- No Forgiveness in Heaven, No Forgetting in Hell
We are told there is only one sin for which there is no forgiveness in Heaven, no forgetting in Hell. That is the sin against the holy spirit, not the holy spirit of the Trinity, but the holy spirit in man. The sins of the body are very small compared with that. … When a man who was made for the deep sea refuses his mission, denies his high birthright, than he has sinned the sin.Willa S. Cather, “Oscar Wilde: Hélas”
Each of these refractions seems moreover to be a way of telling the same story, the story of how expensive and wasteful a thing creative energy is, and how intimately rooted in a plot of betrayal or exploitation: Tom Outland’s conscious and empowering betrayal of his beloved friend on the Mesa; the Professor’s self-deceived expropriation of the labor, vitality, and money of his wife and daughters.Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Willa Cather and Others”
“A nasty, grim little tale”: so Willa Cather characterized The Professor’s House (1925), the novel that has, since the early 1990s, emerged in our collective evaluations as her most profound achievement and that—despite Joan Acocella’s notorious call for the academy to leave Cather alone—continues not just to attract but to [End Page 83] reward significant critical inquiry of disparate orders.1 The warm popular reception of the novel, including initial sales that bested all of her previous books, mystified Cather, who believed that only one of her readers, Irene Weisz, understood “the really fierce feeling that lay behind the rather dry and impersonal manner of the telling” (Woodress 367).2 In this essay, I wish to consider the grim, little nastiness of The Professor’s House: what makes it ferocious, how that ferocity works below the surface of its telling, and why, despite our successes, we continue to miss some of it.
The Professor’s House is set in the present day in the college town of Hamilton on the shores of Lake Michigan. At midlife, its titular character, Professor Godfrey St. Peter, is in serious flight from home, utterly emotional but also strangely literal (he does not want to move into the new house he has just bought), as the escalating consumer interests of his wife Lillian and married daughters (commensurate with the market-ambitions of his college and semi-illicit global trade in antiquities), alienate him to the extreme and are exacerbated by his industrious and generous son-in-law, Louie Marsellus. The Professor’s mind, his heart, his “soul” lies instead with the memory of his one great student, Tom Outland, who was killed in the great war, and who was—by all accounts, including eventually his own—a certain kind of ur-American: the orphaned working-class boy, determined to make an honest success of himself, with the extra advantage of an intuitive genius for physics. While in Hamilton, Outland did research into engine technology that, with keen foresight, he patented and deeded to Rosamond and that Marsellus, with brilliant ingenuity, developed and brought to market. The Marselluses are newly wealthy and the focal point of Lillian’s renewed energy. The central drama of the novel entails the ensuing war of wills in St. Peter’s extended household over how Outland is to be remembered: Rosamond and Marsellus have named their European-designed house “Outland,” which horrifies both the Professor and his younger daughter Kathleen, who prefer a memory of Tom untainted by money or material ambition. The novel is told over the Professor’s shoulder, in limited third-person, but three-quarters of the way through, there is an astonishing interpolated narrative: Tom Outland speaks in his own voice of his adventures out on the Blue Mesa of New Mexico, where he lived in sublime communion with trainman-turned-cowpoke Roddy Blake and came across the cliff-top pueblo village of a lost Indian tribe (clearly modeled on the Anasazi), digging out treasured remnants only to have a question of profiteering come between them. After the interpolation of “Tom Outland’s Story,” the novel returns to a brief treatment of...