‘Why pretend that it is possible to soften that last hard bed?’ – The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather

December 30, 2011 at 6:12 pm (Book review, books)

  On the face of it, Professor Godfrey St. Peter has a good life. As Cather’s novel opens, he is married, with two grown daughters, Rosamund and Kathleen, who are also married. He has for many years taught at a small college in Ohio, where he is respected and esteemed. He has produced his magnum opus – a multi-volume work on the Spanish explorers of North America – which has won him a distinguished literary prize. With the money from that prize, St. Peter has built his wife Lillian a grand new home.

But there is a problem. He does not want to live there.

He prefers the older house. More specifically, he prefers the room that has served, for many years, as his study. It is on the top floor:

The low ceiling sloped down on three sides, the slant being interrupted on the east by a single square window, swinging outward on hinges and held ajar by a hook in the sill.This was the sole opening for light and air. Walls and ceiling alike were covered with a yellow paper which had once  been very ugly, but had faded into inoffensive neutrality. The matting on the floor was worn and scratchy. Against the wall stood an old walnut table, with one leaf up, holding piles of orderly papers. Before it was a cane-backed office chair that turned on a screw.

The professor is not always alone in this room: he shares it for some weeks in the spring and the fall with Augusta, the dressmaker who outfits his wife and daughters. As an aid to this work, Augusta uses two dress forms, which are stored in the attic study year round. St. Peter enjoys Augusta’s company; likewise, the two dress forms. When she offers to remove them, he objects vehemently. And so they remain there.

There is a young man in this novel whose character acts as a bridge between two worlds. He is Tom Outland. Having spent his youth in New Mexico, Tom comes east to acquire an education.  (It is this intention that brings him to the attention of Godfrey St. Peter.) There’s much more to this aspect of the novel, but I won’t dwell upon it now. I will only say that along with his friend Rodney Blake, Tom Outland had the great good fortune to discover and explore a deserted city atop a mesa. The details of this extraordinary adventure are contained in the second section of the novel, “Tom Outland’s Story.”

Tom’s descriptions of this otherworldly place are intensely lyrical, yet even so, he feels that words fail him, or very nearly so. Here he first catches sight of the city on the mesa:

It was such rough scrambling that I was soon in a warm sweat under my damp clothes. In stopping to take breath, I happened to glance up at the canyon wall. 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 a cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was as still as sculpture–and something like that….
There was something symmetrical and powerful about the swell of the masonry. The tower was the fine thing that held all the jumble of houses together and made them mean something. It was red in colour, even on that grey day. In sunlight in was the color of winter oak-leaves. A fringe of cedars grew along  the edge of the cavern, like a garden. They were the only living things. Such silence and stillness and repose–immortal repose. That village sat looking down into the canyon with the calmness of eternity. The falling snow-flakes, sprinkling the pinons, gave it a special kind of solemnity. I can’t describe it.

But of course he is describing it, very effectively and very vividly. He concludes with this stunning realization:

I knew at once that I had come upon the city of some extinct civilization, hidden away in this inaccessible mesa for centuries, preserved in the dry air and almost perpetual sunlight like a fly in amber, guarded by the cliffs and the river and the desert.

(In the novel, this place of incredibly pristine beauty is called the Blue Mesa. It was actually modeled on Mesa Verde, which was discovered in 1888 by Colorado rancher Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason. It became a national Park in 1906; Willa Cather first went there in 1915. Click here for an interesting background piece.)

I remember that the first time I read The Professor’s House, I felt slightly impatient with Tom Outland’s narrative. It represents a complete break with the story of Godfrey St. Peter, his family, and his university colleagues. I had become very absorbed in the professor’s professional and personal challenges, and I resented this sudden change of focus. But I now realize that it was very artfully done. Tom Outland’s story is of a whole different order of magnitude, and Tom Outland himself is that rarest of beings, possessed as he is of a great intellectual curiosity matched with an equally great intelligence. These qualities are coupled with a natural warmth and almost unbounded enthusiasm. He seems destined for great things.  Upon meeting him, St. Peter perceives all this almost at once. He perceives it, and he sees in this extraordinary young man a mirror of his own youthful aspirations.

What has become of those aspirations? And what is there now in the professor’s world that can infuse his life with new meaning? How much of ourselves are we called upon to sacrifice in order to insure the well being of those close to us? These are the crucial questions that dominate the novel’s brief and powerful final section.

Critic E.K. Brown sums up the problem this way:

In the first part it was plain that the professor did not wish to live in his new house, and did not wish to enter into the sere phase of his life correlative with it. At the beginning of the third part it becomes plain that he cannot indefinitely continue to make the old attic study the theatre of his life, that he cannot go on prolonging or attempting to prolong his prime, the phase of his life correlative with that. The personality of his mature years–the personality that had expressed itself powerfully and in the main happily in his teaching, his scholarship, his love for his wife, his domesticity–is now quickly receding,  and nothing new is flowing in.

(Such a beautifully apt locution, “the sere phase of his life.” I have no idea who E.K. Brown is, but the eloquence and insight that characterize this brief piece remind the reader that literary criticism can be a noble calling. The essay can be found in Modern Critical Views: Willa Cather, a collection is edited and introduced by Harold Bloom, whose life’s work serves as a similar reminder.)

I’ve been deeply moved by my third reading of The Professor’s House. I may read it yet again. For one thing, the writing is wonderful, transcendent with out being the least bit extravagant.

The critic E.K. Brown encourages the reader to ponder the true significance of houses in this novel: the professor’s dwelling places, both the old and the new, the grand country house being built by Rosamund and her husband – and the community of small houses atop the Blue Mesa.

And then, of course, there is that final house, that final bed, the inevitable ending that S.t Peter finds occupying his thoughts more and more. At one point, these lines of verse come to him:

For thee a house was built
Ere thou wast born;
For thee a mould was made
Ere thou of woman camest.

Alone in his attic study, the professor meditates on this:

Lying on his old couch, he could almost believe himself in that house already. The sagging springs were like the sham upholstery that is put in coffins. Just the equivocal American way of dealing with serious facts, he reflected. Why pretend that it is possible to soften that last hard bed?

And oh, the leaden weight of those last four monosyllables!

1 Comment

  1. Thomas at My Porch said,

    The Professor’s House is one of my all time favorite books. I have gotten evangelical about it more than a few times.

    Normally I would get impatient with an “interruption” like Tom’s story of New Mexico–often to the point where I skim through the interruption bits–but Cather drew me in so quickly and completely I never felt that way with this book.

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