The Professor's House

by Willa Cather

Paperback, 1990

Call number




Vintage (1990), Edition: Reissue, 258 pages


Willa Cather's lyrical and bittersweet novel of a middle-aged man losing control of his life is a brilliant study in emotional dislocation and renewal. Professor Godfrey St. Peter is a man in his fifties who has devoted his life to his work, his wife, his garden, and his daughters, and achieved success with all of them. But when St. Peter is called on to move to a new, more comfortable house, something in him rebels. And although at first that rebellion consists of nothing more than mild resistance to his family's wishes, it imperceptibly comes to encompass the entire order of his life. The Professor's House combines a delightful grasp of the social and domestic rituals of a Midwestern university town in the 1920s with profound spiritual and psychological introspection.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member jnwelch
The Professor's House by Willa Cather is really two stories: that of midwestern university Professor Godfrey St. Peter and his family, and that of Tom Outland, a successful inventor who grew up in New Mexico, became a student and friend of St. Peter, and died in WWI. As to the first story, set in
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the 1920s, the Professor's successful series of books on "Spanish Adventures in North America" has brought financial comfort and a lovely new house. However, the Professor isn't ready to let go of his old house, especially his attic study, and is re-assessing his life. He has two daughters, one now rich from an engine invented by Outland, and successfully commercialized by her new husband. The other daughter married a journalist and is jealous of her sister's life. Neither is a comfort to the Professor, and he also is becoming estranged from his practical wife as he increasingly seeks solitude.

He loves that cramped attic study and its view: "From the window he could see, far away, just on the horizon, a long, blue, hazy smear - Lake Michigan, the inland sea of his childhood. Whenever he was tired and dull, when the white pages before him remained blank or were full of scratched-out sentences, then he left his desk, took the train to a little station twelve miles away, and spent the day on the lake with his sail-boat; jumping out to swim, floating on his back alongside, then climbing into his boat again."

The Professor is trying to edit for publication Tom Outland's diary of his days in New Mexico. That provides the framing for the beautiful central section of the book, a description of Tom's days as a railroad call boy, then a cattle herder. Eventually Tom finds a route up to the top of a high mesa, and discovers cliff dwellings there.

"The hill-side behind was sandy and covered with clumps of deer-horn cactus, but there was nothing but grass to the south, with streaks of bright yellow rabbit-brush. Along the river the cottonwoods and quaking asps had already turned gold. Just across from us, overhanging us, indeed, stood the mesa, a pile of purple rocks, all broken out with red sumach and yellow aspens up in the high crevices of the cliffs." Up there he finds "a little city of stone, asleep", with all that the original dwellers left behind.

This is not a long book, but she packs a lot in. Some readers will relate strongly to the Professor's questioning of his life, along with his observations of money's effect on his family members, and of the various family rivalries (including that of the sisters' husbands). For me, the book's major reward was the section on Tom's time in New Mexico, which contains some of the author's most breathtaking descriptions of the southwest, and vividly conveys the wonder of Tom's experience.

She is simply a superb writer. Although for me the juxtaposition didn't totally work, the book is a forceful and memorable read. I haven't been to New Mexico in ages, and now I want to go back to experience the territory she writes about.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Godfrey St. Peter is a successful, published history professor. He is financially secure, with a loving wife and two married daughters. And yet, having built a new home for his family, he finds himself unable to leave the house where he has spent most of his adult life. His study, in particular, is
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filled with memories. After "officially" moving house, he quietly pays a year's rent on the old house, in order to enjoy both the study and his garden. He gradually withdraws from family life, even going so far as to spend Christmas Day at the old house, away from his extended family. He also comes to some stark conclusions about key figures in his life. His daughter Rosamond came into money after the death of her fiancee Tom Outland, her father's former student. Rosamond and her husband Louie live an extravagant lifestyle which St. Peter gradually finds more and more repugnant. Louie caters to St. Peter's wife, Lillian, who is too easily influenced by this attention. St. Peter spends considerable time reflecting on Tom Outland, evoking the satisfied feelings that come from having an impact on another person's life. As the novel progresses, St. Peter becomes more and more withdrawn from his family and yet also becomes more in touch with things that truly matter to him.

Willa Cather's prose is beautifully descriptive, illuminating both the mid-western town where St. Peter lives, and the desert southwest of Tom Outland's youth. Her characters are richly developed; even the unlikeable ones are multifaceted and completely human. Cather's writing talents make The Professor's House an enjoyable novel.
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LibraryThing member AlCracka
Well, this was very pleasant and all, but...have you ever heard of a bridge version of a book? Don't feel bad if you haven't; I just made it up. What it is is you know how there are abridged versions of books, where they include the important and exciting parts and chop out some of the meandering
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and tangential stuff? Have you ever wondered what happens to that stuff they chop out? Well, that ends up in a bridge version of the book, and that must be the version I read because nothing fucking happened.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
The Professor's House is a short novel that Cather based around a short story she had previous written about a drifter named Tom Outland who finds an ancient Indian ruins in the mesas of the Southwest. He and a friend excavate the site and have a falling out along the way. Cather takes this as a
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centerpiece and adds a long beginning and short ending about how Outland's appearance in a Midwestern college town affects the life of the Professor and his family. The part about the Professor explores changing family relationships as children age and marry, and also the influence of unexpected wealth. Outland's influence is felt though he is not present during the action.

This is a quirky little book. I very much enjoyed it while reading it, but the more I think about it subsequently, the more I question the wisdom of the format. The two stories don't really gel as well as they should and I felt that there were too many loose ends at the end of the book. I love Cather's writing, she has beautiful descriptive passages and interesting characters, but I'm not sure how well this book really worked.
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LibraryThing member otterley
A fascinating and elusive book. Cather writes with such care, in her physical descriptions - from fashionable decor to the wide open spaces of the American west - in the structure of the book and her characterisation - depicting a wide range of characters with such care, from the title character to
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the minor walk on one page parts. She puts together apparently widely divergent stories, bringing into them recurrent themes of identity, industry and work, domestic living and family, comradeship and collegiality, control and structure. At the same time, the book never feels artificially programmatic, but works on both an intellectual and emotional level.
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LibraryThing member varwenea
What happens when a house is much more than a house, triggering feelings and a longing that a newer, more modern house cannot replace? Even more, these feelings remind one of an old self that had been lost and a price to be paid if one should keep this restored self.

In “The Professor’s
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House”, Professor Godfrey St. Peter has reached a new success with his Spanish history books, resulting in a new comfortable house with all the modern conveniences – in which he is reluctant to work and live. Though his family is lovely, wife and two well-married daughters, it is the deceased Tom Outland who occupies his thoughts. Tom was the Professor’s best student, confidante, and ex-almost-son-in-law, who had died young; Tom’s imprint is evident by, "Just when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off for him, along came Outland and brought him a kind of second youth." In a complex and sometimes circumferential manner, we learn Professor’s hesitation with the direction of his life despite how it looks storied and accomplished.

I am highly conflicted on whether I like or would recommend this book. A couple of dislikes: The book alluded to at least one twist that never materialized. Even the Professor’s own melancholy was circumferential and easily more of a not-old-enough yet too stubborn man of 52. It would be more interesting if he just had an affair, rather than pining for a life not lived. But I still like Willa’s writing – the descriptiveness and the character relationships. I found myself drawn to Roddy Blake, Tom’s friend, whom Tom dismissed for an honest, well-intentioned mistake. My emotions raised, feeling his hurt, and angry at Tom’s treatment of his first real and only friend. (Does Tom really understand what he did??) Any book that stirs emotions have got to be worth something, right?

Some quotes:

On fortunes and rewards (from the wealth generated by commercializing Tom’s patent):
“If Outland were here to-night, he might say with Mark Antony, My fortunes have corrupted honest men.”
“…He had made something new in the world – and the rewards, the meaningless conventional gestures, he had left to others.”

On shopping – I laughed:
“…Too much is certainly worse than too little – of anything. It turned out to be rather an orgy of acquisition… She was like Napoleon looting the Italian palaces.”

On pretentiousness – gawd, I have met a few of these in my days:
“...I was amazed and ashamed that a man of fifty, a man of the world, a scholar with ever so many degrees, should find it worth his while to show off before a boy, and a boy of such humble pretensions, who didn’t know how to eat the hors d’oevres any more than if an assortment of cocoanuts had been set before his with no hammer.”

On office jobs – this hits home in the modern world:
“…How it did use to depress me to see all the hundreds of clerks come pouring out of that big building at sunset! Their lives seemed to me so petty, so slavish…”
“…I left Washington at last, wiser than I came. I had no plans, I wanted nothing but to get back to the mesa and live a free life and breathe free air, and never, never again to see hundreds of little black-coated men pouring out of white buildings. Queer, how much more depressing they are than workmen coming out of a factory.”

On life and death – I can relate:
“He did not regret his life, but he was indifferent to it.”
“But now he thought of eternal solitude with gratefulness; as a release from every obligation, from every form of effort. It was the Truth.”
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LibraryThing member Perednia
Odd but moving story. The mid-section about the Anasanzi ruins more affecting than the tale around it.
LibraryThing member gbill
Willa Cather' prose is beautiful in its simplicity. She uses restraint in "The Professor's House", a book about the harmful and corrosive effects of money and aging. It may be a book of more interest to middle-aged readers, but personally I enjoyed it. Some quotes, all of which speak to looking
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back at midlife:

" they were not very young any more; they would neither of them, probably, ever hold a better position. Couldn't Langtry see it was a draw, that they had both been beaten"?

"He had been mistaken, he felt. The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one's own".

"The world was sad to St. Peter as he looked about him; the lake-shore country flat and heavy, Hamilton small and tight and airless. The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him, seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man. Yes, it was possible that the little world, on its voyage among all the stars, might become like that; a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings or revolution".

"It's the feeling that I've put a great deal behind me, where I can't go back to it again - and I don't really wish to go back. The way would be too long and too fatiguing. Perhaps, for a home-staying man, I've lived pretty hard. I wasn't willing to slight anything - you, or my desk, or my students. And now I seem to be tremendously tired".

"His career, his wife, his family, were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him. All these things had nothing to do with the person he was in the beginning".

"He did not regret his life, but he was indifferent to it. It seemed to him like the life of another person".

"Happiness is something one can't explain. You must take my word for it. Troubles enough came afterward, but there was that summer, high and blue, a life in itself".
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
1073 The Professor's House, by Willa Cather (read 7 Sep 1970) This is an easy-to-read book about a 52-year-old professor. It sounded so fake at the beginning, but as it went on it didn't seem so bad. The point of the story is unclear to me. At the end the professor almost dies, and then apparently
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feels he can go on with life.
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LibraryThing member theokester
I'm having a hard time deciding how to review The Professor's House. The plot itself is very straightforward and easy to describe. The characters are vivid and well-defined which adds to the realism of the novel. But it seems to me that the meat of this novel is in the themes and nuances.

I have
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read some of Cather's short stories many years ago and only have vague memories of them other than a memory that she had exquisite attention to detail. As I read this book I found that memory to be true. The writing vibrantly presents minute details to the reader…from the shape and texture of a hand to the nature of a dress or necklace to the depiction of setting both in and out of doors.

Her characters are likewise detailed. We are held at a close third person so we don't actually get into the characters' heads, but the detailed account of appearance and action allows the reader to feel very intimate with the characters.

The layout of the book is interesting in that it consists of three "books." The first book is entitled "The Family" and follows the Professor as he works to finish his own writing while teaching and balancing the various dramas unfolding in his life and the lives of his family members. The second book is "Tom Outland's Story" and is the first person narrative of Tom, an old student of the Professor and friend of the family who is now dead (from WWI) but left behind an invention and legacy that resulted in great wealth for one of the Professor's daughters. The final book is entitled "The Professor" and is a very short wrap up of the novel which focusses on thoughts, emotions and actions of the professor after he reads and ponders Outland's story.

The overarching plot of the book is interesting if not terribly engaging. There were moments of drama and emotion that drew me in, but there were other segments that were almost boring with the mundane interactions.

As I mentioned initially, the meat of the novel though isn't the plot itself, but the themes and emotions it instills.

Looking to these themes, part of this book seems to be an exploration of emotional displacement and emotional paralysis or release. The Professor is very attached to his old house and his work and doesn't want to move into the new house with his family. Outland is almost a portrayal of a return to the past for the professor and in the end, Outland's story provides an almost existential release to the professor. The claustrophobia of the old house and the room in which the professor works serve as a metaphorical trap that is holding the professor hostage in his current/past life/behavior and causing emotional turmoil and angst from which he can't see a clear escape.

At a higher, more sociological level, the novel portrays some interesting counterpoints on society. The Professor is doing well enough off teaching at the university and does even better once he receives an award for his writing. His two daughters are well enough off as well though one is moving into the "upper class" while the other is sitting fairly "middle." The family interactions and conversations give interesting insight into the class reactions of the era and some of the internal and external results of class mobility. As the professor's daughter and son-in-law gain their wealth and rise to a higher social status, there are jealousies and even some resentment and anger both within and outside of the family.

Looking at the writing, it is clear that there are MANY levels at work in this novel. Cather's frequent use of color helps categorize different themes or values. Her descriptions of the houses, rooms and other settings set the balance between the different classes or social situations. To further illustrate that NOTHING appears to be arbitrary in this book, it was pointed out to me that there is particular significance in the name of the ship that Outland takes to the war, the name of the ship that the Professor's family returns home on, and even the book that Outland uses to study latin.

So, even though the book's plot isn't terribly engaging, I can see this work as having a lot of valuable insight into the social and mental ideas of the 1920s, many of which have relevance today especially given the almost parallel economic situation around us.

While it's not likely something I'd read over and over, it is something I can recommend to those interested in human behavior, the 1920s, or life in general. Cather paints a vivid and beautiful picture of a family…not a perfectly adjusted and blissfully happy family, but a realistic, flawed and interesting family.

3 stars out of 5
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LibraryThing member SheReadsNovels
Willa Cather is an author I've heard a lot about but whose work I've never read until now. I should probably have started with her most famous book, My Antonia, but something drew me to this one, The Professor's House.

The Professor of the title is Godfrey St Peter, a man in his fifties, around the
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same age as Willa Cather was when she wrote this novel. At the beginning of the book, St Peter and his wife are preparing to move into their new home. At the last minute the Professor decides that he doesn't want to give up his old house just yet, so that he can continue to work in his old study and spend some time alone with his memories.

Most of the book revolves around St Peter reminiscing about his family and friends and coming to terms with the idea of leaving the past behind and embracing modern life. At the forefront of the Professor's thoughts is his former student Tom Outland, who had once been engaged to his daughter Rosamond. On his death in the First World War, Outland left everything he had to Rosamond - and this inheritance is causing trouble for the St Peter family.

If you prefer books with a gripping plot and lots of action you'll want to avoid this one, as it was one of the slowest moving books I've ever read. I have to admit there were a few times during the first few chapters that I came close to abandoning it, but I kept reading because it was so well written. I would describe this as a calm, quiet, reflective book; one with such powerful, eloquent writing and beautiful imagery that it doesn't really matter that not much actually happens.

The Professor's House is possibly a book I would appreciate more if I read it again when I'm older, as I found it difficult to identify with a fifty-two year old man looking back on his life. This was my first experience of Willa Cather and although I don't think she's going to be a favourite author, I will probably read more of her work at some point in the future.
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LibraryThing member perlle
I have an interest in both New Mexico and France, and this book meanders through both. The relationships were fascinating even though not much happens throughout the book.
LibraryThing member brleach
A quiet novel, but somehow a compelling one. The descriptions are beautiful but never overwrought or cliche. The characters are human, by turns delightful and flawed.
LibraryThing member corinneblackmer
Divded into three short sections, this modernist novel, which is written in the pared down and symbolic style for which Cather strived, is very clearly her greatest masterpiece. An unsparing critique of materialism, a paean to Native American culture, and a celebration of the self-sacrificing,
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imaginative, and joyous life of Tom Outland.
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LibraryThing member Zmrzlina
A wonderful read that makes you consider how all ends are just the beginning of something new
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Godfrey St. Peter, by all accounts, is doing well. He is a professor of history with a distinguished publishing record, a beautiful wife, two married daughters one of whom has become surprisingly wealthy, and over the years he has had a few pleasant colleagues, a handful of good students, and one
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very important, even transformative, relationship with a student, protege, and later fiance to his oldest daughter. Unfortunately, Tom Outland then went off to do what he could in the First World War and died there, leaving all his worldly possessions, including a patent on a gas that would become very lucrative, to St. Peter’s daughter. At the opening of the novel, Godfrey and his wife are in the process of moving into a new house that he has built with money his multi-volume historical work on Spanish adventurers has won. But Godfrey is uncomfortable in his new house and wants to keep his pokey study in the old house that they rented. The truth is that Godfrey is uncomfortable in his own skin, and like his former protege, he would like to shed it.

The novel follows Godfrey over the course of a year with one extended intermission telling the story of Tom prior to his arrival in the university town of Hamilton. It is utterly fascinating. Characters step forward and recede without a later nod. St. Peter’s daughters and their spouses reveal admirable and not so admirable facets of character but without apparent purpose. Indeed, all are merely window dressing for the existential crisis that Godfrey is about to undergo.

I’m astounded by the surety of Cather’s writing and the fact that every novel of hers that I read seems to be a new departure. As is the case with all challenging novelists who challenge themselves. Well worth reading, pondering, and then reading again.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
The simplest description I can give of this book is that it is about one man's mid-life crisis. Certainly in the 60's, 70's, 80's and beyond, I read a lot of books that fit this description, and frankly I got a bit tired of the sometimes whininess of these characters. But this is Willa Cather, and
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her prose is beautiful and honest, and though in general I didn't always sympathize with the professor's plight, I never got tired of the book.
The book is in three parts. The first and last concern the professor and his family. The middle part consists of an interlude in the life of Tom, a former student of the professor's, who had also been the fiancé of one of his daughters before being killed in the war. This middle portion had been written separately from the parts about the professor and his family, and I personally did not find that it added significantly to the overall story of the professor. I thought it would have done better as a separate novel, and it was, in fact, the part of the book I liked best. It involves Tom's life as a cattle handler, during which time he discovered an ancient Indian pueblo which he excavated. This was a fascinating story, including Tom's attempts to interest the Smithsonian in the Indian artifacts, and it is in this part, in Cather's descriptions of the landscape in particular, that Cather's strength's shine through.
In the family parts, the professor's 8 volume history of Spanish explorers has finally brought him financial success, and, largely through his wife's efforts, a new house has been built. As the family moves, the professor decides he wants to retain his study in the attic of the old house, and begins to spend more and more time there. His two daughters are at odds with each other. The older, Rosamund, who had been engaged to Tom, is now married to Louie and is extremely wealthy, largely due to an invention of Tom's which his will left her. The younger daughter Kathleen and her husband Scott are struggling and seem envious. The professor becomes more and more isolated from his family, and ultimately refuses to travel with the family to Europe for the summer. Instead he spends his time daydreaming in his old study, with the faulty stove (mentioned in the first part, so we know it will play an important role), finding himself less and less interested in engaging in life.
This is the fourth novel by Cather I have read, the others being My Antonia, O Pioneers and Sapphira and the Slave Girl. She is one of the female writers of the last century who were undeservedly overlooked in considering Nobel Prizes for Literature. I don't know where this one is ranked by her literary critics, but I think it is a worthy entry in Cather's body of work. And I do know that I want to read more of her work.

3 1/2 stars
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LibraryThing member bookishtexpat
This was such a lovely book. Each time I picked it up I felt like I was transported to the St. Peter's or with Tom, and I loved all of it. I have to say I'm not a huge fan of how Cather portrays all the women in this novel - except for Augusta who is fabulous - but overall it was such a delightful
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and thoughtful work.
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LibraryThing member DrFuriosa
A melancholy, meaningful glimpse at the ones we love and the changes that time brings in our relationships and our perceptions of both others and ourselves. Cather employs an evocative cast of characters and settings (I particularly like the Lake Michigan setting) to bring a rich novel.
LibraryThing member kslade
Pretty good novel. Tom Outland's story, within the frame of the novel, is the most interesting.
He explored a mesa in New Mexico with old ruins. It's the most poetic part. Professor is kind of jaded at the end of his career, and wished his friend and student Tom had survived WW I.




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