Spring 2003

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Image of the WCSE Professor's House

The Professor's House

By Willa Cather
Historical essay by James Woodress
Explanatory notes by James Woodress with Kari A. Ronning
Textual editing by Frederick M. Link
University of Nebraska Press, 2002
Cloth: $75.00
Reviewed by Mark A. Robison

The Professor's House, sixth installment of the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, emerged from the University of Nebraska Press in the fall of 2002, joining its counterparts in a series that Choice magazine has called 'a gift to all Cather readers; for critics, it presents the text on which interpretations of the novel should be based.' This edition of Cather's seventh novel offers not only an authenticated text but also an aesthetically pleasing design. The critical text and textual apparatus for The Professor's House carries the approval of the Modern Language Association of America's Committee on Scholarly Editions, as have each of the volumes in the series, while University of Nebraska Press book designer Richard Eckersley's choices for the series create an elegant reading experience that reflects Cather's own deep attention to the publishing design of her novels.

First appearing in 1925, The Professor's House tells the story of university professor Godfrey St. Peter, whose growing resistance to the economic bickering and consumerist tendencies he encounters in colleagues and family ripens into general despondency. Cather divided her novel into three parts. The first describes the professor's relationship to his family; the third presents the enervation and partial restoration of the professor's joie de vivre. Inserted between these two sections is 'Tom Outland's Story,' an account, told in Tom's voice, of his discovery of archeologically rich cliff dwellings in the American southwest, and of his failure to preserve the artifacts against a rising tide of venality. So goes the basic plot of Cather's novel, which can be found in any version. What sets the critical text of the scholarly edition apart is the painstaking care that the textual editors, headed by Frederick M. Link, take to ensure 'the most fully realized text belonging to the period of Cather's most complete imaginative engagement with her work' (420).

The Professor's House first appeared in Collier's magazine in several installments over the summer of 1925, while Alfred A. Knopf brought out the first book edition in September of that year. Using a process of collation and conflation that allows textual editors to scrutinize any changes to the text among its various published forms, Link and his associates settled on the first Knopf edition as basis for the copy-text that, with minimal emendation, ultimately appears as the scholarly edition critical text. With the volume nearing publication, however, a typescript of the novel unexpectedly became available to the textual editors when it was found by the Southwick family among Cather's papers, precipitating yet another round of collation and comparison and prompting significant revision of the volume's textual essay.

This essay outlines Cather's composition process of The Professor's House, presents a production and printing history of the novel, details a number of significant changes found among the various forms of the text, and explains the protocol for introducing emendations into the critical text. The textual essay is followed by a list of emendations (with notes), a lengthy list of rejected substantives (variants between the copy-text and the Southwick typescript, the Collier's magazine version, and the 1938 Autograph Edition), and finally by a word division list.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the textual essay is its discussion of the typescript that was recently found among the novelist's papers held by Cather's niece Helen Cather Southwick. The typescript, now housed in the Archives and Special Collections of the Love Library at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, consists of over 200 pages of text that has been heavily revised, sometimes in Cather's hand. The Southwick typescript represents an important find because, as the editors state, 'in its unrevised form it is one of the earliest substantially complete texts of any Cather novel' (400). In addition, revisions to the typescript reveal Cather's writing process in a relatively early stage of the novel.

The textual essay reports that 'the first twenty-two pages are missing' (398) from the Southwick transcript. Subsequently, the Southwick family has located another set of typescript pages that appear to be the stray sheets from the novel's opening chapters. These materials are currently being edited by Cather Project personnel for possible publication (and later integration with the full typescript) on the Cather Electronic Archive.

The Professor's House scholarly edition also includes an insightful essay describing the novel's historical context written by volume editor James Woodress, plus numerous photographs and illustrations, and copious explanatory notes that translate foreign phrases, explain historical allusions, and discuss possible prototypes for characters in the novel. What is especially strong in the notes is their inclusion of plant and flower descriptions as well as descriptions of early twentieth century clothing.

Preparatory work on scholarly editions of each of the remaining seven novels in Cather's oeuvre is proceeding concurrently. Next in line for publication, Shadows on the Rock, co-edited by John J. Murphy and David Stouck, should appear in 2003, although the publishing schedule is not firm.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. The Professor's House. Ed. James Woodress with Kari Ronning and Frederick M. Link. The Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
Madigan, M. J. 'Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady.' Choice 35 (1997): 476.