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G L E N A . L O V E University of Oregon The Professor's House: Cather, Hemingway, and the Chastening of American Prose Style Reading Tom O utland’s diary after the young m an’s death in what was then the Great W ar, Professor Godfrey St. Peter, the title figure in Willa Cather’s 1925 novel, The Professor’s House, reflects that this plain account was almost beautiful, because of the stupidities it avoided and the things it did not say. If words had cost money, Tom couldn’t have used them more sparingly. The adjectives were purely descriptive, relating to form and colour, and were used to present the objects under consideration, not the young explorer’s emotions. Yet through this austerity one felt the kindling imagination, the ardour and excitement of the boy, like the vibration in a voice when the speaker strives to conceal his emotion by using only conventional phrases. (262-63) The Professor’s appreciative judgment here might apply as well not only to Tom’s diary, which the reader never sees, but also to Tom’s spoken version of his experience on the Blue Mesa, “Tom Outland’s Story,” pre­ sented as Part Two of the novel. More remarkably, the Professor’s reflection describes and predicts the style of an as yet almost unknown young writer whose prose will become famous for its charged spareness, its economy that strips away all excess and overt emotion, while conveying the powerful feeling underlying the experi­ ence itself. The young writer was, of course, Ernest Hemingway. And had he been a reader of Cather— we have published evidence only that he intensely disliked her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1922 novel, One of Ours, for what he saw as its faking of battle scenes— he might have experienced a shock of recognition, if not of initial discovery, from such suggestively understated Cather works as A Lost Lady (1923) and from her critical essays on style published early in the 1920s (Wilson, The Shores of Light 118; Hemingway, The Torrents of Spring 63). 296 Western American Literature But then, as Alfred Kazin notes, the younger writers of the postwar generation, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cummings, Dos Passos, and others, “felt themselves part of a tougher and disillusioned generation” for whom “writing was to seem as much a rejection of what the ‘middle generation’ including Cather already represented as it was a testament to their experi­ ences in the war.” Still, even so perceptive a critic as Kazin, like many other literary historians of the 1920s, associates Cather only with traditional and conventional prose techniques from which a young writer like Hemingway could have learned nothing. While praising Cather (“. . . how much more deeply imaginative an artist Willa Cather proved than Hemingway” ; she is the “consummate artist” of her generation), Kazin claims that for all her brilliant command of technique and craftsmanship, Cather’s “feeling for style demanded none of the formal declarations and laborious experiments that Hemingway and Dos Passos brought to theirs” (247— 48, 257). O n the contrary, what might be concluded from a close study of Cather’s craft is that she is an important and an unjustly neglected figure in the development of American literary prose style, that her critical essays on writing published in the early 1920s reveal a provocative sense of the need for new directions— modernist rather than realistic or naturalistic— in the novel, that her central theories of style anticipate and very closely resemble Hemingway’s celebrated theory of omission, or “iceberg” prin­ ciple, and that her best novels of the 1920s, including especially The Pro­ fessor’s House, are significantly innovative and experimental.1 I Cather’s essential formal declarations for the new novel are found in her two essays, “On the Art of Fiction,” published in 1920, and the more well-known “The Novel Demeuble,” published in 1922. Beginning the latter with the assertion that “the novel, for a long while, has been over­ furnished,” Cather sounds a characteristic note for a period of literary experimentation in which the most significant feature would be what Joseph W arren Beach called, in 1932, “the cult of the simple.” Citing Ernest Hemingway...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 295-311
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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