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JO H N B. G L E A S O N University of San Francisco The “Case”ofWilla Cather i “Most people seem to think it was a very faulty kind of structure.”1 Willa Cather’s resigned comment to a friend on The Professor’s House (1925) clearly implies that “most people” are wrong. If it is nevertheless true that The Professor’s House has puzzled critics more than any of Willa Cather’s other novels, a main reason is that the novel’s unusual shape has generally been taken for shapelessness.2 In fact, as I shall try to show, the novel’s form is a very deliberate invention designed to explore a problem, or in Jamesian terms a “case,” of a type to which Cather never addressed herself before or afterward. The “case” was, as she saw it, America’s. It was also, as she was quite well aware, her own. Some of the resemblances between the novel’s central character and its author have not escaped notice, to put it mildly. Taken together with the novel’s supposed structural faults, its obvious autobiographical element has led to a verdict ironically just the opposite to what I take to be the true one. In a now familiar reading the central character’s problems are Willa Cather’s problems, and the reason they are not solved or even really explained in the novel is that the author could not explain, much less solve, them in her own life. We shall take a critical look at this theory later, both its factual foundations and its psychoanalytic superstructure. For the moment it is enough to recall some of the undoubted personal references to be found in the novel. Willa Cather’s Professor is fifty-two, the same age as the author was in the year of publication. Like her, he has recently won a major prize for his writings. After One of Ours (1922) she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, while her Professor’s multi-volume historical work has brought him a large cash award that has built the new house he and his family occupy as the novel opens. Both the author and her Professor are at critical junc­ tures in their lives. Willa Cather declared that “the world broke in two in 276 Western American Literature 1922 or thereabouts,”3while the Professor has quite suddenly lost interest in life to the point where he thinks that, despite excellent health, he will die soon. Such coincidences with her own personal history, far from being the helpless slopover of unsolved personal problems, were introduced with deliberate intent. Indeed certain parallels were ones that only she could then have known. Even the coincidence of her age with the Professor’swas a private allusion, for the reference books of the time, following her own account, made her three years younger than she was.4 Further buried clues to the author’s strong sense of identification with the novel’s hero have come to light only recently. An exhibition honoring the hundredth anni­ versary of her birth displayed a bequest she had made to a favorite niece, “a bag of uncut turquoises . . . much like those mentioned on page 120 of The Professor’s House.”5 This hint leads immediately to an odd detail of the novel that can only now be fully understood. On the title page are words attributed there to “Louie Marsellus.” A reader who comes to the novel for the first time is likely to assume that Louie Marsellus is simply yet another writer whose work one ought to know but doesn’t. He proves instead to be a character in the novel. He has married the Professor’s older daughter Rosamond after her fiance Tom Outland, the Professor’s friend and former student, was killed in the Great War. Before he left for the war Tom had managed to patent a discovery which would have made him rich. The patent was bequeathed to Rosa­ mond, and the Louie Marsellus of the title page, an electrical engineer who has become her husband, saw the invention’s potential and has used his business acumen to make it produce a great deal...


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pp. 275-299
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