The reader is introduced to Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a professor of history who is described as an authority on the adventures of the Spanish explorers in America. He is presented to the reader rambling through his empty house one September morning, preparing to move. He has experienced the most pivotal moments of his life in this house, where he spent all of his married life there, brought up his two daughters, and finished his life’s work, a multi-volume history of the exploits of the Spanish explorers in America. The house has imperfections, but the Professor regards them now with affection rather than annoyance.
After visiting his garden, the Professor goes up to his work-room in the attic. He shared it for six weeks out of the year with Augusta, the German Catholic spinster who sews for his wife and daughters and is the niece of his landlord. There are running jokes between the Professor and Augusta about her dress-forms, half-formed torsos that share his work-space.
Augusta comes in while the Professor is there and he explains he will be staying on to work in the work-room for a time but sleeping at his new house. Augusta says she’s there to wheel the dress-forms and sewing machine over to the new house, but the Professor says he doesn’t want the forms removed as it would alter the room. Giving up the fight, Augusta removes her patterns and material from a chest next to the wall and she and the Professor recall their long acquaintanceship. Augusta says she never expected to grow old working as a seamstress for Mrs. St. Peter, and the Professor is amazed she could have had other expectations for herself.
After Augusta leaves, the Professor muses on his past and how his magnum opus, Spanish Adventures in North America, came together in his work-room. He studied records in Spain, traveled to the Southwest and Mexico, and visited family in France while he was working on it. He retreated from the annoyances of family life to his work-room and describes it as the only place in the house he could get any peace. Physically, the room is uncomfortable, but keeping himself working there is the only way he could make progress on his book. The focus of his life, it is revealed, was his book; his wife and daughters and his household duties were merely annoyances that he kept at bay as much as possible. He does, however, enjoy teaching and responding to “youth.” He is described as living two intense lives: one writing his book, and one teaching his students. He stretched himself thin writing his book and attending to his other duties, but won through in the end because of his desire to finish it.
The Professor glimpses Lake Michigan through the window of his work-room and launches into a paean to the Lake; it restores his sense of well-being because he associates it with his childhood. He grew up on a farm next to the Lake but his family moved to Kansas when he was eight and he missed the Lake both there and when he studied in France and lived with a foster family. Indeed, he chose his current professorship at the University because of its proximity to the Lake.
As the Professor progressed on the eight volumes of his magnum opus, he gained more and more international recognition until he won the Oxford prize for history, which gave him the money to build his new house. He does not want to move into it, however, and built it more for his wife than himself.
This chapter introduces the character of Godfrey St. Peter, a man who is inordinately attached to his old house when he has a beautiful new one with all the modern conveniences waiting for him. This attachment to the old house becomes, as the novel progresses, and as is evident even from this first chapter, a symbol for St. Peter’s attachment to the past itself. As a historian, this emotion is perhaps fitting. The Professor is attached not only to the house and its imperfections, but to his work-room in the house and to the very dress-forms his sewing-lady has used to construct dresses for his wife and daughters over the years.
Cather’s use of metonymy in this section is pointed up by Cather herself. Augusta and St. Peter refer to one of the dress-forms as “the bust,” and, in a pretentious and unnecessary flourish, St. Peter shows off his literary knowledge by informing his comparatively uneducated sewing-woman that this type of nomenclature is known in academic circles as “metonymy.”
St. Peter’s appearance is rather like that of a Spaniard. This is perhaps fitting for a professor who studies the exploits of the Spanish explorers in North America, and St. Peter’s introduction as what some critics have called the novel’s “surrogate Spaniard” foreshadows the importance the Spanish explorers will take on later in the novel.
The style of the novel, as exemplified in this first section, is highly reflective and psychological rather than narrative. While the novel follows a roughly chronological track, excepting the “Tom Outland’s Story” section in the middle, it is clear that Cather’s project is not to be accomplished by exciting action sequences or interminable character studies.
Cather’s focus in The Professor’s House is the nature of civilization, and the relative values of history, art, religion, science, technology, and materialism in each civilization. Her project is to explore these themes and to argue strenuously for certain values over others; this cannot and is not accomplished using the usual structure of plot and narrative. Cather creates an entire story and fully-formed characters around the reader without seeming to, through a series of reflections and reveries proceeding almost exclusively from the mind of her protagonist, the Professor.