The Professor’s House is Willa Cather’s 1925 chronicle of the 52nd year of Godfrey St. Peter, a professor of history at an unnamed Midwestern university in the small town of Hamilton, which borders Lake Michigan. Professor St. Peter has lately finished his magnum opus, a history of the adventures of the Spanish explorers in North America, and he and his wife Lillian are in the process of moving to a new house built with the proceeds of his completed work. Professor St. Peter, however, has grown profoundly attached to his old house. The first and third sections of the novel are composed primarily of his musings about his early career, which was inextricably linked with his happy early married life, his later career, which was inextricably linked with his mentorship of a brilliant student named Tom Outland, and his family, which comprises, aside from his wife, two daughters named Rosamund and Kathleen.
The first section of the novel delineates St. Peter’s philosophy of life and scholarship, which is also accepted as Cather’s; human civilization is at its best when it reveres art, history and religion, which are all parts of the same desirable whole. Civilization is at its worst when it becomes wrapped up in materialistic considerations and reveres only the creature comforts scientific and technological advancements can bring. Exploring these themes and proving this thesis is the main business of the novel. This first section also paints a portrait of St. Peter’s family life. His relationships with Lillian, with his daughters, and with his sons-in-law Louie and Scott are becoming strained as he retreats into himself, musing more and more on his dead protégé Outland.
The second section of the novel consists of the Professor’s remembrance of Tom Outland’s story. Outland was a brilliant scientist and amateur archaeologist with a great capacity to appreciate the very things the Professor reveres: beauty, artistic accomplishment, and historical grandeur. Outland, a native of New Mexico, discovered the ruins of an ancient cliff-dwelling civilization on the Blue Mesa a couple of years before he met the Professor, and this second section of the book is Outland’s story of this discovery. Outland revives the Professor’s flagging enthusiasm for his work while he is in the middle of writing his magnum opus, and he leaves Rosamund, his fiancé, the rights to his invention, the Outland vacuum, before he is killed in World War I. Rosamund and her future husband make a fortune from Outland’s discovery.
The third section of the novel chronicles the Professor’s slide into an indifference to life and acceptance of suicide. Indeed, the Professor makes only a half-hearted attempt to save himself when he is aware that his own life is in danger, and when he is saved by another, resolves that he is to live the rest of his life without delight. It appears that he has lost interest in life because he has completed the work of raising a family and completed his academic life’s work; he has nothing left to accomplish and looks forward to a future marked by a slow, purposeless and joyless decline to death.