The Professor’s House

by Jack Skeffington

In the introduction to Not Under Forty, Willa Cather’s 1936 collection of essays, she (in)famously writes that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” an opinion that, if nothing else, has fairly successfully separated her from the ranks of artists and authors we have come to call modernists.[1] The judgment, nonetheless, seems overly hasty. Scholars have busied themselves tracing modernism’s roots backwards into the early 19th century, and whether the post- in post-modern means anything at all remains uncertain. Each new attempt at mapping the contours of modernism only further blur its boundaries, and Cather’s exact location remains—perhaps tellingly—unclear.

Cather’s The Professor’s House first saw print in 1925, in a post-Ulysses world whose literary landscape Cather no longer felt herself part of. The novel is largely concerned with one Godfrey St. Peter, the owner of the titular domicile, and his arrival at a point where his work, his marriage, his family, and (despite that title) both of his houses all enter a state of flux. Retreat into memory, especially memory concerning his favorite student, Tom Outland, forms a major portion of the Professor’s coping strategy, an so, in turn, the action of the novel.

In All That is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall Berman writes that modernity “is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air.’”[2] Cather’s novel, as much as any other produced on either side of her supposed divide, participates in this uncertainty, in the exploration of a culture’s perceived experience of unified disunity, of a totalizing fracture. Despite Cather’s claim to have “slid back into the previous 7000 years,” The Professor’s House bears the marks of its era, telling the tale of a broken man in a distinctly fractured way. Divided into three sections covering disparate ground in unequal lengths—“The Family,” “Tom Outland’s Story,” and “The Professor,”—Cather’s text reflects the tensions Berman describes as inherent to modernity and the sort of stylistic exploration many associate with literary modernism.

Individuals feel modernity’s uncertainty perhaps most intensely on the scale of the personal, for one of the most obvious (and mourned) casualties of modernity’s splintering violence has been the certainty of coherent identity. Cather deals with these problems sensitively and subtly throughout The Professor’s House, carefully using the reflective Professor to illustrate the fundamental impossibility of knowing the entirety of any individual, even oneself.

One of St. Peter’s meditations on Outland provides a useful example of the novel’s technique: The memory is rooted in the moment when, having lunched with St. Peter and his wife, Outland subsequently encounters their daughters for the first time, one of whom will later become his fiancé. He presents the girls with a pair of raw turquoises in spontaneous gesture of generosity. Their mother attempts to dissuade him from giving them so valuable a gift, but in his insistence Outland’s “voice is so wistful and winning that there was nothing to do.”[3] With the issue apparently settled, St. Peter inspects both the stones and Tom himself, activities that he remembers:

Hold them still a moment,” said the Professor, looking down, not at the turquoises, but at the hand that held them: the muscular, many-lined palm, the long, strong fingers with soft ends, the straight little finger, the flexible, beautifully shaped thumb that curved back from the rest of the hand as if it were its own master. (103)

In classic modernist style, this passage presents an instance of double vision. As the Professor looks down, so too does the reader, and St. Peter’s observations are passed directly to the reader, thereby facilitating a shared judgment of the hand’s possessor. As can be seen above, the hands themselves are certainly impressive instruments in their own right. They begin favorably, with a muscular palm serving as their foundation—again invoking that sense of weight and capability borne in his clothes—before extending out into “strong fingers with soft ends.” Again, the evaluation must be positive, as the soft ends save the strong, capable fingers from being cruel, unpleasant, or overtly lower-class. The little finger merits special notice for its straightness, an adjective suggestive of proper development, of health, perhaps even of moral righteousness or a logical nature. The sight of the hand culminates in the thumb, the final part studied and the first to be granted an explicitly aesthetic appraisal. The Professor’s evaluations to this point have been uniformly positive, as when the first estimation of the thumb concerns its flexibility, but the description of this particular digit suddenly soars to the praise of “beautifully shaped.”

The move from fairly objective description to subjective understanding accelerates from this point almost immediately into not a description, but a characterization of the thumb that suggests it as its own willful, seemingly sentient, master. It curves back and the juxtaposition of this image with the fixed little finger may be the justification for the move to the subjective; a reassuring aesthetic assertion of its beauty first indicates that the thumb’s curvature does not stem from intractability or a wayward bent, and then goes further with the suggestion that its curve originates in a noble state of self-possession. The thumb provides a balance to the little finger’s qualities at worst, and at best enhances them by revealing that the finger serves not as the scepter of a despot, but the needle of a compass.

Ultimately, the sheer mass of good portents causes St. Peter to ejaculate “What a hand!” and store the image in his mind as one of the pre-eminent memories of Tom Outland. Indeed, “He could see it yet, with the blue stones lying in it” (103). The fragment of the man stands for the whole, the readers entire understanding of the young man depends on the isolated observation of the professor. “What a hand” sounds almost silly when taken out of its context and exhibited on the page, but considering all that the Professor has augured in its form, the outburst may actually be understatement. Cather packs a great deal of information into this passage, allowing the reader to see, through the power of the written word, a clear image of Outland’s hand along with St. Peter —through that verbal sketch of the hand comes a metonymic glimpse of truth regarding the man attached to it.

And yet, the pure vision transmitted by the professor to the reader is an illusion. In actuality, a now familiar split appears here between fact and psychology; the facts of the above passage belong to Tom Outland, but the interesting psychology revealed by them resides in St. Peter. Michael Levenson, in his Genealogy of Modernism, takes pains to make clear that, for literary modernism, “in the opposition between fact and psychology, deeper interest lies on the psychological side.”[4] The magnificent, iconic hand described by the Professor comes to the reader from a place out of time. The narrator’s comment, “he could see it yet” reminds the reader of the tale’s analeptic setting—St. Peter carries the image of the hand in his memory as a mental snapshot not to remember a knuckle or a nail, but to remember Tom Outland himself.

Scott McGregor, St. Peter’s former student and Tom’s old classmate, tells the professor that, “Tom isn’t very real to me any more. Sometimes I think he was just a—a glittering idea” (94). At the time, St. Peter makes no reply, but the above discussion of the hand suggests that the same transformation has taken place for the older man as well. Tom and his hands have been reduced to a series of glittering ideas that tidily encapsulate both the actual events and the character that has come to inhabit them. In the mold of the artist described in Conrad’s famous note to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, St. Peter has glimpsed a truth and shaped an image to represent it, but he keeps that image for his own reference. The professor reinterprets the image as a site of knowledge by employing it not as a mechanism for transmission, but as a device of preservation and storage. Cather, however, still employs the hand as moment of dialogue with the reader to reveal the problems haunting St. Peter. None of the definitions of Outland are stable, and, in that his memories are therefore suspect, St. Peter’s self is simultaneously illustrated as an unsteady construct.

In discussing what he characterizes as strategies of self-deception in The Professor’s House, James Maxfield writes that the Professor’s “preferred image of Tom is that of the free, solitary individual on the mesa, not the man of commitments . . . for in the final chapters of the novel St. Peter . . . seeks to identify himself with an idealized, purified version of the self.”[5] The image of the hand discussed above merges comfortably with this analysis of St. Peter’s mental state, for while the characteristics implied by the hand are certainly idealized in a manner consistent with a free, solitary, and purified individual, the physical description of the hand itself has almost certainly been idealized and purified in a similar manner. Tom Outland has grown up poor in the still-primitive West, and a brief perusal of his biography suggests a life of significant manual labor. Even if one were (rightly) nervous about making assumptions about extra-textual facts, Outland’s career in ranching by itself provides numerous opportunities for injury and simple wear-and-tear to the hands. Despite this, however, the hands described by the Professor bear no noticeable scars, no chronically swollen knuckles, no trace of an injury capable of deflecting his perfectly straight little finger. Even granting Outland a work-safety record that would warrant a meticulous study on the part of OSHA, his hands lack the record of roughness and calluses ensured by use, miraculously managing instead to have, for all their obvious strength, “soft tips.” A casual observer would find them indistinguishable from the academic’s—but the Professor abandoned his boyhood farm decades before, while but roughly a dozen months separate Tom from his labors. The line between one man and the next blurs almost to the point of indeterminacy—the hand is a site of unified disunity.

Despite Cather’s acceptance of her place outside of literary modernism—or perhaps underscored by it—The Professor’s House engages the same issues so attractive to mainstream modernists, and does so in recognizably similar ways, reminds us again that modernism is a less certain, and, perhaps, a less useful category than typically understood. Cather’s split remains important to many scholars, but her later novels suggest that the more meaningful split, the one between what we call modernity and whatever it was that preceded it, occurred well before 1922 and everyone on this side of it, literary “modernists” or no, bear its marks and its burdens.


  1. ↑ Cather, Not Under Forty. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
  2. ↑ Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Viking Penguin), 1988.
  3. ↑ Cather, The Professor’s House (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), p. 103. All subsequent parenthetical references are to this volume.
  4. ↑ Levenson, A Genealogy of Modernism: A study of English literary doctrine 1908-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999), p. 20.
  5. ↑ Maxfield, James F. “Strategies of Self-Deception in Willa Cather’s Professor’s House,” Studies in the Novel. 16.1 (Spring 1984), p. 81

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