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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The strange conclusion to Cather's The Professor's House

What a strange novel The Professor's House (Willa Cather) turns out to be. The first section, which constitutes about 3/4 of the novel, sets up a lot of family conflicts - tensions between the 2 sisters over the wealth and showiness of the elder, Prof. St. Peter's strained relationship with his wife who is pushing the family into a new house, the professor's anguish over the death of his son-in-law and favorite student, Tom Outland, and his conflicting feelings about the wealth Outland bequeathed to his widow through his patents, hints of anti-Semitism (the son-in-law is Jewish), inter-faculty rivalries and campus politics, and other strands. The 2nd section, Tom Outland's Story, ostensibly written by the professor but in Outland's voice, describes Outland's discovery of ancient cliff dwellings in New Mexico. Where I left off yesterday, the direct wasn't clear - but what happens in the 2nd section is the Outland along w/ 2 partners spends much of a year cataloging all of the artifacts on the site. By today's standard, his actions are a travesty - disturbing the entire cliff dwelling without proper study or protection of the site - but his goals are noble. After the season's work, he heads to D.C. to try to get the Smithsonian interested in undertaking the study and preservation of the site. Cather makes D.C. seem horrendous - fuel for any contemporary anti-government ideologue ready to blame all society's ills on "Washington" (Reagan, Bush, Trump - all pretty comfortable in Washington, btw). In short, government bureaucrats are at best mindless pencil-pushers and careerists and at worst corrupt to the core. Outland returns to NM discouraged only to find that his partner has sold all of the relics to a German (!) collector - fully intending to do the right thing and share the profits but oblivious of Outland's desire to preserve the site. They quarrel, and his friend disappears - presumably dead, or perhaps in another country, shamed and hurt. Outland never recovers from this betrayal and from his own guilt for chasing off his well-meaning partner. In the very short final section, The Family, we see a couple of new strands. The professor recalls his visits to the SW with Outland, then his favorite student, and his love of the beauty of the desert landscape stands in sharp contrast to the squalor of DC and the dullness of his college campus. Most strange of all, though, is the professor's complete estrangement from his family. He has no interest in welcoming with and adult daughters back after their summer in Europe; he prefers to dwell, romantically, in the past: in his old study, in memories of his camping adventures w/ Outland. There is a sexual undercurrent to this relationship, though Cather tactfully does not explore that channel. More evident is the professor's complete disillusion, his feeling that his whole life (aside from those 3 summers in the SW) has been a sham and a failure. He takes no pleasure in The Family. Yet we don't understand the late Outland, either: What made him tick? Why would a young scholar recently married enlist in the infantry to fight in the World War? He, too, seems to be in flight from something - maybe that, too, is the unexamined sexual relationship or attraction between the young and the older man.

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