The Professor’s House was published in 1925, but had been in the works since Cather’s 1915 trip to Mesa Verde National Park in Montezuma County, Colorado. The park is widely recognized as the home of some of the world's best-preserved cliff dwellings, the product of a 13th century Native American tribe called the Anasazi. Cather was so inspired by her trip that she wrote a newspaper article in 1916 about how Dick Wetherill, a local rancher, first re-discovered the most breathtaking of the park’s ruins, “Cliff Palace,” in 1888. Cather described the park as an awe-inspiring place, a place where Americans could get in touch with the ancient origins of the country and appreciate the accomplishments of a civilization that lived in harmony with their environment.
Cather based the central section of The Professor’s House, a chronicle of archaeological discovery later known as “Tom Outland’s Story,” on Dick Wetherill’s discovery of Cliff Palace. She modeled Outland on Wetherill, and modeled her “Blue Mesa” on Mesa Verde. She completed an early draft of this section in 1922, and by 1925 she had written the first and third sections of the novel to frame this inspirational story.
Cather later wrote that the main business of The Professor’s House was to show the emptiness and futility of modern civilization when compared to ancient civilizations like that of the Anasazi. Using the example of the cliff-dwellers’ ruins, Cather attempted to prove her thesis that human civilization is at its best when it elevates art, history and religion above science, technology and materialism. By juxtaposing the story of her hero, Tom Outland, with that of an aging Midwestern academic, Godfrey St. Peter, Cather attempted to show in The Professor’s House that modern civilization was declining.