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Colorado State University JA M ES C. W ORK Cather’s Confounded Conundrums in The Professor’s House I fear we have been imposed upon by Miss Cather in The Professor’s House. Mr. Moses Harper, writing in the New Republic, assures us that “Here, as in all her work, is a fine ringing clarity. . . . She does not strain, or hurry, or attempt anything which cannot clearly be carried out,”1but surely S. P. Sherman of the New York Tribune comes closer to the truth by writing “The Professor’s House is a disturbingly beautiful book, full of meanings, full of intentions — I am sure that I have not caught them all.”2 And closest of all to the facts is A. H. Gibbs of the Literary Review who says, with smug self-satisfaction, “while Tom Outland’s story flows right along, Miss Cather leaves it to her readers to fit together the various clues in the Professor’s.”3 I cannot deny that Miss Cather was an intelligent and well-read author. I do, however, question the assertions of her biographers that she was an editor as well. An editor, you see, knows two essential aspects of writing that seem to have completely escaped Miss Cather. The first is that famous precept of Aristotle’s: “when you bring a cannon onto the stage, you are obliged at some point to fire it off.”4 The other editorial principle is that words cost money, and if one is paying out twenty-five cents per syllable to have a work written and printed, one can little afford twenty-five hundred dollars’ worth of “various clues.” Any resemblance between the present essay and a scholarly article is purely coinci­ dental. 1Moses Harper, “The Professor’s House," New Republic 44 (September 16, 1925), 105. 2S. P. Sherman, “The Professor’s House,” New York Tribune, September 13, 1925, p. 1. 3A. H. Gibbs, “The Professor’s House,” Literary Review, September 5, 1925, p. 1. 4The quotation is so well known as to render documentation unnecessary. 304 Western American Literature In teaching the novel, confusion comes from three distinct directions. These involve Miss Cather’s extensive literary allusions, her preoccupation with color, and her ill-advised assumption that her readers have passed their History of Civilization course. When we find an author making allusions to other authors’ works, I think we are well within our rights to expect that the allusions be accurate (like Hawkeye’s famous rifle shot in Hawthorne’s The Prairie), and that they shed some light on the subject at hand (like the burning of Atlanta in Chekov’s War and Peace). Miss Cather hurries to violate the first of these requirements when she quotes the Longfellow poem on page 272.5 She is careful to tell us that it comes from “a little two-volume Ticknor and Fields edition . . . in blue and gold.” That information is correct, but inconsequential. With the consequential she is less accurate. Mr. Long­ fellow tells us that the translation is from the Anglo-Saxon: Miss Cather informs us it is from the Norse. Mr. Longfellow wrote “For thee was a house built” : Miss Cather prefers to re-invert the inversion, thus getting “For thee a house was built.” Mr. Longfellow wrote “For thee was a mould meant” : Miss Cather’s version is “For thee a mould was made.” Finally, where Mr. Longfellow intended to say “Ere thou of mother earnest,” Miss Cather has “Ere thou of woman earnest.” Picky perhaps I am, but such editorial modifications do little to estab­ lish credibility. And I hardly need point out that the poem has no connec­ tion with the story of the Professor’s house, since the novel concerns an actual house and the poem is an Anglo-Saxon riddle about graves and coffins. The high aim of literary allusiveness, as I understand it, is to remind the reader of some greatly significant theme of a past literary piece. One such allusion in The Professor’s House is mildly successful. Godfrey (Peace of God) St. Peter, the Professor, has a name which echoes that of the St. Peter in Matthew XVI: 18, the name which Jesus puns...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 303-312
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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