For there to be a humanitas and for this to build up a “world” around itself, a habitable “cosmos” on earth, this classical common sense posited a natural and divine “cosmos” as an original and prior ontological model, independent of all human manipulation.
—Marc Fumaroli (1999)

Willa Cather’s novel The Professor’s House (1925) is an inquiry into the nature of civilization, of man’s impulse to civilize and create. The book holds in majestic and mournful equipoise both the nobility of the civilizing instinct and the certainty of its frustration.

The book is divided into three books of unequal length and kind. The first (and longest, taking up almost two-thirds of the novel), called “The Family,” tells of Godfrey St. Peter, aged fifty-two, a history professor at an unnamed college on a Great Lake, a man with a wife and two daughters who has come into some prize money for one of the volumes of his magnum opus, Spanish Adventurers in North America. At the insistence of his wife, Lillian, the money has been used to build a new house, but Godfrey is very reluctant to quit the old house, where his daughters grew up and his books were written. The professor had one shining pupil, Tom Outland, a boy who had turned up mysteriously out of the West and had died young in World War I but not before discovering the formula (he was a scientist, not a historian) for a revolutionary automobile gas and leaving in his will the patent to Rosamond St. Peter, the professor’s eldest daughter, to whom he was engaged. Rosamond has since married one Louie Marsellus, an extroverted entrepreneur who has realized millions on the patent and is moving with Rosamond into a grand mansion to be called “Outland.” The professor is disgusted by this commercialization of his student’s work, as is his younger daughter, Kathleen, who had loved Tom and is now married to a sarcastic and relatively impecunious journalist, Scott McGregor. Lillian sides with Louie and has, in spirit, joined the new against the old, as represented by her husband and his beloved old house.

At the end of “The Family,” Lillian and the Marselluses have sailed to France for the summer, leaving the professor alone in his house except for the occasional visits of Augusta, a devout German Catholic spinster sewing-woman. Godfrey had been invited to join the trip to Europe, but had fastidiously declined, ostensibly in order to edit and annotate Tom’s diary—the account of his doings before coming to the university—for publication. Godfrey finds himself recalling an earlier summer when, with the wife and children off in Colorado, he and Outland dined often together in the garden on “a fine leg of lamb, saignant, well rubbed with garlic” (Godfrey is by way of being an epicure). When it rained, they “sat inside and read Lucretius.” On one rainy night, though, Tom “at last told the story he had kept back. It was nothing very incriminating, nothing very remarkable; a story of youthful defeat, the sort of thing a boy is sensitive about—until he grows older.” Tom’s story occupies a quarter of the book.

The irruption of this story into the narrative, now rightly seen as a masterstroke, was once decried. Alfred Kazin, for instance, said, in On Native Grounds, that “the violence with which she broke the book in half to tell the long and discursive narrative of Tom’s boyhood in the Southwest was a technical mistake that has damned the book.” Neither long nor discursive nor about his boyhood nor breaking the book in half, the tale told by Tom is a magical piece of writing that attains an ecstatic, a religious intensity very seldom matched in American letters.

First, Cather found a simple but supple voice for Tom, an orphan (his parents perished in a wagon train) first seen working as a “call-boy”—that is, one who summons Santa Fe railroad engineers for early trains —in New Mexico. In “The Family” she used a rich, wry, third-person style virtually identical with the deeply ironic sensibility of the professor, its central consciousness. For “Tom Outland’s Story” she adapted, in essence, the voice of Huck Finn, purged of colloquialisms and coarseness, for a narrative that will chronicle the Southwest as Huck sang the Mississippi. Tom befriends the train-fireman Roddy Blake, a fellow loner, who, when Tom gets pneumonia, quits his railroad post and finds them both outdoors jobs with a cattle company in remote southern New Mexico. Blake is a radical obsessed with Dreyfus and the Chicago anarchists, but he makes Tom read the Latin texts prescribed by a local priest, Father Duchene, who has also taken Tom under his wing. Tom reads one-hundred lines of Caesar a day at the urging of Blake, who “had great respect for education, but he believed it was some kind of hocus-pocus that enabled a man to live without work.”

Across the Cruzados (“Crusade”) River from their camp lies the Blue Mesa, unclimbed and “tantalizing,” but forbidden to them by their boss, who thinks of it merely as a temptation to the cattle. But its spell grips the young pair. When Tom says, “It was light up there long before it was with us,” he refers only to the trajectory of morning sunrays, but he speaks a deeper truth.

Some mornings it would loom up above the dark river like a blazing volcanic mountain. … No wonder the thing bothered us and tempted us; it was always before us, and was always changing.

When, still on the near side of the Cruzados, Tom unearths some pottery fragments, he sees that

To people, alone as we were, there is something stirring about finding evidence of human labour and care in the soil of an empty country. It comes to you as a sort of message, makes you feel differently about the ground you walk over every day. I liked the winter range better than any place I’d ever been in.

One day he crosses the river by himself and explores:

It may have been the hint of snow in the air, but it seemed to me that I had never breathed in anything that tasted as pure as the air in the valley. It made my mouth and nostrils smart like charged water.

As he looks up,

I wish I could tell what I saw there, just as I saw it … a little city of stone, asleep. It was as still as sculpture… . It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition.

Tom has instinctive recourse to the beauty and rational order of art in articulating the city. In its midst is a tower,

beautifully proportioned—the fine thing that held all the jumble of the houses together and made them mean something… . I knew at once that I had come upon the city of some extinct civilization, hidden away in this inaccessible mesa for centuries, preserved in the dry air and almost perpetual sunlight like a fly in amber, guarded by the cliffs and the river and the desert.

After hesitating, Tom tells Roddy about the place, and the next May (a year after arriving in the region) the two cross over and begin a proper investigation, assisted occasionally by a savvy old drunken cook and by the visiting Father Duchene. The work of cataloguing and interpreting begins in earnest. “The really splendid thing about our city, the thing that made it delightful to work there, was the setting.” But that the city had been no utopia is made clear by the discovery of a female skeleton, murdered and retaining on her face “a look of terrible agony.” Duchene speculates that she was caught in adultery. And the supremely haunting question arises: “What had become of them? What catastrophe had overwhelmed them?”

Duchene, wise in Indian lore, explains the logos of the place to the young explorers. The central tower, he thinks, was an astronomical observatory; smaller towers were granaries; the semicircular ridge atop the mesa was an amphitheater “where probably religious exercises and games took place.” He thinks the citizens were “a superior people … a provident, rather thoughtful people,” perhaps too civilized for their place and time.

“I feel [Duchene says] a reverence for this place. Wherever humanity has made that hardest of all starts and lifted itself up out of mere brutality, is a sacred spot. Your people were cut off here without the natural influence of example or emulation, with no incentive but some natural yearning for order and security. They built themselves into this mesa and humanized it.”

Their fate? “They were probably wiped out, utterly exterminated, by some roving Indian tribe without culture or domestic virtues.” The race’s urge for order, meaning, and beauty is no guarantee of permanence.

Duchene gives Tom the well-meant but fatal advice to go to the Smithsonian and fetch a real archaeologist to interpret and “revive” this civilization. Thus Tom arrives (in what must have been the early years of the century) in Washington. In this poetic allegory of a book, the American capital is presented systematically and deliberately as a thorough contrast to Cliff City. It is a place in thrall to pride, greed, selfishness, and inhumanity. At first, to be sure, Tom experiences “a religious feeling”; the first structures he sees are “the Treasury building, and the War and Navy”—money and might instead of science and nutrition. He wanders about sightseeing and “for that week I was wonderfully happy.” He then enters the bureaucracy, where he is snubbed or ignored by the Indian commissioner and the Smithsonian director—vain and cruel poseurs interested only in free lunches and junkets to Europe, supremely uninterested in the mesa. The sole warm people Tom meets are a secretary (“a nice little Virginia girl”) and a young lieutenant attached to the French Embassy; both are poor and powerless. Tom rooms with a young couple; the husband is a low-level bureaucrat typical of the city’s thousands of “people in slavery, who ought to be free.” On leaving, he says, “I remember the city chiefly by those beautiful sad sunsets, white columns and green shrubbery [at the White House], and the [Washington] Monument shaft still pink while the stars were coming out.” Nature is in melancholy disharmony with the man-made world here, not at one with it as on the mesa. It is a devastating sketch of a city populated by knaves and slaves, a site as spiritually empty as the mesa is spiritually alive.

Tom’s absence from the mesa on the D.C. trip (“I wanted nothing but to get back to the mesa and live a free life and breathe free air”) has been the occasion for a well-meaning but wounding act by Roddy. Knowing Tom was getting nowhere in the capital, Roddy sold the mesa’s artifacts to a German dealer for $4000 to finance Tom’s college education. Enraged, Tom turns on Roddy: “They weren’t mine to sell—not yours! They belonged to this country, to the State, and to all the people. They belonged to boys like you and me, that have no other ancestors to inherit from.” Tom berates the uncomprehending Roddy, who had acted out of love and who leaves in a mood of bitter shame. Tom stays on alone, at “home”:

Once again I had that glorious feeling of being on the mesa, in a world above the world. And the air, my God, what air!—Soft, tingling, gold, hot with an edge of chill on it, full of the smell of pinons—it was like breathing the sun, breathing the colour of the sky.

This language, broken in syntax, panting in synaesthetic joy, is both physical and mystical, a holy absorption in a place at once God-made and man-made. As he admits, “For me the mesa was no longer an adventure, but a religious emotion.” Feeling “filial piety” and “happiness unalloyed,” he drinks in the place, seeing it “for the first time … as a whole. It all came together in my understanding… . I can scarcely hope that life will give me another summer like that one. It was my high tide. I seemed to get the solar energy in some direct way.” Tom’s intensest apperception of the mesa—and, analogously, man’s perception of all art, of all cultivated life—is not possession but understanding. He comes in that summer to transcendentalize his seeing of the mesa; his logos is at one with its development. Alas, this insight has come too late to save his friendship with Roddy.

Tom also, that summer, reads the entire Aeneid. Cather knew Roman literature intimately, in her blood, and used it tellingly in her tales. In the pioneer story My µntonia, Jim Burden reads Virgil’s Georgics, about the taming of a land; in A Lost Lady, about an amorous woman, Niel Herbert reads Ovid’s Heroides, stories of smitten mythic heroines. Here, Tom has at first read Caesar’s bellicose narratives, before experiencing the mesa; on the mesa, he reads Virgil’s tragic epic chronicle of the necessity and the pain of civilizing empire. “Sunt lacrimae rerum” might be the motto of both works. On the day he meets the professor and is asked to recite some Virgil, Tom chooses one of the epic’s grimmest moments, the destruction of Troy, yet another city wiped out by a “brutal” race. Tom and the professor go on to read Lucretius—the Epicurean who counselled exemption from emotion (and, perhaps, striving). The Blue Mesa, the District of Columbia, Troy, the Roman Empire, the Spanish adventurers in North America—all are paradigms of human striving, at once glorious and pathetic. How bracing for us today, beset with simplistic puerilities about American and European civilization, is the adult and comprehensive wisdom of Cather, who, while never idealizing, keeps before our eyes the human achievement—and its religious dimension. Godfrey may be an aesthete and agnostic who simply collapses the good into the beautiful, but Cather is not. She is a soul as naturally pious as Tom and the mesa people.

Tom does try, through railroad men and newspaper ads, to find Roddy, but Roddy has become the forever lost friend of epic tradition (Patroclus, Euryalus). And the final words of Tom’s story are about Roddy: “The older I get, the more I understand what it was I did that night on the mesa. Anyone who requites faith and friendship as I did, will have to pay for it.” He acknowledges his sin—not to have seen into Roddy’s heart and valued his love more than pots—and he anticipates his own early death in the war that will do to Europe what the anonymous barbarians did to the citizens of the Blue Mesa.

The final part of the novel, called “The Professor,” consists largely of a meditation by Godfrey on the shape of his life and the imminence of death. How much of life, he wearily concludes, is chance: his education in France; his comfortable marriage; the arrival in his life, bringing “a kind of second youth,” of Tom, who took Godfrey down to the southwest and the Blue Mesa and thus made the last four volumes of “Spanish Adventurers” better because more steeped in the “great dazzling South-west country”—a country so beloved and so often sung by Cather herself. Godfrey comes to see Tom’s death as beneficent, as having spared him the inevitable corruptions of money, marriage, career, politics, age.

Forgetting Tom, Godfrey begins “a new friendship,” one with his own boyhood self, a Huck Finnish “primitive … only interested in earth and woods and water.” But Godfrey has the presence of mind to perceive that finding one’s essential self in some unsocialized, presexual, eternal boy amounts to a desire for death; he decides to see a doctor. It is important to note that Cather, too, diagnoses Godfrey’s condition as pathological. The doctor finding nothing wrong, Godfrey decides to recover and admits he may indeed be alive next summer. Where to go, then? Paris? Too reminiscent of his youth. Rather go to “Outland’s country … those long, rugged untamed vistas dear to the American heart.” He realizes, too, that he can no longer live with his “intense and positive” wife; he must stay in the old house, in the attic of which he almost dies one night when the gas stove flame goes out. Suicide attempt? No, for he half-tries to fix the stove before collapsing. In any case, he is fortuitously saved by Augusta, “a corrective, a remedial influence, the bloomless side of life that he always ran away from.” Sound and simple, Augusta is the type of ordinary humanity (not so simple as all that, though, when she--correctly--assures a skeptical and amused Godfrey that “the Blessed Virgin composed the Magnificat”). Her woeful goodness teaches the learned aesthete to endure life “without delight … just as, in a Prohibition country, he would have to learn to live without sherry.”

The novel ends not in a self-pitying or complacent slide into death, but in the conversion of an epicurean into a stoic. It’s a conversion behind which we feel the author’s full weight. “Life is possible, may even be pleasant, without joy, with passionate griefs,” Godfrey decides. He loves Lucretius, but the America of 1925 calls for a Seneca, if not for a Senecan suicide. Suicide, opines Godfrey, is “a grave social misdemeanor—except when it occurred in very evil times, as a form of protest.” But Calvin Coolidge was not yet Nero.

We have, however, seen much evidence in “The Family” that they were, if not very evil, at least sordid times. The university has lowered its standards to such an extent that a popular professor (a rival of Godfrey’s and nephew of an influential politician) lets his students read novels for credit in American history courses. (One feels, sensing Cather’s horror at this, that she is closer to Virgil than to poor us.) The idea of a university is a “lost cause” not just intellectually but physically. “The architect had had,” reflects Godfrey, “a good idea, something like the old Smithsonian building in Washington” —an institution, as Godfrey will hear, corrupt within. “But after it was begun, the State Legislature had defeated him by grinding down the contractor to cheap execution, and had spoiled everything outside and in.” Another antitype to the mesa.

Godfrey’s beloved daughter, Kathleen, is eaten up with envy of her nasty and mercenary sister Rosamond. His sons-in-law are bitter (Scott) or coarse (Louie). Louie Marsellus finally wins over both Godfrey and us by the cheerful, generous innocence of his materialism; he has been not unfairly described (by Hermione Lee in her intelligent book on Cather) as a case of Cather’s writing herself out of her temptation to a mild anti-Semitism. (It is Marsellus’s singularity as Jew in the novel that is unfortunate, a condition that could have been erased by the inclusion of, say, an ascetic Jewish professorial colleague of Godfrey’s.)

Just as Louie’s flamboyant displays are mitigated by a kind heart, so too Lillian’s chilly distance from Godfrey and rapt absorption in Louie’s concerns are softened by a night at the opera. She and Godfrey, in Chicago at a posh hotel paid for by Louie, are treated by him to opera tickets. Thomas’s Mignon (with its “immortal song” of longing for a country of eternal spring) is on, and it reminds the old married pair of their courtship in Paris.

“My dear,” he sighed when the lights were turned on and they both looked older, “it’s been a mistake, our having a family and writing histories and getting middle-aged.”

His wife agrees, but adds,

“One must go on living, Godfrey. But it wasn’t the children who came between us.” There was something lonely and forgiving in her voice, something that spoke of an old wound, healed and hardened and hopeless.

In that last sentence Cather at the same time gives and Indian-gives to Lillian, who is “forgiving” but also “hardened” in relation to her “old wound”—which might be either the arrival of Tom in their lives or, more generally, Godfrey’s solipsistic withdrawal from the family. “The heart of another,” realizes Godfrey, “is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.”

Paris—as remembered by Godfrey—is another, if more private, archetype of the city as beautiful, lovable place, another antitype of Washington and Chicago. But Godfrey’s Paris is a prewar dream: “The sky was of such an intense silvery grey that all the grey stone buildings along the Rue St. Jacques and the Rue Sufflot came out in that silver shine stronger than in sunlight.” In this book, Paris is memory, an aroma; One of Ours (1922) had been Cather’s fullest tribute to France, seen as, despite the war, a liberating experience for her midwestern soldier hero. And, of course, Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises (1926) was soon to fashion a postwar Paris of alluring, rootless, and irresponsible magic.

It is late in “The Family” when Scott remarks to the professor that “You know, Tom isn’t very real to me anymore. Sometimes I think he was just a—a glittering idea.” The thought troubles Godfrey and sets him to recalling “as clearly and definitely as he could every incident of that bright, windy spring day when he first saw Tom.” Like a god in disguise, the sunbaked youth recited Virgil and casually bestowed upon the little girls two turquoises from the mesa; little Kathleen at once mythicized Tom and Roddy, and she still recalls “my romantic dream, when I was little, of finding Roddy … and bring[ing] him back to Tom. You know Tom told us about him before he ever told you.” But finally, Tom has become for the professor, too, merely “some fugitive idea.”

The book’s first and third framing sections cover, in fact, an academic year, from September to September. The framed section, beginning in fall and ending in spring, takes up about a year and a half in Tom’s life. Cather’s exact seasonal placement of the stories in the lives of her two heroes is one index of her meticulous imagining; her feel for, and ability to summon up, time and place is legendary. It in fact becomes the central achievement of her later, episodic novels Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931).

In The Professor’s House that gift works in harmony with considerations of narrative and character. The book, though, is not a traditional but a modernist novel, for Cather leaves out so much and leaves so much for us to do by the mere juxtaposition of thematic segments. Its modernist architecture is matched by its polyphonic variety of narrative voices. Its appearance in the annus mirabilis of 1925 prompts a comparative look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, also published in that year. (Fitzgerald’s book owed something to Cather’s A Lost Lady (1923) in the first place.) Fitzgerald is, through the figure of Gatsby, nee James Gatz, conducting an investigation of what has become of American civilization in the postwar years. If Tom Outland, always somewhat idealized and a rather improbable inventor, becomes posthumously a mere idea, Gatsby springs from “his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about his father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” Gatsby, that is, enacts in his person the declension from pure idea into base matter that, in Cather, is left to Outland’s heirs and survivors. But the prior ideal America that has become Gatsby’s Long Island is very exiguously evoked by Fitzgerald; we have that famous final vision of the Dutch sailors’ eyes finding in the “fresh, green breast of the new world … something commensurate to their capacity for wonder.” Compared to the mesa, this is a wisp of smoke. Nick Carraway, the narrator and onlooker whose voice is the great success of the book, says, “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” This theme of the West remains a tantalizing hint in Gatsby, the strength of which lies in its creation of a decadent East designed to seem simultaneously sordid and magical.

The third great fictional inquisition into America published in 1925 was Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, a novel that proceeds not by contrasting a fallen America with a paradisal past but by presenting in massive specificity an illustrative parable-cum-specimen-case from (roughly) the present. If Cather wanted to “unfurnish” the novel and Fitzgerald too, at least in Gatsby, sought a modernist slimness and symbolism, Dreiser clung to an unshorn fullness of detail.

The vast tragedy of the war and the raw energy of the boom seem to have charged America’s writers with power, and the Twenties became the old century’s greatest decade in fiction and in poetry. The last great American novel of the Twenties, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), differed in two key ways from those great books of 1925: far from offering a meditation on a country fallen from grace, it grubbed deep in the soil of a part of the country that had never harbored any illusions of America’s Platonic perfectibility and had always smelled of sin (it could be argued that his second great novel, Absalom, Absalom [1936], did attempt an anatomy of the American Fall). Secondly, Faulkner deployed a dazzling array of presentational techniques, a panoply clearly inspired by the great work of European prose modernism, Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

The influence of The Professor’s House can be glimpsed in Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth (1929), a book in which the eponymous hero grows from industrialist into cultivated European epicurean, in the process shedding a coarsely sensual wife. Lewis, a writer Cather liked, is not at his best in Dodsworth (his best book is probably Arrowsmith, a 1925 portrait of an idealistic doctor), a book that tries to unite the soul of Cather, the themes of Wharton, and the brashness of newspapers. Wharton herself produced in the 1920s work by no means negligible: the retrospective Age of Innocence (1920) is one of her finest books, while stories like Glimpses of the Moon (1922) and Twilight Sleep (1927) are amused inquiries into contemporary life. But Wharton was not of the Twenties; her great work had been done before the war, the war that arguably killed her master, Henry James. And without The Professor’s House, Virginia Woolf would not have written To The Lighthouse (1929) in just the way she did as a fairly straightforward tale of family and art; Cather proved for her much more assimilable fare than Joyce, on which (she would have denied it, of course) Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is grotesquely dependent.

The Professor’s House, then, combining as it does a profound study of individual consciousness with a tragic meditation on the nature of (especially American) civilization, deserves to be seen as one of the greatest and most relevant of the novels of the old century.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 5, on page 10
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