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  • A Note on Willa Cather's Use of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" in The Professor's House

"How wonderful it would be," wrote Willa Cather in "The Novel Démeublé" (1922) of contemporary narrative practice, "if we could throw all the furniture out of the window" (Cather, Not Under Forty 51). Vandalism was not Cather's intent but rather a radical act of literary house-cleaning in which the narrative stage would be stripped as bare as possible—accordingly, those events and objects remaining were to be functional, resonant, allusive. St. Peter's throwaway remark about Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1843) in The Professor's House (1925), in reference to Crane's frequently coming under the surgeon's knife, typifies Cather's strategy of writing "by suggestion rather than by enumeration" (Not Under Forty 48). Cather had already paid tribute to Poe in her college graduation speech in 1897; the echoes of "The Pit and the Pendulum" in The Professor's House are in turn tribute to her enduring fascination with this master of the Gothic tale.1 [End Page 57]

Cather beautifully evokes an atmosphere of Gothic horror in her novel through that least nightmarish of characters: the Professor. Of romantic explorers into the dark places of the mind, Poe's narrator remarks: "He who has never swooned . . . is not he who beholds floating in mid-air the sad visions that the many may not view" (69). St. Peter, who remembers how "the design of his book unfolded in the air above him," and who swoons in the gas-filled room, is legitimately part of this select company (Cather, The Professor's House 106). His Mephistophelean features and the macabre "ladies" in his attic confirm our sense of his potential for psychological torment. Rounding out the environment of horror are architectural correspondences between the vault in which Poe's narrator finds himself and edifices in The Professor's House. It is not only that the Professor inhabits a "shadowy crypt" (112) and surrounds himself with walls—his "walled-in garden" (14) and the "low ceiling" of his attic office (16, 26)—for Cather, like Poe, sets in motion a Gothic machinery of increasing claustrophobia. Where the prison of Poe's narrator changes shape to "a low rumbling or moaning sound" (Poe 86), so does the open window of St. Peter's office close to an accompaniment of "things banging and slamming about" (276). The malleable architecture of these Gothic tales is a metonym for the house of the soul, articulating processes of psychological disintegration and renewal.

Cather sets up more enigmatic correspondences between Poe's vault and the Cliff City, set in its "spacious cavern" (204), where hints of nightmare still abide. "Probably these people burned their dead," thinks Tom Outland innocently (215)—a supposition which, along with the "charred bones" near the ovens (209), reminds us that in Poe's story the victim's final ordeal is by fire. Tom Outland's and Father Duchene's celebration of this lost culture invites a contrast here: a ceremonial reverence for the dead as opposed to the fanatical perversion of religion during the Inquisition. Yet on the mesa, mysteriously, Mother Eve's face has "kept a look of terrible agony" for centuries (214); a "small, dark chamber" holds three more bodies "wrapped in yucca-fibre," lying on a platform (215)—just like Poe's narrator, who wakes from unconsciousness to find himself lying on a "low framework of wood," bound by a "long strap resembling a surcingle" (Poe 77).

What may seem an outlandish comparison at the beginning of Tom's story becomes astonishingly appropriate by the end, as Tom battles his feelings of "heartlessness" after the rejection of Roddy Blake (252)—tell-tale signs of a frightening lack of compassion in that "high and blue" summer (253). For different reasons, Poe's narrator also experiences "a vague horror at my heart, on account of that heart's unnatural stillness" (Poe 70). Precisely "on account" of the "unnatural stillness' of Tom's heart, he recognizes that he will be "called to account" for his actions (253). And here lies...


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