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Willa Cather: The Professor’s House

This is really two stories. The first concerns the eponymous professor, Professor St. Peter. He is at a stage in his life when he is generally unhappy with his lot. He has completed his five-volume series The Spanish Adventurers which has, finally, brought him not only critical acclaim but also financial reward in the form of a prize. He has used the prize money to build a new house but, when the time comes to move, he is reluctant to do so and keeps renting the old house, which he uses as a bachelor pad and where he does his literary work. The Professor, and all the other major characters, have been touched by Tom Outland, who is dead at the start of the novel but whom we see both in his diaries, which the Professor is editing, and through the other characters, showing that all have been affected by him. The Professor himself remembers Tom as one of his prime students, one who was almost like a son to him (and, indeed, for a time before his death, he did become the Professor’s son-in-law). Tom invented a special kind of gas which has subsequently brought his widow and her new husband considerable wealth, wealth which is envied by both Tom’s former science teacher (who feels he helped Tom with his work and is entitled to a cut) and, to a lesser degree, by the Professor’s other daughter and her husband.

As I said, there are two stories here. The first one concerns the Professor who clearly is at a stage in his life when he starts to wonder whether it has all been worthwhile – his work, his family, his life in general, culminating in a faux suicide. He feels detached from everyone – symbolised by his desire to remain in the old house on his own. Coupled with that is the story of Tom Outland, or rather his diaries of a few months in his life, which deals with one of Cather’s favourite themes, the disintegration of the values of Old West. Outland and a friend, Blake, discover an old Indian adobe village, which they explore. Outland goes to Washington to try and persuade the Government or the Smithsonian to conduct a proper archaeological dig but they are all naturally concerned with their own petty interests. When Outland returns to the village, Blake has sold the contents of the village to a German collector. Outland is furious and feels it is a betrayal.

While it is a fine book, The Professor’s House does not hang together, with the two related but disparate stories and the feeling is that something is missing. But Cather’s less successful efforts are always worth much more than most writers’ great successes.

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Alfred A. Knopf