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From Cather Studies Volume 13

Grave and God-Free: Ethelbert Nevin as a Pivotal Historical Source in "The Professor's Commencement" and The Professor's House

At two points in Willa Cather’s writing life, she imagined an academic nearing the end of his career. Emerson Graves in “The Professor’s Commencement” (published in The New England Magazine in 1902) can be seen as an early blueprint for the more accomplished and pragmatic academic, Godfrey St. Peter, in The Professor’s House (1925). My argument is multipronged: First, that Cather’s friend, the Sewickley-born pianist and composer Ethelbert Nevin, serves as an important historical source for both characters.[1] Second, although both protagonists are teachers, their sensibilities align more imaginatively with the musician, Nevin—a template for all great artists. Third, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American Transcendentalist, serves as an ideological source for Emerson Graves, and somewhat less directly for Godfrey St. Peter, as Cather uses mid-nineteenthcentury educational thought as the basis for her academic characters; for in the final analysis, both fictional men represent the spirit of failed Romanticism.

There are numerous reasons a reader might be tempted to draw parallels between Ethelbert Nevin and Emerson Graves, not the least of which is the timing of the story’s publication—just months after the composer’s death on February 17, 1901. Additionally, there are myriad temperamental affinities among all three (Nevin, Graves, and St. Peter). Nevin is described by his second biographer, John Tasker Howard, as someone who struggled with an inner demon, at least the last seven or so years of his life. Howard writes euphemistically that Nevin was fighting a “weakness.” “[W]hen playing in public proved a strain, he would turn to the enemy he thought was a friend, and as his weakness became an anti-social, solitary habit, it played havoc with his disposition and the natural sweetness of his nature” (221). Solitary drinking is the “enemy” referenced by Howard, though most of Cather’s fictional men battle enemies somewhat less tangible.[2] Graves is accused by his sister of being a masochist, who seems to turn on himself and his own potential; she says, “Your real gift is getting all the possible pain out of life” (“Professor’s Commencement” 482). St. Peter is similarly divided against himself. Cather writes that he was like two men, one “grafted” (Professor’s House 267) onto another—that he “now wanted to run away from everything he had intensely cared for” (275). There is clearly an internal conflict at the core of all three, threatening the very fabric of their well-being. Timothy Bintrim argues that neurochemistry was responsible for Nevin’s torment—that he was bipolar.[3]

Whatever his personal issues may have been, Nevin’s sudden death was a traumatic event in Cather’s life, which caused her the kind of despair and disillusionment these fictional protagonists are surely meant to illustrate. Ethelbert Nevin died of a stroke at the age of thirty-eight. In her extended condolence letter, Cather writes to his widow of the “unspeakable” message, using language that clearly shows her distress: “A shadow has come over the sun and nothing seems worth doing” (Selected Letters 56).[4] Cather also wrote immediately to the young widow by telegram. Howard recalls: “More than forty telegrams came to Anne the day after that afternoon of February 17. One of them was from Willa Cather” (341). He goes on to cite her telegram: “By my own sorrow, I can understand yours a little. I think there is no more music left on earth” (341).

Cather and Nevin shared a profoundly acute sensibility. Even before Nevin’s death there is plenty of evidence that Cather “read” the talent, temperament, and character of her friend plainly. Nevin understood this affinity, writing to his wife in July of 1899, “You have no idea how we miss you . . . I am dependent on you. Miss Cather was right—my melodies are you, my harmony is you, and my discords are yours” (qtd. in Howard 322). It is not surprising that Cather the writer would equip her next fictional male artist figure with such sensibilities, nor incorporate similar traits in her more fully realized 1925 artist manqué–academic: “A spasm of emotion contracted” Emerson Graves’s vocal chords as he attempted to recite his poem, as “his white hand nervously sought his collar” (“Professor’s Commencement” 487). St. Peter also exhibits extreme emotional fluctuations: “Theoretically he knew that life is possible, may be even pleasant, without joy, without passionate griefs. But it had never occurred to him that he might have to live like that” (Professor’s House 282). One biographer of Nevin recalls that he was “by nature nervous and impetuous, and frequently those who met him casually did not bother to distinguish between artificial and natural exuberance” (Howard 222). Even as a young man of nineteen, the biographer explains, Nevin’s “disposition and temperament were given to extremes, the depths of discouragement or the height of enthusiasm” (Howard 38). Nevin’s first biographer, Vance Thompson, writes that “both as a composer and as a man . . . he was essentially a child. To the last he was an enchanted child” (99). Emerson Graves’s sister, Agatha, accuses him of similar traits, saying, “You are a sentimentalist and your vanity is that of a child” (“Professor’s Commencement” 482). Godfrey St. Peter’s wife accuses him of a similar kind of immaturity—of being self-centered and “intolerant” (Professor’s House 25), character faults she finds especially offensive when he is such a “poor judge [of his] own behavior” (25).

Further, Cather gives her professors the physicality of impetuous youth as well as the attitude. St. Peter has the “slender hips and springy shoulders of a tireless swimmer” (Professor’s House 4) and Graves, even on the eve of his retirement, has features that are “as sensitive and mobile as that of a young man” (“Professor’s Commencement” 481). Howard describes Nevin as a “sensitive, nervous [youth], a musician with predilections for flowers” (29). Nevin’s physical form—based on photographs of him from childhood through adulthood—was slight, slender, graceful, elegant—fastidious. Nevin himself recounted a piano performance from his early twenties, as described by his instructor, “Herr Prof,” who marveled, “No wonder he plays so gracefully when every movement of his body is grace” (qtd. in Howard 68). Mr. B. J. Lang, the eminent piano instructor in Boston, whom Nevin sought out in the autumn of 1881, characterized Nevin’s playing as “graceful, light and rippling” but critiqued Nevin’s lack of “aplomb and firmness” (qtd. in Thompson 24). This assessment of his playing matches all accounts of his character and seems consistent with Nevin’s small frame, unobtrusive body language, and delicate hands.

In fact, it was when I took the measure of the diminutive size of the cast of Ethelbert Nevin’s right hand on display at the Hillman Library exhibit at the time of the Sixteenth International Seminar that it struck me that this story could very well have been a tribute to Cather’s then recently deceased friend. She writes that Graves had “delicate, sensitive hands curving back at the finger ends, with dark purple veins showing prominently on the back. They were exceedingly small, white as a girl’s, and well kept as a pianist’s” (“Professor’s Commencement” 482; see figure 9.1).

Not only do Emerson Graves’s hands resemble those of Nevin, represented in the cast, but we can also trace in Cather’s terribly charged condolence letter—which she delayed writing for a week or ten days due to the weightiness of the matter—thematic aspects present in both “The Professor’s Commencement” and The Professor’s House.[5] Cather’s despair and sorrow border on pathos. She writes to Nevin’s widow, “I know that I shall never feel that youthful and genuine enthusiasm for any one’s work again, and I feel as though my own youth had died [with him]” (Selected Letters 57). A parallel passage occurs in “The Professor’s Commencement,” when students recite poems that are inevitably drowned out by the “puffing of the engines in the switchyard” (484). Emerson Graves bemoans the seemingly requisite sacrifice of “the rights of youth” to adult preoccupations with commerce: “Not even this respite [of the joy of poetry] is left to us; even here the voice of youth is drowned by the voice of the taskmaster that waits for them all impatiently enough” (484). Graves is aware that his long service to his students (“the thirsty young lives [who] had drunk him dry” [486]) forced him to realize that “he had been living from external stimulation from the warm young blood about him” (486). Perhaps even more significant is his eventual recognition that he can no longer vicariously supply those students with the life force required for the mind and for the spirit: “the current of young life had cut away from him” and he is left feeling like “a ruin of some extinct civilization” (486).

Fig. 9.1. Plaster cast of Ethelbert Nevin’s right hand made at Anne Nevin’s direction immediately after his death in 1901. Ethelbert Nevin Collection, Center for American Music, University of Pittsburgh Library System.

In The Professor’s House, Cather conveys this devastating disillusionment via a series of parallels that represents the demise of youth: the death of Tom Outland, the death of ideas under the assault of commercialism, and the death of Godfrey’s early, ideal life. Like Cather moving from Virginia to Nebraska, Godfrey was forced to uproot himself from “the lakeside farm” and relocate to “the wheat lands of central Kansas . . . St. Peter nearly died of it” (21). Cather underlines the permanent and destructive nature of the dislocation: “No later anguish, and he had had his share, went so deep or seemed so final” (21). The loss of his first ideal, a youthfully cherished location, is only one of many psychic wounds St. Peter must endure—yet another way that Cather evolves this 1925 novel beyond its original genesis in the 1902 story. Interestingly, Cather also describes Tom Outland’s hands—though in this later iteration, Tom’s hand becomes both a setting for the precious turquoise and a metonymy for his whole body; masculine, tanned, and resilient rather than small and white and effeminate. St. Peter remembers being stirred by Tom’s hand when he came bearing gifts from the Mesa: “the muscular, many-lined palm, the long, strong fingers with soft ends, the straight little finger, the flexible, beautifully shaped thumb that curved back from the rest of the hand as if it were its own master. What a hand!” (119). The difference between this description of Tom Outland’s hand and that of the hand of Emerson Graves is that Tom’s hand is masculine—his thumb a discreet member as a penis would be to a male body, whereas Emerson Graves’s hand is dainty and effeminate—posed as holding a rose, a book, or a paper knife. Still, both appendages, even that of the effeminate, perhaps homo-erotic Graves, suggest sexuality and eroticism; specifically, a kind of engorgement and readiness to erupt—the “dark purple veins showing prominently on the back” (“Professor’s Commencement” 482).

As demonstrated in the artistic connoisseurship of both Graves and St. Peter, Cather, too, attributed profound importance to extraordinary art, and to the artists who create it. She writes in the aforementioned letter to Anne Nevin, “A master of any art holds a peculiar place in the lives of his believers. To them he is the expression of what seems most rare and precious in life, and when he dies something of themselves goes out with him” (Selected Letters 58). James Woodress adds in Willa Cather: A Literary Life that to Cather, Nevin “represented youth, vivacity, golden talent” (132), and reminds us that “she wrote three poems in his memory” (133).[6]

Cather also writes in The Ladies’ Home Journal: “Temperamentally, Mr. Nevin is much the same blending of the blithe and the triste that gives his music its peculiar quality, now exultantly gay, now sunk in melancholy, as whimsical and capricious as April weather” (qtd. in Woodress 132). Emerson’s sister, Miss Agatha, points out that her brother is similarly melancholic and inexplicably morose. She chastises him, complaining that his “real gift . . . is extracting needless annoyance from commonplace and trivial things” (“Professor’s Commencement” 482). The notion that Emerson Graves (like Nevin) registers the temperamental caprices of his environment (like an Aeolian harp) is consistent with one major motif of Romantic thought; that is, the material world lacks unity and “lies broken and in heaps . . . because man is disunited with himself” (Emerson 65). Cather highlights this kind of correspondence between the physicality of the Romantic hero and his interiority: she describes Graves as having a “bold and prominent nose and chin” and “the high, broad forehead which Nature loves to build about her finely adjusted minds” (“Professor’s Commencement” 481), paralleling R. W. Emerson’s assertion that “nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us” (Emerson 47). Similarly, Cather describes her 1925 fictional academic as handsome with a “high, polished” forehead “hard as bronze” which was more like a “statue’s head than a man’s” (Professor’s House 5), conflating life and art and reminding us of the Romantics’ adulation of art, artifice and aesthetic excellence. At first glance, both men (Graves and St. Peter) seem to embody Romantic sublimity.

Susan J. Rosowski may have been the first scholar to note Cather’s immersion in Romantic conventions. She writes in The Voyage Perilous that Cather’s first “premise was the dualism of mind and matter familiar to students of romanticism” (5). Numerous scholars have investigated the duality of Cather’s own life as well as that evident in her fiction. Rosowski notes that “Cather wrote of two worlds—the spiritual world and the physical one, an ideal world and an ordinary one” (5). Hermione Lee’s biography of Cather is titled with this kind of schism (or fracturing into multiple strands) in mind (Double Lives for the U.S. title and Braided Lives for the British title). She writes that The Professor’s House in particular is “about splits and disjunctions” (224).

In both stories, Cather directs us to a reading steeped in the principles of Romanticism through frequent allusions to artists, art works, and literature. Emerson Graves, a “grave” distortion of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendent hopefulness, is nonetheless tied to the philosopher by an early reference to “Nature” (capitalized perhaps to remind us of the all-importance and pervasiveness of the natural world). Ralph Waldo’s essay celebrates the narrator as “a lover of uncontained and immortal beauty” (Emerson 17) and general aesthetic good taste. Cather humorously writes that Graves’s remarkable collection of books “were almost equally apportioned to the accommodation of works on literature and science, suggesting a form of bigamy rarely encountered in society” (“Professor’s Commencement” 481). Graves’s balanced and remarkable scope of interests reflects R. W. Emerson’s call for broad-based knowledge and his admonition to the parochial or restricted scholar. In his essay, “The American Scholar,” Emerson charges his audience to be well-versed in all fields, to reject the limitations of the lone statute book or the plow in favor of a more comprehensive education: to strive toward the ideal he calls “Man Thinking” (Nature 73). Likewise, Tom Outland is as astute in the academic study of mathematics as he is in the practical work of archaeological digs—and he invents a scientific tool to boot!

Like a true Romantic, Godfrey St. Peter prefers ideas and ideals to material belongings. When his daughter, Rosamond, offers to build him a “little study in the back yard of the new house” (Professor’s House 59)—a potentially useful hermitage to help him transition from the old to the new house—he responds that he would prefer to “plod on” in the old study. He encourages her to “keep it just an idea—it’s better so. Lots of things are” (60). Graves, too, eschews the “scorched and blackened waste” (“Professor’s Commencement” 484) of industrial Pittsburgh, and instead, indulges in “his favorite fancy” (483), relishing ideas in books and letters and art work.

Both professors are clearly steeped in nineteenth-century Romantic philosophy, as illuminated by allusions to various Romantic writers. For example, Emerson Graves personally “illustrate[s] the allegory” (“Professor’s House” 481) of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face,” a story that reveals a man’s inability to live up to impossibly high expectations. Agatha reminds her brother that he should try to live up to the standards of his humble Pittsburgh milieu, telling him it is time to “do something to justify the faith your friends have always had in you. You owe something to them and to your own name” (482).

The successful Romantic might have achieved a balance between the secular and the sacred: as the original Mr. (Waldo) Emerson explained, success would be to balance the contradictions and the tensions, to almost “fear” one’s own gladness, and to revere “the always present,” which is simultaneously “inaccessible” (Nature). Cather’s protagonists are unable to achieve that balance. St. Peter is “very unhappy” (Professor’s House 135) because the material world has overrun the spiritual, just as Graves finds himself, even at his own celebration of a life devoted to the presumed pursuit of high ideals, facing “utter defeat” (“Professor’s Commencement” 488).

Multiple forms of defeat inform this story about a high school teacher retiring after thirty years of scholarship and faithful devotion to what he calls the “old Romance” (484)—Cather writes that “his real work had been to try to secure for youth the rights of youth; the right to be generous, to dream, to enjoy” (484), to help his students inhabit the life of the imagination and the mind. Agatha points out that his first failure is in assuming that these puerile students are able to make use of the tools he has given them: “in that place all your best tools have rusted” (482). She alludes to a second failure: his ignorance or perhaps willed naiveté regarding the true nature of his relationships with his peers. “As for those slovenly persons with offensive manners whom you call your colleagues, do you fancy they appreciate you? They are as envious as green gourds and their mouths pucker when they pay you compliments” (482). Cather’s use of the word “fancy” ties Professor Graves to Romantic principles, but his comment to Agatha defending his pupils reveals a kind of naturalistic determinism: “I believe I have, to some at least, in a measure supplied a vital element that their environment failed to give them” (483). If their environment (the city) is in fact a problem for the youths in attaining the broad-based classical education R. W. Emerson conceived in his essay “The American Scholar,” and summarized by his phrase “Man Thinking” (73), it is because, in Professor Graves’s own words, Pittsburgh controlled at the time “a vast manufacturing region given over to sordid and materialistic ideals” (483).

Echoing the pessimism of Graves’s sister, Agatha, about the capacity of his students, colleagues, and family members to make up for the vacuity of his environment, Professor St. Peter critiques a much broader and more ephemeral “place” than Pittsburgh—“The University, his new house, his old house, everything around him seem[s] insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man” (Professor’s House 148–49). At this juncture in the novel, his university colleague, Robert Crane (suggesting the extremis of “The Open Boat”), with whom he had heretofore always “fought together in a common cause” (138), has shocked him by threatening to hire a lawyer to gain access to some part of Tom Outland’s fortune. Therefore, it is no wonder that the “world [i]s sad” and the town feels “small and tight and airless” (148), nor that he must describe at least the monetary consequence of Outland’s success as “vulgar” (148).

What I find most telling about this passage in chapter 13 is a significant allusion, from the mid-nineteenth century, to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” placing Cather’s aesthetic attention squarely on the Romantic period. St. Peter remarks, “I feel as if the poor fellow were strapped down on a revolving disk that comes around under the knife just so often” (Professor’s House 131). Significantly, Poe, an author who seemed fixated on the underbelly of transcendent themes (premature burial, psychological terror, and perverted forms of supernatural phenomena), is tied in Cather’s imagination to his Dark Romantic brother, Hawthorne—in his own right obsessed with sin and corruption and multiple levels of failure (on the part of the imagination, the will, and the body). Godfrey St. Peter somewhat perversely insists on working in his old uncomfortable study, cluttered and cold, a figurative head on the body of a dismal, “dead, empty house” (16) the color of “ashes” with a “front porch too narrow for comfort” and a “slanting floor [and] sagging steps” (11). Though there are dozens of repairs to be done (“there were always so many things to fix, and there was not time enough to go round” [12]), in demonstrating St. Peter’s stubborn refusal to move to a grander, airier, more modern house, she also insists on his spiritual and psychological stasis. He seems to grasp intuitively that since Tom Outland has died, Romantic inclinations cannot be sustained.

Cather’s reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne in “The Professor’s Commencement” directly highlights the Romantic period. She uses the phrase “arrested development” (486) to describe Graves’s students and implicitly signals his own stasis—a kind of prolonged youth, which he can no longer feed with young blood: “And he himself—what had he done with the youth, the strength, the enthusiasm and splendid equipment he had brought there from Harvard thirty years ago?” (486). So too, the reader senses that Emerson Graves’s decision to retire at this particular moment may be driven by an intuition that his powers of Romantic transformation have dwindled, even died. He confesses to his sister: “I feel distraught and weary. You know how I shrink from changes of any sort, and this—why this is the most alarming thing that has ever confronted me.” His willingness to cut his life off “at the stalk” as he wonders if it will ever “bud again” conflates hopes for his own future with flower imagery that insists on the ephemeral nature of life. He had just noted that roses never have as lovely a “fragrance as they have in the first sun” (“Professor’s Commencement” 482).

St. Peter likewise seems to focus all his remaining energies on cultivating his garden. Both men acknowledge the profound transience of the life of the body and of the mind through their appreciation of flowers. Graves’s “garden roses thrust their pink heads close to the screen as though they would not be kept outside” (482), seemingly invading a static space with the vitality of the natural world. In “Uncle Valentine,” a story generally understood to be about Nevin, Cather writes about the majesty of “a great white rose, almost as big as a moonflower, its petals beautifully curled” (30). Nevin himself, from an early age, was much enamored by rose songs such as “My Love Is Like the Pure White Rose” and “Rose Bud” (Howard 23). St. Peter’s garden is where he “works off his discontent” and where he lives as a “bachelor” when his family goes on vacation to Colorado. Following the Romantic tendency to seek out solitude when weary with the world, and to find the natural world’s correspondences with the human spirit, both men need at times to retreat from society, specifically to their garden sanctuaries.

To the point of Cather’s intentional (conscious or otherwise) use of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Romantic philosophy—we know that she admired the man of letter’s philosophy, prose, and outlook on life. She wrote in the Lincoln Courier in 1895 about the “lofty repose and magnificent tranquility” (World and the Parish 1: 274) of the philosopher’s mind as revealed in his essays. We can glean the key aspects of R. W. Emerson’s philosophy in the introduction to his essay Nature and also compare it to Willa Cather’s own view of nature and art. He writes, “Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture” (Emerson 13).

There are dozens of important allusions in The Professor’s House and “The Professor’s Commencement” that reveal Cather’s longtime (I might suggest lifetime) theme of the failure of the Romantic: individual imagination is not ignited, pessimism wins over optimism, the ecstatic moment is extinguished before it can blossom, and the elevated diction inspired by intersections of the sublime is silenced. Agatha has planned, during Emerson’s celebratory retirement dinner, for her brother to correct his failure from decades ago: as a graduating senior, he was not able to recall the lines of Lord Macaulay’s narrative poem, “Horatius at the Bridge”—but for a second time, at this dinner, Emerson is unable to recite the lines. It is a complicated moment; one which I think Cather meant to be wrought with ambiguity and tension from potentially warring interpretations. The poem recounts the story of Publius Horatius Cocles, an officer in the army of the ancient Roman Republic, who famously defended the Pons Sublicius from the invading army of Lars Porsena in the late sixth century bc, during the war between Rome and Clusium. Horatius’s individual action at a bridge halted the attack and forced Porsena to engage in a protracted siege of Rome rather than sacking it outright. Because a later peace treaty allowed the city to remain intact, Horatius was portrayed in various works of art, starting in the Renaissance, as a valiant hero. Macaulay’s poem remained popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (“Horatius Cocles”).

The Professor’s early “humiliation and disgrace, when, in attempting to recite ‘Horatius at the Bridge,’ he had been unable to recall” the next stanza, constitute a “story that every senior . . . still told the juniors” (“Professor’s Commencement” 485), seemingly as a double ritual. His own failures can be seen as reminders that even great men have their moments of struggle; for as Cather writes, even “the least receptive of the Professor’s students realized that he had risen to a much higher plane of scholarship than any of his colleagues” (485); but it can also be understood as a call for younger, less-experienced students to embrace the kind of rite of passage that might make them in the end more like their own “bold Horatius” (485). His second “failure” to recite the poem is more than what it appears to be: a simple fault of memory or bout of nerves. His final day at school has been one of intense reflection, processing important memories and recognizing that his decision to stay at the high school beyond the initial planned stint of five years was a response to a different kind of battle: “[T]he desire had come upon him to bring some message of repose and peace to the youth of this work-driven, joyless people, to cry the name of beauty so loud that the roar of the mills could not drown it” (486). This is strong language; Cather seems to suggest that Emerson’s noble quest may have been a futile one from the start.

Significantly, she inserts a short passage that ties this early story very closely to the 1925 novel. Each educator has had a brilliant student, a promising protégé, who dies young—wasting awesome ability and potential. Graves recalls, in a retrospective look to his past, appropriately Wordsworthian: “[T]he reward of his first labors had come in the form of his one and only genius; his restless, incorrigible pupil”(486).Similarly reflective,Godfrey notes, “You know,Tom isn’t very real to me anymore. Sometimes I think he was just a—a glittering idea” (Professor’s House 110). Tom Outland, though ostensibly masculine enough, with his “manly and mature voice” (110), is described upon his first meeting with St. Peter as having a body that “seemed shut up in a case” (111). He describes past work “with gravity, as if he had reflected deeply upon irregular behavior” (115), specifically recalling that he had been required to “get a man when he isn’t where he ought to be” (115). When Mrs. St. Peter invites him to lunch, he looks “with panic toward the door” and is cajoled by her to “wash his hands” (115) before joining them—all of which implies a kind of deviance. Graves’s student with “the gentle eyes and manners of a girl, at once timid and utterly reckless died wretchedly at three-andtwenty in his master’s arms” (“Professor’s Commencement” 487). He is also a mysterious figure, suggesting effeminacy—or even deviant behavior. Cather has Graves note about himself: “I was not made to shine, for they put a woman’s heart in me” (488), suggesting at the very least that his limitations stem from an effeminacy or a sentimentalism at the core of his nature. Interestingly, Cather inverts the stereotypical (or expected) genders of Emerson and his sister; Agatha was “the more alert and masculine character of the two” (482). We recall that Cather’s early description of Graves takes the matter further: “He was slight of build and exceedingly frail” (482).

In November of 1900, in The Ladies’ Home Journal, Cather wrote about Nevin that he “was rather a girlish little boy, always much concerned about his mother’s dresses and fond of masquerading in dresses himself” (World and the Parish 628). Nevin’s first biographer writes frequently of Nevin’s “delicate constitution” (Thompson 145) and describes other aspects of his person, such as his “moral strength,” being as “rare and fine as a woman’s” (145). Thompson also records a friend’s recollection of one of Nevin’s performances in an intimate parlor scene: “Very slim, in his afternoon coat of black, with a tall white collar, he would come in. There was grey in his boyish hair even then. Laughing a little, in his embarrassed way, he would sit down at the piano” (128). Descriptions of a diminutive, demur artist can be found in biographies, friends’ accounts, and even in journalistic accounts of the musician—like those we have read by Cather.

Romantic authors reflecting, in moments of tranquility, upon intense emotional experiences of the past—while simultaneously crafting an artifice of imaginative genius (such as a poem) is a key aspect of the Romantic genre. In both stories, Cather underlines that missing link through her protagonists. Professor Emerson Graves pronounces himself, after losing his emotional self-control at the party his sister organizes for him, “a hopeless dunce” (“Professor’s Commencement” 488). Myriad allusions in the early story reinforce the idea that he was “not made to shine” (488) in spite of the admiration of his colleagues who were “full of pride and affection for their scholar and their ‘great man’” (487). Cather also grants Professor St. Peter professional respect and public regard for his work. She writes that the “last volumes [of scholarship] brought him a certain international reputation and what were called rewards—among them, the Oxford prize for history, with its five thousand pounds, which had built him the new house” (Professor’s House 34). Perhaps more significantly, as it may reflect Cather’s own sense of having arrived at a mature and unique writerly craft, she allows St. Peter to be an authentic and self-aware artist: “[H]e could feel his hand growing easier with his material, when all the foolish conventions about that kind of writing were falling away and his relation with his work was becoming every day more simple, natural, and happy” (33–34).

Why then, given his multiple forms of professional success, does Cather allow St. Peter to suffer the disillusionment and crisis of identity that he does?—for surely that is her message when she has St. Peter confess, “In a lifetime of teaching, I’ve encountered just one remarkable mind; but for that, I’d consider my good years largely wasted” (62). Graves also feels exhausted and tossed upon the waste heap, and like St. Peter thinking of Tom Outland, he had known “one and only genius; his restless, incorrigible pupil with the gentle eyes and manner of a girl” (“Professor’s Commencement” 486). Both men remind us of the lament of the great Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, on being “out of tune,” for his narrator bemoans his culture’s material consumption and absence of spiritual substance: “[T]he world is too much with us: late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: / Little we see in nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” (559). Likewise, Graves is hurt by what he interprets as the impropriety of his colleagues’ reactions to his retirement party, when the merriment lacks seriousness: “Surely this was a time for silence and reflection, if ever such time was” (487). Similarly, Godfrey intuitively understands his dissonance in the world: “He didn’t belong there” (Professor’s House 272). Of course, “there” is the new house, the classroom (“he didn’t in the least believe he’d be alive for the fall term” [268]) and his presence on the earth (there came to him a conviction that “he was nearing the end of his life” [267]).

Cather’s 1902 version of failed Romanticism has Graves leave his teaching post feeling like an utter failure, unable “to shine” (“Professor’s Commencement” 486) and in the 1925 version Cather has Godfrey trying to look back on his life to ascertain “where he ha[d] made his mistake” (Professor’s House 281). Rosowski points out that Cather’s “first principles” involved the “duality of two worlds and two selves” (10)—certainly a theme we see in both these stories about conflicted academics. A secondary theme,“salvation through the imagination” (10), and the efforts to gain such salvation, can be seen in Godfrey’s desire to vicariously live his life on the promise of Tom’s ardent genius and in Emerson’s efforts to gain salvation by granting imaginative space to his students. It is in efforts to attain the third principle, articulated by Rosowski as “exaltation of the artist-priest who can create living art” (10), that both Emerson and Godfrey fall short.

Nevin, however, at least in Cather’s mind, could not have fallen short in artistic aptitude, though perhaps she saw his failing in his inability to vanquish what I have heretofore referred to as his “inner demons.” Arguably, his most famous song, “Narcissus” (from Water Scenes), which reflects his happy boyhood at Vineacre, where there “was music in the river and in the trees, and music in the boy’s heart” (Thompson 9), also reflects the symbolic second edge to the double-edged sword of his life. The word “narcissus” is related to “the Greek, nárke, or torpor, numbness, a narcotic quality” (Norris 28). It is a significant titular choice, even if inspired by subconscious motivations. Nevin’s intense emotional vicissitudes had been noted as early in his life’s struggle as 1894, a year in which the musician acknowledged in a letter to Anne, “I tell you, my dearest wife, fame may be a great thing, but it has to be bought at a terrible price; and I’m paying the full” (Thompson 154).[7]

Cather had, by 1925, also gathered and cultivated her emotional and intellectual themes. The convergence of motifs between the two works includes tensions between the sacred and the secular; devotion to family and students above self; interest in private assurance of one’s good works, as opposed to public recognition for them; and the wide divide between excellent teaching and original research—all tensions to which teacher-scholars are keenly attuned. Clearly, Cather revisits in this 1925 novel the same tensions between intellectual integrity and material prosperity that pervaded her 1902 story, and which, one might argue, is at the heart of Romantic dualism.

Cather, not coincidentally, equated Nevin’s musical genius with the British Romantics in her letter to Anne, writing that when she thinks of Nevin, she thinks “also of the blessed truth of the lines that Shelley wrote to Keats after the world had killed him” (Selected Letters 57). Perhaps Cather was thinking when she wrote this of the final lines of Shelley’s poem, “Adonais”: “The soul of Adonais, like a star. / Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are” (Shelley 636), reminding Anne that Nevin’s artistic genius, like that of Keats, had been folded into an eternal realm, never to die. Just as easily, we could use the last lines of the first stanza of Shelley’s poem to read the same message: “Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be / An echo and light unto eternity!” (626). If Nevin was indeed “the embodiment of all the happy privileges of art” (Selected Letters 57)for Cather, then when he died, she most certainly would have tried to find a way to express both her sublime satisfaction at having known such a genius and her devastation at having to let him go. Both Emerson Graves and Godfrey St. Peter articulate the same dramatic ambivalence, and Cather, in writing the Romantic vision of Ralph Waldo Emerson into her fictional professors, crafted a fitting tribute to her friend, Ethelbert Nevin.


 1. Nevin did not spend much of his adult life at home. He returned to Vineacre only when he had nowhere else to turn and was out of money. Sewickley is an Ohio River town thirteen miles downstream from Pittsburgh, fictionalized as Greenacre in “Uncle Valentine.” Edgeworth is a village closest to the Nevin and Slack homes, but the larger community, indeed the entire valley, takes its name from the Big Sewickley Creek. As an alternative prototype for Emerson Graves, in this volume, Mary Ryder posits “the beloved Professor Frederick Merrick” of Pittsburgh’s Central High School, stating Merrick’s “photograph shows a silver-haired man with kind and expressive eyes, not unlike his literary counterpart whose slight build and silver white hair made him memorable to his students.” I agree with Ryder that Merrick may have been the source (or one source among several) for Emerson Graves—as well as for sculptor Harvey Merrick in “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” (Go back.)
 2. The clear exception to this statement is that Valentine Ramsay is portrayed as an alcoholic in “Uncle Valentine.” (Go back.)
 3. Bintrim posits that by 1901 Cather had become aware of Ethelbert’s “liabilities—secretive drinking, borrowing large sums of money from his family or publishers, mysterious illnesses—and, aggravating these problems, what we would call today bipolar disorder” (28). (Go back.)
 4. Cather wrote to Anne twice after the death of Ethelbert. Cather’s seven-page letter was not known outside Pittsburgh until Timothy Bintrim suggested it be included in a 2013 edition of Selected Letters. It had been in the University of Pittsburgh Nevin archive from the 1930s, but was overlooked. (Go back.)
 5. Cather did not attend Nevin’s funeral, but Isabelle (and probably the Slacks) did, and may have seen the plaster cast. Cather may have visited Anne at Blue Hill, Maine, where Anne asked her to do the biography before Howard was given the task, another occasion she may have seen the cast. (Go back.)
 6. Bintrim argues for a fourth (“I Have No House for Love to Shelter Him”), and Robert Thacker, now historical editor of Cather’s Collected Poems—a volume in the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition—agrees that Nevin was a key source of inspiration for a number of poems: “I Have No Love to Shelter Him,”“Song,”“The Poor Minstrel,”“Winter at Delphi,”“Sleep, Minstrel, Sleep,”“Arcadian Winter,” and “Lament for Marsyas.” (Go back.)
 7. It seems that Anne admitted his alcoholism in part at least to refute rumors in the papers that her husband was addicted to drugs. (Go back.)


Bintrim,Timothy.“Cather’s ‘Rosary’and Nevin’s Legacy in April Twilights (1903).” Willa Cather Newsletter & Review, vol. 56, no. 1, Fall–Winter 2012, pp. 28–33.
Byrne, Kathleen D., and Richard C. Snyder. Chrysalis: Willa Cather in Pittsburgh, 1896–1906. Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1982.
Cather, Willa. Collected Poems. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, historical essay by Robert Thacker, explanatory notes by Kari A. Ronning and Robert Thacker, textual essay and editing by Kari A. Ronning, forthcoming, U of Nebraska P.
—.“The Novel Démeublé.” 1922. Willa Cather on Writing, U of Nebraska P, 1988, pp. 35–43.
—.“The Professor’s Commencement.” 1902. Willa Cather Archive, edited by Andrew Jewell, University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
—. The Professor’s House. 1925. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, historical essay by James Woodress, explanatory notes by James Woodress with Kari A.Ronning, textual editing by Frederick M. Link, U of Nebraska P, 2002.
—. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, Knopf, 2013.
—. Uncle Valentine and Other Stories. Edited by Bernice Slote, U of Nebraska P, 1973.
—. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, Letters. Edited by L. Brent Bohlke, U of Nebraska P, 1986.
—. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather’s Articles and Reviews, 1893– 1902. Edited by William M. Curtin, U of Nebraska P, 1970. 2 vols.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature: Addresses, and Lectures. Houghton Mifflin, 1883.
“Horatius Cocles.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 February 2018, oldid=825227910.
Howard, John Tasker. Ethelbert Nevin: A Biography. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1935.
Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. Vintage, 1989.
Macaulay, Thomas Babington.“Horatius at the Bridge.” 1842. The World’s Best Poetry, vol. 7, edited by Bliss Carman et al., John D. Morris, 1904, Bartleby .com, 2012,
Norris, Mary.“To the Letter: The Pleasures of the Greek Alphabet.” The New Yorker, 14 January 2019, pp. 24–29.
O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. Harvard UP, 1997.
Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Romanticism. U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Ryder, Mary Ruth.“Growing Pains: The City behind Cather’s Pittsburgh Classroom.” Cather Studies 13: Willa Cather’s Pittsburgh, edited by Timothy W. Bintrim, James A. Jaap, and Kimberly Vanderlaan, U of Nebraska P, 2021.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe.“Adonais.” 1821. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd ed., Norton, 1983, pp. 626–36.
Thompson, Vance. The Life of Ethelbert Nevin from His Letters and His Wife’s Memories. Boston Music, 1913. Republished by Forgotten Books, 2012.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. U of Nebraska P, 1989.
Wordsworth, William.“The World Is Too Much with Us.” 1807. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 1983, p. 559.