The Professor's House

The Professor's House Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3, Section 2: "Tom Outland's Story"

Outland and Blake bring the herd into the winter pasture in November, and in December Rapp comes by with Christmas provisions and an old down-and-out Englishman named Henry Atkins who has had work as a cook and a steward and who Rapp thinks may be useful to Outland and Blake as a cook. He warns the men, though, never to leave him alone with the herd.

Outland describes the three men as a happy family that winter. Atkins is a kind, unassuming, hardworking old man who keeps the cabin neat and cooks well.

The men lose six head of cattle to the wild herd in the Mesa, and Outland tells Atkins he is going after four of them to drive them back while Blake is out with the herd. He fords the river with his horse and enters the Mesa’s canyon, which he finds to be very wide and pleasant.

Further into the canyon, he comes upon a more severe canyon opening to the side and strewn with boulders. As he walks up this new canyon, it begins to snow, and, looking up, he sees a stone city of houses and a tower in a cave in the face of the cliff. Admiring its beauty and structure, Outland observes yet another canyon with its own city opening out on another side, and realizes the entire Mesa was once home to a large and powerful civilization.

Upon returning to the cabin, Outland describes the “Cliff City” for Atkins and Blake, and they conclude that the cliff-dwellers must have farmed in the plain and carried their produce up to their cities via a northern access-way, which Outland and Blake resolve to look for.

Outland reflects to himself that this old civilization he stumbled upon must have been more powerful, artistic and somehow different from the other civilizations he studied.

Blake does his own exploring in the Mesa and finds four other cities in arches, which are formed when the surface rock is harder than the rock underneath it and the underlying rock is worn away, forming a cavern.

Blake and Outland plan to take their wages and explore the Mesa with Atkins once their contract is over in May. Atkins agrees, and the foreman, who becomes privy to their plans, lets them stay on at the winter cottage and use it as a home base.


Cather’s “Blue Mesa” is based on Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, a park filled with the adobe ruins of the Anasazi civilization of the 13th century. Her account of Outland’s discovery of the Cliff City was based on Colorado rancher Dick Wetherill’s discovery of a site dubbed “Cliff Palace” in Mesa Verde in 1888. Indeed, the entire character of Outland was loosely based on Wetherill, from his ranching background to his discovery of the site during a light snowfall in December.

Cather’s version of the discovery of the Mesa ruins was first believed to be based closely on Wetherill’s actual discovery of the Mesa Verde site, but scholars have since concluded that Cather invented some details, suppressed others, and stretched the truth to invent a myth of her own, a romanticization of the pivotal event in keeping with her romanticization of the Southwest in general.

Cather did this, of course, for dramatic, literary and artistic effect. She wished to present a young, idealistic, relatively unsophisticated adventurer, born from the wholesome, open plains of the American West, as the first discoverer of the ruins of an ancient civilization.

In reality, Wetherill was not so young, he was not the first to see the Cliff Palace, and he was interested in the site more for commercial purposes than academic ones.

None of this matters to the reader, however, as Cather’s lyrical prose unfolds in this chapter and the reader follows Outland into the magical canyon after the vanished cattle. Cather believed strongly, as critics have recognized, in primitivism, pastoralism, and the nobility of cultures that live in harmony with their environments. All of these beliefs are on display in Outland’s discovery myth.