Source File: cat.cs009.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 9

"Jazz Age" Places

Modern Regionalism in Willa Cather's The Professor's House

To appreciate Cather as a modern writer, we must come to terms with her complex relationship to regionalism; her vivid depictions of the Midwest, although celebrated, can also relegate her to the margins of American modernism. As Guy Reynolds suggests, “this, finally, is the lesson that Cather teaches us about regional thinking: that we need ever more supple, inflected, nuanced definitions in order to understand the complexities of the inter-connections between writing and place” (18). In this essay I suggest that Cather is a modern regionalist; that is, her complex regional consciousness encompasses both rural and urban places. The Professor’s House (1925), with its cosmopolitan protagonist, Professor Godfrey St. Peter, proves to be the ideal text for exploring Cather’s position as a modern regionalist because the novel gains momentum from the meaningful juxtaposition of disparate places.

I propose three texts published in or just before 1925, the same year as The Professor’s House, as a contextual field for understanding Cather’s position as a modern regionalist: Cather’s introduction to The Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett (1925), her interview with New York Timesreporter Rose Feld (21 December 1924), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Cather’s introduction and interview provide insights into regionalism as an affective relationship between artists and the world around them. This relationship between artists and the modern world can be explored through correspondences between The Great Gatsby as an exemplary modern text and The Professor’s House. Both novels complicate traditional literary regionalism as they examine how urbanization, consumption, and exile impede the acquisition of place attachment.

Traditional definitions of literary regionalism can be traced back to Hamlin Garland’s assertion in Crumbling Idols (1894) that “local color in the novel means that it has such quality of texture and back-ground that it could not have been written in any other place or by any one else than a native” (54, emphasis in original). More than century later, literary critics still return to his definition as a means of identifying “regional” texts; however, Garland’s insistence on the contemporary nature of the “local color” novel often remains forgotten. He writes, “conventional criticism does not hamper or confine [local color writers]. They are rooted in the soil. They stand among the cornfields and they dig in the peat-bogs. They concern themselves with modern and very present words and themes” (50). While Garland helped through his criticism and his fiction to establish the association between regionalism and rural places filled with soil and cornfields, it is important to note his use of the word “modern” and his insistence that regional literature confronts present-day social concerns. His story “Under the Lion’s Paw” from Main-Travelled Roads (1891) perfectly captures a regional text addressing modern social themes through the attempts of his protagonist, the tenant farmer Tim Haskins, to buy the farm he has improved from a corrupt land speculator.

Contradictions abound as twentieth-century critics look back on and attempt to define traditional expressions of literary regionalism; although the feature of rural places remained central, this location was imagined to be situated in the past. Consider Richard Brodhead’s description of regionalism in Cultures of Letters: “[Regionalism] requires a setting outside the world of modern development, a zone of backwardness where locally varied folkways still prevail. Its characters are ethnologically colorful, personifications of the different humanity produced in such non-modern cultural settings. Above all, this fiction features an extensive written simulation of regional vernacular, a copious effort to catch the nuances of local speech” (115–6). This definition demonstrates a clear shift in the American cultural understanding of place as terms like “backward,” “antimodern,” “rural,” and “past” become entangled (and in some cases, synonymous). The additional link between these terms and regionalism leads critics to misconstrue the term, for to invoke a region (especially one that features rural places) evokes assumptions of backwardness and antimodernism. It is surely no coincidence that literary regionalism has flourished at moments when the tensions between modern and antimodern America were most apparent.

In Writing Out of Place, Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryce attempt to circumvent the “antimodern” classification of regionalism by redefining regional texts as those “where region becomes mobilized as a tool for critique of hierarchies based on gender as well as race, class, age, and economic resources” (14). In a sense, their understanding captures Garland’s vision of regionalism as a social and political commentary on present and pressing issues facing common Americans. Yet Fetterley and Pryce’s assertion that regional writing is women’s writing becomes more narrow and problematic than Brodhead’s list of criteria. An equally troubling feature of Fetterley and Pryce’s definition concerns the very nature of regions themselves; echoing critic Frank Davey, Fetterley and Pryce situate regionalism as “a discourse . . . rather than a place” (7).

Places, regions, and the land form the anchor of Cather’s regionalism, and while Cather clearly appreciated the representation of regions in works by other writers, she resists classifying herself within the “limited” scope of regional writing. Cather’s complex engagement with the history of regionalism threads through several projects that emerged in 1925. In her introduction to the writing of Sarah Orne Jewett (an exemplar of traditional literary regionalism), Cather praises Jewett’s ability to write “of the people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart” (“Best Stories” 55). Yet Cather also downplayed the importance of the “soil” in her own work around this time. In a 21 December 1924 New York Times Book Review interview with Rose C. Feld, Cather was asked, “Is My Ántonia a good book because it is a story of the soil?” Cather responded, “No, no, decidedly no. . . . I expressed a mood, the core of which was like a folksong, a thing that Grieg could have written. That it was powerfully tied to the soil has nothing to do with it” (“Restlessness” 72). Cather qualifies that while “Ántonia was tied to the soil,” the story itself was not; “Chicago could have told the same story.” Cather demonstrates the flexibility of her regional consciousness as she continues, imagining the mood of this urban story: “It would have been smearier, joltier, noisier, less sugar and more sand, but still a story that had as its purpose the desire to express the quality of these people. No, the country has nothing to do with it; the city has nothing to do with it; nothing contributes consciously” (72). Cather’s statement demonstrates her resistance to regionalism as she refuses to celebrate a stereotypical reading of My Ántonia as “a good book” simply because it takes place in the country. While Cather scholars continue to embrace her modern complexity, her remarks invite an investigation of how places contribute to the “core” or “mood” of her stories, especially the “smearier, joltier, noisier” places.

In this essay I argue that we can further appreciate Cather’s complexities of place by understanding regionalism not as fiction about rural places or with vernacular speech, but as a “way of seeing” places—what I would like to call it a “regional consciousness.” This regional way of seeing emphasizes the interconnections between places and communities as a larger spatial network. [1] In this view of regionalism, to borrow Cather’s phrasing, “the country has nothing to do with it, the city has nothing to do with it,” not because place itself is irrelevant but because both country and city can be represented within a region. Cather effectively embodies this definition of modern regionalism [2] in The Professor’s House: “regional” because her characters form intense attachments to particular places and use their awareness of place distinctiveness to construct regional and communal borders; “modern” because the organic, spiritual meanings of places are complicated by twentieth-century economics, consumerism, and cosmopolitanism.

One of Cather’s concerns that surfaces both in her introduction to Jewett and in her interview with Feld is the influence of place on artists as inspiration for artistic creation. In her introduction to a select collection of Jewett’s works, Cather defines two aesthetic approaches in Jewett’s sketches, one that is “fluid and formless” but full of “perception and feeling,” and one that is “tightly built and significant in design” (“Best Stories” 48– 49). It is through the unity of these two approaches that Jewett achieves the height of aesthetic quality, Cather argues, as Jewett’s “sketches are living things, in the open, with light and freedom and air-spaces about them. They melt into the land and the life of the land until they are not stories at all, but life itself” (49). Although Cather does not use the word “regionalism” in her description of Jewett’s work here, these stories that “melt into the land” are in fact regional in nature because her impressions of the landscape allow Jewett to capture a community situated within a wider spatial network. In the Feld interview Cather is much more critical of American literature and art; however, she returns to the natural, organic relationship between the artist and his or her life by inventing a fictional French artist and examining his artistic philosophy and activities: “The Frenchman doesn’t talk nonsense about art, about self-expression; he is too greatly occupied with building the things that make his home. His house, his garden, his vineyards, these are the things that fill his mind. He creates something beautiful, something lasting. And what happens? When a French painter wants to paint a picture he makes a copy of a garden, a home, a village. The art in them inspires his brush” (“Restlessness” 71). This philosophy can also describe Jewett, whose “brush” was inspired by the villages, gardens, and landscapes around her.

In The Country of the Pointed Firs, Jewett exemplifies how an artist sees through a regional consciousness as her characters form place attachments by appreciating the aesthetic, communal, and spiritual dimensions of places. Through this “topophilia,”[3] or love of place, Jewett’s characters recognize regions not only by distinctive geography but by the stories and emotional sensations that connect places to each other. Jewett’s unnamed narrator, an outsider to the Dunnet Landing community, facilitates her place attachment through an aesthetic appreciation of physical geography. As she sails to Green Island with her hostess, Almira Todd, the narrator delights in the island landscape; she admires small farms and fish houses, and the sharp shapes of the firs against the sky. She concludes that “one could not help wishing to be a citizen of such a complete and tiny continent” (407). The narrator’s love of place facilitates her desire to become a citizen and belong to this community.

In The Professor’s House, Cather too incorporates aesthetic appreciation of geography as a way to express place attachment to areas where the characters feel most “at home.” Tom Outland expresses his attachment to the Blue Mesa through his sensory observations: the “bluish rock in the sun-tanned grass, under the unusual purple-grey of the sky, gave the whole valley a very soft colour” (198). St. Peter holds a similarly multi-textured memory of Lake Michigan. As he recalls his childhood, he sees the geography of the “shaggy pines” of the shore and brilliant chunks of lake ice, “crumbly and white, throwing off gold and rosecoloured reflections from a copper-coloured sun behind grey clouds” (31). Like Jewett and Cather’s imaginary French painter, Tom and St. Peter appreciate the inherent “art” in the physical geography of regional landscapes. Unlike the French artist and Jewett, however, St. Peter is unable to express the physical geography of the landscape and the spiritual feelings it evokes in him. He tries to explain the nature of “le Michigan” to the two boys he tutors in France as a young man, but he finds that his descriptions are inadequate: “it is altogether different. It is the sea, and yet it is not salt. It is blue, but quite another blue. Yes, there are clouds and mists and sea-gulls, but—I don’t know” (32).

St. Peter’s inability to adequately articulate and convey the impressionistic sense of the lake is only one instance of communicative failure concerning the affective dimensions of place throughout The Professor’s House. In fact, there are several such occurrences: St. Peter struggles to express the value of his old house, and Tom fails twice to explain the value of the mesa, first to Rodney, then to the Washington officials. It is important to note that both men have successful communicative experiences as well: St. Peter’s books and articles capture the Southwest to the satisfaction of Father Duchene, and Tom fascinates St. Peter and his daughters with his vivid tales of the mesa. Both men, however, see their inability to communicate their love of place as a deep crisis. Cather illustrates that this crisis has its roots in the incompatibility between traditional patterns of place attachment as established in literary regionalism and the current modern experience.

While Tom and St. Peter clearly identify with and become attached to particular regional places, their attachment is complicated by their genealogical backgrounds. One of the primary modes of forming a lasting attachment to place, according to environmental psychologist Setha Low, is a family history of occupying the same area for generations. For ancient cultures, a history of occupation promoted an intimate understanding of physical geography that was necessary for survival and facilitated a place-based, communal identity in children through the telling of regional stories and family history. Many regional texts employ genealogical references in order to establish a similar occupational history. In The Country of the Pointed Firs, for example, the citizens of Dunnet Landing repeatedly tell stories that emphasize their residency through familiarity with the community’s past. The narrator becomes aware of her role as an empathetic insider [4] in this community when Mrs. Todd brings her to a “sainted” place where pennyroyal grows; Mrs. Todd had “never [shown] nobody else but mother where to find this place” (416). Such access to the intimate places of a region allows the narrator to participate actively in community life. Her sense of place attachment and her participation in storytelling together allow the narrator to surmount her status as a genealogical outsider, to the extent that she even takes part in the Bowden family reunion.

In The Professor’s House, however, Cather demonstrates that the lack of genealogical belonging cannot be overcome so easily. Tom’s childhood migration to the West and the subsequent death of his parents emphasize his lack of genealogical connection. Through Tom’s experiences, Cather explores genealogical revision as a means of place attachment, as Tom claims the ancient Pueblos as his “grandmothers.” This move is clearly, in his eyes, a testament to the attachment that he feels toward the mesa. Within the context of the novel, however—especially in the unacknowledged actions of the conquistadores that St. Peter devotes his life to studying—Tom’s attempts to adopt himself into the Native community are on the borderline between deep appreciation and acquisitiveness. As Deborah Lindsay Williams argues, Tom “links understanding with uncovering and ownership” (164). When Tom returns to the mesa after his falling out with Rodney over the artifact sale, he examines the landscape and realizes that it was “the first time [he] ever saw it as a whole” (249). Tom does not state what this vision consists of, but it seems to be a synthesis of all of the mesa’s individual parts—the landscape, its colors, its ancient inhabitants, its architecture, its history, stories, and myths—into a collective whole. Tom describes this feeling, saying, “it was possession” (250). While Tom’s holistic understanding of the intimate connections between place and community do promote his appreciation of the mesa’s intrinsic value, his assertion of his genealogical “rights” to the landscape move him from a position of citizen to owner, and from a feeling of belonging to one of possessing.

The other path of genealogy—the one most frequently adopted by American regionalists—is to trace one’s roots back to pre-colonial geographies of origin. This move strangely undercuts one of the presumed aims of regional literature: to be truly “American.” For Cather, the tension in negotiating this type of genealogical attachment is embodied in St. Peter’s garden. The garden is described as “French”: “there was not a blade of grass,” but instead gravel, carefully planned hedges and walls, and symmetrical trees (15). These features emphasize the “unnatural” qualities of the garden and suggest that it is an “imported” place. Mark Facknitz interprets the garden as a sign of St. Peter’s repression, arguing that the garden seems determined “to make something work where it does not belong” (297–98). The Professor himself seems to acknowledge the “out of place” character of the garden, as he sits in the garden and attends to it especially when he feels homesick for “other lands” (15). Ultimately, the garden represents St. Peter’s genealogy of mixed French Canadian and American farmer stock; even those American farmers are “imported” from somewhere else, and St. Peter relishes this imported quality in both the garden and himself, particularly through remembering his experiences in France. [5] When seen in the light of Cather’s praise for Jewett and the art of the imagined Frenchman, the positive qualities of St. Peter’s garden emerge. The garden is a place where land melts into life itself. It was built through a sometime-shared effort between St. Peter and the landlord; although the landlord refuses to pay for any repairs to the house, he pays for part of the garden wall, participates in the gardening, and dispenses advice (14–15). The garden also figures into the family’s relationship with Tom Outland. St. Peter is working in the garden when Tom first arrives at the house; it is the site of their first conversation. In the garden are grown not only ornamental plants but also salad greens. The family holds meals in the garden, and it is the place where Tom enacts imaginary adventures with the girls. Perhaps most importantly, the garden is a place of mentoring and friendship where the Professor and Tom “used to sit and talk half through the warm, soft nights” (16). Overall, the garden commingles natural and cultural aspects of gathering, hospitality, and belonging.

In these two places—Tom’s mesa and St. Peter’s garden— Cather raises serious questions concerning how individuals participate in place. She celebrates place attachment through the experiences of Tom and St. Peter, but she recognizes the challenges to forming such attachments. How is Tom, as a non-indigenous American, to form a meaningful place attachment without “possessing” the landscape? How can St. Peter’s garden, with its rigid structure and foreign elements, inspire organic relationships and inclusiveness? Tom and St. Peter experience genuine attachments to place, but because they are unable to articulate an appropriate expression of the place’s meaning, these relationships to place are unstable. As a result, several of Cather’s characters embrace market or economic value as a way to overcome their inability to express place attachment. This tension between “love of place,” attachment, and market value defines the modern experience of place and represents Cather’s more modern approach to regionalism.

Identifying Cather’s works as modern can be challenging, as elements of her own life seem at odds with the “modern” era. Novelist Fanny Hearst notes that the traditional furnishings of Cather’s domestic space and her circle of friends were “no more a part of Fitzgerald’s twenties than of Mars” (qtd. in Acocella 24). As Hearst demonstrates, Cather’s and Fitzgerald’s lifestyles were radically dissimilar. In “Echoes of the Jazz Age” (1931), Fitzgerald describes the 1920s as “the most expensive orgy in history,” a time marked by gaiety and cynicism, sexual exploration, and drunkenness, and he attributes such wild behaviors and intense feelings to “all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the War” (21, 13). Cather was two decades older than Fitzgerald, and Joan Acocella notes that Cather retained more nineteenth-century qualities in her lifestyle and her writing than other modernists did (23). Yet Fitzgerald himself was a vocal enthusiast of Cather’s work. He called My Ántonia “a great book!” in his letters, and he ranked Cather—along with Wharton, Dreiser, and Norris—among those “literary people of any pretensions . . . [who] have been more or less bonded together in the fight against intolerance and stupidity” (Correspondence 78–79). [6] He deeply admired A Lost Lady(1923), and anxiously apologized to Cather because he believed his portrait of Daisy Buchanan too closely resembled Marian Forrester; Cather admitted that she did not notice any correspondence between the two women in her own reading.

Walter Benn Michaels’s examination of modernism in Our Americaremains foundational for understanding how both The Professor’s Houseand The Great Gatsbyparticipate in the construction of national identities. Michaels primarily investigates who counts as a native, that is, who “belongs” as an insider in a particular place; my interest lies in howpeople belong, which can be seen through the regional consciousness that permeates Fitzgerald’s and Cather’s novels. Earlier regional novels, such as Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs, suggest that outsiders can become insiders through an appreciation for regional geography, which forms the foundation for place attachment. In their novels of 1925, both Cather and Fitzgerald question the ability of individuals to form attachment to place as our understanding of regions shifts in the modern era to encompass urban centers and to accommodate greater mobility. Although her characters are able to form some attachments to place, Cather also examines how materialism and feelings of exile or rootlessness impede such attachments. Through an understanding of Fitzgerald’s and Cather’s common ground concerning the anxiety of forming place attachment, we can not only better understand Cather’s engagement with modernism but also add complexity to our conceptions of literary modernism.

Tom Lutz initiates a modernization of regionalism in Cosmopolitan Vistas; as his title suggests, he advocates increased attention to the cosmopolitan features that appear in regional literature when insiders meet outsiders, the local meets the global, and the rural meets the urban. Commenting on one of the “hallmarks” of regional literature—a city visitor who narrates his or her trip to the country or provincial enclave—Lutz notes that while “in these texts the urban visitor’s perspective is represented as in some ways clearly superior to the rural ones,” this perspective “is far from reliable” (30). He continues, arguing that “the visitor does not, in the end, determine our reading, but helps give these texts their cosmopolitan flavor, since the competing cultural views voiced by visitors and visitees mirror and contend with one another.” Just as the city forms an integral part of regional writing, “the provinces” inform notable modern texts. [7] Susan Hegeman questions the assumption that “the city” is the primary inspirational source for modernism: “why would Faulkner write about life in the rural South; or why would Georgia O’Keefe abandon her fascination with New York skylines to paint the rural environs of Taos, New Mexico?” she asks (21). Through her examination of anthropology’s professionalization in the early twentieth century, Hegeman convincingly argues that the “spatial reconstruction of one’s relationship to the past,” particularly through objects, is central to modern thought (37). I would argue further that modern writers reconstruct their spatial relationships to the present through a negotiation of regions, and particularly through the relationship between one region and another, or between an urban center and the surrounding region.

Fitzgerald illustrates the urbanization of landscapes in the Midwest through the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He writes: “That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark in the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows in the snow” (184). Nick effectively captures several elements that traditionally define regional places, such as pastoral landscapes (wheat, prairies) and provincial towns that have a shared genealogical background (lost Swede towns). At the same time, Nick provides an alternative definition that reflects a dynamic, urban landscape. Specifically, his focus on trains suggests mobility, industrialization, and a movement away from genealogical definitions of belonging. Nick’s alternative regional definition does more than simply shift the cultural regional consciousness from rural to urban areas. His attachment to place highlights things—street lamps, sleigh bells, wreaths, and windows—and this emphasis asserts the role of an increasingly commodified culture as part of the modern regional experience.

In the Feld interview, Cather teases out the modern conflation of the market value of objects and their aesthetic beauty. She says that while “so many more of us are buying chiffoniers and bureaus and mirrors and toilet seats,” this new purchasing power should not be confused with culture; homes have increased in “comfort and luxury,” she continues, but “every home has not increased in beauty” (“Restlessness” 69). In contrast to the aesthetic appreciation of geography, which facilitates place attachment and communal belonging, the cosmopolitan lifestyle of St. Peter requires an erasure of regional boundaries. His picnic lunches—“chicken sandwiches with lettuce leaves, red California grapes, and two shapely, long-necked russet pears,” served with linen napkins (100); his alcohol—taken through “the City of Mexico . . . without duty” (97); his furs and furniture; and his trips abroad all reflect his epicurean tastes and his efforts to surround himself with the beauty, craftsmanship, and quality. [8]

The true effects of this cosmopolitan lifestyle and the practice of conspicuous consumption, however, become clear during St. Peter’s two trips to Chicago; although these trips have very different purposes and opposite emotional outcomes, both emphasize his acquiescence to luxury. After arriving by train in the middle of a snowstorm, St. Peter and his wife join the Marselluses at their hotel, Chicago’s famous Blackstone: “tea was served in Louie’s suite on the lake front, with a fine view of the falling snow from the windows. The Professor was in a genial mood; he was glad to be in a big city again, in a luxurious hotel, and especially pleased to be able to sit in comfort and watch the storm over the water” (89). In contrast to other place experiences, such as Tom Outland’s awestruck depictions of the mesa and St. Peter’s vivid childhood memories of Lake Michigan, the Blackstone experience lacks vivacity. The simplicity of the diction (the “fine view,” the “big city”) reinforces St. Peter’s complacent mood; the place is smooth and mesmerizing, and any details that could disturb his comfort have dissolved into generalities. Underneath St. Peter’s ease, however, is a sense of disconnection; in this Chicago scene, Cather demonstrates the difficulty of forming an attachment to place within a cocoon of luxury that walls off the individual and dulls the senses.

The ramifications of disconnection and a lack of attachment to place are apparent in St. Peter’s second trip to Chicago, as he accompanies Rosamond and Louie to select furniture for their new estate. Chicago is not valued as a place of spiritual renewal; it does not facilitate a sense of belonging, and it does not foster relationships between individuals. Instead, St. Peter and his family have created a marketplace identity for Chicago; its function is to provide access to luxury items, such as Spanish bedroom furniture and fur coats. As William Cronon points out in Nature’s Metropolis, in the nineteenth century Chicago developed into a gateway marketplace that extended the distance between the point of production and the point of consumption. As a result, goods “were valued according to the demands and desires of people who for the most part had never even seen the landscapes from which they came” (266). While an increased distance between production and consumption points can significantly increase an item’s luxury (through desirability, financial worth, or cultural value), it simultaneously diminishes the affective relationship between people and places. The consequences of this disconnect to place can be seen in St. Peter’s condition after the trip: fatigued and detached.

St. Peter himself does not attribute the commodified turn of mind in his family to a particular place, however, but rather to a person: Louie, who is Jewish. The stereotypical link between Jews and materialism in The Professor’s House has led to charges of anti-Semitism, most notably in Michaels’s Our America. Cather’s anti-Semitic stereotypes are regretful; however, Louie’s cultural heritage becomes a vehicle for the exploration of a torn, modern relationship to place through themes of diaspora and exile.

Howard Wettstein explains that, especially from a Jewish standpoint, diaspora and exile can be seen as opposing terms. [9] He defines diaspora as a “geopolitical dispersion,” which may be involuntary, but the term also encompasses a voluntary dispersion for people who “simply [decide] to leave, say for want of economic improvement or cultural enrichment” (47).Exile, in contrast, is a more religious concept that involves “involuntary removal from homeland” and “being somehow in the wrong place,” often as punishment. Louie embodies the more positive concept of diaspora, rather than exile, as he voluntarily moves between and within regions. This mobility allows him to pursue economic improvement and cultural enrichment, and his characterization suggests a link between diasporic behavior and cosmopolitanism. Although Louie’s pursuit of money and cultural opportunity is explicitly critiqued by his brother-in-law Scott McGregor and St. Peter, the latter, in particular, exhibits similar diasporic tendencies. Any critiques of Louie could be applied to St. Peter; any acceptance of St. Peter’s pursuit of improvement— likewise, it seems—could also be applied to Louie. Through St. Peter’s criticism of Louie and the novel’s underlying critique of St. Peter, Cather exemplifies her fears concerning cosmopolitanism, as both men fail to investigate the relationship between their consumer lifestyles, the “cultural enrichment” these lifestyles propose, and the effects of consumption and cosmopolitanism on their own sense of place. Fitzgerald echoes these failures at self-investigation when Nick considers the Buchanans’ decision to live in New York: “Why they came east I don’t know. They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then they drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people play polo and were rich together” (10). The cosmopolitan Buchanans “drift” toward opportunities of cultural enrichment (playing polo) and economic improvement (being surrounded by other rich people), but as a consequence they fail to develop any type of meaningful attachments to, or even distinctions between, the places they inhabit.

In both Fitzgerald’s and Cather’s novels, conspicuous consumption provides one means of pursuing these missing place attachments; through the acquisition of more goods, especially goods that are aesthetically pleasing or luxurious, the characters increase their potential avenues of attachment. The Marsellus mansion, Outland, provides an excellent example. While the mansion was ostensibly created to honor its namesake (particularly through museum spaces for Tom Outland’s laboratory materials and library), many of its features are incongruent with this purpose. Instead, the mansion functions as a showcase to display opulence and wealth. Louie and Rosamond select a pristine location on Lake Michigan, where their Paris-trained architect plans to build “a Norwegian manor house, very harmonious with its setting, just the right thing for rugged pine woods and high headlands” (40). Clearly, the Marselluses consider the aesthetics of place as they build their home; however, Outland becomes a cosmopolitan marketplace—like Chicago—where products are to be consumed and displayed, such as the perfect wrought-iron hinges and latches that are more distinctive (and expensive) than Colonial glass knobs. In addition to the Outland mansion, St. Peter’s (new) house and Gatsby’s mansion constitute Cather’s and Fitzgerald’s critical portraits of erratic consumerism, one driven by preoccupations with display and excessiveness. Each of these places embodies the critique against modernization that Cather expressed in her Feld interview, for these houses have indeed increased in “comfort and luxury,” but not necessarily beauty, through the accumulation of goods (see “Restlessness” 69).

Cather’s characters are not blind to consequences of consumption and their ramifications for attachment and belonging. St. Peter recognizes that his attachment to his garden was cultivated through an intimacy with the place, his own work to create the garden, and its role in facilitating community. As St. Peter prepares to move, he anticipates that the new occupants will not value the garden, since they were not involved in its production and history. After one gardening session he asks his wife, “what am I to do about the garden in the end, Lillian? Destroy it? Or leave it up to the mercy of the next tenants?” (76–77). In contrast to Louie’s embrace of diasporic mobility, in this instance St. Peter leans toward exile and regret in anticipation of his move because he is painfully aware of the difficulty of forming an attachment to a new place. As the novel closes the garden remains intact, and it seems safe to say that St. Peter does not follow through with his destructive suggestion. But the full impact of his thoughts can be seen in light of the story of the cliff dwellers that haunts the text. These ancient people, by choice or by force, [10] did what St. Peter is afraid to do: they left everything behind. St. Peter’s anxiety concerning the appreciation of place is realized through the experience of the cliff dwellers, for while Tom becomes attached to the mesa through his aesthetic appreciation of physical geography, and even attempts to form a genealogical attachment to this place and people, the belongings of the cliff dwellers have been left “to the mercy of the next tenants.” Tom’s endeavors to preserve this historic place cannot be sustained through modern regional consciousness: he and Rodney fight over the economic value of the artifacts, Tom’s requests for government aid go ignored, and dozens of objects—including human remains—are disturbed in the process. Ultimately, Cather’s novel suggests that an individual sense of place attachment, one that cannot be successfully communicated or shared with others, will be unsustainable due to the competing definitions of value that face a modern industrial world.

The Professor’s House represents a modern approach to place as Cather examines and questions the formation of place attachment in a changing modern landscape. The concluding section of the novel considers a concept that remains unexplored in earlier forms of regional writing: the attempt to learn to live in exile, or in “the wrong place.” In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway recognizes his own exile when the East becomes “haunted” for him, like a grotesque El Greco painting, after Gatsby’s death (185). When Nick confidently states that he “decided to come back home,” he suggests that mobility is the key to defeating exile. A similar act of returning to a place is celebrated in Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs; the opening chapter is appropriately named “The Return” as the narrator comes back to Dunnet Landing for a second visit. In Country there is no doubt that the narrator will be able to resume her life and attachment to the community. In The Professor’s House, in contrast, Cather emphasizes the impossibility of return due to changes in time. The Professor can renew his attachment to place through his childhood memories and his memories of Tom Outland and their time on the mesa, but it is impossible for him to return to the past; St. Peter’s attempt to literally live in the past of the old house nearly kills him. His resulting acquiescence to life in the new house, in a place where he does not feel at home, suggests that exile is a permanent condition. Cather, who seems unwilling to leave “the old house” of regionalism, ultimately suggests that returning to a place does not circumvent exile, but that through knowing one’s place, exile can be endured: “at least,” the Professor notes, “he felt the ground under his feet. He thought he knew where he was” (283).


 1. I appreciate Wendy Katz and Timothy Mahoney’s effective definition of a regional identity as “a sense of belonging, and awareness of similar traits among people living under similar conditions, or not coincidentally, of how their cultural patterns are distinctive in comparison to other regions or places” (xi). A regional identity, however, seems problematically tied to a single region; as Cather demonstrates in her life and in her fiction, individuals may identify with and belong to several regions. As a result, I prefer the term “regional consciousness” to convey how individuals use concepts related to regional affiliation in order to make meaning. (Go back.)
 2. Reynolds, Michaels, and Herring place “regional” before “modern” (as in “regional modernist” or “regional modernism”) to describe Cather and her work. By identifying Cather as a “modern regionalist” I seek to position her as a regional writer who experiments with modern forms and engages in topics associated with literary modernism. (Go back.)
 3. “Topophilia,” broadly defined by Yi-Fu Tuan, includes “all of the human being’s affective ties with the material environment” (93). (Go back.)
 4. Edward Relph uses the term “empathetic insider” to distinguish between several levels of insider and outsider as part of place-based identities. He explains that “to be inside a place empathetically is to understand that place as rich in meaning, and hence to identify with it, for these meetings are not only linked to the experiences and symbols of those whose place it is, but also stem from one’s own experiences” (54–55). (Go back.)
 5. James Woodress and Kari Ronning’s detailed explanatory notes to the Scholarly Edition reveal the degree of importation that St. Peter’s garden contains. While the plants are notable for their popularity in European gardens, several have transcontinental origins, including the geraniums (native to Africa), the French marigolds (native to Brazil), and the dahlias (native to Mexico and Central America). (Go back.)
 6. This quote is from a letter to Thomas Boyd, the literary editor of the St. Paul Daily News, which Boyd subsequently printed as a feature item in the newspaper. Fitzgerald discusses the current state of literary art in America by beginning with the argument that the “history of a young man” formula has been overworked. He turns to an examination of the upper-class reading public who simply “read what they’re told” and believe that they are cultured. (Go back.)
 7. Lutz’s arguments continue an avenue of inquiry established by Stephanie Foote, who suggests that “although regional texts focused almost exclusively on rural concerns, their nostalgic tone shows then to have been profoundly shaped by an awareness of the globalizing and standardizing tendencies of urbanization and industrialization” (3). Foote’s reading of regionalism addresses globalization and urbanization more directly than Brodhead or Fetterley and Pryce; however, as this quote indicates, Foote still situates regional literature as nostalgic and rural. Lutz’s argument, and my own, investigates a less dichotomous approach to the relationship between regional and urban places. (Go back.)
 8. Christopher Nealon argues that St. Peter’s “nostalgia for French and Spanish culture” and his distaste for the “feminine” shopping spree of his daughter form the foundation for his domestic alienation (84). Further treatment of the significance of objects in Cather’s fiction can be found in Janis Stout’s edited collection Willa Cather and Material Culture. (Go back.)
 9. Wettstein opens his essay by explaining that “diaspora is a relatively new English word and has no traditional Hebrew equivalent” (47). According to his notes, the first OED reference occurs in 1876, and by 1881 the term was used by Encyclopaedia Britannica to refer specifically to Jewish relocation (58 n. 1). (Go back.)
 10. In the novel, Father Duchene hypothesizes that the able-bodied members of the tribe were ambushed by a hostile tribe while farming away from the cliff dwellings, and that the elderly population remaining in Cliff City abandoned the site when the farmers did not return. Anthropologists continue to examine evidence from several different types of ancient structures, including the cliff dwellings, to understand their migration. David Stuart analyzes Chacoan settlements and argues that an increasingly class-stratified society, in combination with drought, put communities under tremendous stress that ultimately led to increased ritualistic behavior, possible violence, and abandonment. Mark Varien and Richard Wilshusen’s collection of anthropological essays on the Mesa Verde region are more technical in nature but offer intriguing investigations of environmental and community stress that could cause depopulation or migration. (Go back.)


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