Review: The Professor’s House

The Professor’s House, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (originally published in 1925).

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.

One thought on “Review: The Professor’s House

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2022 | Bob on Books

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