“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ― C.S. Lewis
Owned and Unread Project
Friday, January 28, 2011
The Professor's House by Willa Cather
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.
Labels: classics, short classics, Virago
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I liked this one because it reminded me of my father - also a professor, who had a hard time letting go when he retired. I think that for me made me like it even though it was very different to the other Cathers that I've read. I must read Song of the lark.ReplyDelete
I think this sounds wonderful! I wasn't a huge fan of My Antonia but I adored Death Comes For the Archbishop and this sounds more like Archbishop. I hope the disjointed narrative doesn't bother me...ReplyDelete
Verity -- It was quite different than the other two I've read. I did like it but it wasn't at all what I expected.ReplyDelete
Amanda -- I kept thinking of you when I read it, wondering if you'd like it. I hope you have time to read it soon so we can discuss it. I know you have a tight reading schedule but it's a pretty fast read so maybe you can squeeze it in. . .
I also really loved My Antonia and O Pioneers. This was the next Cather on my TBR list. Now, though, I think I might try reading Death Comes for the Archbishop and Song of the Lark first instead. I still want to read it, but it might help me to have more experience with Cather.ReplyDelete
Karen, this is interesting. I've never read a Cather that wasn't set in Nebraska or focused on the life of a woman, so I wonder whether I would feel the same about this. I shall have to read it and find out! I do love her writing style, though - she is just exquisite.ReplyDelete
Mindy -- I was wondering that too. I might have liked it more if I'd read Death Comes for the Archbishop first.ReplyDelete
Book Snob -- I hadn't thought about the fact that it was about a man instead of a woman. I'm also really interested in One of Ours, which is also about a man. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.
Karen: I am usually no fan of disjointed narratives. The big draw for me in The Professor's House is his relationship with (desire for) solitude. But I also found Tom's New Mexico story compelling in its own way and found it so evocative of that part of the country. I really need to go back and read this one. I think it might even be in my TBR dare pile. I need to assess my original reaction to (love for) this book and see if I still feel the same way.ReplyDelete
Very interesting review! I only know Cather through My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and short stories. This is on my shelf and I'm curious to see how I'll react to it.ReplyDelete
It does sound like she squeezes a lot into a short book, but I, like you,admire her writing so much that I will still give it a try. She's just wonderful.ReplyDelete
I really liked this when I read it last year, but I agree the structure is jarring somewhat and it wasn't a book that I felt like I really had a deep understanding of. I wrote about it here:ReplyDelete
I wonder if it is one that takes a few reads before it all comes together? I'd like to read Death Comes to the Archbishop as well!
I would agree that there is an odd disparity between the two halves of the book. It has been argued to me that Rosamond and her husband represent the new wealth and conspicuous consumption of the day and Tom Outland and the mesa story represent a simple way of living and the natural craftsmanship of the orignal cave dwellers which the professor is drawn to. I'm not convinced that it works. That said, I loved the book!ReplyDelete
I haven't read this one, but I love Willa Cather, who is a beautiful writer generally, this book sounds interesting - the 'inventor' type is such a big american idea, and there aren't very many great books about it (and the writing by the inventors themselves tends to be a tidge mythologized *coughedisonwasafilthyliarandfordwascrazyReplyDelete
Tom -- I did like it, I just wish there was more of it. I loved Tom's story and I wonder if any of the characters will appear in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Both their stories were beautiful and sad.ReplyDelete
JoAnn -- I haven't read any of Cather's short stories -- I was eyeing Obscure Destinies at the library yesterday. I'll have to read it after the TBR Dare.
Danielle -- That's exactly how I felt -- I liked it but I wish I understood it better. Thanks to the link to your review, I look forward to reading it.
Vintage Reading -- I can see the reasoning behind that interpretation. I don't think Cather was very impressed by the people like Rosamond and her husband! And the professor's wife also.
Jason -- It's very interesting and beautifully written, so if you love Cather you would probably enjoy it. Hope you can come to book group to discuss Archbishop in June.
All of this Cather love during Virago week has me itching to read her, even though I've never considered it much before. Now I just must decide where to start... This one seems perhaps not the best one, not a "starter Cather"?ReplyDelete
Cather was a favorite author of mine when I was in high school but I haven't read anything of hers in a very long time. I think I'm due for a re-read of a favorite or to read this one which is on my TBR shelf as well!ReplyDelete