The Professor’s House

professor'sThe Professor’s House
by Willa Cather
1925/129 pages
rating:  8.5 / Classic (1925-US)

Professor Godfrey St. James and his wife, Lillian,  are moving houses,  but St. James seems to be having a bit of a time actually transferring over there.  Even Augusta, the seamstress wants the dress forms from what has become St. James’  workroom.   The daughters  are grown and gone,  Rosamond married to Louis Marsellus and Kathleen to Scott McGregor,  but there are no children for either as yet.

There are complications, however.  It seems that Rosamond was engaged to a man named Tom Outland, a very successful inventor who studied earlier under her father.  Tom was a very favored student, even eliciting the jealousy of Lillian.   But Outland died in Europe during WWI and had left everything to Rosamond – all copyrights, patents, etc.   This has made her a fairly rich young woman which becomes the cause of considerable friction in the family.   Rosalind’s did marry later,  her new husband is very charming,  has his own money, and  Jewish  – “There was nothing Semitic about his countenance except his nose – that took the lead.”  (p. 21)   But Kathleen and Scott are jealous.  Cather *may have been*  somewhat anti-semitic –  see the related article in The Cather Archives: 

The Marselluses have named their new home “Outlander” and dedicated it to Tom’s memory – filling it with memorabilia and inviting scientists to come and work there,  to study.  They also live in a comparatively lavish manner which produces more animosity.

Tom’s money came from an invention which his good friend Clark helped with considerably.  But Clark didn’t get anything in Tom’s will and is now plagued with doctor bills.   On the advise of Louis, Augusta invested in a company which went broke but Rosalind refuses to help her as she has to accept the consequences.  Kathleen, otoh, refuses to accept anything from Rosalind.

The town knows Louis is Jewish and Scott blackballs him from a certain exclusive club.  All this weighs heavily on the Professor but there’s not much he can do about it.

Then the story switches to a diary Tom left about his days in the Southwest and how he and a buddy discovered an ancient native community complete with many artifacts.

And at the end there is another fairly short section dealing with the Professor’s life as it is or might be.


Willa Cather is a national treasure – her vivid and lovely descriptions of the old Southwest permeate her works –  Death Comes For the Archbishop (my favorite),  The Professor’s House, and her Nebraska trilogy,  O Pioneers, My Antonia and The Song of the Lark  are the ones I’ve read,  but her oeuvre is considerably larger.  These all take place,  at least in part, in the American West and a couple of them have overlapping characters.

I’m not sure about themes here – there are lots of ideas.  Is society really based on commercial value?  How important is social status?  Who owns the rights to native artifacts (far more a question in 1925 than now).  Or patents, or copyrights?   And there’s pride and greed and family infighting.   But the book is a bit too ambiguous in many ways – partly due to the structure,  but also due to lots of unanswered questions – maybe that’s my 21st century reading.

People belong where they belong – Tom seemed to belong to nature in the Southwest,  the Professor to the university and his old house – but time goes on – no one can stay where they find a home.  But what happens to the reality of people when they adopt the ways of modernity?

“I had no plans, I wanted nothing but to get back to the mesa and live a free life and breathe free air, and never, never again to see hundreds of little black- coated men pouring out of white buildings. Queer, how much more depressing they are than workmen coming out of a factory.”   (p. 118)  Kindle Edition.

Using the inflation calculator at  the $1600 annual income Lillian is said to receive from her father’s estate (p. 127 – Kindle)  in or about 1925 would be $20,726.44  in 2012.   Yes, that would come in handy for a young couple just starting out.

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