- Selling Relics, Preserving Antiquities: The Professor’s House and the Narrative of American Anthropology
I. An Anthropological Narrative
In “Tom Outland’s Story,” the middle section of Willa Cather’s 1925 novel The Professor’s House, Tom discovers the Blue Mesa and the ancient ruins of its remarkable Cliff City. This narrative, written two years before Cather undertook the rest of the novel, 1 is one of her best-known pieces of writing, and is often anthologized on its own. Anthologized, however, the story’s mythological bearing is released from its service to the novel’s enigmatic three-part structure. “Tom Outland’s Story” is the best-known account of the discovery of Cliff Palace forty years earlier at Mesa Verde, Colorado—an event so highly charged that it led to the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which established Mesa Verde National Park, the first national park protecting such ruins and still the most visited of the national parks. The legend of Cliff Palace—a cowboy follows stray cattle to discover fabulous ruins on American soil—was a myth of America discovering the origins of culture. Cather’s novel commemorates that myth, but it also situates it in a larger narrative, thereby examining the narrative utility of myth that anthologization must take for granted.
For Americans, the legend of Mesa Verde demonstrated that aboriginal culture could flourish on United States territory. At least as [End Page 353] importantly, it symbolized the origins and intellectual possibilities of American culture. The cowboy searches for cattle to discover himself as anthropologist, the new frontiersman who braves arid climate, wild animals, and hostile tribes to excavate and explain the earliest examples of (the claim went) American culture. As a myth of American origins, then, Mesa Verde both established American culture as aboriginal and defined American expertise as a folk legacy. This myth does capture some specific historical developments. The discovery of ruins such as those at Mesa Verde helped establish anthropology as a professional and academic discipline in this country. The Bureau of American Ethnology was founded in 1879, and what had been until 1890 the vocation of leisure gentlemen, mavericks, and army surveyors became by 1920 the career of Ph.D.’s. 2 The myth that accrued around Mesa Verde consolidates these uneven historical developments in one event: a cowhand’s accidental discovery of, and subsequent devotion to, ancient ruins in a sublime landscape purportedly launches a discipline that inquires into origins. The legend of Mesa Verde is perhaps best understood, then, as a nationalist myth of origins and accreditation, certifying America as heir to antiquity and sanctioning specialists to disseminate that antiquity to the public.
Cather recruits the myth of Mesa Verde as the symbolic and affective frame of her novel. “Tom Outland’s Story” does not advance the plot; it happened years before the novel’s slight action, and only Godfrey St. Peter, the novel’s titular professor, heard the entire tale (and probably not in one sitting, nor in any unified form) before Tom went off to die in the First World War. But if narratively superfluous, the story nevertheless certifies the singularity of Tom Outland, inspiration to the novel’s other characters, who invariably act to preserve and honor his memory. Tom’s story itself is an archetypically anthropological story of anguish about understanding and preserving (or in this case, being unable to preserve) culture’s most [End Page 354] fundamental artifacts, here the splendidly designed utensils of ancient households. It therefore symbolizes, as it also occasions, the novel’s main conflict: who will best represent Tom’s memory, the memory of the emblematic character, which itself represents the memory of Cliff City? The novel’s conflict, then, is fundamentally anthropological, for it concerns who is best qualified to preserve the legacy of those (Tom and his ancient ones) whose endeavors have engendered the modern epoch but who have left behind few documentary records.
Cather uses the myth of Mesa Verde not just to establish an anthropological ethos for the novel: she deploys the myth to recapitulate the imaginative appeal of anthropology, which preserves and interprets an antiquity whose surviving fragments are held to...