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  • Losing the Whole in the Parts: Identity in The Professor’s House
  • Stuart Burrows (bio)

He was soon to have done with calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him. He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states were lost or outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand

Willa Cather, Death Comes For The Archbishop

At the Heart of Walter Benn Michaels’s study of American modernism, Our America, is the contention that Willa Cather’s 1925 novel The Professor’s House imagines “identity [as] a function of inheritance” (37).1 Michaels argues that this logic aligns the novel with the highly restrictive Johnson-Reed Immigration Bill of 1924, which “transform[ed] American identity from the sort of thing that could be acquired (through naturalization) into the sort of thing that had to be inherited (from one’s parents)” (8). What Americans were believed to inherit, however, was “not just a biology, [but] a culture” (37). Michaels offers as an example of this cultural inheritance the central event in Cather’s text: the discovery by a young American boy, Tom Outland, of a long-abandoned Indian cliff city at the top of a mesa in New Mexico. Tom imagines this discovery in terms of the acquisition of a long-lost family, speaking fondly of his “poor grandmothers” who died “a thousand years ago” (The Professor’s House 219). This unlikely conversion of dead Native Americans into family ancestors is a reaction, Michaels suggests, to the threat posed to American identity by the influx of immigrants in the early twentieth century, a threat dramatized in The Professor’s House by the marriage between the “unusual and exotic” (64) Jewish entrepreneur Louie Marsellus and [End Page 21] Professor Godfrey St. Peter’s daughter, Rosamond. The danger Louie represents is not simply that his entry into St. Peter’s family supposedly ensures that the Professor’s descendants will be less American, but that it might make the Professor himself less so. This is why, in Michaels’s opinion, the novel ends with St. Peter first regressing back to childhood and then killing off this former self. As Michaels puts it, “it is to avoid becoming Louie . . . that, in the end, [St. Peter] imagines his ‘original’ ‘self’ not only dead but (like the cliff dwellers) extinct” (52).

One obvious objection to Michaels’s notion that the Professor believes in the sanctity of the family is the fact that throughout the novel Cather’s hero betrays no interest in his “various brothers and sisters” (20). Indeed, St. Peter is himself not exactly all-American, happily declaring that he is “of mixed stock (Canadian French on one side, and American farmers on the other)” (4).2 Michaels bypasses this problem in two ways: first by reading St. Peter’s familial situation through that of Tom (who has no family); second by reading the family in The Professor’s House according to the logic of 1920s nativism, in which

one’s ancestors cannot actually be members of one’s family, and the reason for this is that, although it is the family that provides the indispensable model for [nativism’s] new conception of American identity . . . the inability to maintain the purity to which theorists of racial integrity were committed is at the same time the very essence of family life.


Cather’s solution to the problem of impurity, Michaels suggests, is to imagine various “nonreproductive” (48) families, communities who cannot reproduce either because they no longer exist—such as Tom’s cliff city Indians—or because they are all-male, such as Tom and his fellow ranchers on the mesa.3 One of these ranchers, Rodney Blake, seems to confirm Michaels’s model by thinking of Tom as his adopted son, although Tom himself believes that his friend “ought to have had boys of his own to look after. Nature’s full of such substitutions, but they always seem to [him] sad, even in botany” (165). Tellingly, Michaels’s reading ignores Tom’s verdict, since it suggests a pathos in the relation between Tom and Roddy for which the polemic of Our America has no...


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pp. 21-48
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