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A N N M O S E L E Y East Texas State University Concentric Texts in TheProfessor’sHouse As readers of The Professor’s House, we have for years been baffled and intrigued about the book’s unique structure. The critical question hinges on the role of ‘Tom Outland’s Story” in the narrative. One insightful explanation is given by David Harrell, who suggests that “the story, as well as the novel as a whole, was written in a concentric rather than linear fashion, a movement from the inside out” (205). The essen­ tial metaphor for this structural organization is the series ofgrowth rings that Father Duchene discovers after he has cut down ... one ofthe old cedars that grewexactlyin the middle ofthe deep trail worn in the stone, and counted the rings under his pocket microscope. You couldn’t count them with the unassisted eye, for growing out of a tiny crevice in the rock as that tree did, the increase of each year was so scant that the rings were invisible except with a glass. (218) Neither can the multiple layers of texts in The Professor’s House be detected “with the unassisted eye,”but these layers become clear with a focused, microscopic reading. Working inward, as Father Duchene would have worked with his ax or saw, the reader discovers the complete text of The Professor’s House, the texts of Professor St. Peter’s history of the Spanish explorers and of his introduction to Outland’s diary, the text ofProfessor St. Peter’smemory, the text of Oudand’s oral retelling, the text of Outland’s diary, the text of Outland’s own experience, and, finally, the text of Cather’s experience. A rich critical dialogue has developed only for the first of these texts—for the tripartite text of the complete novel. As critics such as James Schroeter have observed, the novel itself is constructed like the Indian bracelet to which Cather refers in the epigraph (369-70). The sections entitled ‘The Family”and ‘The Professor”are analogous to the silver framework; Outland’s story, like the turquoise stone, forms the 86 WesternAmerican Literature physical and symbolic center of the work. Following Cather’slead in her essay letter “On The Professor’s House,” critics have found structuring metaphors in her use of houses and windows. Thus, a large body of psychological and feminist criticism has developed around the house metaphor—the empty house below the Professor’sdark, cramped study; the antiseptic modern house built by his wife Lillian and the earnings from his prize-winning book; the outlandish Outland mansion built by his daughter Rosamund and her husband Louis Marsellus; and the open, airy dwellings of the cliff dwellers. Likewise, much criticism has focused on what Susan Rosowski has called the “narrative windows” (131) in the text. In what is perhaps the most frequently quoted passage from Cather’s personal texts, she states: In my book I tried to make Professor St. Peter’s house rather over­ crowded and stuffywith new things;American proprieties, clothes, furs, petty ambitions, quiveringjealousies—until one got rather stifled. Then Iwanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of trivialities which was in Tom Outland’sface and in his behavior. (31-32) Less frequently noted is the fact that Cather achieved her intended effect not only by contrasting—indeed by framing1—Tom’s life and story with the past and present lives of Professor St. Peter but also by using contrasting styles to tell thesejuxtaposed narratives.2 In addition to the tripartite text of Cather’s novel itself, the reader also encounters several other rings, or layers, of texts. The first of these—and one that is itselfa primary subject of TheProfessor’sHouse—is the Professor’s history of Spanish Adventurers in North America. When the seamstressAugusta attempts to retrieve her patterns from the box-couch of the attic room which has for years been a combination study and sewing room, St. Peter observes “I see we shall have some difficulty in separating our lifework, Augusta. We’ve keptour papers together a long while now” (23). The human...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 35-47
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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