Friday, April 14, 2017
Cather is not just a prairie writer - The Professor's House
Willa Cather is of course known, if not typecast, for her "prairie" novels, in particular the widely read My Antonia (a great book for young readers, too) and O, Pioneers (not recommended for young readers), but these books, though they define her in some ways, do not encompass the range of her work (as her readers know, btw, she was born in Virginia and spent most of her adult life in Pittsburgh, NY, and other sites far from the midwest). I've long thought that Death Come for the Archbishop is one of the great 20th-century novels, though it was barely mentioned in an intro I read recently to O, Pioneers. That intro did note, however, that in the author's opinion (was it Doris Grumbach?) The Professor's House is he finest novel. Now there's a surprise - I'd hardly heard of that one; the copy I found in my local library was published in 1964 and it is absolutely pristine - I may be the first to read this copy in more than 50 years! And it starts off really well: Professor St. Peter (truly), a history professor in a small and nonprestigious Midwest college, has come up with a surprisingly popular history series that has earned him enough late-life $ to build a house of his own (he and his family had been tenants for decades). This new prosperity, though, disturbs him: he is uneasy about leaving his comfortable house and study better quarters, he's testy w/ his daughters, esp the elder who had married his star student (named Outland) and widowed in the first World War, remarried a foppish guy, and they are living in luxury based on engine patents Outland had bequeathed. St. Peter detests that they are focused on material things and resents that they have named their new estate in memory of the ex-star student/husband, Outland. There are also hints of a lifelong faculty rivalry between St. Peter and an English-dandy type, even though they're now at the end of their careers and there's no sense in struggling any longer for control of the tiny history department; as Cather shrewdly notes, it was a draw, they both lost. This, in general, is a fine set-up for what is now a familiar genre (because so many writers were or are college profs), including among others the great novel Stoner (a must read), Roth's When She Was Good, something that Malamud wrote early in his career I can't recall the title, Francine Prose's Blue Angel, an academic satire from David Lodge, maybe even Pale Fire - there's a dissertation in here waiting! We'll see how well The Professor's House holds up, but it has a promising start - clear, concise writing, sharply drawn characters, commitment to a narrative plot.