In the climactic scene of "Tom Outland's Story" in The Professor's House, the quarrel that ends in Roddy Blake's departure from the Blue Mesa, Tom accuses his partner of being a traitor "like Dreyfus." By selling the mesa's artifacts to a German collector, Blake, too, has "sold [his] country's secrets" (242-43). Completely ignoring this personal attack, Blake responds with a passionate defense of the French captain: "The man was innocent. It was a frame-up."
Blake's response to Tom is critically resonant because literary and cultural "frame-ups" are central to The Professor's House. Radically framed by the story of the St. Peter family, "Tom Outland's Story" is structurally presented as a literary "frame-up." This framing of Tom Outland's first-person narrative within The Professor's House is a brilliant example of the "significant design" that Cather believed characteristic of good fiction (in the best fiction, Cather wrote in her essay on Sarah Orne Jewett, "the design is the story and the story is the design" ) because framing is the subject as well as the form of The Professor's House. Compositionally, Tom's story is set within the St. Peters' story "like a turquoise set in dull silver" (epigraph). Conceptually, Tom's story of his adventures on the Blue Mesa is a frame-up in the gangster-film sense that Blake uses the word: it weaves a plot that incriminates the innocent. The Dreyfus within "Tom Outland's Story"-the victim of a frame-up inspired by cultural and racial prejudice-is the only woman in Tom's mesa adventure, the mysterious female corpse discovered in Cliff City.
The first of four "original inhabitants" found on the Blue Mesa, "Mother Eve"
provokes speculation because, unlike the other corpses (the "bodies of old
people" prepared for funeral rites and found together in a burial chamber),
Eve is a young woman who was apparently murdered in her home. Baptized by
Henry Atkins, the "castaway" Englishman who plays Friday in Tom and Roddy's
Crusoe adventure, Eve is given a history to confirm her name by Father
Duchene, the missionary priest who tutors Tom. After Atkins dies of a snake
bite, Father Duchene spends a week on the mesa with Outland and Blake to
study their work and to offer advice about the significance of their
findings. Duchene sum up the results of his week's study in a tentative
portrait of the "superior people" who produced the pottery, jewelry, and
tools uncovered by Outland and Blake. Twenty years among the Pueblo Indians
permit Duchene to speak with some authority, and his description of the
cliff settlement points to two crucial ruins that the amateur "excavators"
have overlooked: the granaries that testify to the highly advanced state of
the tribe's agriculture and the "amphitheatre," the center of ancient
religious life on the mesa (218-19). The most important part of Duchene's
account of the cliff dwellers, however, is given in the casual footnote that
Tom Outland appends to his transcription of the priest's report:
Mother Eve had greatly interested Father Duchene, by the way. He laughed
and said she was well named. He didn't believe her death could throw any
light on the destruction of her people. "I seem to smell," he said
slyly, "a personal tragedy. Perhaps when the tribe went down to the
summer camp, our lady was sick and would not go. Perhaps her husband
thought it worth while to return unannounced from the farms some night,
and found her in improper company. The young man may have escaped. In
primitive society the husband is allowed to punish an unfaithful wife
with death." (223)
Mother Eve had greatly interested Father Duchene, by the way. He laughed and said she was well named. He didn't believe her death could throw any light on the destruction of her people. "I seem to smell," he said slyly, "a personal tragedy. Perhaps when the tribe went down to the summer camp, our lady was sick and would not go. Perhaps her husband thought it worth while to return unannounced from the farms some night, and found her in improper company. The young man may have escaped. In primitive society the husband is allowed to punish an unfaithful wife with death." (223)
A miniature framed story within the larger framed story of Tom Outland's narrative, Duchene's "tragedy" of Eve may not shed light on the mysterious destruction of her tribe, but it emphatically illuminates the destruction at the heart of "Tom Outland's Story." Not only is she murdered in the lurid prehistoric past imagined by Father Duchene, but in the present time of Outland's adventure, mummified Eve is destroyed when the mule carrying her down from the mesa slips and falls to the bottom of a canyon. Significantly, the fatal fall of the Blue Mesa's Eve is caused by the oversized packing case of the German exporter who buys the mesa's artifacts from Blake. Too wide for the cliff trail, boxed Mother Eve falls more than a thousand feet to the bottom of Black Canyon (238). Figuratively speaking, Duchene also destroys Eve by encasing or boxing her. Duchene's story, like the biblical name he laughingly approves, forces Eve into a cultural framework that destroys her native identity. Like Alfred Dreyfus, Eve is the victim of a frame-up.
The cultural bias that distorts Duchene's vision of Mother Eve is most vividly represented in the section of "Tom Outland's Story" that immediately follows the story of Eve, Tom's account of his trip to Washington, D.C. The sharp juxtaposition of Duchene's sketch of peaceful, domestic, and communal Cliff City life and Tom's descriptions of the monstrous War Department that dominates and represents the bureaucratic strife of "Washington City" emphasizes cultural differences that Duchene ignores in conceiving of Eve as an adulterous "lady." Duchene's portrait of a "lady" is incongruously framed by the Judeo-Christian precepts embodied in the name of the "pretty little fluttery Southern" belle who attracts Tom in Washington (229). The "nice little Virginia girl" who works as a stenographer at the Smithsonian and helps Tom get an appointment with an Institution official, Virginia Ward is of major significance to The Professor's House, despite her minor role in the plot of the novel. Twice described by Tom Outland as a "little thing" (228, emphasis mine), Virginia Ward is further objectified by her symbolic name: Virginia Ward is the product of a patriarchal culture predicated on female chastity and subordination (like that of a ward to her legal guardian).
When he urges Tom Outland to appeal to Washington for professional archeologists, Father Duchene speculates that the civilization of the Blue Mesa might provoke a rewriting of American history (222). His story of Eve, however, demonstrates that Duchene finally stops short of recognizing the radical nature of the challenge Eve poses to traditional conceptions of the American West. It is hardly an accident that Cather allows a woman to reign as the most prominent "original inhabitant" of the mesa: the civilization of Cliff City is not only a domestic culture but also, in contrast to the exclusively patriarchal culture of Washington City where Virginia Ward is the feminine ideal, cliff dweller city was matrilineal.
The matrilocal, matrilineal structure of Pueblo society was recognized as
early as the 1880s by archeologist John Bourke, who accompanied the first
railroad builders into Arizona and New Mexico (Eggan 272-73). By the time
Cather wrote The Professor's House in the mid-1920s,
Elsie Clews Parsons, Barbara Freire-Marreco, H. R. Voth, and others had
published studies indicating the "Crow-type," matrilineal family structure
of the Hopi, Zuni, and Keresan tribes of Laguna and Acoma. Although the
primary source of "Tom Outland's Story" is well known-Cather interviewed a
brother of Richard Wetherill, the first explorer of the Mesa Verde and the
prototype of Tom Outland, when she first visited Mesa Verde in 1915-Cather
has cited only one secondary source of her Cliff Dweller material (Woodress
263-64). In an article on Mesa Verde published in The
Denver Times (31 January 1916) and in her 1938 letter on The Professor's House reprinted in On Writing, Cather acknowledges a debt to The
Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde, Southwestern Colorado: Their Pottery
and Implements by Gustav Nordenskjold (Rosowski and Slote 81).
Cather clearly relies on Nordenskjold in her descriptions of the artifacts
and architecture of Cliff City. Nordenskjold does not, however, describe
"Esther"-the female mummy who inspired Mother Eve-in his account of the
human corpses discovered on Mesa Verde because she wasn't discovered until
after his manuscript was completed in 1893. While Nordenskjold's book
antedates the discovery of the particular woman featured in "Tom Outland's
Story," it does include a general discussion of women in the Hopi (or, as
Nordenskjold calls them, the "Moki") tribes that he identifies as
descendants of the extinct cliff dwellers. Nordenskjold describes both Hopi
matrilinity and the female economic power that results from matrilocality:
The children belong to the mother's clan. The Moki women are not
conspicuous for their virtue. Illegitimate children receive the same
attention as those born in wedlock.
The Moki wives enjoy a better position than the women of most other
Indian tribes. They own the houses, the sheep, goats, and other domestic
animals . . . and the harvested crops. The husband has no right to
dispose of any household utensil without his wife's consent. It is to
her that application must be made in the arranging of all purchase or
The children belong to the mother's clan. The Moki women are not conspicuous for their virtue. Illegitimate children receive the same attention as those born in wedlock.
The Moki wives enjoy a better position than the women of most other Indian tribes. They own the houses, the sheep, goats, and other domestic animals . . . and the harvested crops. The husband has no right to dispose of any household utensil without his wife's consent. It is to her that application must be made in the arranging of all purchase or barter. (139)
An avid student of the Southwest and its native culture from the time of her first visit to New Mexico in 1912, Cather would most likely have realized the full implications of these details in Nordenskjold: Hopi culture is shaped by principles of matrilinity that are radically opposed to the patriarchal biblical tradition of Eve. By changing the name of the Mesa's female mummy from Esther to Eve, Cather emphasizes the incongruity between Cliff City culture and the Judeo-Christian interpretive framework used by its male explorers. While "Esther"-a Jewish hero who became queen of Persia and saved her people from massacre-at least hints at the power of women in cliff-dweller society, Eve is a paradigm of female dupability and wifely subordination that completely misrepresents this original inhabitant of the Blue Mesa.
Cather signals the highly conjectural nature of Duchene's theory of Eve and suggests that she "knows" Eve as Duchene does not through the numerous rhetorical hedges that attenuate the priest's story: "I seem to smell. . . . a personal tragedy. Perhaps when the tribe went down to the summer camp. . . . Perhaps her husband thought it worth while to return" (emphases mine). The traditions of matrilineal descent among the Hopi (which, following Nordenskjold, Cather identifies with the extinct tribe of the Mesa Verde) validate suspicions raised by Duchene's words and indicate that Eve is thoroughly misunderstood by her male historian.
Nordenskjold's observation that "Moki women are not conspicuous for their virtue" points to the central flaw of Duchene's story. As archeologist Mischa Titiev explains in his study of the Oraibi Mesa, the matrilocal organization of Hopi society precludes the high regard for monogamous female chastity that is the essence of Duchene's "lady." Since marriage is an economic gain for the female household, which stands to acquire another productive member, premarital sex was frequently encouraged as an inducement to marriage (Titiev 38-39). Still more relevant to Duchene's "tragedy" of an adulteress are cultural traditions of marital fidelity and strict monogamy, and here again the realities of life on Blue Mesa contradict the priest's story. The economy of villages such as Cliff City made extramarital affairs the rule rather than the dramatic exception Duchene describes in his story. Because of their divided lives, which Tom Outland accurately reconstructs-"Like all pueblo Indians, these people had had their farms away from their dwellings. For a stronghold they needed rock, and for farming, soft earth" (203)-husbands would be separated from their wives for days at a time. While grazing sheep on distant pastures and while planting and harvesting, the men would live in huts on the plains below the mesa. During their husbands' absence, women would have sexual relations with other men almost as a matter of course. Fidelity between marriage partners of mesa tribes was thus rare; if adultery became a source of dissension between a wife and husband, a divorce would be simply effected by the latter's return to his mother's house (Eggan 34-35). Not only was adultery too common to occasion the drastic punishment Duchene describes, but such punishment is inconceivable in light of the traditions of matrilocal residence and female ownership of house and land. In such kinship systems, the wife's oldest brother and not her husband is the head of the house and the authority in all matters of family government (Schneider 1-29). In marital disputes of all sorts, including adultery, a wife would typically have the full support of her lineage or house, and the husband would be regarded as an outsider without rights. He could simply be expelled from his wife's house.
Whatever the circumstances of her death may be, Eve's story is not Duchene's history. The significance of this critical misreading or frame-up in "Tom Outland's Story" is made clear by the story that frames Tom's narrative. Duchene's misreading of Eve is paralleled within the novel proper by Godfrey St. Peter's consistent misreading of his own "ladies" and his consequent misperception of Tom Outland. That visual art inspired The Professor's House emphasizes the novel's preoccupation with problems of seeing. The exhibition of Dutch genre paintings depicting "warmly furnished" domestic interiors illuminated by a "square window, open, through which one saw the masts of ships, or a stretch of grey sea," which Cather saw shortly before writing The Professor's House and credits with inspiring the novel, informs both the novel's inset structure and its concern with framed or biased vision (Cather, "Letter on The Professor's House" 31-32). Vividly juxtaposing the confined space of a domestic interior and an unlimited outdoor expanse beyond a window, Dutch genre scenes such as Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1659) not only influenced the general structure of Cather's novel but also inspired its central setting, the third-floor study with a "single square window" where St. Peter works (15-16). The principal setting of The Professor's House is a Vermeerlike tableau vivant that reveals St. Peter's misperceptions of both the interior and exterior spaces counterposed in the picture he inhabits. St. Peter misreads both the "female" space of his house and the blue vastness of "Outland's country" in a way that radically links him to Father Duchene and his misconception of Eve.
In the "one room still furnished"-and still very starkly furnished-within his house, the Professor defines his art as a negation of the "warmly furnished" interiors of Dutch art. St. Peter conceives his interior as a masculine space, the antithesis of the living rooms and kitchens that Cather describes in her account of the paintings that inspired The Professor's House. Sanctioning only the periodic invasions of "bloomless," sexless Augusta, the seamstress who shares the study for two weeks every spring and fall, St. Peter defends his third-floor "atelier" as a bastion of male intellect fortified against the female domesticity that lies beneath him. The "headless" female dressmaking forms that St. Peter sees as representative of the "ladies" of his household invite us to view the architecture of the Professor's house anatomically: St. Peter's attic study constitutes the rational male head above the mindless female body of his house.
The monastic seclusion and remoteness of the Professor's study clearly identify him as a disciple of Euripides, whom St. Peter admires for the bitter misanthropy of his old age rather than for the great tragedies of his prime. "Smiling-quite agreeably," St. Peter recalls Euripides as an old man who ended his life in a hermit's cave after discovering domestic life to be an "insupportable" contaminant to his peace of mind (156). As St. Peter sees it, the intellectual "conception" of his "sons"-his eight-volume history of The Spanish Adventurers in North America-requires careful "insulation" from the lower realm of "cruel biological," female conception that produces his two daughters (21). To ensure his "isolation [and] insulation from the engaging drama of domestic life," the Professor not only "neglects" domestic comfort in the appointment of his study but also diligently excludes them as "perilous" threats to his "habit of living with ideas" (162). Cather's descriptions of St. Peter's "cuddy" suggest that the Professor positively embraces discomfort to approximate the rugged life of his manly Spanish adventurers. While the room's "very ugly" wallpaper has "faded into an inoffensive neutrality," its suffocating stove and "tormenting" naked light bulb continue to assault St. Peter as the sun in the Southwest once attacked his caballeros.
Like his Spanish adventurers, who are literally chevaliers or men on horseback, St. Peter lives by a chivalric code that perceives women as "little things" like Virginia Ward. St. Peter scorns the ladies of western chivalric tradition as thoroughly as he admires their venturing knights, and this misogyny informs both the monastic austerity of his study and his meditations on his mannequin women. While Augusta objects that her sewing forms are "unsuitable companions for one engaged in scholarly pursuits," St. Peter goes to ludicrous lengths to defend his two "terrible women"-"the Bust" and "the wire lady"-as his literary muses. Headless and therefore without speech, the female dummies (or, more pertinently, dumb-ies) inspire St. Peter with a sense of his uniquely male powers of articulate utterance or authority. In contrast to the "lumpy solidity" of the female conception represented by these "ladies," powers of male authority allow St. Peter to give birth to ideas in books.
The Professor's House radically undercuts St. Peter's view of his literary success. While Professor St. Peter presents his Spanish Adventurers as a product of "isolation [and] insulation" from the trivial concerns of his female household, the details of Cather's novel expose St. Peter's theory of artistic conception as a critical misconception. St. Peter's ideal "sons," Cather shows, are immeasurably indebted to the real women of The Professor's House.
In the scholarly austerity of his genre interior, a male den that makes no
concessions to "instinctive" female taste, St. Peter presents his
intellectual art as a repudiation of the arts of domestic life (50). The
major pictorial image that Cather uses to describe St. Peter's art, however,
insists upon the importance of the female "forms" that the Professor
ridicules. The tapestry Cather offers as a metaphor for the unique style of
St. Peter's unconventional history suggests that the best work in the
eight-volume series emerged not from the "isolation [and] insulation" of
artistic disengagement, as St. Peter assumes, but from his susceptibility to
the "engaging drama of domestic life":
When he was writing his best, he was conscious of pretty little girls in
fresh dresses—of flowers and greens in the comfortable, shabby
sitting-room—of his wife's good looks and good taste—even of a better
dinner than usual under preparation downstairs. All the while he had
been working so fiercely at his eight big volumes, he was not insensible
to the domestic drama that went on beneath him. His mind had played
delightedly with all those incidents. Just as, when Queen Mathilde was
doing the long tapestry now shown at Bayeux,-working her chronicle of
the deeds of knights and heroes,—alongside the big pattern of dramatic
action she and her women carried the little playful pattern of birds and
beasts that are a story in themselves; so, to him, the most important
chapters of his history were interwoven with personal memories.
When he was writing his best, he was conscious of pretty little girls in fresh dresses—of flowers and greens in the comfortable, shabby sitting-room—of his wife's good looks and good taste—even of a better dinner than usual under preparation downstairs. All the while he had been working so fiercely at his eight big volumes, he was not insensible to the domestic drama that went on beneath him. His mind had played delightedly with all those incidents. Just as, when Queen Mathilde was doing the long tapestry now shown at Bayeux,-working her chronicle of the deeds of knights and heroes,—alongside the big pattern of dramatic action she and her women carried the little playful pattern of birds and beasts that are a story in themselves; so, to him, the most important chapters of his history were interwoven with personal memories. (101)
A feminine, communal, and domestic masterpiece, Queen Mathilde's tapestry
contradicts St. Peter's assumption that art requires an "ungracious
drawing-back" from the women of his "human house" (159). As an image of the
best writing in the Professor's history, the playfully feminine border that
interweaves Mathilde's chronicle of male conquest implies that St. Peter's
wife and daughters are integral to the conception of his "sons" and are not,
as he supposes, "perilous" distractions. St. Peter is especially indebted to
his wife and oldest daughter for financial support, yet he proudly refuses
to acknowledge this debt. The disclaimer in St. Peter's account of his
intense double life as a writer and teacher is remarkable because it is so
thoroughly discredited by details that emerge later in the novel:
By many petty economies of purse, he had managed to be extravagant with
not a cent in the world but his professor's salary-he didn't, of course,
touch his wife's small income from her father. By eliminations and
combinations so many and subtle that it now made his head ache to think
of them, he had done full justice to his university lectures, and at the
same time carried on an engrossing piece of creative work. (29)
By many petty economies of purse, he had managed to be extravagant with not a cent in the world but his professor's salary-he didn't, of course, touch his wife's small income from her father. By eliminations and combinations so many and subtle that it now made his head ache to think of them, he had done full justice to his university lectures, and at the same time carried on an engrossing piece of creative work. (29)
St. Peter similarly denies that he has ever "received one dollar from the Outland patent" (135). Incidents such as the St. Peters' trip to a lecture series at the University of Chicago, however, endorse Mrs. Crane's objection to the Professor's disclaimers: St. Peter benefits indirectly-if not directly-from the money in his family (135). In Chicago, Louie Marsellus cancels the St. Peters' reservations at an inexpensive hotel and books them a suite at the Blackstone. Far from protesting this arrangement, St. Peter quickly forgets "his scruples about accepting lavish hospitalities" (92).
Nowhere explicitly mentioned, the expense of the life-style that makes St. Peter's literary pursuits possible is everywhere implied in The Professor's House. While St. Peter proudly insists that he's never touched his wife's money or the money his daughter Rosamond inherits from Outland, on a deeper, almost subconscious level he is aware of his indebtedness. In the final book of the novel, St. Peter reflects that "his married life had been happy largely through a circumstance with which neither he nor his wife had anything to do." His wife's inheritance from her father "had made all the difference in the world" (257). That happy married life subsidized by Lillian's income includes the luxury of time for writing and research (St. Peter not only has the summers to himself while his wife and daughters vacation in Colorado but also enjoys a three-year leave of absence from teaching while working on his books) and domestic comforts important to St. Peter's sense of well-being (he is able, for example, to indulge his predilection for foreign imports: Spanish sherry, Italian wine and cheeses, French swimming visors, and Irish linen).
The image of Queen Mathilde's tapestry suggests that the Professor's history is in some way dependent upon the womanly arts that order his domestic life, and the details of St. Peter's career clearly indicate the nature of this dependence. St. Peter's remark about Outland's invention is equally applicable to his own long years of literary invention: "Without capital to make it go, Tom's idea was merely a formula written out on paper" (138). Without the personal and financial support of his wife and, later, Rosamond and her husband, The Spanish Adventurers would have been no more than an aborted conception. Praising St. Peter's outspoken criticism of the "new commercialism" that makes modern life "an orgy of acquisition," critics have traditionally taken St. Peter at his own word and have failed to consider his life-style (Stouck 100-104). Few have noted the hypocrisy of the Professor's diatribes against "corrupting" fortune. In refusing to acknowledge that his ideal Spanish sons are indebted to the material wealth of his wife and daughter, St. Peter is both ungenerous and dishonest.
In suggesting that St. Peter's history relies upon domestic arts managed and subsidized by Lillian, Queen Mathilde's "chronicle" subtly controverts the more prominent allusion to French art that St. Peter provides to describe his intellectual pursuits. While the "playfully" feminine border of the Bayeux tapestry identifies the Professor's "terrible women" as vital components of his art, the literary framework of Anatole France's Le Mannequin d'Osier insists upon the enmity between female parlor and male study that informs the interior decor and remote location of St. Peter's "dark den." As often as Augusta objects that her dressmaking forms are "unsuitable companions" for a scholar, St. Peter reassures her by pointing to a literary precedent for the "ladies" who share his study: "If they were good enough for Monsieur Bergeret, they are certainly good enough for me" (19). But what is "good enough" for St. Peter is rather bad for his wife, Lillian, who is cast by this reference to Le Mannequin d'Osier into the role of Monsieur Bergeret's ill-tempered and unfaithful wife. St. Peter's allusion "frames" Lillian in the same way that the Blue Mesa's "Eve" is framed by her biblical name and Duchene's story: she is grossly misrepresented by a literary framework that invites us to misread her. Implicitly identified by her husband's joke with Madame Bergeret-a woman whose interest in her husband's intellectual pursuits is limited to the seduction of his favorite student-innocent Lillian St. Peter is, like "Eve," trapped into playing the role of an adulterous femme fatale by the stories and histories of patriarchal tradition.
St. Peter's attitude toward his wife cannot be considered apart from his idealization of Tom Outland, since he sees Outland as the antithesis of Lillian and the domestic and social graces she represents. In terms of the Dutch genre scenes that inspired The Professor's House, St. Peter's conception of corrupt and corrupting female interior space is counterpointed by his vision of the "innocent blue" outer space that St. Peter views from his window and associates with Tom Outland. Remembering Outland as a rough child of the frontier who had never been housebroken, St. Peter fondly recalls Outland's poor table manners, his extreme discomfort in a suit and tie, and his slide down Lillian's polished stairs (117-18). Ignoring the silent testimony of Cliff City-a sculpture in stone that tells the story of an American West civilized by "domestic virtue" and "arts of peace," which developed as warrior arts declined (219-20)-St. Peter continues to see "Outland's country" as the mythic landscape of dime-novel westerns and cowboy movies. For St. Peter, the West remains the "rugged, untamed" frontier "dear to the American heart" (270): it is an escape from civilization, rather than a cradle of civilization.
St. Peter's "rugged, untamed" sea of prairie and desert sets the stage for his cowboy hero, Tom Outland. As his wife notes, St. Peter's exalted vision of Outland is colored by "chivalry of the cinema" (270). Questioning her husband's judgment of Outland's "simple and straightforward" character, Lillian warns St. Peter against imagining Tom as a Hollywood legend come true. In pointing to the silver-screen heroism that limits her husband's vision of Outland, Lillian anticipates later critics who complain about Outland's stereotyped character. Joseph Wood Krutch, for example, objects that Outland is "merely a hero," an "abstraction" full of storybook glamour but without real substance (56). Krutch is right: Tom Outland is America's most "storied" hero. Living a free life on the desert plains, Tom Outland is Tom Mix. When St. Peter's cowboy-student turns scientist and invents a revolutionary aircraft engine, Tom Mix becomes Tom Swift, exchanging the western frontier for the more modern frontier of outer space.
The Professor's House makes it clear, however, that Outland is a stereotyped hero from St. Peter's point of view and not from Cather's. While St. Peter dismisses his wife's criticism of Outland as provoked by jealousy, Cather's text subtly supports Lillian's reservations about her husband's student. Most notably, an important scene in the first section of the novel hints that Outland falls into sudden disfavor with Lillian not because she feels that the boy is supplanting her as St. Peter's most intimate companion, as St. Peter supposes, but because she sees and objects to a situation of which her husband is unaware: Outland is romantically involved with both St. Peter daughters at the same time.
That the sexual politics of the Professor's house are considerably more
complex than the Professor realizes is most evidently implied by a crucial
exchange between Kathleen, the St. Peters' youngest daughter, and her
husband, Scott McGregor, on the night of the St. Peters' Christmas dinner
party. Earlier that evening, Louie Marsellus had called attention to the
extravagance of his Christmas gift to Rosamond, an emerald necklace, by
recalling a "little bracelet" of turquoise that she'd worn when they first
met (107). Rosamond had been visibly upset by her husband's reference to
Outland's gift, and as the McGregors are driving home Scott asks Kitty
whether it's possible that her older sister still cares for Outland despite
her apparent devotion to Marsellus. Kitty's response is remarkable because
it is so disproportionate to her husband's simple question:
"Do you suppose she has some feeling for him still, under all this
"I don't know, and I don't care. But, oh, Scott, I do love you very
much!" she cried vehemently. . . .
"Sure?" he muttered. "Yes, I do!" she said fiercely, squeezing his
knuckles together with all her might.
"Awful nice of you to have told me all about it at the start, Kitty. Most
girls wouldn't have thought it necessary. I'm the only one who knows
"The only one who has ever known." "And I'm just the one another girl wouldn't have told." (109-10)
"Do you suppose she has some feeling for him still, under all this pompuosity?"
"I don't know, and I don't care. But, oh, Scott, I do love you very much!" she cried vehemently. . . .
"Sure?" he muttered.
"Yes, I do!" she said fiercely, squeezing his knuckles together with all her might.
"Awful nice of you to have told me all about it at the start, Kitty. Most girls wouldn't have thought it necessary. I'm the only one who knows ain't I?"
"The only one who has ever known."
"And I'm just the one another girl wouldn't have told." (109-10)
What "it" is that Kitty has confessed to Scott is partially clarified by the question that ends the scene. Reassuring McGregor that she always knew he was "the real one," Kitty asks, "You know you are the real one, don't you?" McGregor's response suggests doubt: "I guess!" (110).
Kitty's final question makes sense only if McGregor is aware that there has been another man in his wife's life. The circumstance stances surrounding Kitty's engagement to McGregor imply that Tom Outland was this "other man." St. Peter recalls that Kathleen has been deaf to his advice only once, "and that was when, shortly after Rosamond's engagement to Tom, she announced that she was going to marry Scott McGregor" (65). Objecting to the marriage only because McGregor seems unsuitable for Kathleen, St. Peter misses the point implicit in the suddenness of this second wedding announcement: Kathleen's engagement is a jealous reaction to her sister's impending marriage to Outland. The cryptic exchange between Scott and Kitty on the night of the Christmas party intimates a triangle that explains the strained relations between Kitty and Rosamond. That McGregor is "the only one who has ever known" about "it" rules out the possibility that Kitty has merely confessed her love for Outland because her father is well aware of that. Indeed, the conversation between Kitty and St. Peter in the Professor's study demonstrates that their mutual love for Outland is the strongest bond between St. Peter and his youngest daughter (130-32). Whatever Kitty has told McGregor must amount to more than a story of innocent infatuation. Outland had evidently been involved with Kitty before his engagement to her sister, and at some point shortly before or after her marriage Kitty told McGregor about the liaison.
"Felt upon the page without being specifically named there," the relationship between Outland, Kitty, and Rosamond is presented in the classic Catherian fashion defined in "The Novel Démeublé" (On Writing 41). While the details of this triangle are deliberately left vague, enough is implied to suggest that Outland has deceived St. Peter, who regards him as "an older brother" to his daughters (132). Outland's relationship with St. Peter follows the pattern of his partnerships with Roddy Blake and Professor Crane (the physics professor whose help in developing the Outland engine is never acknowledged by his former lab assistant): Outland "requites faith and friendship" with betrayal, neglect, and deception (253).
To my knowledge the scenes suggesting Kitty's liaison with Outland have attracted no critical attention. This oversight is important because it indicates the power of St. Peter's idealization of Outland. St. Peter's "noble" cowboy is the lone frontiersman as "dear to the American heart" as the frontier itself, and readers have consequently followed St. Peter's lead in misreading Outland as a hero. Readers who have praised Outland as a symbol of the "selfless" western spirit gradually being eroded by "the feminization of modern society" (Gilbert and Gubar 207) fail to give proper credit to Lillian's suspicions about Outland and his "not altogether straightforward" conduct because they have also failed to give proper weight to the betrayal at the climax of "Tom Outland's Story." In his introduction to the inset narrative, St. Peter encourages us to give little weight to Outland's repudiation of Roddy Blake: "It was nothing very incriminating, nothing very remarkable . . . the sort of thing a boy is sensitive about-until he grows older" (176). "Humanized" by collective need, the rock that represents "loyalty in love and friendship" exposes Tom Outland's frontier virtue as a vice (Death Comes for the Archbishop 97). Against the background of the Blue Mesa, rugged individualism appears not as the "manly, mature" integrity St. Peter sees in Outland but as a denial of the human ties that distinguish civilization from "mere brutality" (221). Outland's repudiation of Blake is both a logical culmination of his "adventure" and a foreshadowing of his later violation of the Professor's fatherly trust, since the "singularly individual" sense of self that St. Peter most admires in Outland is a quality that limits his sense of duty to others.
The hero of Cather's story is not St. Peter's hero, Tom Outland, but the woman who serves as "a corrective, a remedial influence" that offsets Outland's individualism (280). Augusta's sense of obligation to "the world of men and women" is as limitless as Outland's is limited; St. Peter recalls times when she "used to telephone Mrs. St. Peter that she would be a day late, because there had been a death in the family where she was sewing just then, and she was 'needed'" (280). Augusta saves St. Peter from the ultimate in "singular" individualism-the solitude of death-not only by physically rescuing him when he is asphyxiated by gas in his study but by inspiring him through the example of her life. Compelling St. Peter to recognize that he is "outward bound" and tied to the human community, Augusta is clearly allied to Mother Eve and Cliff City. Like Eve, Augusta is "framed" by a false scheme (an investment scam). Like Eve's Mesa, Augusta counters the example of Tom's repeated betrayals (of Roddy Blake, Professor Crane, and Professor St. Peter) by providing a model of "loyalty in love and friendship."
If "the design is the story" of The Professor's House because the novel is preeminently concerned with conceptual frame-ups-Duchene's misreading of Mother Eve; St. Peter's misperceptions of both Outland and the "ladies" of his house-an important question remains: why does the novel Cather described as a "nasty, grim little tale" so anxiously explore critical misreading (Woodress 367)? While an interest in the way readers such as Duchene and St. Peter take and mistake histories and stories (like those of Eve and Outland) is natural for a writer, Cather had particularly pressing reasons to explore this subject in 1925. The crisis of domicile in The Professor's House is significantly precipitated by St. Peter's "Oxford prize for history" (33). The five thousand pounds attached to this award "had built [for St. Peter] the new house into which he did not want to move" (33). As many readers have noted, the details of St. Peter's literary career closely parallel Cather's; the Oxford prize is a fictional version of the Pulitzer Prize that Cather won for One of Ours in 1923. The Oxford-Pulitzer Prize not only shapes the plot of The Professor's House (by building the new house that threatens to uproot St. Peter from the house where he wrote The Spanish Adventurers) but also informs the novel's thematic concern with critical misreadings.
Of all Cather's works, none was more hostilely received and consistently
misinterpreted than her Pulitzer-Prize-winning One of
Ours. Anticipating that readers would be wary of a war story by a
woman, Cather changed publishers for this novel because she believed her
story of Claude Wheeler would require the special publicity and promotion
that Alfred Knopf promised and that Houghton Mifflin had failed to provide
for her earlier novels (Letter to Ferris Greenslet, 12 January 1921).
Cather's worries proved justified. As James Woodress notes, the most
influential reviewers of the novel-including old Cather champions such as
Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken-were emphatically negative (333). Sharon
O'Brien summarizes the sexism that pervades the most prominent reviews of
One of Ours:
The book was generally dismissed by male reviewers as a woman writer's
romanticized, outmoded view of modern combat. It was, Mencken
charged-evidently using the worst epithet he could imagine-very like the
work of a "lady novelist." For the first time, Cather was explicitly
judged as limited because of her gender. Trespassing on the preserve of
masculine fiction in the last section of the novel, in which her hero
Claude Wheeler enters the war in France, Cather had tred on forbidden
ground and so, many reviewers agreed, exposed the limits of the female
The book was generally dismissed by male reviewers as a woman writer's romanticized, outmoded view of modern combat. It was, Mencken charged-evidently using the worst epithet he could imagine-very like the work of a "lady novelist." For the first time, Cather was explicitly judged as limited because of her gender. Trespassing on the preserve of masculine fiction in the last section of the novel, in which her hero Claude Wheeler enters the war in France, Cather had tred on forbidden ground and so, many reviewers agreed, exposed the limits of the female imagination. (114)
Considering war fiction a genre beyond the scope of "lady novelists," critics such as Mencken misread One of Ours as thoroughly-and as misogynistically-as Duchene misreads Mother Eve. More specifically, contemporary male reviewers consistently failed to see that the war in One Of Ours is romanticized only from Claude Wheeler's point of view, not from Cather's. At least in part, then, The Professor's House is a brilliant novelization of Cather's experience as a "lady novelist." She charts maps of male misreadings that clearly explore frame-ups of women in literature.
The early studies of pueblo social structure by Elsie Parsons (on the Zuni, Laguna, and Acoma), Barbara Freire-Marreco (on the Tewa tribes of the Hano pueblo), and H. R. Voth (on the Hopi) are cited and masterfully synthesized by Frederick Eggan in Social Organization of the Western Pueblos. Eggan argues that the various pueblo tribes derive from a proto-culture organized according to matrilineal principles and that present variations in pueblo social organization are caused by varying degrees of acculturation after contact with the patrilineal systems of the Spanish and the patrilineal moiety systems of other Native American tribes. Eggan's landmark study has been subsequently challenged and revised. In particular, Robin Fox (The Keresan Bridge, 1967) and Alfonso Ortiz (The Tewa World, 1969) contend that Eggan's theory that the matrilineal clan and household were the "basic organizing principles" of pueblo society is valid only for the western pueblos. Fox and Ortiz, respectively, argue that the social structure of the Keresan pueblos (which includes Mesa Verde, the model of Tom Outland's Blue Mesa) and the eastern Tewan pueblos are not "acculturated versions of a basic western pueblo Crow-type original" but were instead originally structured as patrilineal moiety systems (Fox 73). In moieties, a dual organization-such as the division of a tribe into summer and winter people-is the basic structuring principle; in patrilineal moieties, a woman joins the moiety of her husband upon marriage.
Cather's understanding of pueblo ethnography was, of course, that of a nonspecialist, and her knowledge of the variety of the pueblo tribes of Arizona and New Mexico was limited. Both in her 1916 article on the Mesa Verde for the Denver Times (31 January) and in The Professor's House, Cather seems to follow the lead of pioneering archeologists such as Jesse Fewkes in identifying the lost tribe of Mesa Verde with the Hopi. This mistake (Mesa Verde was most probably settled by a Keresan tribe) reinforces my hunch that Cather believed-or willfully imagined-that "Mother Eve" belonged to a matrilocal culture, since the matrilineal principles of the Hopi are indisputable and were well know in the 1920s. Gustaf Nordenskjold, the primary source of Cather's archeological details in The Professor's House, repeatedly cites J. G. Bourke, who described the social customs of Laguna in the late nineteenth century, when railroads were being built across New Mexico and Arizona. As Eggan notes, Bourke clearly perceived the patterns of matrilocal residence and maternal control in Laguna, noting in his journal: "Children bore names referring to the clan of mother or to that of the father. The women owned the houses. Women possessed, even if they did not always exercise, the right of proposing to the young men of their choice. . . . The power of the wife over property is apparent to every purchaser: upon her consent depends the closing of bargains, which she cements or breaks arbitrarily" (Eggan 273).(Go back.)