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The 1920s is an era somewhat paradoxically described as an anachronistic one rife with social upheaval. Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House sheds light on this awkward time as she details the life of Godfrey St. Peter, an academic caught between the past and the future, between austerity and materialism, between permanence and transience. As he rejects the modernity thrown at him, St. Peter finds solace in memories and in the earth – in short, in what cannot be tempered by time, but that which fixedly stands alone.
The death of Tom Outland, a representative of purity and brilliance for St. Peter, affords Cather an opportunity to contrast the excesses of the 20s with the blatant superficiality that Louie, St. Peter’s charming but oblivious son-in-law, displays. Using Outland’s death and his position as heir as an excuse to aggrandize his own wealth, Louie says, “We feel it’s our duty in life to use that money as he would have wished – we’ve endowed scholarships in his own university here, and that sort of thing. But our house we want to have as a sort of memorial to him.” (The Professor’s House, p.31) St. Peter, instead of confronting Louie about the propriety of naming his house after his wife’s ex-fiancé, retreats into his, as his wife calls it, “disapproving silence [that] can kill the life of any company.” (p. 35) Even worse, he lauds the ostentatious display Rosamond, his daughter and Louie’s wife, makes of the windfall she has run into. As she enters the house one day wearing purple, the color of royalty, he remarks to her, “‘You know, these things with a kind of lurking purple and lavender in them are splendid for you…It’s only lately you’ve begun to wear them. Louie’s taste, I suppose?'” (p.67) After trying vainly to coax his younger daughter, Kathleen, out of envy, St. Peter visualizes the supercilious face of Rosamond and the anguished one of Kathleen, and feels a pang of the past: “A sharp pain clutched his heart. Was it for this the light in Outland’s laboratory used to burn so far into the night!” (p. 74)
The money causes further problems. Augusta, the family maid, loses $500 in a shaky investment, and Rosamond refuses to use her ample wealth to help her out. St. Peter’s colleagues treat him differently. Dr. Crane, an ailing Physics teacher, threatens to sue for some of the inheritance he believes is rightfully his. As a response, St. Peter alienates himself, staying at home to work while the family vacations in France, knowing that “The desk was a shelter one could hide behind, it was a hole one could creep into.” (p.141) The desk, and his old house, stir up old memories of Tom, and Outland’s diary of his time in the Southwest becomes a fixture for St. Peter, especially the city of stone he discovers. This sculpted town is described as “pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another…and in the middle of the group, a round tower.” (p.180) The simple beauty of Tom’s dwelling starkly contrasts with the Marsellus’ extravagant Outland, as do its artifacts: “Beside this spring stood some of the most beautifully shaped water jars we ever found…” (p. 187) Tom’s idealism about the unblemished mesa ends when, upon his return months later from Washington, D.C., he learns that his partner and best friend has sold the curios in the mesa for four thousand dollars. Even when told that the money will be used as his tuition for college, he is livid: “‘You think I’d touch that money? No more than if you’d stolen it…did you ever think I was digging those things up for what I could sell them for?'” (p.220) Tom’s diary serves two purposes for St. Peter; it beautifully illustrates the durability of the earth while providing him with a permanent idealist in these trying times.
St. Peter, by the end of the book, recognizes his inability to cope with the flurrying changes around him: “‘Surely the saddest thing in the world is falling out of love – if once one has ever fallen in.'” (p.250) After a failed suicide attempt, in which St. Peter hasn’t the heart to kill himself of his own free will but rather by permitting death, he concludes that he must live in a somewhat existentialist state, where family, work, and the present mean little to him. “He doubted his family would ever realize that he was not the same man they had said good-bye to; they would be too happily preoccupied with their own affairs.” (p.258) Ironically, St. Peter is also preoccupied with his own affairs – but his are universal and far-reaching, while theirs are selfish and temporary.
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