Places: The Professor’s House

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1925

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: A few years after World War I

Places DiscussedProfessor’s old house

Professor’s Professor’s House, Theold house. Located adjacent to the college campus at which the professor teaches, the old, oddly built but simple house of Professor St. Peter has for more than two decades been the site of his marital, family, scholarly, and artistic happiness. It is here that he tends his French-influenced garden, a testimony to his preference for the aesthetic superiority of long-established cultures. In this old house, also, is the attic room, spartan in furnishings and unheated, but the location of the professor’s work on his great scholarly and artistic efforts, his multivolume history of the great Spanish explorers of the Americas. Even though, as the novel opens, the family’s belongings have been moved to a new house, the professor continues over many months to come back to his old house and his old attic room to think and to write. It is here in the old house that he reconsiders his life’s efforts and his link to Tom Outland. It is also here that in some despair he nearly gives in to “accidental” death by gas fumes from a faulty heater. His rescue by the faithful seamstress Augusta provides the professor the opportunity to recognize that he would have “to live without delight” in the future.

Professor’s new house

Professor’s new house. Built with funds from the prize money the professor has won because of his distinguished contributions to history, this house has all the modern conveniences possible, but it also is the site of growing family dissension, perhaps best indicated by the separate rooms and baths for the professor and his wife, Lillian, and by the increasing materialistic competition between his daughters and their husbands, as revealed in family social occasions held at the house.

Outland

Outland. Large “Norwegian manor house” erected on the shores of Lake Michigan as the Marsellus country retreat; named as a memorial to Tom Outland and his invention, which has revolutionized airplane engines, thus bringing a fortune to Louie Marsellus and the professor’s oldest daughter, Rosamund. The professor scorns the extravagance and aesthetic inappropriateness of this mansion, but he particularly objects to the home as a desecration of the memory of Tom Outland, who stands throughout the novel for the values of intellectual integrity and aesthetic simplicity.

Cliff City

Cliff City. The middle part of the novel, told from the perspective of Tom Outland in the memory of Professor St. Peter, centers on Outland’s discovery of some fabulous cliff dwellings, presumably never seen before by non-Native Americans. Based on the discoveries of similar remains in what is today Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, “Tom Outland’s Story” emphasizes the superiority of this ancient culture to the values of twentieth century America. That superiority is mirrored in the buildings themselves, which when first seen by Tom are compared to “sculpture.” A tower in the midst of the houses provides a center around which the dwellings cluster to form a compositional aesthetic having to do with peace and eternity.

Tom’s excavation of the buildings and his discoveries of archaeological and artistic artifacts, together with the purity of the location, result in an imaginative and almost religious experience. He leaves the mesa a changed man. When he arrives in Hamilton to go to college and meets the professor, he brings with him an intelligence and values sparked by his discoveries. His relationship with the professor is mutually productive. Both of their imaginations are fed by Outland’s youthful explorations of the cliff houses. The professor’s writing of history becomes more insightful and lyrical, while Outland himself succeeds with his inventive scientific breakthroughs. It is Outland’s untimely death in World War I, the professor’s completion of his life’s scholarly historical works, and his growing alienation from his family that force the dislocated professor to reevaluate his future and realize that happiness and joy may well be behind him.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Willa Cather. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. A collection of studies of Cather. Two important and very different interpretations of The Professor’s House appear in essays by David Daiches and E. K. Brown. The place to start.Leddy, Michael. “The Professor’s House: The Sense of an Ending.” Studies in the Novel 23 (Winter, 1991): 443-451. Believes the ending makes a valid point although appearing vague. The fact that the professor is able to rediscover his boyhood home in Kansas points to a renewal or rebirth at the end.Love, Glen A. “The Professor’s House: Cather, Hemingway, and the Chastening of American Prose Style.” Western American Literature 24 (February, 1990): 295-311. Says Cather’s writing style is closer to the modern style because of her economy and lack of emotion. Uses The Professor’s House as an example of that prose style.O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Says the professor is the alter ego of Cather.Stout, Janis P. “Autobiography as Journey in The Professor’s House.” Studies in American Fiction 19 (Autumn, 1991): 203-215. Examines the writing of autobiography and the boundaries between literature and life. Specifically looks at Cather’s travels and how these affect her inspirations and writing of The Professor’s House.Yongue, Patricia Lee. “Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House and Dutch Genre Painting.” Renascence 31 (Spring, 1979): 155-167. Equates a pictorial, psychological, and structural significance with “Tom Outland’s Story.” The professor’s house was made to look like a Dutch painting. Places emphasis on visualizing the description as if it were a picture.
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