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P A T R IC IA L E E Y O N G U E University of Houston The Professor’s House and "Rip Van Winkle” i Among the acknowledged literary influences on Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House (1925), only one, the French nouvelle, relates directly to the structural design of the novel.1 Cather herself explained this associa­ tion in a now well-known open letter to Commonweal magazine in which she also identified the sonata and certain Dutch paintings as sources of ideas about the form her novel should take.2 Other literature cited by scholars as having left an imprint upon The Professor’s House — works like Anatole France’s Le Mannequin d’Osier, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams — contribute pri­ marily to our understanding of theme and point of view.3 Missing, how­ ever, from this impressive catalogue, and somewhat surprisingly so, is a work which itself gave an impetus to Huck Finn and The Education and 1Studies of some non-literary sources for The Professor’s House include L. Brent Bohlke, “Godfrey St. Peter and Eugene Delacroix: A Portrait of the Artist in The Pro­ fessor’s House?,” Western American Literature, 17 (May 1982), 21-38; Richard Giannone, “The Professor’s House,” in Music in Willa Cather’s Fiction (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1968), pp. 151-68; Patricia Lee Yongue, “The Professor’s House and Dutch Genre Painting,” Renascence, 31 (Spring 1979), 155-67. 2See Willa Cather, “On The Professor’s House,” in On Writing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), pp. 31-2. 3See, for example, Wolfgang Fleishmann, “Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House and Anatole France’s Le Mannequin d’Osier,” Romance Notes, 1 (Spring 1960), 92-3; Maynard Fox, “Two Primitives: Huck Finn and Tom Outland,” Western American Literature, 1 (Spring 1966), 26-33; John Hinz, “A Lost Lady and The Professor’s House,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 29 (1953), 70-85. 282 Western American Literature thus to the establishing of a dominant motif/pattern in American litera­ ture. Washington Irving’s Sketch Book tale “ Rip Van Winkle” bears some looking at here because it furnishes The Professor’s House with native accents discernible in Godfrey St. Peter’s character, and also because its narrative movement is recognizable in Cather’s much-scrutinized “experi­ ment” with form.4 Seeing The Professor’s House in the light of “Rip Van Winkle,” even with respect to structure, allows the reader a greater experience of Cather’s irony as she engineers the indisputable Americanization of a character who is internally trying to disassemble, among other things, his American self. Never content with his married life or with adult obligations in gen­ eral, Rip Van Winkle discovers happiness only when he discovers himself after a twenty-year sleep to have been relieved of the “yoke of matrimony” and become “a free citizen of the United States.” For his part, Professor St. Peter surrenders all claim to “delight” precisely when he surrenders the former happiness he knew in marriage, work, and American citizenship, now presuming that happiness to have been false in the sense that it deformed rather than developed the “original, unmodified Godfrey St. Peter.” The Professor, however, expresses a Rip Van Winkle-like euphoria when he momentarily repossesses, not the adult American scholar, but the “Kansas boy” who “had never married, never been a father.”5 It is, of course, in this repossession of — and escape to — primitive, boyish innocence that the Professor proves himself most American. His final rejection of anything short of this “original” freedom is behavior likewise archetypally demonstrated by Rip. Despite this potential for rapport between the two stories, it is admit­ tedly hard to imagine that the cerebral and worldly Godfrey St. Peter is any kin of the “simple-good-natured” and comical Rip Van Winkle. The highbrow Professor’s affiliations with Anatole France’s and Henry Adams’s melancholy scholars seem, somehow, more appropriate. And yet it is pre­ cisely out of the immediate incongruity of the suggested resemblance, 4For studies of form, see especially Leon Edel, “Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House: An Inquiry into the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 281-298
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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