It has long been recognized that American author Willa Cather felt a special affinity for the American Southwest; Southwestern themes appear in many of her novels, including Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Song of the Lark, and The Professor’s House. For Cather, known for her novels of American immigrant life on the prairie, the American West and Southwest had a special quality; for her, as for so many other Americans and American immigrants, the history, land and people of these frontier regions were a source of literary and artistic inspiration.
It was not merely the idea of the American Southwest that inspired Cather; indeed, in The Professor’s House, published in 1925, Cather used a very specific place as the basis for one of her fictional locations. The “Blue Mesa” in the novel was based very closely on Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and her character “Tom Outland” was based on Richard (Dick) Wetherill, a rancher who first discovered a set of breathtaking ruins on the Mesa. In the novel, the “Blue Mesa” becomes the focus of the characters’ artistic, historical and archaeological activity and reverence, just as Cather attempted to elevate Mesa Verde to the level of a national shrine using her pen.
Mesa Verde National Park was founded in 1906 in Montezuma County, Colorado to protect some of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the entire world. Made by the Ancestral Pueblo people, or Anasazi, these dwellings date from the 13th century and are made of adobe. The actual dwellings resemble stone cities constructed of square, rectangular and round shapes established under overhanging rocks. The most famous of the cliff cities is known as “Cliff Palace,” and is generally accepted as the largest cliff dwelling in North America. This particular city was discovered by Dick Wetherill, the son of a local rancher, in 1888, and it is on this discovery that Cather bases the pivotal scene where Tom Outland comes upon the “Cliff City” that will change his life in The Professor’s House.
Cather’s acquaintance with Mesa Verde began in 1915 when she traveled to the park for a week to research The Professor’s House. According to Cather scholars, Cather had been dreaming for years of writing a fictional account of the discovery of the ruins of a cliff-dwelling civilization, and her trip to Mesa Verde was the beginning of serious research to accomplish that dream. She traveled from Mancos, Colorado to a camp in the park run by the wife of the park superintendent, Thomas Rickner. She also met an archaeologist from the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Jesse Walter Fewkes, a slapdash excavator who made up for his technical shortcomings by telling exciting campfire stories to the assorted tourists at the site. During her week there, Cather researched the involvement of the Wetherill ranching family in the touristic development of Mesa Verde. She interviewed Dick Wetherill’s brother Clayton, and from him got the story of Dick’s discovery of Cliff Palace.
Though the exact details are shrouded in mystery and legend, the generally accepted story of the discovery, which, because of her prominence, has been based on Cather’s account of it, is as follows: Dick Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason were chasing some cattle that had forded the Mancos river and run into the Mesa Verde on a December day in 1888. Stopping their horses to catch their breath, they saw a city of grand stone ruins built into the cliff face opposite them and drank in their discovery through a thin veil of snow. This account forms the basis of Cather’s account of Tom Outland’s discovery of Cliff City that appears in her novel.
Following Dick’s discovery, the Wetherills ran a lucrative business throughout the 1890s based from their ranch west of the Mesa, taking tourists up into the Mesa to see the ruins and perhaps pick up a souvenir artifact or two. While mercenary motives were paramount in their interest in the Mesa, they were also motivated by concern for the ruins’ preservation and struck up a correspondence with officials of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, who were infamously slow to act to preserve the site from looters and pothunters. Cather includes this frustrating interaction with Washington bureaucrats in her novel as well.
Following her research, Cather composed an article for the Denver Times in 1916 which recounted the history of the Mesa Verde site and Wetherill’s discovery of Cliff Palace. She wrote that the cliff-dwelling civilizations who built the stone cities lived in a special relationship of harmony with their natural setting, that the ruins they left were awe-inspiring, and that Americans around the country could experience the same feelings of renewal and reverence that she herself experienced in Mesa Verde. The article resulted in increased tourism to the area, and formed the basis for an entire section of The Professor’s House, “Tom Outland’s Story.”
Though critics have pointed out that Cather stretched the truth and indulged in a few historical inaccuracies, such as the fact that the Cliff Palace was known to explorers and archaeologists before Wetherill’s “discovery” of it, Cather was not a historian but a novelist, interested not in exact accounts of events but in emotional and artistic responses to the beauty of the cliff-dwellers’ ruins. “Tom Outland’s Story” is generally considered the finest section of her novel The Professor’s House, and Outland’s “Blue Mesa” the source of his inspiration. Through Cather’s reverence for the artistry of the ancient cultures of the American Southwest, Mesa Verde has found itself immortalized in fiction.