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D A V I D S T O U C K Simon Fraser University Willa Cather and The Professor’s House: “ Letting Go With The Heart” In her later life Willa Cather wrote that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” and that she no longer belonged to the part that came after.1 As with every such statement by an artist, this judgment on society had its origin in the author’s own personal difficulties. However, Willa Cather’s significance as an American novelist depends on how we view the books she wrote after this date of defection. The status of her Nebraska novels, particularly My Antonia and A Lost Lady, is assured; but the charge of escapism and irrelevance is frequently levelled at the novels Miss Cather wrote in the latter half of her career. The author answered the charge herself in 1936 by asserting that art has always been a form of escape, that it has nothing to do with the law courts or the market place.2 It was exactly this conviction, shared by few of her con­ temporaries, which allowed Miss Cather to explore fully the arche­ typal dimensions of the human imagination, from epic (O Pioneers!) through pastoral (My Antonia) and satire (The Professor's House) to a vision of paradise (Death Comes for the Archbishop). Miss Cather’s relevance is always imaginative; indeed, her final conviction of life’s priority over art assumes a Active form. But criticism has either evaded the issue of relevance on aesthetic grounds (the novel is well made), or insisted that the later books be dismissed as romantic and escapist. The question turns on one’s reading of The Professor's House, for this is the first of the novels Miss Cather wrote after her world broke in two and it points to the road she was to follow thereafter. I Curiously, the two major, and very divergent, critical approaches taken to Miss Cather’s fiction have emerged out of the collaboration 1Not Under Forty (New York, 1936), Author's prefatory note. 1 On Writing (New York, 1962), pp. 18-29. 14 Western American Literature of E. K. Brown and Leon Edel on the official biography.3 Brown’s approach is that of the formal critic who assumes without question the artist’s permanent value and is concerned with matters of theme and structure in the novels. Edel, on the other hand, finds in the biographical materials evidence for a psychological interpretation of Miss Cather’s career which for him renders the intellectual viability of her later novels suspect. Both Brown and Edel illustrate their approaches by discussing The Professor’s House/ Brown suggests that the novel’s essential theme is the Professor’s uncon­ scious preparation for death and that this theme can only be perceived by scrutinizing the author’s symbolic treatment of houses. Because of his physical depletion Godfrey St. Peter can no longer go forward in life: he has no interest in the new house he has built for his wife because it is modern and expensive; he finds the home his daughter is building distasteful because it represents an ex­ ploitation of the past. As he enters old age he clings to a creative and unified vision of the past symbolized by his attic study (where he wrote his books) and by the cliff dwellings of the ancient Indians in the Southwest. For Brown this theme is fully revealed near the close when St. Peter identifies the old couch in his study as his coffin; this is the Professor’s “Truth.” Moving in the opposite direction Edel subtitles his essay on The Professor’s House “An Inquiry into the Use of Psychology in Literary Criticism” and examines Miss Cather’s novel in the light of personal conflicts suggested by the biographies. His central thesis is that The Professor’s House embodies imaginatively that painful experience in Willa Cather’s life when her close friend, Isabelle McClung, married and Miss Cather was bereft of both a place in which to write and a patroness-confidante to whom she could turn. From the biographical information made available by Edith Lewis (Miss Cather’s...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 13-24
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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