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M I S S Y D E H N K U B I T S C H E K Eastern New Mexico University St. Peter and the World All Before Him Willa Cathcr’s The Professor's House tells the story of Professor Godfrey St. Peter’s “falling out of all domestic and social relations, out of his placc in the human family, indeed”1and subsequently finding a new place and a new relation to his own family and the larger human com­ munity. The novel’s discussion of a social issue, the new materialism’s battle against traditional scholarship, has been well documented in criti­ cism, as has the more personal issue of St. Peter’s reconciliation to death.2 Criticism has tended, however, to mirror the social/personal split that St. Peter feels until he awakens from his near-asphyxiation; most writers focus on one or the other area, though both are part of the same aliena­ tion, though “society” has invaded the professor’s family and his profes­ sional life, and though any division of personal and social concern seems impossible to him. The underlying myth capable of uniting these appar­ ently disparate issues, the dccline of a culture from an ideal and the necessity of death, is surely that of Paradise Lost, the fall of man, the expulsion from Eden and the promised compensatory redemption. Godfrey St. Peter must adapt to a post-lapsarian world ;3his struggle with, denial, iW illa Cather, The Professor’s House (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 275. All further quotations will conic from this edition and will be placed in the text. 2See E. K. Brown and Leon Edel, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (New7York: Knopf, 1953); David Stouck, “Willa Cather and the Indian Heritage,'’ Twentieth Cen­ tury Literature 22:433-13; J. Hinz, *“ A Lost Lady’ and The Professor’s House," Virginia Quarterly Revieie 29: 70-85; and Sister Peter Damian Charles, “The Professor’s House: An Abode of Love and Death,” Colby Library Quarterly 8, ii, 70-82. 3In one of the best articles on this novel, “The Professor’s House: A Shapely Story,” Modern Language Review 67: 271-81, Clive Hart makes brief use of this termi­ nology in reference to what he secs as St. Peter and Tom ’s self-deception in their inhuman response to the mesa. 14 Western American Literature and final acceptancc of his participation in that flawed world arc the neccssary stages of his spiritual maturity. Both Tom’s mesa and Hamilton directly suggest the Edenic myth. Cather’s famous remark on “Tom Outland’s Story” as a contrast to the Professor’s story, like a window in a Dutch painting, has perhaps led critics to see mostly opposition between Outland’s experience and the Professor’s life;4 whatever Cathcr’s intention, the novel really works by a series of analogues between Tom and St. Peter, beginning with the settings of their spiritual crises. The connection of Eden and the Blue Mesa explains an incident which otherwise seems to violate the emotional texture of the novel. The intensity of The Professor’s House comes from the excruciating pain of a man to whom nothing extraordinary is hap­ pening. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are reserved for other men, and the quotidian reality of Louis and Rosamond’s presump­ tion and vulgarity in naming their house Outland, of Kitty’s jealousy of Rosamond’s furs, of Lillian’s absorption in wealth and status causes the Professor’s anguish. The subtlety of the change in the Professor’s family and the pride of all its members make both frank discussion and an emotional blow-up unlikely. Though Kitty, Lillian, and St. Peter are unhappy, the surface of their lives remains placid. The contrast of Tom's story about Henry Atkins, the castaway Englishman who comes to live on the mesa, comes very unexpectedly. Tom begins with a characteristic understatement, “We lost old Henry and in a terrible way” (p. 216), but the narration quickly changes tone. The graphic description of Henry’s death from a rattlesnake bite — “In ten minutes it [his face] was purple, and he was so crazy it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 13-20
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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