In this section of the book, Outland explains to the Professor why he was sidetracked on his way to college.
One night, when he is working as a call boy for a freight line in Pardee, New Mexico, he has to round up a crew for a train that was coming through the depot. A call boy, Outland explained earlier, was a boy who rounded up a train crew from wherever its members were around the town in time to make their departure and keep to the freight schedule.
On this night, he has to break up a poker game that some of the members of his crew are attending. Causing quite a stir among the company is a new fireman for the railroad company named Rodney Blake, a large and dirty man who eventually takes the jackpot.
When Outland has finished his work for the night, he looks in on the poker game and finds Blake cleaned the whole company out. He collects his $1600 worth of winnings and saunters sarcastically out, ignoring the jeers and insults of the other men.
Outland follows him home, sees him to bed, collects his winnings and puts them in his grip and stays in his room all night to make sure no one robs him. In the morning, he wakes him and asks him to breakfast. He also tells him to change and clean himself up in order to make a better impression on the town. Though Blake offers him half of the poker winnings, Outland refuses. Outland can tell Blake is a decent man, in spite of appearances, and after breakfast and a long talk, Outland persuades Blake to take his winnings to the bank and put them in a savings account.
This, Outland says, is the beginning of his friendship with Blake. Blake is 10 years older than Outland and has had a number of unpleasant experiences, including running away from home, being jilted by his fiancée, and being swindled by his friends. Blake wants a younger brother, and Outland needs an older.
When Outland has pneumonia, Blake nurses him, and when the doctor says he needs fresh air, Blake quits his job and signs Outland and himself up for jobs with the Sitwell Cattle Company, riding the range and tending a herd of cattle for a year.
The two men ride south to join the herd in May. Their winter camp is near a landmark called the Blue Mesa, a large purplish and unclimbable rock set down in the middle of the desert and wound around by the Cruzados river. Outland and Blake tend the cattle and plan how they will summit the Blue Mesa.
Blake is extraordinarily kind to Outland during that time, taking all the tough chores and making sure Outland keeps up with his Latin so he can advance in his education. In October, the foreman, a man called Rapp, comes to prepare the winter cabin with Outland for Outland and Blake’s stay while Blake tends the cattle to the east.
Cather’s insertion of “Tom Outland’s Story” into the middle of The Professor’s House initially caused great unfavorable comment amongst critics, who claimed it disrupted the flow of St. Peter’s narrative and was generally illogical and confusing. Actually Cather had written this middle section three years before The Professor’s House and decided to insert it into the middle of the novel later. Over the years, critical opinion has shifted, and “Tom Outland’s Story” is increasingly viewed as one of the best decisions Cather made in terms of the structure of the novel.
“Tom Outland’s Story” is generally viewed as the jewel in the crown of The Professor’s House, a beautiful tale of youth, idealism and discovery set in the less beautiful frame of St. Peter’s story. The structure of the novel is generally accepted by critics to represent the failure of St. Peter’s philosophy; the bookend sections of the novel constitute a shell that is filled by the jewel of Outland’s experience, which represents the actuation of St. Peter’s beliefs about history and art. The fact that not even the presence of Outland’s story in the midst of his experience can save St. Peter at the end of the novel is less a failure of Outland’s than of St. Peter’s.
Cather was reportedly inspired to make this structural decision by the Dutch school of painting, which often depict cluttered rooms boasting a large square window giving on a peaceful seascape. This feeling of space, beauty and peace was behind Cather’s decision to insert Outland’s larger-than-life Southwestern adventures in the middle of the Professor’s crowded quotidian academic life.
Indeed, even in Cather’s own time, the unusual structure of The Professor’s House was not universally decried. Some critics argue that the tripartite structure of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, published in 1927, was modeled on Cather’s novel. The novels have other characteristics in common, including a focus on houses and dwelling-structures, a setting during World War I, and a focus on a professor and his family.
Outland’s tone in this section, as remembered by the Professor, is open, straightforward and honest; it seems a refreshing change from the stuffiness of St. Peter’s narrative and has been lauded by Cather scholars. Part of this effect is achieved by using first-person perspective; readers closer to Outland in this section than elsewhere.