Book Review: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather


I first read The Professor’s House by Willa Cather in 2003. At the time I was captivated by the novel and ranked it as one of my all time favorites. Since then I have recommended it widely and have been happy to see it crop up with some frequency on various book blogs. Most recently Karen at Books and Chocolate read it during Virago Reading Week. Reading Karen’s review made me want to go back and re-read the book to see if my initial love of the book would stand. Thankfully I had a paperback edition of it in my nightstand so I could remain true to the TBR Dare.

In the latter days of his academic career at a small university on the western shore of Lake Michigan, Professor Godfrey St. Peter decides he isn’t quite ready to leave behind his quirky old study when he and his wife are meant to be moving into their new house. He contemplates his career, his wife, his grown daughters and their husbands, and most significantly, his relationship with Tom Outland a protege who was much like a son to St. Peter and who was killed in World War I. After convincing his wife, daughter, and son-in-law to go off to Europe without him, St. Peter means to edit Outland’s diary. As he prepares an introduction to the diary, St. Peter recounts Outland’s life before they met. A major chunk of the book is about Outland’s life in New Mexico, where among other things, he discovered a group of abandoned cliff dwellings. St. Peter’s summer alone with his thoughts brings new clarity to his life, both past and future.

When I first read The Professor’s House back in ’03, I saw it mainly as the story of someone who wanted a little solitude. Being quite independent myself with a tendency toward being a loner, I really identified with that. Now seven years later, I can still see that in the book, but it seems like a minor detail given all of the other thoughts and emotions St. Peter processes. Through Outland’s story St. Peter comes to terms with what his own life has turned out to be and how different it is from what St. Peter thinks is truly important. There is much that could be considered melancholy in this book, but I find that the overall feeling is really about hope and possibility. As the blurb on the book notes, St. Peter turns emotional dislocation into renewal.

I feel an affinity for St. Peter’s intellectual and emotional outlook. He is someone I would like to know, or be. For that reason alone, The Professor’s House is wonderful. But there is also something about the section on Tom Outland’s life in New Mexico that I find breathtaking at times. Cather does a brilliant job evoking the beauty and spiritual timelessness of New Mexico. Several years ago I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Las Cruces in southern New Mexico. While I was there I went up into the Gila National Forest alone and saw some cliff dwellings for myself. Set on a green wooded mountain, on a beautifully crisp, sunny February morning, I felt like I had been transported to another time, and not just in an intellectual and historical sense. There was something about the dry, clean air, the brilliant blue sky, and the amazing quiet that I found quite moving. The contemplation of geology and nature, and geologic time in particular, is perhaps the closest I come to any sort spirituality. I find something oddly comforting in the fact that my life is just an infinitesimal blip in the billions of years of geologic processes that happened before me and will happen after me. And that my body will become part of that geology. I should be clear that I am conflating Tom Outland’s story with my own experience in New Mexico. Cather’s text doesn’t really strive to be so lofty, but it does say important things about what is truly ours and what is important in life. Having said that, one does not need to find or even want to find something spiritual in this book to thoroughly enjoy it.

There is one scene as Tom contemplates the cliff dwellings that reminded me of the A Month in the Country, the last book I read. In that book, Tom Birkin feels a certain connection to the the painter of a work he is uncovering five hundred years after its creation. Tom Outland’s experience discovering the cliff dwellings is similar:

To people off alone, as we were, there is something stirring about finding evidences of human labour and care in the soil of an empty country. It comes to you as a sort of message, makes you feel differently about the ground you walk on every day.

For a interesting analysis of this book and some great photos check out Nearly Lucid.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

  1. Mlle Paradis February 12, 2011 / 4:23 pm

    i come here and read your reviews and i dream. then i run away because i feel so inadequate. i just do not read. as much as i love it. LOVED the seen on the bus post. not too surprisingly, dc readers have much more interesting tastes then those i saw exhibited on the PATH in NY/NJ back in the days. their choices are pretty inspiring.

    i was so surprised by this review of the professor's house. (why hadn't i paid more attention to it?) have read almost ALL else of w. cather and this i am obviously missing out on! went to the sw too years ago and had that same feeling of sort of out of body experience. it is such a different landscape than the rest of america. last summer flew from l.a. to minneapolis and the geological and variety and poetry of it was just mind-bending!

    cheers to you!


  2. betsy February 12, 2011 / 5:41 pm

    Have you read Cather's short story “The Enchanted Bluff”? It foreshadows “The Professor's House”. You can find it in the Library of America volume of Cather's “Stories, Poems, and other Writings”.


  3. Susan in TX February 12, 2011 / 7:05 pm

    This is one of Cather's I haven't read. Must make time for it! Thanks for the lovely review.


  4. bookssnob February 12, 2011 / 7:58 pm

    I must read this next, Thomas. I've just finished Death Comes for the Archbishop and was just blown away by it. Used to reading about the Nebraska prairies in her books, I was mesmerised by the descriptions of the red mountains and rock top towns in New Mexico. I didn't realise The Professor's House was partially set there so I am excited to read more about it! What an AMAZING landscape she makes it sound…I hope I get to visit it one day. I'd love to see those old cave dwellings.


  5. Mystica February 12, 2011 / 10:43 pm

    This is a new author for me so thank you for the review which I enjoyed very much. This will be one I will be keeping an eye out for.


  6. verity February 13, 2011 / 7:54 am

    I got this one out of the library last week; I must read it now! I have really enjoyed exploring Cather's work over the last few years – really love Alexander's bridge.


  7. JoAnn February 13, 2011 / 10:24 am

    When you said this was your favorite Cather, I decided to buy a copy. Will be reading at least one of her books before the tbr is over… this sounds wonderful!


  8. Dorothy W. February 13, 2011 / 11:05 am

    The book sounds wonderful! I love Cather and have this one on my shelves to read, and I look forward to it a lot. Danielle from A Work in Progress also wrote about this book from a while back.


  9. mel u February 14, 2011 / 3:18 am

    I think it is past due the time I read my first Cather-I think I will look for a short story to start with though I really enjoyed your post


  10. Thomas at My Porch February 14, 2011 / 9:36 am

    Mlle: You know Minneapolis is my hometown. And you are right the geological diversity between LA and Mpls is mind boggling. If you like Cather you really should read this one.

    Betsy: I have a collection of WC's short stories that I haven't read yet. I will have to see if it is in there.

    Susan: And it is short enought to fit into any schedule.

    Rachel: She really is quite the American writer. She spent the first years of her life not far from DC, lived and wrote so well about the Plains, wrote great books about the Southwest, lived in NY…

    Mystica: Although Cather is well known and gets high praise, I still think her work is underrated by those considering American literature.

    Verity: How timely. I will be interested to see your take on it.

    JoAnn: I always get nervous when people buy things because of me. I hope you like it.

    Dorothy: I remember reading Danielle's review. I will have to go back and re-read it.

    Mel: You are past due to read Cather!


  11. Vintage Reading February 15, 2011 / 8:18 pm

    I like what you said about wanting to know or be like St Peter. He is such a charismatic character.


  12. Thomas at My Porch February 16, 2011 / 4:54 pm

    Vintage: He is charismatic. Although I strive to live honestly and with integrity, I feel like Godfrey is so resolute in his principles. I like that.


  13. Jill February 20, 2011 / 11:43 pm

    Thanks to your generosity Thomas the first Willa Cather book that I read was The Professor's House which I loved and have recommended to others. I have also read and loved Death Comes for the Archbishop.I picked up Sapphira and the Slave Girl in the Virago Modern Classic imprint in an opportunity shop (thrift shop) which is in my TBR pile.
    Thank you for introducing me to Willa Cather and her beautiful writing; there is such a strong and lyrical sense of landscape.


  14. Thomas at My Porch February 21, 2011 / 10:28 am

    Jill: You started the generosity, so you deserved it. I am glad that it has piqued your interest in Cather. It will be interesting to see what you think of My Antonia and O Pioneers when you get around to them.


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