely convincing piece of writing of its type, worthy of company with Hiram Bingham’s Inca Land (1922), about Bingham’s accidental discovery of Machu Picchu, or say John Lloyd Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843).  Of course this text is a fiction, a few actual events mixed with invention.  It is an alternate-world discovery of an alternate-world ruin.

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 one another, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower.  (II.iii)

That tower is the iconic symbol of Mesa Verde.  The glimpse of it through the snow by a cattleman looking for strays, Cather borrowed that from the true story.  But even here she aestheticizes the incident in her own way.

Just for the subject matter, the inset novella is intensely interesting.  Then, for seventeen pages, it is back to Professor St. Peter – these symbolic names! – and his problems.  Then The Professor’s House is over.  One major critical issue with the novel is how or frankly whether the pieces mesh in any but the crudest way.  But the novella, the discovery, that was thrilling.  And not in any way about the Great Plains.


  1. I must sheepishly admit never having read Cather . I must rectify that ommision soon. This sounds different and creative but I will probably start with My Antonia.

  2. Cather wrote a lot of short books, so it is easy to "catch up" with her. A Lost Lady is 90 pages, The Professor's House is 170.

    Definitely try a couple of short stories, too - "Paul's Case" and "A Wagner Matinee" seem essential.

  3. Aside from the early Nebraska novels, some of the short stories you mention and Death Comes for the Archbishop, the other Cather works are a mystery too me. I mean, I haven't had the faintest idea what they are about. I'm drawn to the Mesa Verde interstory. That I want to read.

  4. One of them is about housekeeping in 17th century Quebec City. Sound kind of avant garde, put that way. I mean, how can that be a novel?

    The Mesa Verde novel is really good.

  5. My brother-in-law gave me _The Professors House_ if I remember correctly. I recall being puzzled by how these pieces all fit together and wondering why I thought it was great when I also found it so abrupt.

  6. Yep, I apparently correctly remember my thoughts on this.

  7. Abrupt, right, Cather sets up several red herring plot threads that never go anywhere. She creates the frame for a possible larger novel around the short novel she actually writes, in which there is also an even shorter novella.

  8. //housekeeping in 17th century Quebec City//

    That would be Shadows on the Rock. I reread it last year after having read it first in the 1970s. I understood much more about Cather and the historical background this time, but it still retained a certain fairy-tale quality for me. My grandmother used to bring me shopping bags full of flea market books that were all helter-skeletered together. In one particular brown-paper bag I found Shadows on the Rock, Winter Wheat (Mildred Walker) and Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H. White. They have all stayed in my memory. I especially liked Cather's description in Shadows of the glass fruit that belonged to the Governor. It seemed to me to be a symbol of that far-off civilization that she both belonged to, and did not. I recommend Shadows on the Rock. I have read all the major Cather novels except for Death Comes for the Archbishop and Sapphira and the Slave Girl. One has to save something for a dreary hopeless day!

  9. I suppose I have now read enough Cather that I am prepared fro Shadows. I previously wrote about it, again without reading it, in the context of Sarah Orne Jewett and literal domestic fiction.

    That is a pleasing and fortuitous mix of books you encountered. Books rub off on each other.