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Review: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

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The Story

Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds his life at a crossroads. He is in his 50s, most of his career is behind him, his marriage has grown overly stale, his children are grown up and have lives of their own and his young protege/mentee is dead.  Midlife crisis of sorts is in progress.

“He had had two romances; one of the heart, which had filled his life for many years, and a second of the mind–of the imagination. Just when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off for him, along cam [Tom] and brought him a kind of second youth.” (p. 88)

My Thoughts

This was an odd little book—I actually had to pull out a few reference materials to make sense of its structure. The story begins in a normal fashion then truncates. A different story—albeit of a character often mentioned in the first part, begins. Finally, the book finishes with the end of the first story. Apparently, this was done intentionally.

In an article Cather explains that the structure is to “[correspond to] the academic sonata form” (Cather as cited in Giannone).  “The musical references in the novel augment the larger structural rhythm. Each section has a dramatic pattern which relies on the sonata arrangement” (Giannone, 1965, p. 465).

This explanation let me see the purpose of the odd sections of the book. They are separate “movements.” My brain could understand that. On finishing reading the article, I was pleased that I HAD noticed the Angelus bells and the Braham’s Requiem! Sadly, none of this changed my opinion that the second movement, Tom’s backstory, was very dull. His idealism came across as disgustingly earnest—which it was meant to. That he was ahead of his time in protecting the local cultural heritage is commendable, but he wore it like the proverbial hair shirt.

I was also pleased that my brain has not become so cobwebbed that I could not see the possibility of same-sex attraction and other “overtones” between the Professor and his pseudo-son-protégé, Tom.  It could simply be that the professor had wanted a son, but had two daughters.  I felt there was more there. Yes, the appreciation of a student eager to learn, to grow, to become, is always a tremendous reward for any educator, but….. As the professor struggled to come to terms with the life his family was now leading—his daughters both married, his wife swept up into the life of one daughter and, to a lesser extent, of the other, Tom’s death has left a gap that is not being filled.

The Professor’s candid admission to himself at the end (no spoilers!) is one many people make—though few can carry through with fully implementing it. Years and familiarity have taken away the romantic feelings for his wife and he seemed to me to be a man who needed it in his life. I found his wife and daughters so annoying, his one son-in-law so full of himself, the other barely a presence, that I totally agreed with the Professor’s opinion of him! [No spoilers!] Tom’s death has left him lonely in another way as well.

As always, Cather’s writing is amazing. I highlighted a huge number of passages that I liked and then to put into my Commonplace Book [book of quotations].  I love reading on Kindle for this reason—it is so easy to highlight and save those great passages.

I also giggled a few times at the axiom, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” in regards to academia. The lack of money and so little support for scholarship that The Professor bemoans is still with us today. The lack of respect for the Liberal Arts and the shoving of students into career- (or at least job-) tied degree programs was the same back in the 20s as it is today. All that was lacking was the modern mandates of stifling political correctness.

My Rating

4.5

 

FYI: As an essay I give this post/review about a D+. Regardless, it is good to use my brain in this way from time-to-time, even if I am not really given to academic analysis of literature!

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