Recently, while preparing William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) for an American realism seminar, I sensed something familiar in this passage where Lapham shows the journalist Bartley Hubbard the orderly barrels stored behind the Boston headquarters of his internationally successful paint company: "It was very cool and pleasant in that dim wareroom, with the rafters showing overhead in a cloudy perspective, and darkening away into the perpetual twilight at the rear of the building; and Bartley had found an agreeable seat on the head of a half-barrel of the paint, which he was reluctant to leave" (12). Having just done a study of twilight imagery in Willa Cather's fiction, I reached for The Professor's House (1925) and opened to Tom Outland's account of the Indian ruins at Cliff City, where "[b]ehind the cluster of houses was a kind of back court-yard, running from end to end of the cavern; a long, low, twilit space that got gradually lower toward the back until the rim rock met the floor of the cavern, exactly like the sloping roof of an attic. There was perpetual twilight back there, cool, shadowy, very grateful after the blazing sun in the front courtyard" (207).
The statistically improbable recurrence of the expression "perpetual twilight" to describe similarly dim and cool, if far-flung, architectural recesses suddenly highlighted, for me, the remarkable narrative correspondences between two major American novels that rarely meet. There they stood, mutually revealed: two male protagonists, a New England industrialist and a midwestern history professor, at the apex of successful careers and at the juncture between old and new houses marking their social ascent; protagonists heading families with two daughters, daughters, moreover, involved confusedly with a suitor named Tom arriving from remote social and geographical terrain; a suitor who, in each novel, also becomes involved romantically (in the poetic sense) with the father-protagonist's career, opening the father to the vision of "perpetual twilight" that is a central image in each work; a career complicated, in each, by a great industrial innovation and the opportunities, burdens, and ruptures it brings; narratives that famously resolve with a climactic act of nondecision on the part of the protagonist. Like Tom Outland "struck" as if by "a rifle ball" with the notion that Blue Mesa once "had been the home of a powerful tribe, a particular civilization" (200-201), I was startled to recognize in The Professor's House, Cather's modernist set piece, the sturdy ruins of its realist ancestor, hiding in plain sight.
The unlikely correspondences between these exemplary texts—separated by forty years, the Great War, and an artistic revolution—offer a special opportunity to track the development of Cather's modernism from Howellsian realism. Though she was awarded the Howells Medal in 1930, Cather had a vexed relationship with her realist forebear. Typical of her generation, she spiked her homage to Howells with the occasional putdown, as when she trivialized his characters as "very common little men in sack coats," though "real" (Kingdom of Art 407). Late in life she remembered The Rise of Silas Lapham as the very model of a "stuffy or dull" schoolbook (Cather to Mr. Phillipson, 23 December 1943). Thus her deployment of Howellsian materials in The Professor's House is not a case of imitation but of formal, social, and thematic rearrangement. Taking a cue from Cather's protagonist, I will define the relationship between The Professor's House and its Howellsian pretext as typological or figural, analogous to how the New Testament is understood, in biblical interpretation, to fulfill or expand upon people, things, and events in the Old Testament. Godfrey St. Peter (his name archly redolent of the New Testament) refers to this modernizing strategy when he articulates the relationship between Hebrew and Christian history in response to a student's question in the lecture hall: "The Christian theologians went over the books of the Law, like great artists, getting splendid effects by excision. They reset the stage with more space and mystery, throwing all the light upon a few sins of great dramatic value" (69). This form of exegesis positions The Professor's House as a "resetting" of The Rise of Silas Lapham. Cather adds psychological depth and spatial form to the largely social and financial entanglements of the linear realist plot. She resets the Howellsian material "with more space and mystery" through several strategic acts of "excision" and selection that illuminate some regions while leaving others shrouded in darkness and mystery: distancing her protagonist from the financial gains of his own success; consigning the marriage plot to the irrecoverable past; interrupting the novel's linear progression with the past of "Tom Outland's Story"; and (like Christian exegetes of the Old Testament) establishing continuities between texts and between lives.
Howells and Cather each portray a man whose personal success has positioned him to occupy a more stylish, upscale house. We first meet Lapham in the summer of 1875 when the journalist Hubbard interviews him for the "Solid Men of Boston" series in "The Events." According to Hubbard's cheeky sketch the construction of Lapham's new home "on the water side of Beacon Street, after designs by one of our leading architectural firms," is already well advanced and sure to produce "one of the finest ornaments of that exclusive avenue" (20). The Laphams are preparing their launch into Boston society from their old home on Nankeen Square, which was already falling out of fashion when they moved there twelve years earlier. Decorated with "the costliest and most abominable frescoes" (23), the Nankeen Square house showcases their vulgar taste as well as their patriotic sentiments (Colonel Lapham having been injured at Gettysburg), its high-toned drawing room ornamented with western landscapes, "allegories of Faith and Prayer," and "an Italian conception of Lincoln Freeing the Slaves" (190). The new house projects a hope of social elevation put in their heads through a chance involvement with a Boston Brahmin family, the Coreys. Lapham is all bluster and pride about the Back Bay project—he imagines it an extension of himself, even though its impeccable style owes wholly to the intervention of his architect and to the marginally quicker apprehension of his wife. He imagines his daughters showing to good effect through the front windows and plans a music room and a library outfitted with books acquired on others' advice.
While Howells's protagonist is a brutish Gilded Age social climber, Cather's is a more modernist type, a self-absorbed scholar, circa 1925, who resists the social elevation resulting from his belated academic recognition. Cather's novel begins even further along the action proceeding to a domestic elevation. The moving is "over and done," but St. Peter haunts the "dismantled" shell of his old rental (11) even as Lapham pokes about the "skeleton" of his rising structure on Beacon Street (39). The old house's inconveniences—"the stairs that were too steep, the halls that were too cramped, the awkward oak mantels with thick round posts crowned by bumptious wooden balls, over green-tiled fire-places" (11)—are, in this case, an index not of its inhabitant's bad taste but of his distinction, the singleminded drive to realize a vision while pushing vulgarity to the blindside. The product of that vision, the eight-volume Spanish Adventurers in North America, has won St. Peter the Oxford prize for history and the five thousand pounds that finance the new house he prefers not to occupy. Because the Professor shuns it, the new house is only vaguely sketched; the bathrooms, we learn, are state of the art, and Godfrey and Lillian have separate bedrooms, an indulgence that reifies their growing estrangement. The novel's central room is the Professor's attic study in the otherwise empty old house, where he continues to work—beside two manikins retained from the seamstress Augusta—taking excursions into the French garden out back. The study affords a view, on the horizon, of Lake Michigan, the "inland sea of his childhood," "a part of consciousness itself" that sustains and invigorates his intellectual life (30-31). It contrasts with the stunning view over to Cambridge from the Lapham girls' new Back Bay bedroom in Howells's novel, embodying for Lapham not an intellectual but a social horizon. "Yes, sir," Lapham boasts, "it's about the sightliest view I know of. . . . When you come to the Back Bay at all, give me the water side of Beacon" (49).
In both novels the house plot unfolds in connection with a marriage plot involving the protagonists' two daughters and an unlikely suitor named Tom who simultaneously takes an interest in the father's career. After coming into the orbit of the Laphams, Howells's suitor character, the Harvard-educated Tom Corey, causes intrigue as he gravitates closer to this uncultivated family. To Lapham's shock and triumph Corey seeks a position in the paint company, proposing to use his language skills to market the product abroad. Deeply moved by Corey's fellow feeling, Lapham invites him to dinner with the family on Nantasket, where the young man seals his relationship with the father, socializes with daughters Irene and Penelope, and spends the night. Cather rehearses a similar sequence of events in The Professor's House, though these unfold in the novel's past, before the Great War. Here the suitor, Tom Outland, is an orphan seeking an education, not an aristocrat seeking a job, but this very fact makes him spiritually akin to Tom Corey, who is effectively orphaned by his dilettantish, cash-strapped father—even as Outland seems a kind of natural aristocrat. Like Corey, Outland is, in his own way, a magnet for the daughters, an ungainly western hero dropped into Rosamond and Kathleen's backyard. Like Corey he approaches a successful man to secure a position and finds a mentor, a family, and romance as well. Both young men, abruptly venturing beyond their upbringings, are wide eyed and socially out of step. Corey's refinement falls flat before Lapham's matter-of-fact manners, while Outland's western ruggedness exceeds the bounds of the professor's garden and house. But both protégés impress their would-be mentors enough to get themselves invited to a family meal.
It is in the plot development issuing from the initial approach of the suitor that The Professor's House swerves most sharply from the realist pretext, even as it dramatizes its genetic roots in realist materials. In Howells's novel the Laphams fret over whether Tom Corey is actually interested in the paint or in Irene, the older, prettier daughter. Tom drops a bombshell when he proclaims his love for the plainer, bookish daughter Penelope, whom he eventually marries, notwithstanding Irene's emotional collapse and stoic recovery. This marriage plot, tracked incrementally, occupies the bulk of Howells's novel. In Cather's novel the marriage plot lurks mysteriously in the past and shows itself only in suggestive flashes. We see, through St. Peter's memory, Outland as a dashing older playmate to Rosamond and Kathleen. We surmise, through a cryptic, knowing exchange between the adult Kathleen and her husband, Scott McGregor, that Outland had initially—and secretly—professed love to Kathleen, not his eventual fiancée Rosamond (108-9). The love triangle involving two sisters, central to the realist pretext, registers in the modernist novel as a perplexing afterimage.
The remoteness of the marriage plot in The Professor's House is a function of Tom Outland's ghostly presence in the novel, "just . . . a glittering idea," as Scott McGregor puts it (110). Indeed, Tom Outland is the ghost in the machinery of Cather's realism, the source of its modernist turn. And so it is that Tom's great industrial invention, the Outland engine, explodes the parameters of Howells's industrial focus, Lapham's mineral paint. Outland's invention is vague and shape-shifting—here an engine, there a vacuum, there again a gas—making it a kind of figure for Outland's elusive presence in the modernist text itself. By contrast, Lapham's paint (like a caricature of Howellsian realism) adheres to the surface of things, shoring up their physical presence, preserving their quiddity. "It'll prevent decay, and it'll stop it, after it's begun, in tin or iron," Lapham promises. "You can paint the inside of a cistern or a bath-tub with it, and water wont hurt it; and you can paint a steam-boiler with it, and heat wont" (11). In an introductory wink at Howells, Cather notes the Professor's habit, in the old house, of leaping into the tin bathtub "to give it another coat of some one of the many paints that were advertised to behave like porcelain, and didn't" (12)—effectively undermining, as Howells never does, the credibility of Lapham's salesmanship. Later she has St. Peter wondering—as from a phantom instinct—why he never painted the attic's rusty stove (27).
While the rise of Lapham's paint company (though not without controversy) is as conventional as the Colonel himself, Outland's scientific discovery runs an erratic course of brilliance and risk that continues to bewitch his survivors. Each container of Lapham's paint bears witness to its smooth, patrilineal provenance in "the mystic devices, N. L. f. 1835—S. L. t. 1855": Nehemiah Lapham found the paint mine in 1835, and Silas Lapham tried it twenty years later (11). Its expansion was interrupted only briefly by Lapham's service in the Civil War. In The Professor's House the Great War takes the life of the inventor Outland and "swept away all youth and all palms, and almost Time itself" (261). The postwar commercial development of the Outland engine falls to the Jewish arriviste Louie Marsellus, who marries Outland's fiancée Rosamond and realizes a fortune on Outland's largely theoretical conception. The grafting of this acquisitive and magnanimous stranger upon Outland's legacy throws all the novel's central relationships out of balance and divides that legacy into materialistic and spiritual streams. On a materialistic level St. Peter indulges, and at turns enjoys, the habits of conspicuous spending and building that have overtaken his family since Louie came aboard. But the materialistic legacy has its darker side, including the lingering claims of the ailing physicist Robert Crane, Outland's academic advisor, on the profits of his student's invention. Crane, who threatens a lawsuit, has a forerunner in Howells's novel: Milton K. Rogers, the cast-off partner and investor who repeatedly badgers Lapham for restitution and eventually pulls him into the scheme that proves his undoing. By consigning the economic boon of Outland's genius to Louie and Rosamond, by making them the social climbers, Cather charts a spiritual course for St. Peter radically different from Lapham's. According to the logic of the Howells novel Lapham must lose his fortune in order to rise spiritually. In Cather's novel St. Peter's spiritual rise parallels his family's economic rise and therefore demands special feats of imagination to achieve.
A comparison of Silas Lapham and Godfrey St. Peter as imaginative men requires another look at the suitors who fire their imaginations, Corey and Outland. Tom Corey's business and marital appeals speak primarily to Lapham's socioeconomic ambition, but from the start Tom Outland is a boon to St. Peter's artistic imagination—his desire to translate into a great scholarly opus a remote historical, linguistic, and geographical world. Significantly, in the course of their self-introductions both Toms discuss their knowledge of languages, including Spanish. Indeed, both young men have spent time in the Southwest, Corey in Texas, as well as Mexico and South America, and Outland in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. A comparison of these opening interviews reveals how both mentors, whether by instinct or design, zero in on the cultural and linguistic capital that will serve their interests. When Lapham asks Corey how he proposes to help push the paint in foreign markets, Corey replies:
"Well, I know two or three languages pretty well. I know French, and I know German, and I've got a pretty fair sprinkling of Spanish."Later Lapham pronounces Corey "a splendid Spanish scholar" who has "been among the natives enough to know their ways" (78). When Tom Outland applies to St. Peter, he demonstrates his study of Latin, under a Belgian missionary priest, with a recitation from the Aeneid. The Professor asks:
"You mean that you can talk them?" asked the Colonel, with the mingled awe and slight that such a man feels for such accomplishments. (66)
"Did you learn any French from him?"
"No, sir. He wanted to practise his Spanish." "You speak Spanish?"
"Not very well, Mexican Spanish."
The Professor tried him out in Spanish and told him he thought he knew enough to get credit for a modern language. (112)
Their knowledge of Spanish and Hispanic cultures gives each young man a key to expanding the older man's enterprises at a critical juncture. After Lapham's financial ruin Tom Corey markets his father-in-law's specialty Persis Brand in Mexico and Central America, giving Lapham one surviving economic interest as he fades into retirement (317-18). Whereas Corey supplies Lapham with an otherwise unattainable future, Outland supplies St. Peter with a missing past—a personal past that unlocks an historical vision:
If the last four volumes of "The Spanish Adventurers" were more simple and inevitable than those that went before, it was largely because of Outland. When St. Peter first began his work, he realized that his great drawback was the lack of early association, the fact that he had not spent his youth in the great dazzling Southwest country which was the scene of his explorers' adventures. By the time he had got as far as the third volume, into his house walked a boy who had grown up there, a boy with imagination, with the training and insight resulting from a very curious experience; who had in his pocket the secrets which old trails and stones and watercourses tell only to adolescence. (259)One summer Outland served as the Professor's guide along the trail of Fray Garcés, following St. Peter's copy of a Spanish manuscript; another summer they spent in Mexico. These pragmatic encounters with Outland give substance to St. Peter's airy design for his history—which he envisions from the deck of a boat hugging the coast of Spain—just as surely as the Spanish adventurers' New World experience tempered their Iberian preconceptions.
Through their cultivation and experience Tom Corey and Tom Outland help foster the visions of "perpetual twilight" that grip the imaginations of Lapham and St. Peter. Lapham's twilight vision is initially one of capitalist frontiers, economically and socially conceived—a future of constant innovation and development. The "cloudy perspective . . . darkening away to perpetual twilight at the rear of" Lapham's wareroom suggests the expanse of his economic empire, murky in its vastness. Later the twilight imagery shifts to a more exclusive social field when, after becoming uneasily familiar with the Corey family, "[a] cloudy vision of something unpurchasable, where he had supposed there was nothing, had cowed [Lapham] in spite of the burly resistance of his pride" (128). Tom Corey helps Lapham advance toward both economic and social horizons, offering him prospects for his paint in Latin America and a possible foothold in Boston society. These horizons begin to shut down with Lapham's economic collapse, but visiting his unfinished Beacon Street house at twilight, he refuses to relinquish it as an image of personal success. "Perpetual twilight" has become an element of character: "The long procession of lamps on the beautiful street was flaring in the clear red of the sunset towards which it marched, and Lapham, with a lump in his throat, stopped in front of his house and looked at their multitude. They were not merely a part of the landscape; they were a part of his pride and glory, his success, his triumphant life's work which was fading into failure in his helpless hands" (272-73). Not even the burning of his house and the collapse of his business can deter Lapham fundamentally from his expansionist vision. He returns to Vermont, poor and chastened certainly, but after a time ready to pursue on a diminished scale his economic, if not his social, dreams.
In The Professor's House perpetual twilight is a spiritual horizon defined not by capitalist progress but by epistemology, by what exists beyond fixed forms of meaning. In St. Peter's experience "[t]o share [Tom Outland's] thoughts was to see old perspectives transformed by new effects of light" (258). "Perpetual twilight" is, literally, Outland's description of the makeshift space behind the sculptural repose of Cliff City. In contrast to the symmetrical stillness of the foreground composition arranged around the central tower, the twilit "back court-yard" is dynamic and messy, with charred bones and corn kernels and tools strewn about. (It differs, in this regard, from the orderly "rows and ranks" of product in the twilit back wareroom of Lapham's paint headquarters.) The "soft trickling sound" of the spring once mixed with the sounds of a "common kitchen" where people "roasted and baked and probably gossiped" (208). "Perpetual twilight" is the unstable half-light where fixed structures join a more casual stream of experience. Even the "inevitable" design of the Spanish Adventurers (105) intermingles, for St. Peter, with the "playful pattern" of domestic life (100) and the "curious experience" of Tom Outland (259). When St. Peter enters a "twilight stage" late in the novel, he escapes the completed edifice of his adult life for a back court of raw materials: "earth and woods and water." There he encounters the childhood self he had left behind in Kansas, "the original, unmodified Godfrey St. Peter" that existed before the "secondary social man, the lover," was "grafted" upon it (263-67). The distinction from the Howellsian pretext is very exact. Lapham physically returns to his native Vermont due to economic failure. The Kansas boy returns to St. Peter spiritually, despite economic success. Unlike St. Peter, Lapham cannot recover a prior self, as Howells's narrator makes clear: "[H]e knew that he should not find his vanished youth in his native hills" (310). Indeed, for Lapham marriage has become the irreducible bedrock of the self; his reorganized company sells only one product, the Persis Brand, named for his wife. By contrast St. Peter, through a further grafting of identity, reverts to the original self that preceded the social man.
For St. Peter, as for Lapham, "perpetual" twilight burns away, and both men confront the present moment in nocturnal scenes of indecision. Lapham's dark night of the soul centers on a point of business ethics: whether to sell a millworks that will soon be rendered worthless by the adjacent railroad's monopoly on transportation. Unable to make a decision by daybreak, Lapham watches the last chance to save his business slip away. He passively lets the marketplace determine his fate, but it is his indecision that saves him from an ethical lapse. As Lapham states inarticulately to Minister Sewell in the novel's final paragraph: "Well, it don't always seem as if I done it. . . . Seems sometimes as if it was a hole opened for me, and I crept out of it. I don't know" (321). With this escape hatch Howells culminates an image pattern: Lapham's enterprises originate from his father's discovery of the paint "in a hole made by a tree blowing down" (6), and later, in the depths of financial trouble, Lapham tells his wife, "I'm in a hole" (252). The hole that finally opens for him restores him to the solid ground and "small things" that predate his economic rise (15).
The Professor's dark night, adrift from family and community, also pivots on an ethical dilemma: whether he is morally obliged to open the window when he suddenly awakens in the gas-filled attic: "How far was a man required to exert himself against accident? How would such a case be decided under English law?" (276). St. Peter's near asphyxiation, his release from consciousness and rescue by Augusta, parallels the passive resolution of Lapham's business dilemma. "[W]hen he was confronted with accidental extinction," St. Peter later reflects, "he had felt no will to resist, but had let chance take its way, as it had done with him so often" (282). In effect a hole opens for St. Peter and he creeps out, but here the hole is opened not by the impersonal workings of the marketplace but by "kind and loyal" Augusta (281), who literally drags him to safety. "I was barely in time to pull you out," Augusta later explains to St. Peter. "I ran up and opened the two windows at the head of the stairs and dragged you out into the wind" (277-78). "Seasoned and sound and on the solid earth," Augusta embodies the "bloomless" and "bitter" side of life that St. Peter has instinctively fled but now grudgingly embraces, seeing in her the "humankind" he rejoins after his descent toward death (280-81). She offers an alternative to his "original" self, to his memories of Tom Outland, and to his intellectual retreat, the "desk" that—echoing Howells's imagery—"was . . . a hole one could creep into" (159). It is through Augusta's intervention that St. Peter finally "felt the ground under his feet. . . . and that he could face with fortitude . . . the future" (283). St. Peter's ultimate kinship with Augusta, spiritually connected to "a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound" (281), sets him beyond the socioeconomic horizons of Howells's novel.
Cather once remarked that "the way stories are usually made" is by "grafting . . . some outside figure with some part of the writer's self" (Cather to Mr. Phillipson, 15 March 1943, Selected Letters 614). The plot and imagery of The Professor's House, which Edith Lewis called "the most personal of Willa Cather's novels" (137), offer ample evidence that Cather incorporated the figure of Silas Lapham in the process of cultivating her character Godfrey St. Peter. For all his distance from Lapham in values and intellect, St. Peter betrays the lineaments of his capitalist forebear, even as he treads a social landscape half-lit by the phantasmagoria of Howells's Gilded Age. Rewarded for his historical imagination, St. Peter, albeit reluctantly, builds his house and goes through the motions of social advancement. His project of self-renewal, enabled by his financial security, counterpoints Louie's capitalist adventures and remains hounded by the "vulgar tongue" of economics that his family, and Outland's legacy, continues to speak (63). As Deborah Karush has argued, St. Peter's personal journey internalizes expansionist impulses that bring European and frontier colonialism as well as global economic adventurism into the novel's orbit.
Broadly viewed, however, The Professor's House is about how one life, one phase of life—or one text—can be grafted with another in more liberating and astounding ways than allowed by the conventions of Howellsian realism. In Silas Lapham social barriers are relatively intractable. The transplantation of the Laphams into the tough soil of Boston society fails because finally—in the parting commentary of Howells's narrator—"our manners and customs go for more in life than our qualities" (317). For Howells the burdens of literary history are also difficult to overcome: witness the painfully slow unraveling of the love triangle and the text's continual harping about its own literary ancestor, the romance. Cather's novel, more freewheeling in its intertextuality—alluding to the Aeneid, Othello, "The Pit and the Pendulum," The American, Le Mannequin d'Osier, and so on—is also more socially liberal and open to unexpected shifts in time and space. Tom Outland imagines himself, in some sense, a descendent of the Cliff Dwellers. And despite Hamilton's persisting antiSemitism, Louie Marsellus roots himself into the St. Peter family and shapes its customs and manners to a degree unimaginable in Silas Lapham's approach to the Coreys. As his family pursues its fortunes, St. Peter, with assistance from Outland and later Augusta, cultivates the "all-embracing" attribute of "quality" that he believes runs deeper than customs and manners.
By building her modernist novel upon a realist template, Cather achieves a "perpetual twilight" between realism and modernism where their forms and values interpenetrate. Her modernism does not break free of the Howellsian pretext so much as break it open, revealing the qualities she wanted to emphasize. Like the Christian exegetes of the Old Testament, in St. Peter's analysis, Cather reworks her pretext in pursuit of mystery and "dramatic value." Her novel fulfills, in certain respects, a dream of social and cultural fluidity that Howells's novel only begins to sketch; at the same time she dramatizes further barriers to that dream: socially, in anti-Semitism, and individually, in the private yearnings that make "the heart of another . . . a dark forest, always" (93). Howells himself speculates at the end of Criticism and Fiction that one day realism "may be superseded by a still more faithful form of contemporaneous history" (87). But as his "light of common day" (39) segues into the twilight of psychological crises and renewals that inflect Cather's modernist plot, the realist structure remains, renovated but recognizable.
"A turquoise set in silver, wasn't it? . . . Yes, a turquoise set in dull silver," reads the epigram to The Professor's House, quoting Louie's description of a bracelet that Outland had given Rosamond (106). Usually taken to represent the insertion of "Tom Outland's Story" into the "stuffy" St. Peter plot—of the nouvelle into the roman (Willa Cather on Writing 30-31)—this epigram could as well refer to the novel's improvisations upon its realist pretext. No wonder Cather remembered The Rise of Silas Lapham as "stuffy" and "dull"; she found there the "dull silver" in which her turquoise was set.
Research on this essay was funded by a grant from the National Science Council, Taiwan (nsc 99-2410-h-030-014-my3).