Willa Cather

The Professor’s House: Thoughts & Comments

Hello again, Cather fans! For those of you who haven’t yet read The Professor’s House, you might like to check out the intro post on it here.

My Thoughts
The first time I read The Professor’s House I liked the Professor and didn’t like most of the other characters. I generally took “his side” on the issues. I felt like he was misunderstood and needed to be left alone to work.

This time around, however, I saw the Professor and other characters in a more complex light. 
I couldn’t help but see the Professor as a bit of a victim. He never says what’s on his mind or takes the risk to open up to his loved ones. He’s judgmental and critical of everyone around him, and yet he accuses others of being intolerant. 
He also seems rather selfish. He’s always in his office, going to his office, or wanting to be in his office. He even spends Christmas day in his office. One of the saddest scenes is of his six year old daughter sitting outside his office door, waiting for her father to come out and take care of her after she was stung by a bee. She patiently sits there with swollen fingers, not daring to disturb her father at work.. He says that she’s shown him great consideration. Some might say he’s shown her great neglect. 
“The great pleasures don’t come so cheap.”
The Professor’s decent into depression is so well done. Cather’s writing is subtle and profound and compact and you can’t pin things down very easily, even when things seem obvious. Nothing is simple, even if it seems simple at first glance. Is he depressed because he’s burnt out, he’d “burned his candle at both ends?” (28). Or is it Tom Outland’s death? Is it the increasing commercialization and politicization of American life in general, or specifically the use of Tom’s invention and the university environment? Or is it tensions within his family? Or is it his age or his career?
It seems to me that whatever the primary cause, each of these issues contributed to his depression which I saw as being exacerbated by the accumulative effects of fifteen years of living a disconnected life. With the exception of a few sabbatical years, the Professor lived with his family while he worked on his multi-volume work, Spanish Adventurers in North America. However, he spent all of his time at home in his upstairs sanctuary (or in his garden or swimming or playing tennis). There’s no indication that he regularly played with or actively engaged with his daughters, although he watched Outland play and talk with them. Even in the early years of his family, he was merely “conscious of pretty little girls in fresh dresses” and he “was not insensible to the domestic drama that went on beneath him” (101), but he did not engage with this life. 
As a father of two young children, the sewing room, which became his command center, was the “one place in the house where he could get isolation, insulation from the engaging drama of domestic life” (26). By the time his daughters are married young women, his office has become “his shadowy crypt” (112).  Later his desk is referred to as “a shelter one could hide behind, it was a hole one could creep into” (161).

As we see the Professor deal with his family and coworkers he seems to never speak his mind or connect with anyone on a personal, emotional level. And then he gets a visit from Mrs. Crane informing him that she and her husband are starting legal proceedings to get some of the money they feel is owed them for her husband’s work with Tom Outland. It seems to be the last straw for the Professor. Walking home from visiting Dr. Crane, he takes a detour through the park and his mind wanders:

“The world was sad to St. Peter as he looked about him; the lake-shore country flat and heavy, Hamilton small and tight and airless. The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him, seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man. Yes, it was possible that the little word, on its voyage among all the starts, might become like that; a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings or revolutions.”

It is the Professor who is sad, not the world, but he can’t admit it so he projects his feelings onto his surroundings. Just like he projects his own intolerance onto his wife and family.  The Professor is so disconnected from himself that he can’t even admit his own feelings to himself.  He “brought himself back with a jerk” (150) from these thoughts and chalks it up to Crane, “that was the trouble.” 

Not long after this scene, sometime around December, his son-in-law Scott notices that the Professor doesn’t look well, “he had never before seen the Professor when he seemed absolutely flattened out and listless” (153). The Professor has now bodily taken on the description of sadness that he earlier had projected onto the scene around him.

Then in March his other son-in-law, Louie, proposes a family summer vacation in Paris. Everyone is excited, except St. Peter, who knew “that he would never be one of this light-hearted expedition, and he hated himself for the ungracious drawing-back that he felt in the region of his diaphragm” (159). He justifies his decision to himself and concludes, “Besides, he would not be needed” (160). It’s not so much that he is not needed, but rather he has pushed others away from him so that he feels he is not needed. When he tells his family that he won’t be going Louie “readily conceded that the Professor’s first duty was to his work. Rosamond was incredulous and piqued . . . . His wife looked at him with thoughtful disbelief” (161). Everyone seems to know that all is not well with the professor. 
Later his wife asks him what it is that makes him draw away from his family. She says, “Two years ago you were an impetuous young man. Now you save yourself in everything. You’re naturally warm and affectionate; all at once you begin shutting yourself away from everybody. I don’t think you’ll be happier for it” (162). He tells her that he feels like he’s put a great deal behind himself and that he seems to be tremendously tired. He ends the talk by saying he’ll get his second wind. 

And then Tom Outland’s story is told. With this reading I felt that Tom’s story is completely organic to the novel as a whole. Tom’s name and memory and stories about him and snipes about Louie’s use of Tom’s discovery are all over Book One, much more so than I caught on in my first reading of the novel. It almost begs for a telling of Tom’s story, even if you don’t expect to be swept off to the Southwest.

In Book Three when we find out that the Professor was supposed to have a vacation with Tom Outland in Paris which never happened due to the outbreak of World War I and Tom’s subsequent death, it makes sense why he wouldn’t want to go to Paris for a “light-hearted expedition.” Tom’s appearance had given the Professor a second youth and in contrast it makes sense that Tom’s death would make the professor feel old beyond his years. He’s only 52 but feels himself as old as his grandfather was when he was in his 80s.

Book Three made me question everything in Book One, at least everything that came from the Professor’s perspective. I think that’s as Cather intended it. Depression is a tricky foe and you don’t know what it does to your perception until you’re on the other side and can look back.  If you’re lucky enough to be able to look back, as is the Professor. Even then things are murky and confused.

When the Professor runs into Scott who tells him that he has to decide where he’s going to live because his wife is coming home soon, it throws him into the deepest depths of his emotional crisis. He can’t image himself living in the new house and then recalls a Longfellow poem about death that starts him thinking about himself in a coffin. He’s no longer afraid of death, but rather “now he thought of eternal solitude with gratefulness; as a release from every obligation, from every form of effort” (272). He almost dies by giving himself to the gas fumes, but Augusta, the family’s trusted seamstress, arrives despite his earlier claim that she won’t go out in the storm. She saves him.
The Professor undergoes a sort of emotional death and rebirth.
As the Professor recuperates under Augusta’s care, he ponders living life without joy and reflects on how Tom Outland “escaped” from having to sustain a career and a marriage. In other words, adult responsibilities. But there seems to be a glimmer of hope. For the first time in months (or maybe years) the Professor is lonely and wants Augusta to stay with him. I think this is a big break through. 
He contemplates Augusta and thinks about how she’s never been afraid to say “things that were heavily, drearily true, and though he used to wince under them, he hurried off with the feeling that they were good from him . . . . Augusta was like the taste of bitter herbs; she was the bloomless side of life that he had always run away from” (280). This gives me hope that the Professor might be able to starting reflecting on his feelings rather than escaping into “ideas” and that he may start having some difficult, but true conversations with his family members that will help him reconnect to them and reengage life.

Things I’ve Been Pondering

Will the Professor live a life without joy or will he get that second wind? Or has something been irreparably broken in him? Tom Outland had given him something like a second childhood, had brought back freshness into his life and now he’s reconnecting to his own younger self. Will the Professor’s first grandchild bring back some freshness, too, or will he stay disconnected from his family?


Share Your Thoughts!
What do you think of The Professor’s House? Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the book, even if it’s just a sentence. And don’t feel like you have to agree/disagree or even comment on what I had to say.

Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

3 replies »

  1. On a very related note, I'm currently reading Willa Cather Living by Edith Lewis and just read this passage from when Cather moved in with the McClung family: “Isabelle McClung fitted up a sewing-room at the top of the house as a study for her, and she wrote here on week-ends and holidays, and during school vacations; it was here that she wrote most of the short stories that appeared in her first book of prose, The Troll Garden, and perhaps a part of April Twilights, her volume of verse” (54). Synchronicity.

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  2. I had not heard about Willa Cather Living. Sounds like an interesting bio. It is strange to imagine houses with sewing rooms in today's world with cheap sweatshop clothing.

    Your thoughtful comments on this book have given me much to consider. I think I didn't see the spiraling depression coming until the last chapter. St Peter does seem to have a distorted perception of reality. Maybe that's why I liked the Tom Outland part most on this first read? I guess I wasn't prepared to consider this as a well-crafted case study in depression.

    Here's my Goodreads review:
    http:www.goodreads.com/review/show/350936223

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  3. Lydia, thanks so much for sharing your review! I think Cather writes the Professor's depression so subtly that it's more of a feeling than anything concrete during the first reading which is why Tom Outland's story seems like such a clean breath of fresh air. You don't realize you're sort of entrapped by the Professor's spiral. Or at least that's how I've been seeing the novel this time around. 🙂

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