I remember reading O! Pioneers a hundred years ago when I was in my salad days, but I don’t think I ever read anything else by Willa Cather, so I am trying to fill in the gaps of the accepted cannon of what is considered great (or at least awfully good) literature by slipping them in bit by bit among the genre lit that I like so much.
I find that I do really like her, (see Death Comes for the Archbishop), and liked The Professor´s House, a largely (until lately) neglected work.
It was written in post WWI, 1925, and is basically a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise in American values at that time. The structure is in two distinct and different parts (well, really three parts, but the two sections surrounding the middle one seem of a piece, really.
The basic story is about the eponymous Professor, Godfrey St. Peter, a history professor at a university in Hamilton, Michigan, which is on Lake Michigan. He is poorly paid, but the family get by adequately because his wife receives an annual inheritance. They live in a small rented house, and his office is an unheated room in the attic, which he shares with the dressmaker´s sewing machine and the dressmaker’s dummies.
He loves his job and his students, and works at night and on weekends on his opus, an eight volume history of Spanish explorers in the Americas. Finally it is finished and published, to great acclaim, and the family now has some money to ease their days.
His two daughters have married, one to an ambitions go-getter who has earned a surprising wealth, and the other to a lovely young man, a journalist of sorts who writes a poem a week for the local paper.
We gradually learn of the former fiancee of the elder girl, Tom Outland by name, who was a friend and student of her father, and who was killed in the war. He was a bright young man who achieved a patent on some engineering creation, and left everything to the fiancee, who then brought it with her to her marriage to the enterprising enthusiastic fellow, who through gathering investors and much hard effort, finally made it pay off.
The middle section of the book is the diary of young Tom Outland, his young life in the American west and his discovery of an ancient abandoned Native American settlement in New Mexico, and his attempt to get the US government interested in the artifacts he found there. Much of the loving description of the region is reminiscent of Death Comes for the Archbishop, which is set in the American southwest.
With their new-found prosperity, the St. Peters decide to build a house, but when it comes time for them to move into it, the professor finds he cannot give up his attic office. He is too attached to it. So he decides to maintain his office there just for a little while.
At one point, the older girl and her husband want to take the St. Peters with them on a trip to the continent. The professor refuses to go, claiming pressing work still to do. While the family is gone, he moves more and more of his belongings back into their former house, and ends up living there.
The book looks at the differences between the ambitious and now wealthy older son-in-law and his delight in the growing economy and technology of the day, and the earth-loving and history-loving Tom Outlaw. It is not clear which side Cather champions, for which I like the book very much. It asks the reader to chose for him/herself which, if either, is the better stance.
It also compares the two sons-in-law, their different attitudes and economic situations, and the two daughters, who have a growing animosity, the younger becoming more and more envious of her older sister, and the haughty elder becoming more and more disdainful of the younger woman.
It compares young love with mature devotion, and youth with age. In the last section the professor muses quite a bit on love and no longer loving, on distance, both physical and emotional, and on settling oneself for the final stretch of life.
Some current scholars have examined the possibility of a love that dare not speak its name between the professor and his mentee, Outland, although I didn’t see any outright suggestion of this, possibly only very veiled suggestions more in the situation than in the telling. It is hard to know if Cather meant this, or if that view is simply a product of today’s overheated spotlight on gay and gender issues. Remember, this was written in 1925, so hard to know.
I found it to be more about the inner mind of the professor, and how although he does not see it, he was always rather distant from his family, working in the third floor office, taking pleasure in the noises and activities of his family below, rather than participating very much in those activities himself.
A quiet, thoughtful examination of a man and his life. I liked it.