“The Professor’s House” by Willa Cather


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!)



  1. Dale said,

    February 22, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Shadow on the Rock has been my favorite. I haven’t read this one, but it sounds good. On Booktv a few weeks ago, they did a literary tour of Sante Fe. Cather was mentioned frequently.


    • Jay said,

      February 24, 2013 at 9:04 am

      Sorry I missed that on BookTV (though I am not a regular watcher of that “spectacularly boring” network) 🙂

      I plan to read more of her.


  2. February 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I didn’t read your review because I’m planning on reading it soon and didn’t want to risk spoilers…I’ll have to come back and see what you think…but I wanted to comment about the non-smiling Willa pictures. As far as looks go, she has always reminded me of my aunt and great-grandmother (maternal). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo of Grandma Olepha smiling, she always has such a stern expression, and yet my mom says that she was completely opposite in reality–always smiling and rarely stern. I’m glad you found one of her smiling!


    • Jay said,

      February 24, 2013 at 9:08 am

      Hi Melody,
      Isn’t that so often the case with photos of an older era? I read/heard once that everyone looked so “stern” in photos in the early years of photography because most people had “bad teeth” and didn’t want them immortalized on film. Here’s hoping that, outside of photography, Cather’s demeanor was like Grandma Olepha!


  3. Dee said,

    February 22, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Hi Jay ….. Thanks for reminding me about WC – I was going to read some more of her after your report of last year – I’ve only read Death Comes for the Archbishop ….. I have lived in NM for 40+ years – what I especially loved about the Archbishop book was imagining the rides by horseback between all the outposts he traveled to – crossing the still roadless country, the crisp or boiling air of the desert, the distant views of landscapes hung in vibrating heat waves beneath our giant looming skies – which were heavens for the Archbishop of course ….. and the coffee and beans to eat for days ….. Imagining crossings which I shall never make!


    • Jay said,

      February 24, 2013 at 9:18 am

      Hi Dee,
      I just did a little research on “Death Comes to the Archbishop” and am adding it to my to read list on Goodreads. Your beautiful description makes it sound like it’s right up my alley. I’m guessing you would love the “Tom Outland’s Story” part of this novel. I’ll admit it wasn’t much of a page-turner for me until I got to that section, which “saved” the book and then some for this reader.

      I love NM and have been there several times, but, just doing the math now, it’s been 10 1/2 since my last time. I would love to see Canyon de Chelly again, and also drive though the Carson National Forest on US 64(?) . 🙂


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