(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In The Professor’s House, Cather explores the thoughts and emotions of a man making the difficult transition from middle to old age and finding, as he looks back over his life, that he has lost sight of the person he once was. The first symptom of Professor Godfrey St. Peter’s growing internal crisis is his reluctance to leave his attic study when he and his wife move to a new house. For St. Peter, the study—uncomfortable and inconvenient as it has always been—represents the constancy of his working life and the years devoted to his massive history of the Spanish explorers in North America. Unwilling to relinquish this tie to the past, the professor continues to rent his old house and visit it when he works.

As time passes, however, a growing sense of alienation from his family and even his work seems to overtake St. Peter. His two daughters have grown and have developed qualities with which he is impatient, and his relationship with his wife has become a matter of habit rather than interest. Questioning whether he has followed the right path in his life, he finds himself thinking that he has lost the boy he once was, opting instead for a set of social conventions. The spiritual malaise that has seized hold of him very nearly brings the professor to tragedy when he realizes that his life is in danger from a gas stove and he chooses to do nothing. Saved by the family’s longtime sewing woman, St. Peter finds that he has somehow let go of those remnants of his boyhood self and is now able to resign himself to the years ahead of him.

Many critics feel that The Professor’s House is Cather’s most revealing book in terms of her state of mind and her own conflicts regarding the artist’s uneasy relationship with society. For Cather, it was essential that...

(The entire section is 738 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Oxford prize for history brings Professor Godfrey St. Peter not only a certain international reputation but also the sum of five thousand pounds. The five thousand pounds, in turn, helps the St. Peter family build a new house, into which the professor is frankly reluctant to move.

For half a lifetime, the attic of the old house has been his favorite spot—it was there that he had done his best writing, with his daughters’ dress forms for his only company—and it is in this workroom that Augusta, the family sewing woman, finds him when she arrives to transfer the dress forms to the new house. To her astonishment, the professor declares quizzically that she cannot have them; he intends to retain the old house to preserve his workroom intact, and everything must be left as it is.

Nevertheless, the new house makes its own claims. That same evening the professor hosts a small dinner party for a visiting Englishman. The professor’s daughters and their husbands are present, and during dinner, the conversation turns to the new country house being built by Rosamond and Louie. Louie explains to the visitor why the name Outland had been selected for the estate. Tom Outland had been a brilliant scientific student at Hamilton, as well as the professor’s protégé. Before being killed in the war, he had been engaged to Rosamond. His will had left everything to her, including control of his revolutionary invention, the Outland vacuum. Later, Louie Marcellus married Rosamond and successfully marketed Tom’s invention. The new house, Louie had concluded, would serve in some measure as a memorial to Outland.

Louie’s lack of reserve visibly irritates the McGregors, and the professor maintains a cool silence. The next morning, his wife takes him to task for it. Lillian has been fiercely jealous of her husband’s interest in Tom Outland. The professor finds himself reflecting that people who fall in love, and who go on being in love, always meet with something that suddenly or gradually makes a difference. Oddly enough, in the case of Lillian and her husband, it had seemed to be his pupil, Tom Outland.

More and more, the professor seeks the refuge of his study in the old house, where he can insulate himself against increasing family strain. Even there, however, there are interruptions. Once it is Rosamond, self-conscious about accepting all the benefits of the Outland invention. Her father refuses to share her good fortune but suggests that she aid cancer-ridden Professor Crane, who had collaborated with Tom in his experiments. Rosamond stiffens immediately, for outside the family, she recognizes no obligations.

Soon there is more evidence that the family is drifting apart. Kathleen confesses to her father her violent reaction to Rosamond’s arrogance. It becomes known that Louie,...

(The entire section is 1159 words.)