The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

Way back at the genesis of this blog (3 years ago :O ) Dave and I discussed a few of the books we wanted or didn’t want to read.  Willa Cather’s books (specifically My Antonia) were at the top of my do not read under any circumstances list.  As I explain here.  Yet, I’ve already blogged My Antonia, and now I decided to read another Cather book.  Sometimes, life and literature just prove us wrong.  I just had a discussion today about this while talking about Grapes of Wrath, and how because of this blog I read both it and East of Eden and loved both of them.  That, in high school, I had to read Of Mice and Men and didn’t particularly care for it, so it made me not that interested in Steinbeck and his works.  Again, proven wrong.

Both Elisabeth Spencer and Peter Cameron listed The Professor’s House in their Top Tens.

Anyway, to me, reading this book showed me just how talented Cather was.  This book is nothing like My Antonia, even the feel of it is different.  Her narrative style is different as well.  It reminds me more of British stories from around this time frame (1920s) than it reminds me of My Antonia.

That being said, I can’t say that I was blown away by this book on the whole.  It was entertaining, and it was an easier read, but a lot of the books I’ve read for this blog have a deeper impact on me, like there’s a certain heft to them (and not just the literal heft and slog of Les Miserables).  Maybe Dave can agree or disagree with that statement.  This felt like…just a book.  I’ve read books for the blog that I disliked, but they still had that heft to them.

The story is about a man, who is older with two grown daughters, married for 30 years.  He and his wife are finally moving house because he managed to publish a multi volume series on Spanish explorers, that actually found a market and brought in a tidy sum of money.  One of his daughters has become quite wealthy with her husband, due to a dead fiancee’s invention and subsequent patent that she inherited after he died in the Great War.  Professor St. Peter refuses to leave the office in his old house, even going so far as renting the house for another year, just so he can keep his study.  He even insists that the seamstress, whom he shared the attic room with, leave her dress forms there.  The book gives you the sense that St. Peter was a very active man:

“St. Peter had always laughed at people who talked about “day-dreams,” just as he laughed at people who naively confessed that htey had “an imagination.” All his life his mind had behaved in a positive fashion.  When he was not at work, or being actively amused, he went to sleep.  He had no twilight stage.”

But as time passes in the year that this book covers, St. Peter sinks deeper into introspection.  There seems to be a sense of mourning too for Outland, his daughter’s fiancee, whom was also a bit of a protegee of his and a close friend of the family even before his engagement to St. Peter’s daughter.  The story breaks away and tells some of Outland’s story too.  There is a definite sense of loss in both narratives.

St. Peter’s increasing lassitude for life is something he even expresses to his wife:

“My dear,” he sighed when the lights were turned on and they both looked older, “It’s been a mistake, our having a family and writing histories and getting middle-aged.  We should have been picturesquely shipwrecked together when we were young.”

And she later expresses it back to him:

“You are not old enough for the pose you take.  That’s what puzzles me.  For so many years you never seemed to grow at all older, though I did.  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.”

There is one thing about the book that is lingering with me however and keeps poking at me to mention it during writing this post.  I loved how Cather resolved the story for St. Peter, but she didn’t feel a need to run along resolving all the story lines in the book into neat and tidy little bows.  The now wealthy sister’s increasing miserly nature and, to be blunt, bitchiness.  The professor who also helped Outland being cheated out of a portion of the patent money.  The non wealthy sister feeling more and more alienated from her sister.  These are all things that Cather leaves alone.  Which, to me, since the book was about St. Peter’s internal life, is the sign of an amazing author.  I don’t know whether she had the temptation to just go along and tidy those things into little piles and resolve them all, but I can’t imagine there wouldn’t have just been at least a tiny urge to, say have the sisters have one big mighty show down, or to say whether Crane (the professor) gets any money at all.

A minor theme in the book is how money changes things, and changes people (if you haven’t gotten that hint yet).  Which Cather glances on but doesn’t dwell on really.

If you loved My Antonia, or if you have ever enjoyed some good turn of the 20th century British literature, definitely check out this book.  Or if you’re just bored and looking for something to read, check out this book.

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