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M A Y N A R D F O X Fort Lewis College Two Primitives: Huele Finn and Tom Outland When Willa Gather created the character of Tom Outland in The Professor’s House (1925), she was, whether consciously or not, following in the tradition of primitivism which had given Huckle­ berry Finn much of its vitality forty years earlier. The term “primitivism” as here used does not mean that either Twain or Miss Cather looked upon nature as benevolent, but rather that their Huck and Tom found independence, spontaneity, free­ dom, and an energizing vitality in their retreats from the centers of population. As Henry D. Thoreau had earlier indicated in his essay “Walking,”1 the very wildness of nature can serve man as a primal source of vital energy. Thoreau’s opening sentence began, “I wish to speak a word or Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil— to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a mem­ ber of society.” So it is for Huck Finn and Tom Outland. They are awakened in the presence of nature, not because it is benevolent but because they are parts of it. Huck’s awakening takes place in his well known experiences with the runaway Jim as they float down the majestic Mississippi. Tom discovers many artifacts left by ancient cliff dwellers on a mesa in the great Southwest, and by the interaction between his inner self and the rarefied atmosphere of the mesa he becomes a sensitive and, it may be said, a “mature” primitive. It can be demonstrated in a number of wavs that Tom Outland j and Huck Finn are primitives in the present sense of the term. 1Published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly, 1862, after having been first de­ livered as a lecture for the Concord Lyceum in 1851. Two Primitives 27 Their associations with nature are instrumental in bringing their re­ jection of the crudities and perversions of civilization, and at the last both escape the compromises that adult life would have brought them— Huck by being left still a boy as the book closes, Tom by dying in France before his post-university adult life can properly begin. The reader will remember that “Tom Outland’s Story” con­ stitutes roughly the middle third of Miss Cather’s The Professor’s House. Her purpose in introducing a long first-person narrative into the middle of a novel has been much debated, but the most satisfactory explanation for it, I believe, is found in its development of the correspondence between the sensibilities of Professor St. Peter and his pupil Tom Outland. Tom has come to St. Peter’s convention -ridden Mid-Western state university possessed by a fresh­ ness developed through his experiences in the Southwest. St. Peter, a scholar whose historical interests have led to a sedate creativeness, discovers through his relationship with Tom that his own real self is hidden under layers of sophistication, convention, and marital and family perplexities. In order to show St. Peter’s rejuvenation— that is, the process by which his primitive self long sublimated is un­ covered— Miss Cather brings St. Peter to an understanding of the antecedent experiences of Tom Outland in the Southwest, particu­ larly on the Blue Mesa. Thereby Tom’s influence on his professor is made credible. Some detailing of Tom’s experience in his “Story” and the highlighting of his primitivistic development on the Blue Mesa are significant parts of Miss Cather’s characterization in The Professor’s House. In the closing lines of Twain’s novel, Huck announces, “I reckon I got to light out for the territory, . . . because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Tom Outland, similarly, can’t stand it, and twice he lights out for the territory— his cliff-dwellers’ mesa and Mexico— to get away from his “Aunt Sally,” Lillian, wife of Professor Godfrey St. Peter.2 Lillian has none of the religious harshness of Huck Finn’s female preceptors, but she is essentially harsh under a disappoint­ ing...


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