Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House is a strange book. The novel begins with the story of a history professor as he reluctantly moves from his beloved residence to a new home, transitions to the personal history of the professor’s star student and ends with the professor contemplating the life he, until recently, believed brought him great happiness. This unique structure coupled with Cather’s insights on aging and happiness rendered The Professor’s House, in my opinion, one great book.
Professor Godfrey St. Peter has lead a charmed life. He has traveled extensively, married well at an early age and achieved great success as a father and scholar. However, his family is perplexed to discover that the professor is obstinately resistant to a move from their longstanding, “perfectly imperfect” home to a new, state-of-the-art house. The professor decides to maintain an office in the old house and as a result, begins to see the daily drama of his family life in a new, troublesome way. St. Peter finds events he would have once found endearing, like his eldest daughter Rosamond’s lavish shopping trip in Chicago, unbearable. Through the journals of his former protégé, Tom Outland, St. Peter is reunited with the solitude of youth and mourns its loss with regret. As the novel reaches its close, St. Peter appears to come to terms with the death of his former self, but refuses to forget the person he once was.
While many of Willa Cather’s novels are required reading for high school students, The Professor’s House is certainly a better fit for adult readers. Cather’s novel asks the reader to examine the difficulty we have as adults to reconcile our younger lives with our mature selves. Though Cather does not necessarily offer a solution for the consequences of this examination, she does provide a kindred spirit in Professor Godfrey St. Peter.
In fact, I was so absorbed with the professor’s introspection that it was easy to overlook certain elements of The Professor’s House that have bothered me in other books. Perhaps the novel’s primary offense is its failure to resolve some of its storylines. At the end of the novel, I was left wanting more with regard to Tom Outland’s relationship with Rosamond and the professor’s adversarial relationship with Dr. Langtry. However, even this is a minor defect in an otherwise wonderful novel.
Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House was a great read and a good representation of what I love to find in books. I look forward to reading more from this great author.