Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Professor's House by Willa Cather (1925)

I'm having a hard time writing this review.  This book puzzled me. I was really looking forward to reading more Cather, since I just loved My Antonia and O, Pioneers!, two of her most famous works.  I liked this book but it's hard to explain it.

Let me back up a little.  The story begins with Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a fiftyish man who teaches at a nameless university somewhere in the Midwest.  It's in the 1920s, and he and his wife are moving from the house they've rented for many years to a lovely new house built to their specifications -- after years of hard work, the Professor's research has finally received recognition and they're financially very comfortable.  However, the Professor is having a hard time letting go of his old house, his tiny study in the attic, and his old life.

There are two grown daughters who are married, and the oldest, Rosamond, is also very financially secure.  In fact, she's very nouveau riche because she was the sole heir of her former fiancee, Tom Outland, who died in WWI before the story began. Apparently Tom invented a special kind of engine after graduating from the university, and was smart enough to patent it and make a will leaving everything to Rosamond.  Her new husband developed the engine and made them a fortune.  The Professor loves his daughter and likes his son-in-law, but he seems uncomfortable with they way they're spending all the money.  He and Tom had been very close when Tom was at the University.  A significant section of the book is told as Tom's diary, telling the story of his experiences working in New Mexico before he moved to the Midwest.

I think I'm undecided about this book because it seems almost like two different books; the change in narration and story line are so distinct.  Tom's history is hinted at during the Professor's section, but to me they seemed like two totally different books, and I'm having a hard time fitting the whole story together in my brain.  There's so much going on in this book and it's only about 250 pages -- Cather writes about the Professor's dissatisfaction, sibling rivalry, how money changes people -- I wish this book had been longer, since there was so much more I wanted to learn about the characters.

What I liked best about it was Cather's great writing.  Her characters are really well-developed, but very subtly -- it doesn't take the reader long to realize exactly how Professor St. Peter feels about his son-in-law.   Also, her descriptions are just beautiful, without being long-winded and flowery.  She can really capture the essence of a midwestern prairie or a mesa in New Mexico in just a few words.  I hadn't read any of her books set in the southwest so I'm really intrigued to read more.

My real-life classics book group is reading Death Comes for the Archbishop in June, and I don't know if I can wait that long to read it.  I'm limited by the TBR Dare to books on my shelves for the next couple of months, but I still have The Song of the Lark if I need more Cather. Ultimately, I liked this book even though I found it slightly unsatisfying.

I read this book for Virago Reading Week, hosted by Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books and Rachel at Book Snob.  And many thanks to Thomas at My Porch for recommending The Professor's House, one of his favorite books of all time.


  1. Cather is one of the great gaps in my reading. Where should I start?

  2. I think My Antonia is a great place to start. It's a beautiful book and I've never known anyone who's read it and not liked it.