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.