Willa Cather has been a neglected author on my part, and the more I read, the more I see what a mistake that has been. Two books down, three if I count O Pioneers, which I read a good decade ago (best not to count it as I don't think I quite caught on at the time) and I see what a remarkable writer she was. The Professor's House, written in 1925, is similar to My Antonia in that the story is relatively easy reading but it's deceptively so. She writes in clear, unadorned prose and it's easy to slip into the story and almost forget it's a book you're holding in your hands. It's only when you turn the last page and let the full force of the story wash over you and give yourself time to think things over that you realize that the story is filled with subtleties and nuances that could so easily be overlooked but that makes the reading experience so rich. So I've been thinking about the story she is telling and wondering about the meanings lurking behind the words and images. I'm not going to try and write about everything in the story, but I do have a few general thoughts to share.
There are some books you read and can consume in one gulp and that's all that's needed. And then there are others that you read, but soon discover a first reading is only enough to get the flavor of the story, and it's only after second or maybe even third readings that it all begins to make sense and connections are made. For me, The Professor's House has been just such a book. I turned the last page and thought what a lovely, sad, poignant story, but at the same time I was filled with an uncertainty about it all, too. And I wonder if that is some of what Cather was trying to get across to the reader.
Godfrey St. Peter is a man at a crossroad in his life. A professor of middling years in a small midwestern town he's modest yet well respected. He's spent years writing a history of Spanish Adventurers in North America that has garnered some acclaim and won awards and has allowed him to move from his smaller home to a much grander house, which delights his ambitious wife Lillian yet leaves him feeling somewhat empty. So much so that he decides to continue using his small study in the old house as he completes the last volume of his work. The room has been a place where he could find isolation and insulation from "the engaging drama of domestic life". It's a life that he seems to turn from filled with disenchantment.
Along with a wife who welcomes the climb up the social ladder, St. Peter has two grown and married daughters. Rosamond, the elder, has done quite well for herself both socially and financially, but Kathleen is insecure and a little jealous of her sister. Rosamond's success is thanks in part to the death of one of St. Peter's most talented and also beloved students, Tom Outland. Outland appears one afternoon in the St. Peter garden hoping to enter the university. It was serendipity, in the form of St. Peter's writings, that led Tom to St. Peter, but a friendship followed based on mutual respect and a love of learning. Although Tom has little formal study under his belt, his determination sees him through. As a matter of fact he goes on to invent a new gas and bequeaths the patent to Rosamond before going off to the war to fight and die. Fortuitously her husband is able to market it in a way that revolutionizes everyone's lives and make Rosamond rich.
As St. Peter works on his book in his simple little study, where he did have happiness, he reflects on his life now filled with progress and improvements and finds it lacking. His marriage is failing, there is a growing disappointment in his daughters and the ways in which they lead their lives. Instead of looking back and feeling a completeness he feels only a dissatisfaction with how things have turned out. The more he has the less fulfilled he feels and he sees the things that have given him hope, happiness and and a feeling of achievement withering away.
The structure of the novel is an interesting one, though I found it a little jarring (not a criticism really, just an observation). The first and last sections concern professor St. Peter and his life and family, but in the middle section Tom Outland's story is recounted. The story very abruptly moves from the town of Hamilton to the Southwest where Tom grew up working on the railroad and later for a cattle company riding the range with the herd. Tom tells his story in first person, and the professor is now passing it on to the reader. What was so striking was the contrast between places. Cather knows how to paint a landscape with words, and she vividly depicts the Blue Mesa. This was my favorite part of the book. Even though Tom is never really present in the story physically, you get a deep sense of what he was like, his dreams and hopes that perhaps mirror the professor's, only Tom was doesn't live long enough to fulfill them, and now the professor is also left with a sense of emptiness and despair. What's so painful about the story is the realization that Tom's brilliant invention has unwittingly caused so much disaffection in the professor's life.
Despite such melancholy, this is a beautiful novel, one that I look forward to revisiting. And I plan on continuing on working my way through Cather's work. I'm not sure what I'll pick up next, but I've had a copy of Lucy Gayheart on my shelves for a number of years. It sounds like another good story, though very different than the previous books I've read. Suggestions?