When Willa Cather's The Professor's House was published in 1925, it was greeted with a mixed critical response. Early reviewers objected particularly to the novel's experimental structure. Since then, however, the novel has received increasing critical attention and is today considered one of Cather's major achievements. Many commentators on the novel have chosen biographical and psychological approaches, or a combination of the two. While these readings have yielded valuable insights into the work and its relation to the author, they have rarely concerned themselves with the larger historical and cultural context of The Professor's House. My explication attempts to fill this gap by relating Cather's protagonists, Godfrey St. Peter and Tom Outland, and her cultural and social criticism to the historical theories of Oswald Spengler, published in his widely influential work, The Decline of the West. It is not the primary goal of this intertextual analysis to postulate a dependence of The Professor's House on The Decline of the West. Rather, it aims at revealing a whole new layer of meaning and explaining aspects of the novel that have so far not been addressed and thus appear arbitrary. While the influence of Spengler on writers such as D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald has long been acknowledged, it is surprising that Willa Cather's Spenglerian vision of America in The Professor's House, published in the same year as The Great Gatsby, 1925, has so far escaped the critics' attention.
Unlike in Fitzgerald's case, there is no scholarly evidence as yet that Cather read The Decline of the West before she wrote The Professor's House. It is, however, highly unlikely that Spengler's widely reviewed and discussed ideas would have escaped her attention. Der Untergang des Abendlandes was published in two volumes in 1918 and 1922, respectively. The English translation by Charles Francis Atkinson appeared in 1926 and 1928, published in London by G. Allen and in New York by Alfred A. Knopf. Even though the translation of volume one appeared a year after the publication of The Professor's House, Cather could have had prior access to Spengler's ideas. Before starting the novel-Cather worked on it from the fall of 1923 to the winter of 1924-25 (Woodress 212)-she traveled in Europe for six months, where she may have become familiar with Spengler's theories. Moreover, the two volumes of The Decline of the West were widely reviewed in American publications after their appearance in Germany in 1918 and 1922, respectively.
Willa Cather may have frowned upon any connection between Spengler's theories of history and her novel if indeed she was serious in her commentary on The Professor's House in a 1925 interview with Rose C. Feld. On this occasion, she announced that in her new novel "there will be no theories, no panaceas, no generalizations. It will be a story about people in a prosperous provincial city in the Middle West. Nothing new and strange, you see" (II). I cannot help but feel, however, that her pronouncement must be treated with as much seriousness as Mark Twain's warning against a critical reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the novel's famous "Notice."
Spengler's theory of history is romantic and organic, postulating that each culture is a biological entity with an innate development pattern and a predetermined life span of about one thousand years. His metaphors of the four seasons and the stages of human life serve to illustrate that each culture emerges, grows, matures, and eventually dies, not by divine force but by inherent destiny. Spengler refers to eight cultures that have so far existed: Egyptian, Indian, Babylonian, Chinese, Greco-Roman, Arabic, Mayan, and Occidental or Western. Of particular importance to Europe, as Konrad Falke points out in his 1922 review, "are [the] ancient or 'Apollonian' culture, with its instinct for physical beauty and development; Arabian or 'Magian' culture, with its all-pervading fatalism; and the Western or 'Faustian' culture, with its ever-present consciousness of infinite progress" (696). Spengler illustrates and supports his claims with a dazzling array of details. Applying his theory to his own Western culture, he shows it to be in decline, having reached the last stage of cultural evolution, civilization. This stage of cultural decay is characterized by the rise of the world-city, which draws people from a natural, instinctive existence close to the earth to an artificial, intellectual one in the cities. The sense of being a people is destroyed and replaced by cosmopolitanism. This lack of form and tradition is associated with the rise of imperialism, the preoccupation with science and machines, the emergence of money as a dynamic force, and the spread of atheism and voluntary sterility among civilization's final men. Spengler places Napoleon at the threshold of Western civilization. The rise of democracies is accompanied by the increasing dominance of the power of money until this plutocracy is replaced by Caesarism, the rule of tyrannical dictators who preside over the final dissolution of their culture in a period of great wars.
Since the idea of "Faustian" culture is so significant to Cather's novel, it warrants further explanation. According to Spengler, Faustian man is preoccupied with space, expanse, restless geographic and intellectual exploration. Time is perceived as eternal space as infinite, and will is the means by which Faustian man imposes himself on the world. His quest for the unachievable manifests itself in scientific innovations and imperialist expansion. As his culture wanes, he becomes increasingly intellectualized and rigid; Nature-feeling is replaced by Nature-knowledge. As culture turns into civilization, Faustian man must yield to plutocrats and the new Caesars. The rise of civilization is accompanied by a widespread lack of faith, the sign of a spiritually exhausted culture. A longing for death among civilization's final generation heralds the end of a culture's life cycle.
My reading of The Professor's House as Willa Cather's Spenglerian vision of America applies these characteristics of civilization specifically to the two protagonists, Godfrey St. Peter and Tom Outland. Of central importance to this analysis are Spengler's view of civilization as the last stage in a culture's life cycle and its association with intellect, science, atheism, imperialism, money, sterility, the rise of the world-city and cosmopolitanism, the emergence of Caesarism, and the longing for death. In addition, Spengler's grim historical determinism, his insistence on destiny, his commentaries on architecture as a reflection of culture, and particularly his portrayal of civilization's final men will shed new light on the development and inner dualism of Cather's protagonists, Godfrey St. Peter and Tom Outland.
While many critics have commented on the dualism in St. Peter's personality,
no one has related his inner division to the larger historical context. As
an intellectual city dweller and cosmopolitan alienated from his cultural
environment, St. Peter shows many of the characteristics Spengler ascribes
to those destined to live in the declining phase of civilization. As a
culture draws closer to its death, its people lose their vital link to the
soil as they are increasingly forced into the anonymity of large cities.
There, separated from the power of the land-cut off from it, even, by the
pavement underfoot-Being becomes more and more languid, sensation and
reason more and more powerful. Man becomes intellect, "free" like
nomads, whom he comes to resemble, but narrower and colder than they.
"Intellect," "Geist," "esprit," is the specific urban form of the
understanding waking-consciousness. All art, all religion and science,
become slowly intellectualized, alien to the land, incomprehensible to
the peasant of the soil. With the Civilization sets in the climacteric.
The immemorial old roots of Being are dried up in the stone masses of
its cities. And the free intellect-fateful word!-appears like a flame,
mounts splendid into the air, and pitiably dies. (2:92)
There, separated from the power of the land-cut off from it, even, by the pavement underfoot-Being becomes more and more languid, sensation and reason more and more powerful. Man becomes intellect, "free" like nomads, whom he comes to resemble, but narrower and colder than they. "Intellect," "Geist," "esprit," is the specific urban form of the understanding waking-consciousness. All art, all religion and science, become slowly intellectualized, alien to the land, incomprehensible to the peasant of the soil. With the Civilization sets in the climacteric. The immemorial old roots of Being are dried up in the stone masses of its cities. And the free intellect-fateful word!-appears like a flame, mounts splendid into the air, and pitiably dies. (2:92)
St. Peter is indeed an intellectual nomad, having left his native Michigan to wander through France, Spain, and the American Southwest in pursuit of his scholarship. He is languid and increasingly fatigued, preparing for his death as the novel draws to a close. He is also alienated from the land, even though he has retained an instinctive sense that having roots in the soil of a specific place is imperative. It appears that the transition from a vital culture to a climacteric civilization is reflected in St. Peter's character.
Spengler views the geographic migration from country to city, which accompanies the shift from culture to civilization, as a weakening factor. His metaphor for the way in which civilization molds human beings is "petrification." As he puts it, the "intellectual age and the stone-built, petrifying world city [follow] mother-earth" (1:31, italics added). On a personal level, St. Peter has undergone just this process. His name, of course, suggests stone, and his self-imprisonment in the "shadowy crypt" (Cather 112) of his attic manifests his entombed existence. Cather emphasizes the result of this petrification in her description of St. Peter's head: "The mould of his head on the side was so individual and definite, so far from casual, that it was more like a statue's head than a man's" (34). Interestingly, Spengler notes that in the urbanized setting of civilization, "Costumes, even faces, are adjusted to a background of stone" (2:94).
Cultural decline and urbanization, according to Spengler, go hand in hand with an ever-increasing intellectualization. "The city" is intellect" (2:96), he writes and adds that in civilization's final men "intelligence is the replacement of unconscious living by exercise in thought, masterly, but bloodless and jejune" (2:103) St. Peter, a primitive nature lover in his youth , has turned into a monkish scholar, dedicated to a life of the mind. Time for his studies and time for his family are carefully allotted and ardently protected. He has even managed to "train the mind to be active at a fixed time, just as the stomach is trained to be hungry at certain hours of the day" (27). In his attic he seems to lose much of his vitality. When his wife, Lillian, expresses concern that he might become increasingly "lonely and inhuman" (162), St. Peter merely replies, "Well, the habit of living with ideas grows on one, I suppose (162). Only occasionally St. Peter satisfies his intuitive need for communion with nature in his garden or in the lake. Lillian disapproves of his swimming, and her lacking understanding of her husband's needs is a sign of their marriage's deterioration.
St. Peter's petrification is also evident in the setting. Spengler explains that houses are powerful reflections of cultural life (2:88, 124). The cliff dwellings signify integration into the land. The Marsellus mansion symbolizes the power of money and opulence. Godfrey's old house and the attic, peopled with empty sewing forms, are symbols of petrification, entombment, and ostracism from family and the world at large. St. Peter is imprisoned in the "dark den" (16) of his study, where he hides behind his desk from the outside world. His only companions are his manuscript notebooks and Augusta's dressmaker's forms. He has grown so fond of these dead, hollow companions that he forbids Augusta to remove them to the new house. In his insistence on the immutability of his lifeless environment, another symptom of his petrification, St. Peter anticipates his near death and his later acceptance that he was "falling out of all domestic and social relations, out of his place in the human family" (275). To escape the oppressive isolation in his attic, St. Peter seeks refuge in his garden.
This aspect of the setting is particularly illuminating because here Cather shows that her central character is trapped between a modern urban civilization to which he belongs against his will, and a pastoral, earth-bound world he yearns for but cannot regain. Again, Cather's ideas closely resemble Spengler's in The Decline of the West. Spengler equates the last stage of a culture with the city and notes, "It is the Late City that first defies the land, . . . denies all Nature. It wants to be something different from and higher than Nature" (2:94). "Extra muros," Spengler explains, nature is tamed and domesticated, and "intra muros arises an imitation Nature, fountains in lieu of springs, flower-beds, formal pools, and clipped hedges in lieu of meadows and ponds and bushes" (2:94). The latter, of course, describes exactly the appearance of St. Peter's garden. Cather emphasizes that "his walled-in garden had been the comfort of his life-and it was the one thing his neighbors held against him" (14). It is a French garden, carefully designed and meticulously maintained. The linden trees are symmetrical, the greenbrier clipped into great bushes. For twenty years St. Peter has imposed himself upon this ground to create a seemingly natural, though artificially created, retreat in the tradition of eighteenth-century European landscape architecture, and finally he "had got the upper hand of it" (15). Referring to the lifeless setting of modern civilization, Spengler sees "stony house filled with coloured dust and strange uproar" and adds that "men dwell in these houses, the like of which no nature-being has ever conceived" (2:94). St. Peter compensates for the unhealthy effect of "the dusty air and the brutal light" (14) in his house by drawing close to his walled garden.
The disagreement St. Peter encounters with his landlord, the German-born farmer Appelhoff, over the use of his garden illustrates the contrast between Godfrey, the reluctant city dweller, and the down-to-earth immigrant peasant, who anticipates Anton Rosicky in his earth-consciousness and skepticism of urban life. Appelhoff lives close to the soil; his little house seems to grow out of the hillside, its red brick basement "covered with hop vines" (51). His garden is brimming with apples and sickle pears, and he uses the blossoms of the linden tree for medicinal purposes. It is hardly surprising, then, that Appelhoff confronts the professor with this disapproving comment: "'I don't like dem trees what don't bear not'ing,' said the old man with sly humour, remebering the Professor's glistening, barren shrubs and the good ground wasted behind his stucco wall" (51-52). Appelhoff is reminiscent of Spengler's ideal peasant, whom he describes as "the eternal man, independent of every Culture that ensconces itself in the cities" (2:96). St. Peter's fondness for the old man may well be rooted in his awareness that they share a peasant soul. We must remember that Godfrey grew up on a farm and developed so keen a sense of place that the departure from his home almost killed him.
St. Peter's character is marked by a reluctance to accept change or to
accommodate himself to the world around him. Instead, he retreats into
isolation and a worship of youth. If his yearning for lost youth manifests
an unexpected lack of maturity, his rejection of modern America constitutes
his quarrel with the forces of history. St. Peter is a product of his time,
whether he likes it or not. Early in the novel, he reluctantly admits that
"he could not evade the unpleasant effects of change" (15), that he had to
return to the now empty house. What the Professor confronts here is his own
impending displacement by the monetary rewards of his scholarship. He lives
in an age of commercialism from which he cannot extricate himself. Spengler
stresses, "We cannot help it if we are born as men of the early winter of
full Civilization" (1:44), and he adds:
For us, however, whom a Destiny has placed in this Culture and at this
moment of its development-the moment when money is celebrating its last
victories, and the Caesarism that is to succeed approaches with quiet,
firm step-our direction, willed and obligatory at once, is set for us
within narrow limits, and on any other terms life is not worth the
living. We have not the freedom to reach to this or to that, but the
freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing. And a task that historic
necessity has set will be accomplished with the
individual or against him. (2:507)
For us, however, whom a Destiny has placed in this Culture and at this moment of its development-the moment when money is celebrating its last victories, and the Caesarism that is to succeed approaches with quiet, firm step-our direction, willed and obligatory at once, is set for us within narrow limits, and on any other terms life is not worth the living. We have not the freedom to reach to this or to that, but the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing. And a task that historic necessity has set will be accomplished with the individual or against him. (2:507)
Godfrey finally acknowledges this determinism as he reviews "the design of his life" (265). He insists on the romantic notion that only his youth was genuine, while "his career, his wife, his family, were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him. All these things had nothing to do with the person he was in the beginning" (264). Not even his histories had anything to do with his "original ego" (265).
Indeed, St. Peter's scholarly field stands in sharp contradiction to his earlier, earth-bound self, "the original, unmodified St. Peter" (263), the young Kansas boy, "a primitive, . . . only interested in earth and woods and water" (265). The Professor spent much of his adult life on a colonial effort that required an initial uprooting of the colonists from their homeland and resulted in the further uprooting of the native cultures they encountered. This topic, however, is entirely appropriate, for imperialism is the mark of a declining civilization.
The novel's theme of imperialism reflects, then, both Cather's preoccupation with a declining America and St. Peter's inevitable part in it. Spengler refers to imperialism as "the typical symbol of the passing away," for "imperialism is Civilization unadulterated" (1:36). He claims that expansion for the representatives of civilization is not a matter of choice but a form of destiny. "The expansive tendency," he argues, "is a doom, something daemonic and immense, which grips, forces into service, and uses up the late mankind of the world-city stage, willy-nilly, aware or unaware" (1:37). As an expert in Spanish colonial history, St. Peter vicariously experienced one of Europe's great hegemonic endeavors while researching his eight-volume study, The Spanish Adventurer in North America. Yet there is another clue in the novel that firmly links the Professor to Western culture's stage of decay. Godfrey St. Peter's middle name is Napoleon, whom Spengler places as the great imperialist figure "on the threshold of Civilization" (1:38). Spengler, Napoleon and expansionism are synonymous, and his influence reaches into our century. Says Spengler, "Napoleon inwardly rules us, all of us, our states and our armies, our public opinion, the whole of our political outlook, and the more effectually the less we are conscious of it" (2:439n). This connection becomes apparent when Cather, referring to Rosamond's conspicuous consumption during her shopping spree in Chicago, writes, "She was like Napoleon looting the Italian palaces" (154). Cather ties St. Peter by name and family history to the age of imperialism. In fact, it is "the Professor's darkest secret. At the font he had been christened Napoleon Godfrey St. Peter. There had always been a Napoleon in the family, since a remote grandfather got his discharge from the Grande Armée. Godfrey had abbreviated his name in Kansas, and even his daughters didn't know what it had been originally" (163). Why is the Professor so secretive about his name? He drops it when he is eight years old. But why does he continue to deny this name even in adult life, despite his love for France? Perhaps his suppression of his family's link to Napoleonic expansionism must be seen in the same light as St. Peter's confession that imperialism, the subject of his life-long research, had nothing to do with the essential St. Peter; it was an attempt to deny his destiny of living in a declining civilization.
Cather's strategy in The Professor's House is to project the historically inevitable progression from culture to civilization into the evolution of Godfrey's self. What has slumbered all these years under the guise of Godfrey St. Peter, the intellectual nomad, cosmopolitan, and city dweller, was his young, earth-bound, primitive self. It was this obliterated self that had urged him to stay in touch with the natural world, whether by working the soil in his garden or immersing himself in the blue lake. His instinctive sense that roots are vitally important is evident in this passage, "Coming upon a curly root that thrust itself across his path, he said: 'That is it'" (265-66). St. Peter realizes here that the modern world has disconnected him from the geography of his youth, but more importantly from a self that was in tune with the universe, not separated from it by the thick walls of houses and ivory towers. His malaise, then, stems from the replacement of a vital, earth-conscious culture by a sterile, urban civilization, dictated by the aging process inherent in every cultural entity. In her historical pessimism Cather echoes here not only Spengler, but anticipates D. H. Lawrence's pronouncement in his "A Propos Lady Chatterley's Lover": "Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe" (354).
St. Peter resembles Spengler's final man not only in his intellectualism, the petrification of his self, his dislocation from the earth, and his association with imperialism. Three other features underscore this affinity: his sterility, loss of religious faith, and longing for death. In his portrayal of a declining culture, Spengler emphasizes "the sterility of civilized man" (2:103) as a typical symptom. To be sure, Godfrey has two daughters, Kathleen and Rosamond, for whom he shows love and concern, but any intimate relationship with his wife, Lillian, seems to have ceased. Moreover, at the end of the novel, he arrives at this insight: "He seemed to know . . . that he was solitary and must always be so; he had never married, never been a father" (265). By distancing himself from any notion of family and reproduction, he affirms his essential sterility. In this context, it also appears significant that the marriages of both of St. Peter's daughters are childless, as is the couple with whom Tom Outland stays in Washington.
The Professor's lack of religious faith is particularly symptomatic of Spengler's final man. His name, Godfrey, as John Swift points out, signifies a freedom from God (308). St. Peter also tells Augusta, a devout Catholic, "You'll never convert me back to the religion of my fathers now, if you're going to sew in the new house and I'm going to work on here" (24), and he regrets that no one will in future remind him of the religious holidays. Later, St. Peter's questioning of Augusta on the Magnificat draws this response: "Why, Professor! Did you receive no religious instruction at all?" Godfrey explains: "How could I, Augusta? My mother was a Methodist, there was no Catholic church in our town in Kansas, and I guess my father forgot his religion" (99). Spengler contends that "atheism comes . . . with the dawn of civilization. It belongs to the great city, to the 'educated man' of the great city who acquired mechanistically what his forefathers the creators of Culture had lived organically" (1:409). Perhaps even more relevant to St. Peter is the following statement: "The megalopolitan is irreligious; this is part of his being, a mark of his historical position. Bitterly as he may feel the inner emptiness and poverty, earnestly as he may long to be religious, it is out of his power to be so" (1:409). St. Peter's lecture on science, religion, and art explains in some detail the waning of faith in modern civilization. This passage shows particularly effectively how similar Cather's and Spengler's ideas on these issues are.
The Professor argues that the rise of cold scientific analysis has undermined the mystery and morality of human existence. "I don't think much of science as a phase of human development" (67), says the Professor and adds that "the old riddles" are more important to human beings than science's "ingenious toys" (68). Religion, he contends, with its pageantry, symbolism, and art, enriched human life and allowed men and women to believe "in the mystery and importance of their own little lives" (68). Life, religion and art once were inseparable. Reflected in the great cathedrals is the expression of God's will through art. Architects, artisans, and artists, the Professor concludes, "might, without sacrilege, have changed the prayer a little and said, 'Thy will be done in art, as it is in heaven'" (69). St. Peter's scathing attack on science, then, is motivated by his belief that it has destroyed this unity between man and the numinous. Now, the professor complains, "it's the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world" (68).
A look at a 1924 interview with Rose C. Feld indicates that Cather uses St. Peter here to express her own views on art and the scientific-technological age. Commenting on the deplorable state of modern art, she says: "The world goes through periods or waves of art. Between these periods come great resting places. We may be resting right now" (11). Spengler, of course, viewed modern art as inferior attempts to represent the megalopolitan consciousness, as a decline into formlessness and artificiality. In the same interview, Cather blames the technological age for the loss of beauty and creativity: "Restlessness such as ours, success such as ours, striving such as ours, do not make for beauty. . . . It is possible that machinery has finished us as far as [our sensitivity for art and beauty and our creativity are] concerned. Quick transportation is the death of art" (Feld 11). A final look at Spengler's comments on religion will shed more light on St. Peter's struggle with faith and his relationship to Augusta.
In his lecture on science and mystery, St. Peter echoes Spengler's contention that the modern intellect "has done with the irrational for good and all and despises any waking-consciousness that still knows or acknowledges mysteries" (2:309). In doing so, it has laid the foundation for the exploitation of nature and materialism. Atheism or fraudulent "mock-religion" accompanies this development (2:310). However, as civilizations wane and enter into their final phase, Spengler discovers a phenomenon that he terms Second Religiousness (2:310). This is the spiritual complement to Caesarism, the political manifestation of Late Civilization. The people in this age of reason, having cut themselves off from nature and the numinous, again discover the need for spirituality. Spengler writes that when "the possibilities of physics as a critical mode of world-understanding are exhausted, . . . the hunger for metaphysics presents itself afresh" (2:311). He refers to the Augustan Age of the Classical period as one example of the Second Religiousness phenomenon (2:310). Could it be that Augusta personifies this new faith for the Professor? After all, she saves him from certain death, and when she visits the recuperating professor, "she sat down by the table and again took up her little religious book. St. Peter, with half-closed eyes, lay watching her-regarding in her humankind, as if after a definitive absence from the world of men and women. 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" (279-80). Augusta's piety halts St. Peter's drift toward death and gives him the fortitude to endure "the bloomless side of life" (280) that up to now appeared intolerable to him. The old woman's faith welcomes him back into the human family.
Before Augusta's intervention, the Professor's fatigue earlier in the novel had turned into a longing for death, another symptom of Spengler's final man. Spengler observes in him a "metaphysical turn towards death. The last man last man of the world-city no longer wants to live-he may cling to life as an individual, but as a type, as an aggregate, no, for it is a characteristic of this collective existence that it eliminates the terror of death" (2:103-4). Even Cather's depiction of the defective gas stove-"the fire made a flickering pattern of light on the wall" (276)-which symbolizes St Peter's impending death, strongly resembles Spengler's already quoted portrayal of the death of civilization: "The immemorial old roots of Being are dried up in the stone masses of its cities. And the free intellect-fateful word!-appears like a flame, mounts splendid in the air, and pitiably dies" (2:92). Augusta's intervention gives the Professor a new lease on life, a reprieve. The stage of Second Religiousness, however, is only a prelude to a culture's final dissolution. In this sense, the conclusion is not an unqualified happy ending. A comment by Willa Cather on The Professor's House suggests that it may even be ironic: "Incidentally, this is the first book I've ever written with any irony in it. . . . I've always been much too interested in the way characters conquer fate to realize that, after all, fate conquers them in the end" (Butcher 9). Oswald Spengler, no doubt, would agree wholeheartedly.
Tom Outland is generally viewed as the incarnation of Godfrey St. Peter's younger self, whose unexpected entrance into the Professor's life trigger the emergence of St. Peter's obliterated, "unadulterated," original identity. The young man himself seems to remain untainted by the corruption of the modern world through his early death in World War I, which elevates him to a seemingly mythical stature. But is this view justified, and if not, how does Tom fit into the Spenglerian scheme? The reading referred to above clearly fails to explain Tom's contradictory behavior at Blue Mesa and his dividedness between a longing for rootedness and his restless wandering. Nor does it account for the significance of his scientific invention, his replacement by Louie Marsellus, and the underlying meaning of his death. All of these aspects of Tom's character do, however, become readily intelligible when they are viewed in light of Oswald Spengler's historical theory of organic, cultural life cycles, particularly as it relates to science, money, urbanization, mobility, and expansion in the last stage of culture, civilization. This critical approach also clarifies why Godfrey and Tom are not only similar in their youthful, idealized selves but also in the way their epoch has molded their lives, creating the internal exile and disenchantment that mark the two men. Both represent a declining American civilization as part of the more comprehensive decline of the West. The Professor's drift toward death and Tom's untimely end are then only superficially the result of a midlife crisis and chance, respectively. The underlying cause of their demise is destiny, inherent in the inexorable workings of Spengler's historical process that dictates the life cycle of a culture.
Tom's relationship to the Professor is central to the novel, for it is the only ray of light in Godfrey's darkening existence. Tom's vitality and association with the West, his contempt for materialism and trivia, and his extraordinary mind make him the ideal man St. Peter himself once was and now longs to be again. Inevitably, St. Peter, as Thomas Strychacz has shown convincingly, fails to see the contradictions in Tom's idealistic search to retrieve the past and his culturally determined desire to control and take possession (56). Tom fails to stem the Professor's decline, for Outland is not a timeless, mystical hero, but the product of his time and culture, destined to make decisions and to take actions that can only be explained by the historical matrix into which he was born.
Like St. Peter, Tom is an intellectual nomad typical of Spengler's late civilization, yet he is even more rootless than the Professor. His journey from obscure origins in the West is not only a quest for an education in the East but also a search for a home he never truly possessed. He temporarily finds it in St. Peter's family: "There was evidently something enchanting about the atmosphere of the house to a boy who had always lived a rough life" (124). As the child of "'moved people'" (115), adopted by a railroad engineer who himself moves from place to place, Tom grows up in an age of mobility and expansion. For this reason he is particularly sensitive to the idea of a home, a fact that he first reveals following his discovery of Blue Mesa. Coming upon an irrigation ditch, Tom realizes that "there must have been a colony of pueblo Indians here in ancient times: fixed residents, like the Taos Indians and the Hopis, not wanderers like the Navajos" (194, italics added). He suddenly acknowledges the importance of having a place of one's own: "To people off alone, as we were, there is something stirring about finding evidences of human labour and care in the soil of an empty country. It comes to you as a sort of message, makes you feel differently about the ground you walk over every day" (194). Perhaps Tom sees here that he is quite detached from the soil, living outside of the land, as his name suggests. Later on, "a narrow path worn deep into the stone ledges that overhung the village" (210) becomes another symbol of a people's tenure in the land, of an ancient sedentary culture that had succeeded in cultivating the "arts of peace" (219) and "built themselves into this mesa and humanized it" (221). This sense of place stands in stark contrast to Tom's own restlessness.
Just as St. Peter is torn between following his primitive, earthbound self and catering to the demands of his intellect, Tom is divided between a mystical sense of the earth, a desire for rest and home, and a thirst for expanse and scientific inquiry. Even as he cherishes the mystery of the cliffs and hesitates "to expose those silent and beautiful places to vulgar curiosity" (205), Tom cannot help but act as the member of an expansionist civilization. Armed with "an ax and spade" (207), veritable symbols of colonialism, Roddy and Tom are soon "engaged in roadbuilding" (210), effectively opening up the mesa not only to vulgar curiosity but also to the removal of the cliff dwellers' cultural artifacts, thus continuing a long tradition of hegemony in the American Southwest.
Tom himself plays a key role in the destruction of the order he so deeply, and undoubtedly sincerely, admires in the Anasazi structures. The extent to which he is determined by his historical circumstances becomes most apparent here. He cannot resist interfering with the sacred quality of the site in order to examine its "specimens" (223) scientifically. As Susan Rosowski noted, he acts like "a modern version of the 'brutal invaders' (Cather 221) who ravaged the ancient tribe" (133). Instead of leaving the artifacts in their original context, he destroys their order, only to create a new one in the inventory and descriptions he enters in his daybook. Significantly, this document is a "merchant ledger" (212), foreshadowing the sale for profit of the priceless objects and linking Tom, despite his later attempts to distance himself, to a rapacious money economy. Spengler, incidentally, views the invention of double-entry bookkeeping as an expression of "mechanistic thought" and as one of the decisive events in the rise of Western money economy (2:490). As if to make up for his interference, Tom tidies up the ruins before his departure and conceals his book, containing in language the order he has destroyed in fact, in a cupboard in one of the cliff dwellings. Unaware that the seeds for further desecration of the ancient site have been sown, Tom leaves for Washington.
His journey to the capital becomes a nightmarish trip into a Spenglerian metropolis. He leaves as a romantic idealist, dreaming of generating interest in the Anasazi antiquities in Washington, only to get involved in a Kafkaesque encounter with a self-serving, bureaucratic machine that is quite indifferent to aboriginal American cultures. The urban way of life, Tom discovers, enslaves people and breaks their spirit, traps them in a continual race for material gain and prestige. Tom is appalled and leaves empty-handed "to get back to the mesa and live a free life, and breath free air, and never, never again to see hundreds of little blackcoated men pouring out of white buildings" (236). This frightening vision of social uniformity is entirely consistent with Spengler's view of the world-city. In a 1922 review article on The Decline of the West, Konrad Falke points out that "Spengler considers our great metropolises as mills, slowly grinding the self-assertive freemen, who were the founders of our liberties, into an unindividualized proletariat, ready to be kneaded like flour by a despot's hand into any desired form" (697). Cather herself, in a 1921 lecture at Omaha, had complained about democracy's tendency to create sameness, and she deplored the mounting evidence that Americans were becoming mechanized (Brown 226), as the image of the bureaucratic automatons in The Professor's House clearly suggests.
Upon his return to the Southwest, Tom again shows that he has not lost entirely his intuitive faculties, for his sense of mystery and the sacred affords him a brief moment of happiness on the mesa, "a religious emotion" (251). His "filial piety" (251) for the place shows that he has found a home in the cliffs. The mesa, as John Swift points out, becomes a surrogate for the family relations Tom lacks (305). Moreover, Tom now acknowledges the importance of taking possession of something whole. Commenting on the concealed ledger book, he says: "I didn't feel the need for that record. It would have been going backward. I didn't want to go back and unravel things step by step. Perhaps I was afraid that I would lose the whole in the parts" (252). This pronouncement is of considerable significance because it suggests that Tom embraces mystical intuition and rejects his scientific, analytical orientation. However, just as his dream of a free life on the mesa is short lived, he is destined to abandon this mythic mentality. His account of the experience to St. Peter affirms the domination of his scientific mind, for he expresses his discovery of wholeness in the terms of the analytical scientist he has become: "I remember these things, because, in a sense, that was the first night I was ever really on the mesa at all-the first night that all of me was there. This was the first time I ever saw it as a whole. It all came together in my understanding, as a series of experiments do when you begin to see where they are leading" (250). This passage reflects the shift from what Spengler calls "Faustian Nature-feeling" (1:417) to the intellectualization and preoccupation with science typical of the last stage of Western culture.
Evidently, Tom, like Godfrey, is a divided character, longing for permanence in a restless world, drawn to the past yet trapped in an ongoing historical process that determines his course. He shows many characteristics of Spengler's Faustian man, the unique type of discoverer and inventor in the old age of Occidental culture, who wills to impose himself upon and direct Nature. This tendency to reshape and to order surfaced during Tom's discovery of Blue Mesa. His association with Professor Crane and his research, his invention of the Outland Vacuum, and his replacement by Louie Marsellus further illustrate that Tom embodies a declining civilization.
Dr. Crane serves as Tom's scientific mentor. St. Peter confirms that "the
older man had been of great assistance to the younger, without doubt" (142).
Crane, whose name overtly links him with the machine age that heavily relies
for its progress on the achievements of modern physics, is a dreary,
lifeless loner who suffers ill-health and lives "in the most depressing and
unnecessary ugliness" (142). His personal malaise reflects Spengler's dim
view of modern physics as a discipline:
Western physics is drawing near to the limits of its possibilities. At
bottom, its mission as a historical phenomenon has been to transform the
Faustian Nature-feeling into an intellectual knowledge, the faith-forms
of springtime into the machine-forms of exact science. And, though for
the time being it will continue to quarry more and more practical and
even "purely theoretical" results, results as such, whatever their kind,
belong to the superficial history of a science. (1:417)
Western physics is drawing near to the limits of its possibilities. At bottom, its mission as a historical phenomenon has been to transform the Faustian Nature-feeling into an intellectual knowledge, the faith-forms of springtime into the machine-forms of exact science. And, though for the time being it will continue to quarry more and more practical and even "purely theoretical" results, results as such, whatever their kind, belong to the superficial history of a science. (1:417)
This quote accurately describes the transformation of Tom's intuitive sense of nature into the rational mode of the natural scientist under the tutelage of Dr. Crane. Crane resembles Spengler's modern physicist, whose main concern lies with the problem of space, the "chosen badge" (Spengler 1:81) of Western civilization. St. Peter points out that Crane "doesn't care about anything but the extent of space" (87), and that "he was all the while carrying on these tedious and delicate experiments that had to do with determining the extent of space" (141). With his help Tom develops his invention, which will prove as beneficial to aviation as it is detrimental to St. Peter's family.
One may wonder why Cather chose the Outland vacuum as Tom's innovation. Could she have had in mind the emptiness of modern civilization that permeates the pages of the novel, the vacuum into which so many of its characters are drawn? A look at Tom as Spengler's Faustian inventor will provide another clue. He possesses western culture's "discoverer's soul," whose "great inventions slowly ripened in the deeps, to emerge at last with the necessity of a Destiny" (2:501-2). The link of his invention to aviation is also appropriate in this connection, for Faustian man's "intoxicated soul wills to fly above space and Time. An ineffable longing tempts him to indefinable horizons. Man would free himself from the earth, rise into the infinite, leave the bonds of the body, and circle in the universe of space amongst the stars. . . . Hence the fantastic traffic that . . . finally raises itself above the roads and railways and flies in the air" (2:503). Tom's background shows that he is both heir to and facilitator of these historical developments. Born on the road in the back of a prairie schooner, raised on the railroad, he emerges as the brilliant innovator who "had discovered the principle of the Outland vacuum, [and] worked out the construction of the bulkheaded vacuum which is revolutionizing aviation" (40). Tom is spared the commercial success of his invention and is replaced after his death by Louie Marsellus, the prototype of the successful entrepreneur and financier.
Besides the dominance of the intellect, money power is a key feature of Spengler's declining civilization. It accompanies the dislocation of culture from the soil, the rise of the world-city-economy, and democracy. Clearly, Cather uses Louie as a foil to Tom; Louie knows and uses money, Tom rejects it. Louie represents the new moneyed leader, Tom the romantic who is interested in ideas rather than material possessions. Cather highlights this distinction ironically by calling the new Marsellus mansion, an imitation Norwegian manor built with the proceeds of Tom's invention, "Outland." Cather's architectural structure, which lacks veracity and reflects only its owner's crass materialism, is reminiscent of Jay Gatsby's "French" Hôtel de Ville in Fitzgerald's novel. This naming is intended as a sign of Louie's and Rosamond's gratitude, but Tom's name is stained by its association with the Marsellus's conspicuous consumption and poor taste. Tom's name would obviously be more appropriately attached to the cliff house at Blue Mesa, as Kathleen suggests when she tells her father, "Now that Rosamund has Outland, I consider Tom's mesa entirely my own" (131).
The contrast between Louie Marsellus and Tom (and Godfrey St. Peter, for that matter) can be explained by Spengler's contention that "th[r]ough the economic history of every Culture there runs the desperate conflict waged by the soil-rooted tradition of a race, by its soul, against the spirit of money" (2:485). Tom and St. Peter are sufficiently in tune with the earth to recognize the corrupting potential of America's crass materialism. Their opting out of the pursuit of money remains, however, a noble if ineffective gesture, for, as Rodney Blake put it, "It would come to money in the end" (244).
Indeed it does! Ironically, St. Peter's academic achievements bear unwanted material fruits that threaten to move him out of his old study and into the new house where he does not belong. Ironically, and sadly, Tom's bequest to Rosamond corrupts her and destroys harmony in her family. As St. Peter remarks: "If Outland were here to-night, he might say with Mark Anthony, 'My fortunes have corrupted honest men'" (150). Louie Marsellus, the new entrepreneur who understands the dynamic force of finance and employs money as a "category of thought" (Spengler 2:482), replaces Tom, the idealist. He recognizes the commercial potential of the Outland vacuum and raises the capital to turn it into a marketable product. In doing so, he acts as the "acquisitive middleman or intervener" who engages in "a refined parasitism," sustaining himself quite literally on another' s life (Spengler 2:478). To be sure, as an individual Louie is quite a likeable character, but he embodies the money power that can hurt those who are not as experienced in the financial market as he is. Augusta's loss of the equivalent of six months' wages in an investment against which Louie had counseled serves as a telling example. His plan to plunder European antique shops and smuggle his booty through a Mexican port into the United States, taking the reverse route on which the cliff-dweller artifacts left America, aligns him with the acquisitive, imperialist forces typical of the final stage of cultural development.
Finally, what are we to make of Tom's death? Is it "chance" (260), as St. Peter suggests? Or is the war, which "in one great catastrophe, swept away all youth and all palms, and almost Time itself" (260), to be understood as the expression of historical forces? Spengler viewed World War I as a result of Caesarism, the form of government that presides over the final dissolution of a civilization and the emergence of a new one. Both mind and money must succumb to the "Caesar-men" of the "Imperial Age" (2:432), and "the conflict of intelligences that had served as substitute for war must give place to war itself in its most primitive form" (432). Tom's death, then, personalizes the end of his civilization, which collapses in a period of gigantic military conflicts. Cather's quote from Longfellow is particularly pertinent to Tom, even though she refers to it in connection with St. Peter's thoughts of dying. Tom does find the "house," his tomb, in the war. More importantly, his life and death have been determined by the mold that preceded his birth. In the context of this reading of the novel, the mold signifies the cultural and historic matrix that shapes the inexorable life cycle of the culture into which Tom is born. Erich Franz, summarizing Spengler's notion of destiny in a 1920 review article, writes, "Each important individual existence is compelled by inexorable law to conform to the phase of the culture to which it belongs" (258). Tom's fateful death, then, is more than chance, more even than a saving grace to protect him from possible corruption; it stands for the predetermined death struggle of a culture that has run its course.
The multiplicity of similarities between Willa Cather's novel and Oswald Spengler's monumental work, as they relate to both general concepts and specific details, is indeed startling. Could it be that for Cather Spengler's work falls into the same category as "the things [the account] did not say" (262), which the Professor admired so much in Tom's diary? If, however, Willa Cather did not read Der Untergang des Abendiandes, her Spenglerian vision of America's decline stands as a remarkable example of how a period's Zeitgeist can crystallize independently in the works of writers who are related in their keen awareness of historical changes.
Matthias Schubnell has dedicated this essay to his mentor at the University of Heidelberg and longtime friend, the late Ronald Hindmarsh-Midwood.
Prominent among those who examine The Professor's House from a biographical perspective are James Woodress and Leon Edel. Woodress argues that "the portrait of the Professor is not entirely understandable without recourse to the author's own life" (210). Leon Edel applies Freudian theory to the novel, only to find it wanting in explaining the text fully. He views Cather's novel as an account of Godfrey St. Peter's depression and considers the protagonist's retreat into his attic room as an infantile clinging to the security of the womb (229). Yet despite this apparent neurosis, Godfrey's melancholy and longing for death are, according to Edel, not sufficiently motivated. Nor can a Freudian approach do justice to the novel's social criticism. Given these limitations, Edel offers a biographical reading and shows in great detail how the Professor's neurotic pursuit of security parallels Cather's own, emphasizing particularly her early dislocation from Virginia (232) and the loss of her close companion, Isabelle McClung, who in 1917 married Jan Hambourg (234).
E. K. Brown, whose Willa Cather: A Critical Biography was edited and completed by Leon Edel, endorses a psychological approach by quoting from Alexander Posterfield: "Briefly, [the novel] is the story of a scholarly professor at a Middle Western University passing through that critical, uneasy period between middle and old age-at least, it should be taken as a study of such, otherwise its meaning is difficult to perceive exactly" (239). A more recent critic, James F. Maxfield, elaborates on this idea and suggests that Godfrey experiences a "mid-life crisis," an "empty nest syndrome," and a "postpartum depression of artists and writers" (73). Maxfield adds that psychologically the Professor's move to his new house reopened the scar left by St. Peter's displacement from Kansas as a boy and that the Professor's suffering results from the failure to find " the maternal nurture and comfort he sought" (84). He sees Augusta's care for him at the novel's ending as St. Peter's first positive experience of female nurture (84). John Swift offers a mythic/psychological reading of the novel, approaching the text by way of Eliade and Freud. He argues that the novel represents "an essentially religious document whose central formal movement is the rediscovery of the archaic 'strong time' and the distanced but recoverable paternal figures whose presence lends that time its strength" (308). Swift concludes that for both Tom and Godfrey this mythic/psychologic quest ends in failure.
John H. Randall, Jr., also employs a psychological reading, and he anticipates some of my own findings in focussing on Cather's interest in history. He begins his explication of The Professor's House by diagnosing St. Peter as "suffering from the emotional confusion attendant on the male climacteric" (202) and explains the tension in the novel as resulting from "the conflicting claims of creative effort and human relations" (202). What makes Randall's piece particularly relevant to this study of the novel is his mention of Cather's theory of history, which he sums up as follows: "In her eyes, the same thing is happening to European and American civilization that happened to the civilization of the cliff dwellers; both were fated to be destroyed by barbarian hordes. She believes that the peaceful and creative peoples of the earth are invariably annihilated by the brutal vulgarity of the destructive" (218). Randall writes this in a section entitled "Duchene's Theory of History: The Decline of Civilizations." It is not only this title that is reminiscent of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. His contention that in the novel "Western civilization is interpreted as being in its death throes and breathing its last gasp" (219) echoes Spengler's central thesis. Despite these seeming allusions to Spengler's theory of history, Randall fails to make a connection between Cather and Spengler. Instead, he relates Cather's historical assumptions to the Populist thought of the 1890s, which protested the destruction of rural America by a modern, commercial and industrial age (215).(Go back.)
The following reviews constitute only the most detailed responses that would have been accessible to Cather before and during the writing of The Professor's House. Living Age printed Erich Franz's review of volume I, entitled "The Death of Western Civilization," in its July 1920 issue, and Konrad Falke's review of volume 2, "An Historian's Forecast" (a review of Oswald Spengler's Welthistorische Perspektiven), followed in the September 1922 issue. Franz's piece is of particular interest because his summary of Spengler's criteria for the late stage of a cultural life cycle shows startling similarities to Cather's novel. Among others, "journalism, emigration, childless families, worship of money, great cities are characteristic traits of [a culture's] second and barren stage" (258). If one considers Scott McGregor, the disenchanted journalist, the emigration of St. Peter's family from France to Canada to the Midwest and his own internal emigration from a dissatisfying society, the childless families of both his daughters and his own confessed sense of sterility, Louie's and Rosamond's fortune and conspicuous consumption, and Cather's primarily negative portrayal of large cities such as Chicago and Washington, the parallels speak for themselves.
In addition, five other publications dealt with Spengler's ideas extensively between 1922 and fall of 1924: Thomas Mann's "German Letter" appeared in the Dial in 1922.; Richard Grützmacher's "Oswald Spengler" in Living Age in July 1923; W. Nathanson's "Culture Versus Civilization" in Open Court in the summer 1923; Henry De Man's "Gemany's New Prophets" in the July 1924 Yale Review; and W. K. Stewart's "The Decline of Western Culture: Oswald Spengler's 'Downfall of Western Civilization' Explained," published in Century in September 1924, made specific references to intellectual cosmopolitanism, scientific thinking, imperialism, voluntary sterility in large cities, the rise of a plutocracy and Caesarism as typical features of a dying civilization (594-95). All of these features figure prominently in The Professor's House. Finally, the publication of the preface to The Decline of the West, translated by Kenneth Burke, coincided with the final phase of Cather's composition of the novel. Burke's translation, containing the central arguments of Spengler's thesis, appeared in three installments in the Dial between November 1924 and January 1915.(Go back.)