The Professor's House


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A rich and suggestive work which contrasts the middle-aged disillusion of Professor St Peter with his memories of his favourite student, the brilliant explorer and inventor Tom Outland

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Aug 9, 2017

How The Imagination Persists

Willa Cather's early novels of life on the American prairie, such as "My Antonia" and "O Pioneers" are well known. Her novel "The Professor's House" is much less familiar, but it is Cather at her best.

The book tells the story of Professor Godfrey St. Peter. When we meet St. Peter, he is a respected academic and scholar, age 52, who has written an eight volume history called "Spanish Explorers" dealing with the Spanish in Mexico and the American Southwest. He has persevered in his writing and received awards. As a result, St. Peter and his family are able to build a new house and move away from the ramshackle rented quarters in which the Professor and his wife have lived and raised their family.

The family consists of two daughters who, when we meet them, have married and gone their own ways. The younger daughter is married to a struggling news reporter who has impressed his bosses by his ability to turn out hack prose-poems for the paper on a daily basis.

The older daughter was at one time engaged to a man named Tom Outland who is, perhaps the real hero of the book. Outland invented an important scientific device and willed it to her upon his death in WW I. She then marries an engineer and entrepreneur who develops and markets Outland's invention. The couple build a large home and name in "Outland".

The book tells a story of change, frustration and acceptance. The Professor is unhappy with the new home and refuses to leave his old study. His relationship with his wife and daughters has cooled. He is unhappy with the modernization of the university and of academic learning with its emphasis on technology and business rather than study and reflection. Most importantly, he is dissatisfied with his honors, his leisure, and his comforts. He thinks of his youth of promise and study, of his life of solitude, and yearns for adventure and meaning.

The first part of the book tells the story of the Professor and his family. The second, shorter, part is a flash-back and tells the story of Tom Outland who Professor St. Peter befriended many years before and who grew up in mysterious circumstances in New Mexico. We learn in the second part of the book of Outland's life on the railroad and on the range. We see his somewhat ambiguous friendship with an older man and their discovery of an ancient Indian village on the mesas. There is a wonderfully drawn picture of Washington D.C. as Tom tries, without success, to interest officials in his discovery.

In the third part of the book, the Professor reflects on Tom and on his own life. It seems to me that Tom's life mirrors the theme of the Professor's lengthy studies in "Spanish Explorers" It is the kind of life in its rawness, closeness to nature, and independence that the Professor thinks he would have liked to lead rather than settling for a middle-class life of conformity, comfort, and boredom. We see how the Professor tries to struggle on.

There is a frustration built into life when we learn we are not the persons we dreamed of becoming. This is a poignant, beautifully-written story of American life and of how and why people fall short of themselves.

Robin Friedman


Oct 13, 2014

Book is good, but bad edition

I was a little sad, because I was trying to find a older edition used, and this was a new re-print, which had some issues, most notably the text on page 63-68 were repeated starting at page 73.
not the end of the world.


Apr 3, 2007

One Man's Life

In THE PROFESSOR'S HOUSE, Willa Cather delves into the life of an individual who is hard put to leave his creative surroundings of studio and home and move into a new dwelling with his family. Cather paints an excellent portrait of a man torn between work, family, and everyday goings on at the university where he holds a professorship. In fact, Cather portrays a male protagonist with great resonance and accuracy.

If you read Cather?s DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP in tandem with this book, you will find that, among other ideas, solace in gardens binds them both together - each man always returns to a garden to pass his days.

It is easy to assimilate into life and feelings of the professor, for I do believe that all of us at some time or other share the feelings of this man, as well as those of the archbishop in the other novel. I recommend reading these two stories together. Subliminally you may feel that part of yourself is being exposed on the pages of Willa Cather?s two fine books.

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