Willa Cather, The Professor’s House

The Professor's HouseThe Professor’s House by Willa Cather

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jeff Nunokawa, reading Henry James’s newly collected autobiographies, concludes of the Master’s famously difficult later style (“[e]veryone knows that there are sentences in late James that no one has ever understood”) as follows:

Behind all this there may be a child being beaten—beaten at the games of men before he’s even started to play; beaten by the math his father thought he needed to know instead of the novels to which he gave his life; beaten by the knowledge—it came to him so young—that no letter can be fine enough to keep what is dearest alive. And there may be a writer—we may call still him the Master—who seeks with all his might to draw us toward the rescue of that possible child, ungoverned by the specter of madness that such an effort at rescue might mean.

Perhaps most readers who have made it to the heart one or more of the various bewildering labyrinths constructed by modernism’s seemingly aloof Daedaluses (including Freud, to whom Nunokawa alludes) have found something similar: all the forking paths of signification radiate out from some scene of childhood loss or violence, perhaps even one reminiscent of the 19th century’s sentimental fictions, which the modernists had, to my mind, hoped less to evade than to transfigure.

All of which brings me to the consummately unsentimental Willa Cather—a disciple of James and a kind of modernist in spite of herself—and her 1925 novel, The Professor’s House, which narrates with relative clarity what its middle-aged titular history professor, Godfrey St. Peter, lost when he went from boy to man, however rich, distinguished, secure, and comfortable that man may have become:

The Kansas boy who had come back to St. Peter this summer was not a scholar. He was a primitive. He was only interested in earth and woods and water. Wherever sun sunned and rain rained and snow snowed, wherever life sprouted and decayed, places were alike to him. He was not nearly so cultivated as Tom’s old cliff-dwellers must have been—and yet he was terribly wise. He seemed to be at the root of the matter; Desire under all desires, Truth under all truths. He seemed to know, among other things, that he was solitary and must always be so; he had never married, never been a father. He was earth, and would return to earth. When white clouds blew over the lake like bellying sails, when the seven pine-trees turned red in the declining sum, he felt satisfaction and said to himself merely: “That is right.” Coming upon a curly root that thrust itself across his path, he said: “That is it.” When the maple-leaves along the street began to turn yellow and waxy, and were soft to the touch,—like the skin on old faces,—he said: “That is true; it is time.” All these recognitions gave him a kind of sad pleasure.

The Tom of this passage is Tom Outland, a westerner who came to St. Peter’s Midwestern college town to go to school; his “old cliff-dwellers” are a vanished tribe of Native Americans whose impressive Southwestern mesa settlement the young Outland had discovered, in the company of a ne’er-do-well named Roddy Blake, on a cattle drive. Outland not only distinguishes himself in college, but becomes a successful scientist, inventing instruments whose patents are worth a great deal. Moreover, he was engaged to marry the oldest (and most beautiful) of St. Peter’s daughters, the proud Rosamond.

By the time the novel begins, however, Outland has been dead for years, a victim of the Great War, and Rosamond, now married to Louie Marsellus (a Jewish outsider to the family and its circle), has profited from his scientific discoveries. St. Peter is about to move from the home where he wrote most of his great history of the Spanish in America to a bright, modern, expensive new house, paid for with prize money for his scholarship. And yet, all this leaves St. Peter dissatisfied, and the novel is largely the story of his facing the sorrow of his advancing age as he goes on in an increasingly passionless marriage, family life, and career without Outland, who, with his reserved authenticity, was in a sense the love of the professor’s life. (The novel is palpably homoerotic at times, evoking St. Peter’s tender appreciation and longing for Outland’s body: “the Professor [looked] at [Outland’s] hand…the muscular, many-lined palm, the long, strong fingers with soft ends, the straight little finger, the flexible, beautifully shaped thumb that curved back from the rest of the hand as if it were its own master. What a hand!”)

The Professor’s House has a triptych structure: the first and third sections narrate, in austere third-person prose, the professor’s present life, while the second section, written in Outland’s own voice (though Cather implies heavily that St. Peter is in fact its author), is the first-person narrative of Outland’s discovery of the Native American settlement and of his relationship with Roddy Blake. Cather contrasts two narrative modes: the realistic/ironic one of St. Peter’s fervorless and increasingly corrupt Midwestern domestic anti-idyll, and the romantic/lyric one of Outland’s adventure in the Southwestern landscape. This risky device to fragment the novel largely works—the book as a whole is quietly moving in its subtle juxtaposition of what has been with what is—though the first St. Peter section is too long and too dull for the novel’s purpose.

It would be easy enough—and I’m sure others have done the job before—to press this novel through the mesh of contemporary theory: to note that Cather’s tribute to the Native American civilization discovered by Outland relies on the “vanishing Indian” trope, an apolitical narrative in which social life on this continent is simply handed on from the evanescent prior inhabitants to the white settlers; to object to Cather’s seeming endorsement of the professor’s misogyny, his conception of women as either frivolous viragos and Medeas (Lillian, Rosamond) or simplistic naifs (Kathleen, Augusta), good only to sentimentalize even if they are likely to ruin a man’s works; or to upbraid the novel for its representation of the rising commercial generation, which will sweep away the timeless values of St. Peter and Outland, by the oily bonhomie and mercenary-mindedness of the only Jewish character.

Such critiques come very easily these days, though, and for that reason seem insufficient. A novel that is still worth reading after 91 years must have more in it than problematic elements. As noted above, one major reason it remains beautifully readable is in its evocation of the loss we all endure of our primordial inner self, the one that preexists social responsibility and even sexual desire, the vanishing of childhood’s transparent eyeball. Another reason to read it—besides Cather’s psychological penetration and classically restrained prose, of course—is for its definition of civilization. Cather does not romanticize the cliff-dwellers as primitives or noble savages: rather, she sees them as she sees St. Peter, Outland, and—I assume—herself, as humane, thoughtful builders and stewards, patiently constructing a world for themselves that is too good for the world outside. Outland’s teacher, the priest Father Duchene, explains:

“I am inclined to think that your tribe were a superior people. Perhaps they were not so when they first came upon this mesa, but in an orderly and secure life they developed considerably the arts of peace. […] I see them here, isolated, cut off from other tribes, working out their destiny, making their mesa more and more worthy to be a home for man, purifying life by religious ceremonies and observances, caring respectfully for their dead, protecting the children, doubtless entertaining some feelings of affection and sentiment for this stronghold where they were at once so safe and so comfortable, where they had practically overcome the worst hardships that primitive man had to fear. They were, perhaps, too far advanced for their time and environment.”

To this ideal—an obviously elitist but not necessarily a racist one—Cather counterposes the creeping dystopia of mechanized, commercial culture, which, she emphasizes in a prescient passage, is destroying the university (even as she also represents it as hollowing out the American republic when Outland visits Washington and as vitiating love when Outland’s patent money strains St. Peter’s family):

[T]he new commercialism, the aim to “show results”…was undermining and vulgarizing education. The State Legislature and the board of regents seemed determined to make a trade school of the university. Candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts were allowed credits for commercial studies; courses in bookkeeping, experimental farming, domestic science, dress-making, and what not. Every year the regents tried to diminish the number of credits required in science and the humanities. The liberal appropriations, the promotions and increases in salary, all went to the professors who worked with the regents to abolish the purely cultural studies.

This is a very subtle novel, so quiet it can hardly be heard. It is short, but took me a while to read. The problematic elements are there; it bears the impress of its era. But when I was finished—and when I had thought about it for a while—I decided that not to hear it would be to prove its point, would be to acquiesce in all the forces working against the “arts of peace,” all the violence being done to the child hidden, cradled, in the novel’s broken form, like the immeasurably valuable civilization hidden in the fragmented cliffs of the mesa.