THE PROFESSOR’S HOUSE
A critical paper by
Of Wombs, Graves, and The Professor’s House.
For thee a house was built
Ere thou wast born;
For thee a mould was made
Ere thou of woman camest.
At a time when he feels himself succumbing to a kind of emotional death, Professor Godfrey St. Peter recalls Longfellow’s grim conceit of the grave as a womb to which we return. Willa Cather, as St. Peter’s creator, also finds the poet’s subtle superimposition of houses, wombs, and graves fitting, and uses it as the central linkage for the psycho-emotional freight in her novel of mid-life, The Professor’s House. Beginning with the poet’s connection of opposites (houses to graves – our place in life to our place in death – and graves to wombs – our place after death to our place before life), it is not difficult to take the next step of connecting wombs to men, as the passionate, pre-conscious attachment both the Professor and Tom have for their respective “houses” suggests.
In this story, St. Peter’s former house, now empty of his family, is the place in which he had once sheltered his marriage, nurtured his children, and engendered his highest professional achievement. Despite the fact that his now-adult daughters have gone on to married lives, and that he and his wife have moved into a new, grand house befitting their more dignified circumstances, the original house is a place he cannot seem to leave. He finds endless excuses to dwell in his attic study, the once-fertile birth site of his multi-volume work, Spanish Adventurers in North America. The study, in particular, comes to seem a womb out of which, as the novel begins, he cannot permit himself to be born, and which he experiences as his story ends, albeit temporarily, as a grave.
Similar to St. Peter’s attic study, the Cliff City, discovered on the Blue Mesa by the Professor’s prize student, Tom Outland, is the site of an originally fertile culture, now long dead, containing ruins that provide a nurturing environment for the orphaned Tom’s experience of psychological rebirth. This experience has powerful enough personal associations to kindle Tom’s young mind into maturity, the narrative fruits of which bring his mentor’s scholarly investigation into the history of the American Southwest to a state of completion. But Tom’s cliff dwellings, like St. Peter’s house, also lose their magical contents through the disillusioning effects of time and human frailty. During these times of disappointment, each returns to the old sheltering place, now a barren enclosure. These empty houses become a version of fallow wombs, within each of which the Professor and his student live in isolated suspension, undergoing transition.
Thus, Cather builds on the superimposed images inherent in Longfellow’s original image. The product of each man’s imagination took shape in a space, and despite time and change, on that space each one is fixated. Once she has placed the fruits of the male imagination – as the Professor’s historical master work, and as Tom’s discovery of the city on the Blue Mesa – within the sites where those fruits were gestated, she has effectively given these men the wombs out of which their creative selves are born.
That Cather’s own girlhood featured public cross-dressing, and that her adulthood hid private Lesbianism has been acknowledged and discussed by her scholars and biographers in recent decades of Cather criticism. The connection of her homosexual self to the apparently androgynous qualities of many of her fictional characters has become a common assumption of reading them. Some scholars see her hiding within the male characters, and through them expressing a disguised form of her passion for the real women, (such as Annie Pavelka, Cather’s real-life model for the central character of My Antonia.) captured within the fictional females to whom her male characters are attached. Others make the opposite leap – that she blurred the line between the gender binaries in creating her male characters as a deliberate challenge to what she felt to be the confining gender orthodoxy of her time. As the current discussion frames the relationship between Cather’s characters and her sexual identity, it is born of a perceived social necessity – a masquerade of thwarted Lesbian desire, or a crusade of identity politics, or even an unconscious and unsuccessful attempt to mediate “anxiously” or happily between the two opposites. Godfrey St. Peter’s despair over the loss of Tom Outland is often accepted by her critics as a covert expression of Cather’s despair over the loss of the sustaining intimacy she shared with Isabelle McClung when the latter married Jan Hambourg in 1916.
But if Cather’s gender identity and those of her characters are not so easily understood, neither is the reason for St. Peter’s spiritual crisis. Oddly, the story of his painful transition from his professional and emotional prime to a time of bitter personal loss is peopled with rejected, exiled, and surrogate females. The book’s three sections – “The Family,” “Tom Outland’s Story,” and “The Professor” – account for the final emotional states of a sinking man, but also submerged is a meditation on the nature of woman. The narrative reveals St. Peter’s growing estrangement from his wife and oldest daughter, and a curious pattern in both the Professor’s and Tom’s life of surrogate women.
Indeed, this novel’s first section seems to have been written to establish as intractable St. Peter’s disillusionment with Lillian and the two girls. His contemplation of them betrays an underlying dissatisfaction with the physical attributes comprising their femininity. St. Peter cannot take for granted the womanhood around him, but must construe it as compromised by qualities he somehow deems inappropriate to the feminine: Lillian’s soft features conceal a “hard” quality to which only he is sensitive; Kathleen’s slenderness stirs a question in his mind about how well it represents her womanhood; and Rosamund’s body seems to be built on the skeleton “of his old slab-sided Kanuck grandfather,” making her famed “smooth black head and white throat” invisible to him. He holds them to a jealously guarded standard of femininity, and thereby diminishes their value as women. This standard also helps him to establish distance from the females who comprise his family.
Throughout his professional career, St. Peter has been negotiating this distance. He kept to his attic study for four of the seven week nights, strictly barring any visits from his women for any reason. He relegated them to the lower part of the house, and avoided descending to them, except in emergencies, for fear of disrupting his progress on Spanish Adventurers. His attic room was understood, even by a needful, bee-stung, six-year-old Kathleen, to be a sacrosanct male preserve. Only to the family dressmaker, the unmarried Augusta, did St. Peter permit entrance to his study, presumably out of his understanding that her services were necessary, but even she was barred from the space on certain days of the week.
Augusta’s physical attributes are similar to some of Rosamund’s, but St. Peter does not see her large bones and stiffness as a challenge to his ideal of the feminine: he views her more as human than as female, and is not without some admiration for her simplicity of character and for the solid skill that she brings to her dressmaking. She is not, in the sense that his wife and daughters are, a woman who must be kept outside of his study.
The life of Tom Outland, young, orphaned, and unmarried, is also womanless, a circumstance he was born into, rather than one he created, as the Professor did, for himself. His own reactions to the conditions of an all-male life imply that he has no real desire to distance himself from women. Although he is grateful to Roddy Blake for nurturing him through his pneumonia, he sees Roddy’s mothering role as unnatural, and worse: “Nature’s full of such substitutions, but they always seem to me sad, even in botany.”
And yet, when Tom makes his way onto the site of the prehistoric “little city of stone,” he finds, among the inanimate leavings of its vanished people, a female presence, the first of the human remains that he and his party discover. She is found at a remove from the principal area of the Cliff City, up in the Eagle’s Nest, causing her discoverers to assume she had been murdered. Father Duchene’s speculation about her death being caused by her husband’s rage at her infidelity creates an echo of the distance between women and men within the Professor’s “house” space. As the women whose femininity failed St. Peter are found down in the lower rooms of his house, so Tom finds a woman who is thought to have failed her husband hidden up in a space separated from the main social activity and practices of the Blue Mesa’s original inhabitants. Significant female figures – wife, daughters, Urfrau – occupy exile spaces, notable for their lack of male presence.
Similar to Mother Eve are the dress forms that St. Peter allows Augusta to store in a corner of his attic room. As much as he has rejected the living women of his family, he has figuratively (and it is implied, literally) embraced these female forms. They have been stored in his study from the beginning of his work there, and his desire to keep them there strikes even Augusta as peculiar. He appears to have fantasized often about their feminine attributes, and can clearly accredit their womanhood, at least, to their appearance. He does not find their femininity lacking, as he does that of Lillian, Rosamund, and Kathleen: he finds it to be a consistent illusion, and the ongoing process of disillusioning himself is somehow satisfying to him. Thus, he observes of the bust, “ … if you touched it you suffered a severe shock, no matter how many times you had touched it before,” and of the wire lady, “ … she never fooled St. Peter. He had his blind spots, but he had never been taken in by one of her kind!” His observations betray much time spent contemplating these forms of women, and no little time making physical contact with them. In fact, it is odd to picture the Professor working in his study in the presence of these wire surrogates, resting his mind for a time by stroking the hard surface of the bust, or imagining what mischief the wire lady might be up to of a given evening.
Old Henry is the most obvious female surrogate in Tom Outland’s Cliff City household, with his homemaking skills, decorating touches, and simple passivity. The younger man needs all the human support his environment will afford him as he matures, and what it offers is surrogates – old Henry as a housekeeper, Roddy as a mother figure, and later, St. Peter as a companion and helpmate, a role not unlike that of wife.
Surrounding and containing the rather confusing fluidity of the gender roles in the novel are the literal houses that are built solidly within the narrative. The Professor’s house, of course, is old, inconvenient, but unreasonably beloved by him because it contains his study and his garden, both spaces in which he has labored and borne successfully. His new house, into which he has at the novel’s start already moved, is really his wife’s house: Lillian found their old house drafty and difficult, and exults in the conveniences, especially the luxurious bathroom, of the new one that the Professor’s Oxford Prize for history has built them. His oldest daughter, Rosamund, is in the process of building with her husband a “rather ambitious” country house on Lake Michigan (to be called “Outland”) with the proceeds from the Outland vacuum. They are quite satisfied with themselves about the way they are spending the large amount of money that Rosamund, as Tom’s fiance, received upon his death because of the value of his invention, and so they are oblivious to St. Peter’s dismay at the way he sees them “… convert [Tom’s] very bones into a personal asset.” They are also oblivious to the way their house-pride creates an ongoing implicit belittlement of the modest bungalow owned by Kathleen and her journalist husband, Scott, whose resulting humiliation and resentment center on comparisons between their small house and Rosie’s so much bigger one. It is Tom Outland’s house, the sheltering cavern of the Cliff City, and his profound awe of its sacred spaces, that lead us most directly to the connection of the literal place, in all of its dumb materiality, with an interior, or psycho-emotional space that at once contains and expresses all of its owner’s desires, fears, and spiritual connection to the outer world. Tom’s summer alone studying and dreaming in the house of sun and rock fuses his mind and heart within that space, and it naturally, then, becomes a symbol for the human imagination.
If we take this symbol back to the novel’s title, then we can tour the Professor’s house. St. Peter has acquired his first living arrangement – the old house – as a long-term rental. He never owned it, never repaired its aging facilities. He lived comfortably and happily within it, regardless of the comfort concerns of his women, toiling for his entire career “like a miner under a landslide” in his self-imposed double schedule of teaching and research. He throve on his creative work and on his teaching, and when the double burden threatened to empty him out, he gave himself a day to recreate his desire for work by sailing on Lake Michigan, “the inland sea of his childhood” to which he was so profoundly attached as a very young boy. Despite the impossible discomfort of the study in which he worked, he believed that space to have sheltered the birth of “this dazzling, this beautiful, this utterly impossible thing” which was his history of the Spanish adventurers. The mental and spiritual engendering power of that attic space, and of the French garden he had created behind his house, was the source of his passion for the house. This passion was also originally connected with his deep love of Lillian and of his young female children, but it survived a gradual displacement from the focus on his women to a new focus – on Tom Outland.
The Professor’s French garden can be seen as another female-associated enclosure or womb belonging to a man, and producing a reversed birth as Tom enters it. St. Peter becomes as devoted to his student as he in earlier years was to his wife; in fact he seems to have switched roles and taken on some of the duties of wife: “Every morning … he took a walk to the market and had his pick of the fruits and salads. … When he cooked a fine leg of lamb, … then he asked Outland to dinner. Over a dish of steaming asparagus, … and a bottle of sparkling Asti, they talked and watched night fall in the garden.”
The Professor even sees, if obliquely, Tom as having the kind of disruptive and diminishing effect on his bond with Lillian that a second infatuation would produce. No doubt that Rosamund’s original marriage plans, had they not been cancelled by Tom’s death, would have quelled Lillian’s intense jealousy about her husband’s attachment to Tom. Her natural dislike for him would have found more appropriate expression in the conventional in-law antagonisms. Her husband’s need to devote time and attention to Tom would have had, as well, a far more acceptable venue within his role as family patriarch.
Tom’s advent through the garden gate was surely the birth of St. Peter’s second self, and the younger man’s story with its high cliff “house” offers a needed extension to the older man of his cramped, dark attic cave of thought. Tom opens new, endless spaces for the Professor’s imagination, but the latter must inhabit them through their fast connection. However uneasy the total household fit, once Tom is taken out of the Professor’s family equation, the Professor is left without his center. He has now only Tom’s story, as told in the diary of his Cliff City adventure, and under the self-imposed obligation to edit the diary, he begins to collapse into the empty space within himself. Pushing his family away to another continent has not helped; he cannot bring himself to accomplish the task before him, he cannot live “without delight … without joy, without passionate griefs,” and he cannot stop his emotional freefall down into the dead space within.
Augusta stops it, and stops his house from becoming his grave. As he sits recuperating from his near self-destruction, he realizes that “the bloomless side of life [isn’t] altogether repugnant.” He creates for himself, out of the deaths of Tom, and of his love for his wife and family, a new kind of enclosure. We cannot fully envision this new space, but we are given a glimpse of the solitary object contained within it. Upon reviewing his family history (and fairly moving out of the psycho-emotional house of his past), Godfrey St. Peter discovers that Augusta is the “form” on which he will model his future self. His wife and daughters no longer need him, or he them, but he can take unto himself “a world of Augustas, with whom he is outward bound.”
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