You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read…
..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.
And yes, it did.
Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight. As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.
It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last few pages as to how it all came out.
It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.
Well, okay. Sort of.
I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:
On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.
I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life – to let it go.
What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us. We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.
And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.
Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.
The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:
If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.
It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.
The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:
There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.
I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.
The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”
There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:
I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.