I first discovered Willa Cather last year during my annual short story reading project. Her short story “The Old Beauty” was probably in my top ten favorite short stories of 2012 (and the competition was tough, let me tell you!). Last month, when I found out that a local library branch was reading one of her novels for its February discussion, I thought that a good enough excuse to read it myself. (The discussion isn’t until Monday, but I’m hoping to make it)
The Professor’s House is a different kind of novel than those I’m used to. About two-thirds of the way through, it fractures into an elaborate first-person narrative of the backstory revolving around the character Tom Outland. Up until that part of the book, we are familiar with Tom only through his former interaction with the title character and his family. One of Professor Godfrey St. James’ daughters was even formerly engaged to Tom, who had died tragically in The Great War (that’s World War I for those unfortunate enough to be born later and to know there was more than one “world” war).
Tom was also the inventor of a machine, the patent for which brings in a considerable amount of income, which he willed to the professor’s daughter (since married to another man). We also learn that, in all his years of teaching, Tom was the one student who truly stirred the Professor’s intellect.
But what does all this have to do with a Professor facing a middle age crisis? This is, after all, what the novel is ostensibly about: at about age fifty, the professor and his wife are finally moving to a nicer house. Problem is, he doesn’t want to leave the old house, which includes an “attic” workspace, cold and drafty and dangerously heated by an unreliable gas stove – not to mention the room is shared with the family’s part-time seamstress and her dressing forms. It is in this attic that the professor has pursued his true passion – writing a multi-volume book, “Spanish Adventures in North America.” He eventually, against the advice of others, decides to continue renting this old house so that he will not lose the use of this cherished “office.”
When he declines to go on a European trip with his wife, daughter and son-in-law so that he may continue his work, he decides to work on the “diary” of Tom Outland. Outland, while working in New Mexico on a ranch, was actually a co-discoverer of some old native american ruins in the cliffs of the remote “Blue Mesa.” The diary is more of a journal of Tom and a partner’s discoveries there, but it is at this point the novel switches gears and launches into “Tom Outland’s story.” (I have since heard that this story was originally an independent work of Cather’s and that “The Professor’s” parts were later added as a framing story) Outland’s story was easily my favorite part of the book, with its magical descriptions of the southwest (a favorite region where I have often traveled and vacationed) and of the discovery of the ruins.
I’ll admit to being somewhat confused initially about how everything ties together with these two stories, or rather story within a story, but I think I’ve found a passage where Cather comes close to explaining it:
“He (The Professor) had had two romances: one of the heart, which had filled his life for many years, and a second of the mind – of the imagination. Just when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off for him, along came Outland and brought him a kind of second youth.”
So, for me, not too different in age from the Professor, this book is about the possibility of awakening a second childhood in oneself, and immersing oneself in its enjoyment. And I love that phrase “when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off”…
(Below: Ruins of cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in New Mexico. I’ve actually been up there! Canyon de Chelly was also used as a backdrop for a somewhat cheesy western movie, “McKenna’s Gold,” starring Gregory Peck and …Omar Sharif(!) – have you seen it?)
Have you read any of Will Cather’s novels or stories? Which are your favorites? Which would you recommend I try?
Below: Willa Cather (one of the few pictures I could find of her smiling!)