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M E R E D IT H R . M A C H E N Northern New Mexico Community College Carlyle’s Presence in The Professor's House Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House is a subtle and a masterful blend of her personal and her literary experience. Critics generally acknowledge the autobiographical elements of the work: the parallels between the Professor’s strong reluctance to leave his study in the old house, and Cather’s feeling of loss at not being able to use the quiet sewing room at the back of Isabelle McClung’s home in Pittsburgh after her friend’s marriage and subsequent move; the similarity of the Pro­ fessor’s depressed psychological state to Cather’s in the early 1920’s; and the correspondence of Tom Outland’s Cliff City with the areas of the Southwest with which Cather was familiar.1 Although these links are crucial for our understanding of the work, her personal experiences do not account for all aspects of the novel. If we examine one of the more important literary experiences of Willa Cather, we can see a different dimension of the work. Thomas Carlyle had a tremendous impact on Cather from the time she was an impressionable young student to the time she was an accomplished writer. By scrutinizing the parallels between Sartor Resartus and The Professor’s House, we may come to a clearer understanding of the artistry in this work of Cather’s. 1The best treatment of the autobiographical elements of the work is Leon Edel’s essay in his book, Literary Biography. E. K. Brown and James Woodress also deal with the matter in their biographies, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography and Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, respectively. 274 Western American Literature The essay Willa Cather wrote on Thomas Carlyle when she was a “second prep” at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1891 stuck so firmly in her mind that when she was asked to speak extempor­ aneously on Carlyle at a Pittsburgh’s women’s club meeting years later, she presented her essay verbatim.2 Because she had been assigned to write on the personal characteristics of Thomas Carlyle, little of the essay is specifically devoted to Sartor Resartus. However, in one section, she refutes the critics “who assert that ‘Sartor Resartus’ is but the result of a year of miserable health, the morbid fancies of a sick man.” If it is, she insists, “it is a new and pleasing feature of bad gastronomy.”3 In another section, she imagines Carlyle’s anger at being interrupted by his wife while he is writing the soliloquies of Diogenes Teufelsdrockh. “The wife of an artist, if he continues to be an artist, must always be a secondary consideration with him; she should realize that from the out­ set.”4 She understood Carlyle’s need for solitude and she sympathized with him for all the disturbances he had to endure. Though Willa Cather was only sixteen years old at the time she wrote the essay, she wrote movingly of the man — his loneliness and despair, his dedication to art, his reverence for life. Her English teacher, as the story goes, was so impressed by her essay that he wrote the following baroque sentence from her work on the board: Like the lone survivor of some extinct species, the last of the mammoths, tortured and harrassed beyond all endurance by the smaller, though perhaps more perfectly organized offspring of the world’s maturer years, this great Titan, son of her passionate youth, a youth of volcanoes and earthquakes, and great unsys­ tematized forces, rushed off into the desert to suffer alone. Without her knowledge, he had the essay published in the March 1, 1891, editions of the local paper, the Nebraska State Journal, and the 2In a letter to Mariel Gere dated August 10, 1896 (in the Rare Manuscript Collection at the Beinecke Library, Yale University), Willa Cather writes that she was astonished that she had had the nerve to dupe her audience. She was well aware of the sophmoric quality of the writing, but she delivered it with the same intense fervor with which it was written...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 273-286
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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