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The Professor’s House

By Willa Cather

I’ve long considered Cather to be one of the gaps in my literary education. I never had to read “My Antonia” or “O Pioneers!” in school. And the one I’d been most interested in reading was “The Professor’s House,” about social change in the post-WWI period, the importance of history, coming to terms with mortality, etc. It’s about a history professor, Godfrey St. Peter, who has been a success in his career but still feels keenly the loss of his favorite pupil, Tom Outland, who died in the Great War. What’s more, Outland was engaged to be married to St. Peter’s daughter, and Outland willed to her the proceeds from a type of motor he invented that turned out to be enormously important and valuable. The daughter’s wealth, based on what St. Peter views as a cosmic injustice, creates rifts in the family. When it comes time for St. Peter and his wife to move to a new house, St. Peter can’t bring himself to leave the house where he raised his family, wrote his books, and formed a deep friendship with Outland.

The second part of the book is Outland’s account of how he found the remains of ancient cliff dwellings in a mesa in New Mexico, and how his deep connection to these remnants of an earlier civilization is betrayed by the friend who helped him discover it. Like St. Peter, Outland is disappointed that higher truths get subsumed by materialism. He dies before he has to compromise his idealism, though; as St. Peter reaches late middle age, he continues to grieve for Outland and also his younger, more idealistic self.

Cather’s writing is elegant and insightful. The Outland section features beautiful descriptive passages of the mesa and Outland’s exploration of the Cliff City. I’ll confess that I don’t quite understand the last, brief section, which returns to the professor and his ruminations on life. I’m glad, though, that I can now check Cather off the list of canonical American writers I’ve never read.

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