The Professor's House

The Professor's House Summary and Analysis of Chapter 6, Section 2: "Tom Outland's Story"

Outland gets off the train in Washington in January and spends a week sightseeing.

Next he approaches his Congressman, who directs him to the Commissioner of the Indian Commission, who in turn is out of town. Outland hangs around waiting for him for three days, but when he returns he says he is concerned only with live Indians, not dead ones.

Outland goes back to his Congressman, who gives him a letter of introduction to the director of the Smithsonian. Outland has trouble even getting in to see the secretary of the director and waits in his office for days before he runs into a sympathetic stenographer named Virginia Ward who arranges a luncheon with the secretary, a man named Wagner.

During Outland’s expensive lunch with Wagner, he name-drops incessantly and regales Outland with tales of his archaeological expeditions with European royals in the Southwest. As Outland despairs of getting a word in edgewise, Wagner mentions he has arranged a meeting for Outland with the Smithsonian’s director.

Outland again turns to Virginia Ward for guidance on how to prepare for his meeting.

In the meantime, Outland has been feeling sorry for the Bixbys, a married couple from whom he has been renting a room. Mr. Bixby has a position in the War Department, and most of the couple’s life is taken up with obsessing about how he can get ahead in his job and how she can get ahead in Washington society.

Outland finally gets his interview with the director, who introduces Outland to Dr. Ripley and Dr. Fox, two scientists who appear to be interested in his discoveries. The Smithsonian is waiting for two appropriations bills to pass Congress before any expeditions are undertaken, and, after two months, when the appropriations finally prove too small to send either of the scientists to an International Exposition in Europe, the Smithsonian’s interest in Outland fades to nothing. As Virginia explains to Outland, the scientists were simply stringing him along as long as it appeared they may be able to use his discoveries to make names for themselves at the Exposition. When this plan fell through, so did their opportunistic interest.

In the aftermath of Outland’s defeat, he accepts the sympathy of Virginia and a young French lieutenant attached to the French embassy who had been visiting the Smithsonian regularly to make arrangements for the International Exposition. Finally, he telegraphs to Blake for his fare home.

When he arrives in Tarpin, Hook the liveryman tells him that Blake has been selling the Mesa’s artifacts to a German man named Fechtig and gotten $4000 for them. This conduct has caused resentment among the townspeople and Outland is aghast. In fact, he faints in Hook’s office. He learns Fechtig has taken all the artifacts to Mexico and plans to load them onto a French ship for transport to Europe.

Outland then goes to a hotel and reflects on Blake’s treachery. He comes to the realization that he cares more about the Mesa artifacts that are now gone than about anything else in the world.

In the morning he gets Hook to take him to the Mesa. He goes to the cabin and confronts Blake, who says he took the best chance going for both of them when he realized Outland’s chances of arousing interest in Washington were slim. He claims it was a stroke of good luck to have found someone who was actually willing to buy the artifacts. Outland says simply that he had never thought of selling them. He argues that they were never Blake’s or his to sell, that they belonged to the United States, and Blake counters that no one in the United States government cares about them. He also says that he always supposed the discoveries would come to money in the end. After extensive argument, Outland finally succeeds in making Blake realize what the artifacts meant to him. When he does, saying they can never be friends again, Blake shows him the money from the artifacts is deposited in the bank under Outland’s name, and Outland says he’ll never touch it. Then Blake leaves the cabin for good in the dark.


In this lengthy section, Washington D.C. is presented in stark contrast to the Cliff City; Outland sees Washington as an empty place, despite the fact that it is full of people, and the Cliff City as a place full of interest and humanity, though it is physically devoid of people. Washington is run, according to Outland, based on greed, pride, wage-slavery and care for appearances that makes it a stark contrast to the Southwest, which seems to be run more on common humanity, kindness, respect for wide-open spaces and nature and manual labor. Indeed, Outland has a withering contempt for the way that most Americans live: they get up every day to work in an office, only to come home and worry about their standing among the neighbors, about how to make their paychecks stretch far enough, and about what they’ll wear to the next dance at the country club. His biting contempt for the Bixbys, a typical young couple, and his description of all Washington residents as “slaves” are some of the strongest emotional reactions the reader sees from Outland during the entire course of his “story.”

Outland’s strong antipathy to the middle class seems slightly out of place, and the reason is perhaps that Cather is using Outland’s voice to give vent to some of her own frustrations about the state of the American economy in the early part of the 20th century. As critics have noted, Cather’s criticism of the middle class stemmed not from strictly economic concerns, but from the fact that a growing middle class created a growing market for what she saw as mediocre products and lowbrow programming on emerging media like the radio. Every step forward for science, technology or mass culture was a step backward for the old, beautiful things like art, history and religion, at least in Cather’s mind.

Outland’s real-life alter-ego, Dick Wetherill, faced similar frustrations as he and his father, B.K. Wetherill, attempted to get scientists at the Smithsonian interested in preserving the Mesa Verde ruins. Though Outland’s motives for doing so are apparently wholly unselfish, the Wetherills were interested in preserving the sites and artifacts that had become the basis for their livelihood. Beginning in the 1890s, they ran a lucrative business taking tourists up to the various Mesa sites and allowing them to pick out a few clay pots as souvenirs. Such practices would have horrified Outland.

Outland’s consternation at Blake’s sale of the Blue Mesa items, which he describes as the artifacts from the origins of the American people, to a foreigner, while understandable in light of Outland’s nearly religious attachment to them, seems slightly overblown when viewed logically and biologically, critics have pointed out. Outland reveres the artifacts for their form, utility and beauty, and for the obvious intelligence and ingenuity of the people responsible for their creation. They are not, however, as Outland implies, artifacts made by people who were direct progenitors either of himself or of any of the Anglo-Americans who inhabit the United States. Indeed, Outland’s claim seems richly ironic when it is considered that many American settlers once took systematic steps to wipe out Native American culture in this country.

Cather’s voice is again evident in Outland’s critique of Blake’s behavior. Cather was well known to decry the “Americanization” of immigrants to the United States; she despised the homogenization of immigrant cultures that takes place as part of the process of cultural assimilation. Outland’s reverence for the cliff-dwellers’ civilization, its peculiar monuments and artifacts, stands in contrast to the cookie-cutter sameness of the modern wage-slaves Outland views in Washington D.C. These clerks and secretaries were once immigrants, after all.

What Cather perhaps fails to take into account in her critique is the fact that American mass culture, that behemoth she so despises, is a unique culture in itself, and centuries from now, when archaeologists are reconstructing American society in the 20th century, they may revere it as valuable, rare and unique, just as Outland does the Blue Mesa culture.