Cather, and Cather scholars, have described The Professor’s House as a tale of the ravages the onward march of science and technology make on the delicate forms of art and history. Where does true cultural achievement lie, the novel asks? St. Peter, and Cather, argue that it lies in art, religion, pomp and circumstance, and that science and technology cheapen and debase human existence. Does this point of view work for the novel’s characters who champion it? Are those characters who reject science and its creeping cousin, materialism, happier or less happy than those who embrace the modern world?
It works for these characters in some ways and does not work for them in others. The Professor, Tom Outland, and Kathleen, principally, are the characters who reject money, materialism and science in favor of art, history, and literature. The Professor’s life’s work is the study of history and the appreciation of art; Outland’s grand story is the tale of his discovery of an ancient historical civilization; and Kathleen is an artist who marries an impecunious writer. All of these characters reject money in one way or another. The Professor refuses to live in his new, expensive house; Outland refuses to accept money for the Mesa artifacts, and Kathleen refuses to marry for money and chooses to hold her rich sister Rosamund in contempt.
These characters feel they have integrity and grace based on their rejection of money, but they are not necessarily happier than other characters. In fact, St. Peter falls into a suicidal spiral, Outland is killed having lost his best friend, and Kathleen is eaten up with jealousy of her sister. This seems to suggest that Cather believed that, though it is noble and right to reject science and materialism, these forces will ultimately win out in the end.
This conclusion is certainly suggested by the comparative happiness of Lillian and Louie, two of the novel’s characters who wholeheartedly embrace society, materialism and “worldliness.” They are happier and more content than the novel’s “nobler” protagonists.
Cather’s much-discussed insertion of “Tom Outland’s Story” into the center of the novel has provoked a good deal of criticism and praise over the decades. Does this structural decision make sense in terms of the flow of the narrative and the background the “Story” gives to the Professor’s life, or is it merely disruptive?
It makes sense in terms of finally revealing the mysterious Tom Outland’s personal history, which is continually hinted at in the beginning section of the novel but never delineated fully. It also gives background to the Professor’s memories of Outland, and to his family members’ references and debates about Outland and his invention.
The fact that the story is inserted precisely where it is, more than halfway through the novel, makes less sense. The reader is in the dark about Outland for the vast majority of the novel, and it would be beneficial for readers to know more about their mysterious hero before he is talked about too much.
Cather makes much of the affinity of minds between the Professor and Tom Outland. Is this affinity based mainly on their academic interests, namely their shared love of the Southwest and its history and culture, on their similar cast of mind, that is, their simultaneous single-minded devotion to their work and unwillingness to interrupt that devotion for the sake of their families, or on their ultimate rejection of the material rewards of their intellectual labor?
Obviously, their affinity is based on all of these things, but, as becomes evident from the Professor’s musings on Outland, it is their similar cast of mind that truly makes them kindred spirits. Lillian was the intellectual companion of the Professor’s youth, and her profound jealousy of Outland was based on the fact that Outland was the intellectual companion of the Professor’s middle age. Outland reinvigorated the Professor intellectually and made it possible for him to write the last six volumes of his magnum opus. Both men are single-mindedly devoted to their work and are taciturn in their personal relationships.
Their shared love of the Southwest is important but only goes so far in the development of their relationship, and the fact that they both reject material rewards is a profound similarity between the two of them, but ultimately, Outland does not choose to reject the proceeds of his patent. Indeed, the Professor worries about what would have happened to him had he received those proceeds.
Does desire truly foretell achievement, as Cather says? Could one foretell Outland’s achievement by his desires? Could one foretell the Professor’s?
- Outland’s: Not precisely, because the principal endeavor the reader observes Outland engaging in is the attempt to get scientists interested in the Blue Mesa; this attempt is a failure, despite his great desire to accomplish this goal. On the other hand, Outland does achieve a sort of personal communion with the Mesa as a result of his meticulous research and cataloguing. As to Outland’s vacuum, the reader is not made privy to the extent of his desire to achieve that technological breakthrough, and it is difficult to judge.
- Professor’s: Perhaps, because he desired to write his magnum opus on the Spanish explorers ever since he was a young man and he succeeded in doing it; great ambition resulted in great achievement.
Is it Tom Outland who is responsible for so many broken relationships within the St. Peter family, or is it the money that flowed from his discovery?
Since Tom Outland is presented clearly as the hero of the tale, and his “Story” generally accepted as the jewel in the crown of The Professor’s House, Outland himself cannot be the cause of the St. Peters’ familial discord. Money, on the other hand, is Cather’s great enemy throughout the novel; it is money and materialism that she blames for Outland’s failure at the Smithsonian in Washington and for the breakup of Outland’s relationship with Blake.
It is therefore the money that flowed from the Outland patent that is responsible for the broken relationships between the McGregors and the Marselluses, the Professor and all his family members, especially his sons-in-law, and Lillian and the Professor.
Is the Professor’s relationship with Lillian salvageable at the end of the novel?
No, it is not. The one moment of reconciliation between the two in the entire novel is during the opera Mignon that they watch in Chicago. During the performance, which reminds them of their youth in Paris, there is a moment of togetherness when the Professor mentions he wishes they were shipwrecked when they were young and in love. Later on, when he dreams of this shipwreck, however, he is shipwrecked alone on the shores of the land where he conceived the idea for his magnum opus on the Spanish explorers. History is the Professor’s first love, and as he grows farther and farther away from his family, his wife recedes into the background of his mind. She is no longer a priority.
It is clear from the novel that the Lillian-Godfrey relationship has been strained since Tom Outland’s involvement in the family’s life and in St. Peter’s work. Lillian’s profound jealousy of Outland has never receded, and is not likely to recede at the end of the novel as the Professor’s grip on reality weakens.
Is St. Peter’s attachment to his house due only to the fact that he finished his magnum opus there? Or is there some family sentiment attached his reluctance to leave? Does any of this family sentiment include his wife?
St. Peter’s primary attachment to the house is definitely to his work-room where his magnum opus was completed. As the novel nears its close and he retreats from his family, the work-room becomes his sanctuary.
However, at other points in the book, St. Peter seems to feel nostalgia for the family moments that occurred in the house. Principally, he remembers his daughters, their party dresses on the dress-forms and their happy times in earlier years. He does not bring Lillian into his memories of the old house very much.
Outland’s offhand remark in Chapter 4 of his story to the effect that an archaeologist would have been able to tell a lot from the remains he found but that the remains never reached an archaeologist brings up a question: why does Outland think he is entitled to excavate these ruins? He, after all, doesn’t even have a high school education.
At first glance, it seems rather presumptuous of Outland, Blake and Atkins to disturb the Mesa ruins for the purposes of private, unlearned study. As modern readers would think of it, this interference is tantamount to disturbing what should be a national historic site. Possible explanations of why Outland thinks he is entitled to study the ruins are that he saw them first, because he can, because he is spending his own money on the project, because he is curious, and because he reveres the cliff-dwellers and because he values art and history.
Part of the answer to this question can be found in Cather’s own time. The Blue Mesa was based on the Mesa Verde, a national historical site in Colorado with Anasazi cliff-dwelling ruins. When Cather was writing her novel, and for decades before, these ruins had been ransacked on a regular and continuing basis by pothunters, treasure-seekers, tourists and vandals who had been carrying off the pots and other artifacts the cliff-dwellers left behind. This type of robbery and disturbance was almost an accepted practice, and it took the federal government years to stop this vandalism by making the site a national park. Compared with such wholesale exploitation, Outland’s reverential study seems tame.
Cather is known for romanticizing nature, art and intellectualism. Is she perhaps a bit too scornful of how most people live: keeping up appearances, getting ahead at work, climbing the social ladder? Or is her critique, through Outland’s eyes, fair, given Outland’s background, temperament and inclinations? Using the example of the Bixbys, answer this question.
Cather’s critique of modern civilization through Outland’s eyes is indeed harsh, especially as concerns the Bixbys, a married couple living the stereotypical middle-class life of the Washington bureaucracy. Mrs. Bixby is worried about her social standing and about what she will wear to the next neighborhood gathering while Mr. Bixby is worried about getting ahead at work and about what his wife will wear to the next neighborhood gathering. Outland, as a character from the Southwestern cowboy style of open-air life, can be forgiven for a slight degree of scorn toward the Bixbys.
But it is certainly worth considering that the pitch to which Outland’s critique of Washington and of the Bixbys rises is excessive in light of the fact that Outland has not been as critical of anything or anyone else in the whole course of his narrative. His scorn and contempt seem to come out of nowhere, and can only be viewed as Cather breaking through her fictional hero’s consciousness to express her own frustrations with modern society.
Given that Cather describes St. Peter as an epicurean and very attached to a few indulgences, what does the Professor mean at the end of the novel when he says he must learn to live “without delight?”
Far from describing mere physical pleasures, the Professor is referring to the emotional highs and lows generated by his now-completed academic life’s-work. The Professor’s scholarship is the thing dearest to him in all the world; now that it is completed, he is thrown back upon the bosom of his ever more contentious family. His reaction to this situation is to withdraw, not only from his family but from humankind in general. At the end of the novel, he finds himself completely unable to face another human being until he fails to die in the gas incident.
Following Augusta’s intervention and his recovery, the Professor resigns himself to living in a kind of grey zone, a zone without black and white, high and low, ecstasy or misery. He has lost all capacity to feel emotion. The one thing that generated emotion for him in the past, his work, seems to have failed him, and his family, in its fractured state, is hardly able to replace his academic pursuits.