6. ‘The Professor’s House’ by Willa Cather

There is a lot of fun in reading a novel by an unfamiliar author. In many ways, it is a lot like going out on a first date. You learn through reading this particular author’s style and motifs, then decide if pursuing this writer is worth your time. I had bought this novel over a year ago as an impulse buy in my ongoing crusade to widen my literary boundaries. Prior to starting this book, I researched Willa Cather. Widely known for her stories focusing on frontier life, Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1922 novel One of Ours, which is set during World War I.

Willa Cather
Willa Cather in 1912 photographed by Aime Dupont Studio

The protagonist of this novel, Godfrey St. Peter is a fifty-something professor and scholar who has just moved his family into a brand new house. The problem is that he refuses to let go of his old house so he continues to rent it just so he can use the study on the top floor. Godfrey’s family consists of his wife, their two adult daughters, and their husbands. As Godfrey struggles with abandoning his old study, we learn some of the reasons for his midlife crisis.

Cather divides her novel into three sections. Parts one and three are told in the third-person and focus on St. Peter. The middle section is told from the first-person perspective of St. Peter’s friend Tom Outland, who was killed in the Great War. Outland was not only a close friend and former student of St. Peter, but he was also the fiance of his oldest daughter. Throughout the first section, we learn that Outland’s invention amassed a large fortune following his death, which continues to be squandered by his widow and her new husband. Outland’s story about his discovery of an ancient civilization in New Mexico and the tragic consequences of his exploration are recounted by St. Peter leading to the final section of the novel.

For a short work, Cather’s novel explores some important themes, such as the struggle between the natural world and the modern. The ending to the novel is bittersweet, as St. Peter makes the decision to continue forward but with a realization that he lost an important part of himself along the way. While I would not rank Cather’s novel as one of my favorites, I did find the experience rewarding. She is definitely an author I would consider for a second date.

“In great misfortunes, people want to be alone. They have a right to be. And the misfortunes that occur within one are the greatest. Surely the saddest thing in the world is falling out of love–if once one has ever fallen in.”

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