The Professor's House

The Professor's House Summary and Analysis of Chapter 17, Section 1: "The Family"

After Lillian and the Marselluses sail for France in early May, the Professor settles down to live for the summer in the old house. He plans to write an introduction of Outland’s diary, which chronicles six months Outland spent on the Blue Mesa, but is struggling to write a character-sketch of the author. Outland’s was a multifaceted mind coupled with a simple personality.

Outland was a rarity at the University, the Professor says, because he was hardheaded in academic matters but overly chivalrous, quixotic and idealistic in personal relationships. He believed one got ahead by being kind and self-sacrificing, while everyone else at the University got ahead based on connections, quid pro quo and transactions for mutual advantage.

As the Professor had made an academic and intellectual companion of Outland, Lillian had begun to grow jealous of his place in the Professor’s affections and criticized his reserve. She knew, she claimed, that he had a secret that had to do with a trust fund he mentioned he was taking care of for someone.

In the days immediately preceding his graduation, Outland let slip during a visit to the Professor’s house that he had been to Washington D.C. Following his graduation, he had to make a decision about whether to accept a scholarship to Johns Hopkins or a teaching post under Professor Crane. Expressing a deep dislike of southern cities, Outland chose the position at the University, and he and the Professor spent much of their leisure time that summer together.

Lillian and the girls were in Colorado that summer, so the Professor had the house to himself, and Outland was conducting experiments in the Physics building. It was during this summer that Outland told the Professor the story that follows this section of the book.


In the Professor’s musings on Outland in this chapter, Cather presents Outland as the quintessential simple, kindhearted and even quixotic cowboy that has existed in Western lore for generations.

Outland simply does not fit in in Hamilton because he does not believe in getting ahead by connections and backbiting; he believes in achievement based on merit and hard work. He also believes in generosity and kindness, two qualities which have been lacking in the novel thus far, with the exception of the character of Louie.

Thus, Outland is Cather’s perfect Western cowboy come from the wholesome open plains to the wicked Midwest; he is in for a culture shock. She complicates this characterization, however, by adding a brilliant intellect to Outland’s makeup. It is this that captivates the Professor.

Again, Cather demonstrates that St. Peter and his family members value different things in human relationships. Lillian and the girls are drawn to Outland’s kindness and open manner while St. Peter is drawn to his mind. The family cares for the man and the Professor cares for the intellect. This profound difference in values helps to explain some of the growing distance between the Professor and his family.

Cather is challenged in this section to set up and pave the way for the arguably disruptive insertion of “Tom Outland’s Story” at this point in the novel. She does this in a hurried fashion by using jealous Lillian to criticize Outland’s reserve about his past and to hint at a dark secret that has yet to be revealed. Thus primed, the reader launches into the next section in a fever of anticipation.