- The Professor's House and the Professor's Houses
While The Professor's House is widely regarded as Willa Cather's most complex novel, critical discussion has, paradoxically, often reduced its complexities to simple, unambiguous conclusions. As Thomas Strychacz has noted, "readers have persisted in viewing the novel reductively in terms of absolute oppositions" between the Midwestern college town of Hamilton and the world of Cliff City (49). In a perhaps less apparent way, the effort to simplify also pervades discussions of Professor Godfrey St. Peter's two houses—the old house that he has lived in for more than twenty years and the new house built with the money from the Oxford prize awarded the final volumes of his Spanish Adventurers in North America. In almost fifty years of criticism, the relation between the two houses has been presented as a clear, easy contrast in moral value: the old house has been cast as ugly but good, while the new house has been condemned as bad, a decadent, pretentious showplace of materialism, built in something of the spirit of Louie and Rosamond Marsellus' garish Norwegian manor house, the " 'ambitious affair' " known as "Outland" (38). That readers of varying interests and critical orientations so often remark the good house/bad house contrast in passing, without supporting evidence, suggests that it has acquired the status of a truism in Cather [End Page 444] criticism.1 Like any truism, it deserves close, skeptical scrutiny. Indeed, a careful reading of The Professor's House reveals that a contrast in moral value between St. Peter's two houses is one that the novel does not support. In the absence of that contrast, St. Peter's relation to his houses becomes a matter of greater complexity, even contradiction, than critics have recognized.
One might wonder about the feasibility of depicting a decadent showplace of consumption in a novel largely devoid of surface detail, written in the spirit of what Cather called the "novel démeublé" ("The Novel Démeublé"). Yet Cather is able to suggest just such a showplace with only a few glancing references to a house that never appears in the novel, the Marselluses' "Outland." Louie delights in its " 'wonderful wrought-iron door fittings' " (39) and describes the house's setting in the clichés of real-estate advertising copy: " 'wooded shores of Lake Michigan' " (38), " 'primeval forest,' " " 'rugged pine woods and high headlands' " (39); Rosamond journeys to Chicago to, in Cather's wittily blunt words, "buy things" for the house (151). The "Outland" attic is large enough to hold a houseful of old furniture: " 'Heaven knows it's big enough!' " says Rosamond (167). Certainly Cather's use of resonant detail would make possible a similarly satiric treatment of St. Peter's new house. Yet such treatment is nowhere to be found. What the novel does offer is a scattering of detail that does nothing to support a judgment that the new house is decadent or pretentious. Like the old house, the new house has three stories (11, 20), with a first-floor study for St. Peter (analogous to the first-floor "show study" of the old house ) and a third-floor sewing [End Page 445] room for Augusta, who is about to make new curtains (20). Chapter Two provides the first glimpses of the new house: St. Peter has his own bedroom and bathroom, a "glittering white cubicle, flooded with electric light" (34); he takes bemused delight in his spacious closets (34); the house has a front gate (45), a library (36), an electrical device under the dining-room table to summon a maid (38), and a new bedroom rug (43). In Chapter Six St. Peter admires the drawing-room through an open French window: "The drawing-room was full of autumn flowers, dahlias and wild asters and goldenrod. The red-gold sunlight lay in bright puddles on the thick blue carpet, made hazy aureoles about the stuffed blue chairs" (75).2 The room contains a "little lacquer table" (75). Much later there is a reference to a hearth (155). And there the details end.
In contrast to the pointed references to the Marsellus house, these details seem...