Sunday, April 16, 2017
Character complexity in Cather's The Professor's House
Part of what engages us in Willa Cather's 1925 novel, The Professor's House, is the complexity of the central character, Prof. Godfrey St. Peter. On the one hand, is kind of a curmudgeon: he insists on retaining his run-down, thrid-floor study, where he's composed all of his books, even when this entails renting the entire house (as he has built a new house with recent profits from his surprisingly popular series of history book). He is testy and uncomfortable with his son-in law Louie Marsellus, uneasy about accepting gifts and hospitality, such as having Louie pay for a hotel suite in Chicago or a vacation in France (Louie is extremely wealthy, as described in earlier posts, having made good on the patents held by St. Peter's best student). He is never explicit about this, but he seems to pull away from Louie, and toward his other son-in-law, the journalist, Scott, in part because Louie is crass and nouveau - and maybe even because Louie is Jewish, though the anti-Semitism is not (yet) expressed outright. On the other hand, St. Peter is independent and proud and, unlike so many others in literature and in life, unwilling to fawn all over Louie just because Louie is wealthy, unwilling to exploit his son-in-law's wealth for his own comfort or betterment. In fact, St. Peter intervenes a couple of times - notably meeting with another professor, Crane, who believes he should have a share in the patent profits, and though St. Peter tells Crane point blank that he has no valid legal claim he also says he'd be willing to talk w/ Louie about some kind of settlement; he's a generous man, at least w/ someone else's $ he is. He's a man who should be content w/ his life: a good marriage, daughters married successfully, a late-career academic success as well - but he feels that something is missing, possibly that he's spent is life in a goldfish bowl, a small mid-western university beleaguered by pressure to be more "relevant" and career-oriented (a familiar academic relent even a century later), perhaps because of something mysterious in his relationship w/ his best student and former son-in-law, the late Tom Outland: his, and everyone's, obsession w/ Outland is one of the curious and to this point unexplained aspects of this novel, but part 2 is called Outland's Story, and perhaps the mystery will be clarified (or maybe further darkened).