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From Cather Studies Volume 4

Bringing Outland Inland in The Professor's House

Willa Cather's Domestication of Empire

In a 1938 letter describing how she wrote The Professor's House, Willa Cather points to what seems to be an unlikely source of inspiration for her novel.[1] Tracing her depiction of the Blue Mesa to the image of the sea in Dutch paintings, her account implicitly associates Tom Outland's southwestern adventures with colonial trade:

Just before I began the book I had seen, in Paris, an exhibition of old and modern Dutch paintings. In many of them the scene presented was a living-room warmly furnished, or a kitchen full of food and coppers. But in most of the interiors, whether drawing-room or kitchen, there was a square window, open, through which one saw the masts of ships, or a stretch of grey. The feeling of the sea that one got through those square windows was remarkable, and gave me a sense of the fleets of Dutch ships that ply quietly on all the waters of the globe—to Java, etc.

In my book I tried to make Professor St. Peter's house rather overcrowded and stuffy with new things; American proprieties, clothes, furs, petty ambitions, quivering jealousies—until one got rather stifled. Then I wanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of trivialities which was in Tom Outland's face and in his behaviour. ("On The Professor's House" 31-32)

Cather's reference to Java, a Dutch colony until 1945, turns a glimpse of the sea in a painting into a synecdoche for European imperialism. Moving from Dutch trading ships to Outland's exploration of the Blue Mesa, her account both describes and enacts the rewriting of imperialism as an American adventure story. In the course of the passage, the square windows that give the paintings an exhilarating "feeling of the sea" become the structural "window" of "Tom Outland's Story," which lets "fresh air" into the Professor's domestic life. By replacing the sea with the Blue Mesa, the passage transforms the foreign into the familiar and turns the expansionist gaze inward, toward an imaginatively reopened, mythologically innocent continental frontier.

With its allusion to Dutch colonialism, the letter invites its readers to consider The Professor's House in the context of empire. The novel's apparently imperial origins reveal an aspect of Cather's fiction that scholars have only recently begun to examine. Joseph Urgo's 1995 study,Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration, and Guy Reynolds' 1996 work, Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire, both take as a central premise the notion that Cather's writing is "about empire" (Reynolds 46). For Reynolds her novels "fictionalize the transfer of European empires to America, and the subsequent growth of an American empire" (46); for Urgo her writing "confront[s] the poetic potential of a transnational, American empire in the process of formation" (131-32). The presence of empire throughout Cather's fiction is undeniable, but its treatment is less straightforward than these statements suggest. In Cather's writing imperial narratives coexist with a tendency to efface the United States's twentieth-century global role. The trajectory of her literary career displaces the American empire ever farther from its contemporary moment and setting, from the late-nineteenth-century settlement of the frontier to mid-nineteenth-century French missionary work in the Southwest to the seventeenth-century colonization of Quebec. Rather than focus on the relationship between the United States and the world beyond its borders, she retreats inward and backward to the settlement of the American West and the colonization of the New World. Her works transform the American empire into a thing of the past, while her emphasis on continental expansion keeps the United Stares figuratively at home. Far from implying Cather's detachment from political issues, however, this ambivalent treatment of imperialism reveals her embeddedness in them. She is not alone in her strategies of effacement and retreat: as Urgo points out, most Americans "do not talk about their empire" (132). Cather's writing participates in modern American life by exploring not simply the fact of U.S. imperialism but also the national unwillingness to talk about it.

The treatment of continental expansion in Cather's works is perhaps the most striking example of her simultaneous acknowledgement and suppression of empire. Although she does not explicitly use the term frontier in "Tom Outland's Story," the story itself, which depicts a young cowboy's exploration and domestication of a conveniently uninhabited southwestern landscape, is filled with allusions to frontier mythology. Even before we witness Tom's actions on the mesa the narrative presents him as the incarnation of the frontier experience. Tom's parents, like so many pioneers, migrated west in a "mover wagon" (104) when he was a baby. They died upon their arrival, leaving their son ignorant of his birthdate and utterly dependent on the frontier itself for his identity.[2] A "fine-looking" boy who is "tall and . . . well-built" (95), Tom resembles the "true American frontiersman," described in the program for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, titled Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, as a "[y]oung, sturdy, . . . remarkable specimen of manly beauty"(7). He plays the conventional pioneering role of the scout, who carries "in his pocket the secrets [of] old trails and stones and water-courses" (235) when he leads the Professor through the Southwest on horseback. Moreover, Tom's domestication of the mesa recalls the settlement of the frontier. When he builds a log cabin on the mesa top, he invokes what Richard White has called "the chief icon of the nineteenth-century frontier, if not of American culture itself" (19).[3]

By depicting Outland as a frontiersman, Cather invokes a myth of unblemished American heroism: the popular notion that the West was "settled," rather than "conquered" (Grossman I), has long defined it as a kingdom won without the guilt Of studied battle. (Miller 187-88)

Since the late eighteenth century Americans have maintained a careful distinction between their "settlement" of the frontier and the invasiveness of European imperialism. As Patricia Limerick points out, this distinction still enables many Americans to imagine expansion with a clear conscience: "The term 'frontier' blurs the fact of conquest and throws a veil over the similarities between the story of American westward expansion and the planetary story of the expansion of European empires. Whatever meanings historians give the term, in popular culture it carries a persistently happy affect, a tone of adventure, heroism, and even fun very much in contrast with the tough, complicated, and sometimes bloody and brutal realities of conquest" (75). Rather than exposing the frontier's "brutal realities," the shift in Cather's letter from Dutch colonialism to Tom Outland's adventures on the Blue Mesa serves to empty the former of its associations with violence. The description of ships sailing "quietly" and the casual allusion to "Java, etc." make imperialism seem harmless and unintentional. At the same time, both the letter and the novel it describes perpetuate the notion that U.S. expansion is, by definition, continental: the antidote to the crowdedness of Dutch interiors may be the sea, but the antidote to "American proprieties" is the Blue Mesa. Although it implies that the exploration of the mesa is analogous to Dutch colonial trade, the letter manages to elide the real similarities that existed between European imperialism and twentieth-century American expansion. By 1925, when The Professor's House was published, the continental frontier had been officially closed for over three decades, and the United States was emerging as a world power. Nonetheless, Cather ignored the United States's growing involvement in Latin America, the Caribbean, and parts of Asia and kept her novelistic focus on the American West.[4]

This reversion to the mythology of continental expansion is not unique to Cather's work. According to David Wrobel, frontier narratives were quite common during the early decades of the postfrontier, postwar era: "During the 1920s there was a vast outpouring of writing on the American frontier, fueled in part by the publication of Frederick Jackson Turner's collection of essays, The Frontier in American History (October 1920). . . . The image of the frontier, it seems, provided a kind of solace for some in the uncertain postwar years"(98).[5] What sets The Professor's House apart from its contemporaries, however, is the fact that it calls attention to its own gesture of bringing expansionism back home: Cather reduces her frontier narrative to a 70-page interlude within an otherwise domestic novel. Set at the turn of the century, "Tom Outland's Story" is carefully disassociated from the contemporary moment depicted in the other two sections.[6] As a result, rather than simply displacing expansion from far-off lands to the North American continent, the novel takes the inward displacement of expansion as its subject. Like the Dutch paintings Cather describes in her letter, in which a window frame surrounds a view of the sea and situates it within a domestic interior, The Professor's House encloses its frontier narrative within the novel's tripartite structure. The framing of "Tom Outland's Story" locates continental expansion firmly inside the home: it keeps Outland, whose name itself suggests expansionism, safely inland.

Cather's unusual choice for an epigraph—a quotation from within the novel itself—alerts the reader to the fact that the novel is, in many ways, about its own structure. The line is from Louie Marsellus's recollection of the bracelet Rosamond was wearing when they first met, a bracelet Tom Outland had given her: "A turquoise set in silver, wasn't it? . . . Yes, a turquoise set in dull silver" (90). For James Schroeter, "[t]he point is that Book II is the 'turquoise' and Books I and III are the 'dull silver.' The whole novel, in other words, is constructed like the Indian bracelet" (370). By suggesting that The Professor's House recreates, in written form, one of the Native American artifacts Outland takes from the mesa, Schroeter aligns Cather's point of view with that of Outland himself. His formulation implies that Cather participates in, and thus endorses, Outland's romanticization and appropriation of Native American culture: "as those familiar with the values running all though Willa Cather's fiction will recognize, . . . the half-forgotten Indian bracelet represents true beauty, while the overvalued gold necklace [given to Rosamond by Marsellus] represents the false" (Schroeter 370). At first glance the epigraph seems to invite Schroeter's reading. The reference to turquoise foreshadows Cather's description of the mesa as a "blue, feature-less lump" (170), and the image of this blue stone framed by silver does indeed evoke the tripartite structure of the book. Nevertheless, as I argue below, the novel's treatment of its "turquoise" centerpiece, its portrait of Outland's frontier adventures, is far from uncritical. Moreover, Schroeter's assertion that the narrative simply rejects Marsellus's false materialism in favor of Outland's authenticity overlooks the fact that, by opening the novel with Marsellus's words, Cather hints at his unavoidable centrality. By invoking Marsellus's memory of Outland's gift, the epigraph underscores his replacement of Outland as Rosamond's husband. The irrepressible engineer, with his international connections and his money-making talent, supersedes the cowboy explorer of the Blue Mesa. Marsellus becomes a figure for the United States's shift from continental to overseas expansion, a rare acknowledgment in Cather's writing of American empire in its twentieth-century form. By giving his words such prominence in the epigraph, the novel implies the futility of resisting the nation's new, global role. As its language struggles to contain an empire that has already moved beyond U.S. borders, The Professor's House ends up depicting its own failure to preserve the myth of innocent expansion.

When she described the intended effect of The Professor's House in 1938, Cather chose to ignore the problem of Louie Marsellus and highlighted instead the ease with which a sea voyage to Java could become an adventure in an American desert landscape. If her fiction could not forestall the United States's shift to overseas expansion, it could at least figuratively domesticate the older, European, version of empire. In The Professor's House European imperialism finds its way into the United States in the form of several British characters, who look to Americans for lessons in expansion. Transplanted to the New World, the British are rendered innocuous and even foolish. Sir Edgar Spilling, for example, finds it necessary to travel to the American Midwest for information about a European empire (25-26). Whereas Sir Edgar is merely ridiculous, another British character, Henry, is "a pitiful wreck of an old man" (175), reduced to working as Tom and Roddy's cook and housekeeper on the mesa. The frontier domesticates (and ultimately kills) this "castaway Englishman" (175), whose many years at sea associate him with nineteenth-century British novels of imperial adventure.

If Henry's character seems to have sprung from the pages of imperialist literature, that literature itself provides Tom with his reading material. Like many other Cather characters, including Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! and Jim Burden in My Ántonia, Tom carries the idea of European empire into the American West in the form of books. As he discovers and explores the mesa, he reads classical epics and British adventure novels: "I'd brought my Caesar along, and had promised Father Duchene to read a hundred lines a day. . . . We had Robinson Crusoe with us, and Roddy's favorite book, Gulliver's Travels, which he never tired of" (167). Later, when Tom settles down on the mesa to spend a summer alone there, he reads Virgil's Aeneid, and his impressions of this foundational myth of empire-building ultimately blend with his memories of the mesa itself: "When I look into the Aeneid now, I can always see two pictures: the one on the page, and another behind that: blue and purple rocks and yellow-green piñons with flat tops, little clustered houses clinging together for protection, a rude tower rising in their midst, rising strong, with calmness and courage—behind it a dark grotto, in its depths a crystal spring" (228 ). While Tom's vision transports the world of the Aeneid to the landscape of the American Southwest, it also encloses the mesa itself within a book. The double image that he sees transforms the mesa into a work of art.

By figuring Old World imperialism as the stuff of literature, The Professor's House renders it safe and familiar; with the simple turn of a page these narratives' "undiscovered" destinations may be revisited again and again. When he runs out of new books, for example, Tom begins to memorize passages of Virgil. Moreover, because the rereading of adventure tales accompanies his own exploits on the mesa, the exploits themselves seem to repeat earlier acts of discovery. For the reader of The Professor's House the history of the Blue Mesa itself reinforces this sense of repetition. Although Tom and Roddy long to be "the first men" (166) to reach the top of the Blue Mesa, their exploration of this supposedly uncharted territory proceeds along a "well-worn path" (195). The realization that they are not "first," however, only enhances the excitement of their adventure. In Tom's words, "To people off alone, as we were, there is something stirring about finding evidences of human labor and care in the soil of an empty country" (173). His remark is telling: despite the "evidences of human labor and care," the country remains "empty." Imaginatively restored to emptiness, the American Southwest becomes a territory to be rediscovered time and again.[7] Tom's own efforts at "tidying up the ruins to wait another hundred years, maybe, for the right explorer" (227) transform expansion into an activity that can be repeated infinitely within the same geographical space.[8]

Many critics have noted that Cather's writing of "Tom Outland's Story" was itself a return to well-charted territory. Cather had visited Mesa Verde a decade before the publication of The Professor's House and described her own adventure in a 1916 newspaper article (the article itself was unknown to scholars until Susan J. Rosowski and Bernice Slote "discovered" and republished it in 1984). The 1916 article captures Cather's own experience of following a "well-worn path": "The journey to the Mesa Verde . . . is now a very easy one, and the railway runs within thirty miles of the mesa. . . .[You take] a friendly train with invariably friendly passengers and a conductor who has been on that run for fourteen years and who can give you all sorts of helpful information" (Rosowski and Slote 82). Rosowski and Slote observe that "Tom Outland's Story" repeats the very language of Cather's article: "The 1916 essay is 'Tom Outland's Story' in embryo: it contains the essential themes, techniques, and even images of the later story—and indeed, of the novel" (Rosowski and Slote 91). In Cather's descriptions, Tom's first glimpse of the Cliff City echoes that of his historical precursor:

After a long stretch of hard climbing young Wetherill happened to glance up at the great cliffs above him, and there, thru a veil of lightly falling snow, he saw practically as it stands today and as it had stood for 800 years before, the cliff palace—not a cliff dwelling, but a cliff village . . . lying in a natural archway let back into the cliff. (Rosowski and Slote 84)

I wish I could tell you what I saw there, just as I saw it, on that first morning, through a veil of lightly falling snow. Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. (The Professor's House 179)

Ironically, Tom's first encounter with the "little city of stone" is an act of repetition. He and Richard Wetherill, who "discovered" the Mesa Verde Cliff Palace in 1888, see the same cliff dwellings from the same angle, through an identical veil of "lightly falling snow." The snow itself restores the ruins to blankness, preparing them, perhaps, for the next "discovery."

Tom's exploration of the deserted Cliff City reenacts not only the journey of the cliff dwellers themselves and of the white explorers who followed them but also the exploits of characters in Cather's earlier fiction. Harrell notes that, "as an idea for fiction the discovery episode predates the rest of 'Tom Outland's Story.' . . . The proof lies in the number of times Cather used the scene in other stories before working it out to her satisfaction—or nearly so, at least—in 'Tom Outland's Story'" (85). Tom and Roddy's fictional precursors include Margie and Douglass, the two adult protagonists of "The Treasure of Far Island" (1902), who consider themselves the "original discoverers and claimants" of an island where they played as children (265). Margie's recollection of lying on a sandbar by a driftwood fire and devising "the conquest of the world" (273) prefigures the analogous scene in "The Enchanted Bluff" (1909), the most direct precursor to "Tom Outland's Story" (see Harrell 87-88). In "The Enchanted Bluff" several boys sit around a campfire on a sandbar island, planning their exploration of a 900-foot-tall rock in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Like the Blue Mesa, the bluff is the site of a deserted, ancient Indian village, frozen in time and suspended in the middle of a vast, empty desert landscape. Both the scene of children planning their conquests and the bluff with its Indian village continue to appear throughout Cather's later, better-known fiction. In Alexander's Bridge (1912), for example, Bartley Alexander looks out of his train window and sees a group of boys sitting around a campfire. In The Song of the Lark (1915) Thea Kronborg secludes herself in ancient southwestern cliff dwellings. The enchanted bluff itself makes another appearance in Death Comes for the Archbishop, when the archbishop encounters it while riding through the desert plains of the Southwest. Thus, when Tom discovers the Indian village atop the Blue Mesa, avid readers of Cather's fiction may experience an uncanny feeling of familiarity: the mesa already seems like home because we have been there so many times before. Expansion has become an endlessly repeated and seemingly safe return to origins rather than a potentially dangerous journey into the unknown. It is fitting, then, that when Tom revisits the Cliff City after his trip to Washington he behaves like "home-sick children when they come home" (217).

In The Professor's House, as in Cather's earlier writings, the supposed innocence of boyhood serves as a figure for the familiar, for the imaginary home to which the professor, in his withdrawal from the world, returns. At first it is Tom Outland who brings the Professor a "second youth" (234), but even after Tom's death St. Peter is able to revisit an earlier version of himself: "Tom Outland had not come back again through the garden door (as he had so often done in dreams!), but another boy had: the boy the Professor had long ago left behind him in Kansas, in the Solomon Valley—the original, unmodified Godfrey St. Peter" (239). Cather's earlier writings, however, often treat boyhood as the object of unfulfilled longings. The inaccessible mesa in "The Enchanted Bluff," for example, represents a moment of childhood that can never be recovered. According to the boy who tells the story, the Indian children were left on the bluff to starve after the massacre of their parents. The coda to "The Enchanted Bluff," in which the protagonists grow older without ever finding the village and its abandoned children, embodies the irretrievable quality of childhood itself.

If "The Enchanted Bluff" depicts an unrealized fantasy, "Tom Outland'sStory" asks what happens when the boys actually reach the Indian village. In part the narrative preserves the innocent overtones of the adventure by keeping its protagonist frozen in youth, like the children at the top of the bluff. Despite Outland's ability to bring the fantasy to fruition, his own life remains unfinished. He dies in the war and thus remains, in the Professor's memory, forever a "tramp boy" (233). Outland avoids the indignities of adult life that would have debased St. Peter's image of him: "What change would have come in his blue eye, in his fine long hand with the backspringing thumb, which had never handled things that were not the symbols of ideas? A hand like that, had he lived, must have been put to other uses. . . . It would have had to write thousands of useless letters, frame thousands of false excuses. It would have had to "manage" a great deal of money, to be the instrument of a woman who would grow always more exacting. He had escaped all that" (237).

In the Professor's mind at least, Tom's boyhood self lives on, untainted by the superficiality and petty deceptions that St. Peter associates with materialism. Similarly, the mesa remains frozen in its original, pristine state, as though it, too, were the object of only imaginary explorations. Although it has been "discovered" repeatedly, it appears untouched. Tom declares that he "had never breathed in anything that tasted so pure as the air in that valley" (178), and when he drinks from a spring he remarks, "I've never anywhere tasted water like it; as cold as ice, and so pure"(187). As for the village itself, "everything seemed open and clean. . . .[T]here was little rubbish or disorder. . . . Inside the little rooms water jars and bowls stood about unbroken, and yucca-fibre mats were on the floors." (186). The emphasis on order and cleanliness in these descriptions is striking, especially since it marks a dramatic departure from historical accounts of the actual Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, accounts that Cather consulted before writing "Tom Outland's Story." Harrell describes the filth and dilapidation of the dwellings prior to excavation: "the remnants of rooms and towers poked through piles of rubble, every step raised dust centuries old, and the only water around was unfit to drink" (213). By effacing the changes wrought by time and weather, Cather's fictional description makes the mesa new again and ready for "discovery."

Cather adds to this sense of renewal by revising an anecdote about a female mummy unearthed during the excavation of Mesa Verde. One historical account describes the well-preserved corpse of a woman, which the explorers decide to call "She," after the title character of H. Rider Haggard's romantic adventure novel. A tale of three Englishmen and their fantastic journey into southern Africa, She is, among other things, a well-known example of nineteenth-century British imperial fiction. In Cather's version of the mummy episode, the corpse is called "Mother Eve." By transforming "She" into "Mother Eve," The Professor's House obscures the literary allusion to imperialist adventure and substitutes instead an allusion to biblical origins. The change marks another figurative return home, a return to the mother of humankind. With the presence of Eve amid its already paradisaical beauty and purity, the mesa becomes a prelapsarian Eden.

The unspoiled qualities of the mesa make it an ideal source of the "fresh air" that "Tom Outland's Story" supposedly blows into the Professor's domestic life. Nevertheless, there are several hints that the Cliff City is not as Edenic as it appears to be. The apparent purity of Tom's motives, implied by his self-righteous claim that he "never thought of selling" the artifacts of the cliff dwellings and his refusal to touch the money Roddy earns by doing so (219-20), is undermined by his insistence on keeping "an account" of the artifacts in a "merchant's ledger" (189). Outland also admits that he "hoped we'd be paid for our work, and maybe get a bonus of some kind, for our discovery" (219). In Rosowski's words, "Outland appreciated the beauty and dignity of Cliff City; at the same time, he was a modern version of the 'brutal invaders' who ravaged the ancient tribe" (133). Tom's surprisingly cruel rejection of Roddy causes even Tom himself to be "frightened at [his] own heartlessness" (228-29). Perhaps the most blatant violation of Edenic purity is the horrifying murder that led to "Mother Eve's" demise: "there was a great wound in her side, the ribs stuck out through the dried flesh. Her mouth was open as if she were screaming, and her face, through all those years, had kept a look of terrible agony"(192). Father Duchene emphasizes the desecration when he surmises that "Mother Eve" had been punished by a jealous husband for committing adultery (201).

Materialism, ambition, jealousy: these are supposed to be the predicaments of the Professor's domestic life, which, according to Cather's 1938 letter, the "fresh air" of "Tom Outland's Story" was intended to alleviate. But the air that blows off the Blue Mesa is not much fresher than the air in St.Peter's house. The square window does not provide relief because the Professor and Outland are finally not that different from one another. It is difficult to separate Tom's voice from the Professor's, since the first-person narrative of "Tom Outland's Story" is actually a retelling, after Tom's death, of a story Tom told the professor years ago. Like Outland, St. Peter is simultaneously antimaterialist and implicated in materialism. He spends his career resisting the "new commercialism" in education (120), and he expresses his distaste for money throughout the novel. The Professor's disgust over a shopping trip he takes with his daughter Rosamond leads him to remark peevishly, "Let's omit the verb 'to buy' in all forms for a time" (134). Just as Outland asserts that "he must never on any account owe any material advantage to his friends" (151), St. Peter insists that "there can be no question of money between me and Tom Outland. . . ; my friendship with Outland is the one thing I will not have translated into the vulgar tongue"(50). The Professor thus participates in the attempt to purify Outland by disassociating their relationship from financial concerns. Despite St. Peter's supposed antimaterialism, however, he admits that he and his wife "could not have been happy if Lillian had not inherited a small income from her father" (233), and he is "terribly selfish about personal pleasures"(17), from wine to luxury hotels to fine linen napkins.

In addition to the inconsistency of their respective antimaterialisms, Tom and the Professor share a tendency to withdraw from the rest of humanity. After Roddy leaves, Tom has the best summer of his life all alone on the mesa; he is so self-absorbed that, he later admits, "I'd forget all about Blake without knowing it" (228). Similarly, the Professor thinks "of eternal solitude with gratefulness" (248) and resolves that "[h]e could not live with his family again" (250). Even their places of retreat resemble one another: like the Professor's study, which is located "under the slope of the mansard roof" and has a "low ceiling" (7), the Cliff City has "a long, low, twilight 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"(186). Secluded in these claustrophobic spaces, both Tom and St. Peter are portrayed as rather self-righteous isolationists who deny their relationship to the world around them.

The actual effect of "Tom Outland's Story" is thus strangely at odds with Cather's letter. Her description links Outland's adventures to a seemingly innocuous vision of expansion, one that would be confined within U.S. borders but would simultaneously provide a liberating sense of unrestricted space, like the "feeling of the sea" in Dutch paintings. Cather's letter achieves this vision by simplifying the novel's imagery, by reducing the window to a source of fresh air. Like the paintings she describes, the Professor's study has a "single square window" (7) that encloses the outside world within its frame while allowing just enough life-giving air to enter the room: "[T]he window must be left open—otherwise, with the ceiling so low, the air would speedily become unfit to breathe" (17). Yet, although it is an important source of air, the Professor's window also represents the threat of death: "If the stove were turned down, and the window left open a little way, a sudden gust of wind would blow the wretched things out altogether, and a deeply absorbed man might be asphyxiated before he knew it" (17). When the stove does blow out at the end of the novel, the gas fumes nearly kill the Professor. Paradoxically, it is the open window itself that renders the Professor's world literally "stifling."

The view from the Professor's window contributes to this stifling quality. According to Cather's letter, the window that looks out over the sea in the Dutch paintings becomes, in her novel, a structural window that looks inland, at the Blue Mesa. In The Professor's House St. Peter's window overlooks Lake Michigan, which the narrator describes as an "inland sea"(20). Surrounded by land, the lake gives the illusion of far-off horizons while remaining safely inside the North American continent. This fantasy of overseas expansion at home foreshadows the depiction of the Blue Mesa and its setting: the mesa is surrounded by a "sea of rabbit brush" (172), and the Cliff City faces "an ocean of clear air" (191).[9] The "inland sea" of Lake Michigan provides the Professor, who revels in the sight of its "innocent blue" (21), with a feeling of boyhood adventure that is free from associations with trade and colonialism. He underscores the lake's innocence by explicitly linking it to his own boyhood: "When he remembered his childhood, he remembered blue water" (20). Relying on the lake as an escape from the boredom of everyday life, he compares it to "an opendoor that nobody could shut" and imagines that "[t]he land and all its dreariness could never close in on you. You had only to look at the lake,and you knew you would soon be free. It was . . . not a thing thought about, but a part of consciousness itself" (20). Here again, however, the novel calls into question the possibility of unrestricted "inland" space. By internalizing the image of the sea, by turning it into a metaphor for Lake Michigan and his own consciousness, St. Peter has made escape impossible. Ultimately he associates the sea with the imprisoning forces of his own life: "The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him, seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man" (131). Once a potential source of freedom, the sea becomes a site of imprisonment, just as the open window that provides fresh air almost leads to the Professor's suffocation. Expansive images, in other words, turn into their opposite in this text; their expansiveness cannot be sustained once they are brought "inland." Even the Professor's final realization that he is "outward bound" (257) with Augusta suggests not only that he is journeying outward but also that he is tied to her, like a prisoner. By questioning its own effort to apply figures of overseas imperialism to continental expansion—figures like an open window, fresh air, and the sea—the novel warns that American expansionist energies can no longer be satisfied at home.

If figures of expansion are suffocating when brought "inland," the figure of home itself can be fatal. The fate of the domestically inclined cliff dwellers calls into question the novel's privileging of the familiar and its emphasis on repetition and return, both of which make continental expansion seem more desirable than overseas expansion. Linking domesticity with extinction, Father Duchene speculates that, because the cliff dwellers stopped "roving" and settled permanently on the mesa, "they possibly declined in the arts of war . . . [and] were probably wiped out, utterly exterminated, by some roving Indian tribe without culture or domestic virtues" (198). The Professor underscores the connection between home and death at the end of the novel, when he recalls Longfellow's translation of an Anglo-Saxon poem, entitled "Grave": For thee a house was built Ere thou wast born . . . (248)[10] In the Professor's mind at least, home has become a coffin.

As the novel uncovers the deeper implications of its own imagery, the characters' names betray hidden sides of their personalities. Unable to sustain the illusion of the frontier's openness, the text's language is barely able to suppress the international scope of twentieth-century American expansion. Tom Outland's name, for example, is an Anglicized version of the German Ausland, or "foreign country." The embodiment of continental expansion, this seemingly all-American cowboy has an implicit element of foreignness in him, a connection to the world beyond American shores. Similarly, the Professor has an allusion to empire hidden in his name. Originally christened "Napoleon Godfrey St. Peter" in deference to a grandfather who had fought in the Grande Armée, he "abbreviated his name in Kansas, and even his daughters didn't know what it had been originally" (143). Despite the Professor's secrecy, the legacy of European imperialism comes back to haunt him when his own daughter, whom he accompanies on a shopping trip, behaves "like Napoleon looting the Italian palaces" (135).[11]

The precariousness of the novel's figurative language reflects the difficulty of figuring an expansionism that is contained and yet liberating, derived from European imperialism and yet distinct from it. By calling attention to its own difficulties, The Professor's House enables a critique of the internalizing quality of Cather's fiction more generally. Janis P. Stout notes that the "story of journeys combined with a clinging to home" is a "pervasive pattern in [Cather's] novels" (2o6), and Eudora Welty identifies this "clinging to home" with a tendency to move from the universal to the particular: "[I]t was [Cather's] accomplishment to bring her gaze from that wide horizon, across the stretches of both space and time, to the intimacy and immediacy of the lives of a handful of human beings" (68). For many critics the concern with home and the individual in Cather's works reaches its ultimate expression as a withdrawal into the mind. In the words of Hermione Lee, Cather is both "an original, adventurous explorer . . . energetically making her mark on an 'undiscovered continent'" and "a historian [who] . . .translates her landscapes, and the figures in them, into landscapes of the mind" (1). By portraying the writer as a pioneer, Lee engages in the very process that she describes. Like Cather, she moves expansion from the continental frontier to the realm of the imagination.[12]

Lee's description of Cather as a "historian" links Cather to the Professor himself.[13] In addition to his focus on the past, St. Peter's increasingly reclusive behavior makes him an ideal figure for Cather's project of internalizing expansionism. The similarities between the Professor's "internal quest" (Rosowski 130) and Cather's own strategy of internalization compel the novel's readers to examine her strategy critically. During the course of the novel St. Peter's inwardness becomes an almost fatal obsession. His cramped study provides an enclosure within the already confined space of his home, and he regards his desk as a further retreat, "a hole one could creep into" (141). To the Professor even a trip downstairs becomes a dangerous voyage: "On that perilous journey down through the human house he might lose his mood, his enthusiasm, even his temper" (18). Like the mental landscape of Cather's frontier, the Professor's study becomes almost indistinguishable from his mind, the most inward space of all. According to Rosowski, "[t]he upper recess of an abandoned house is the only inhabited portion of a structure now empty and dead; similarly, a narrow intellectualism is all that is left of St. Peter's own life" (131). Merrill Maguire Skaggs makes the connection between study and mind even more explicit: "All the living being done here anymore takes place in the 'dark den' of the third-floor attic study the Professor still works in; that is, what life he has left occurs in the upper story, in his head" (75).[14] As St. Peter gradually withdraws from the world around him, retreating into his study and his mind with Outland's diary, his absorption in memories of the youth's adventures becomes so complete that the distinction between them and his own boyhood nearly collapses.

The Professor's internalization of Outland's adventures represents a continuation of his life's work, an eight-volume history entitled The Spanish Adventurers in North America. Although his research takes him to Spain, the American Southwest, Mexico, and France, he completes the writing itself in his study. As the narrator recounts, "the notes and the records and the ideas always came back to this room. It was here they were digested and sorted, and woven into their proper place in his history" (16). With its references to digesting and sorting, this description defines the Professor's scholarly project as one of absorbing and imposing order on the Spaniards' imperialism. The figure of weaving in turn, associates his work with the production of art: "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"(85). By interweaving the "dramatic action" of military exploits with a "playful" pattern, Queen Mathilde makes her narrative of violence seem harmless. Similarly, by bringing history into the home, by weaving together ideas of empire with "personal memories," the Professor transforms the conquest of the New World into a tale of "adventurers." The Professor's adherence to a fixed "design" (89) for his book highlights the aesthetic aspect of his project and links him to the artistically inclined cliff dwellers, whom Tom describes as "a people with a feeling for design" (182).

Like the weaving of violent deeds into a tapestry or the framing of the sea in a Dutch painting, the arrangement of flowers in the St. Peters' drawing-room defines aestheticization as a process of interiorizing and ordering: "There was, in the room, as [the Professor] looked through the window, a rich, intense effect of autumn, something that presented October much more sharply and sweetly to him than the coloured maples and the aster-bordered paths by which he had come home. It struck him that the seasons sometimes gain by being brought into the house, just as they gain by being brought into painting, and into poetry. The hand, fastidious and bold, which selected and placed—it was that which made the difference. In Nature there is no selection" (61). The Professor's preference for cut flowers over those in their natural environment reflects his desire to control the world outside the drawing-room. Displaced from outside to inside, the flowers become even more beautiful, just as the stones from the Blue Mesa become "princely gifts" (103) when Tom brings them into The Professor's House. The unknown hand that "selected and placed" the flowers in the above passage recalls Cather's own "fastidious and bold" selection of an expansionist narrative from the annals of history (the nineteenth-century "discovery" of Mesa Verde) and her deliberate placement of it in the middle of her book.

Given the Professor's delight with the effects of interiorization, it is not surprising that his own garden seems more like an indoor space than an outdoor one: "There was not a blade of grass; it was a tidy half-acre of glistening gravel and glistening shrubs and bright flowers . . . and in the middle two symmetrical, round-topped linden-trees" (6). With its emphasis on tidiness, polish, and symmetry the garden is a model of discipline and control. The imposition of order is excessive, as if the Professor were afraid that his "tidy half-acre" might slip back into its natural state at any time. St. Peter's repeated conquest of his own backyard functions as a substitute for travel abroad: "In the spring, when homesickness for other lands and the fret of things unaccomplished awoke, he worked off his discontent here" (6). His half-acre allows expansionist energies that might otherwise be directed overseas to be channeled inward. As a popular symbol of America, the garden, like the mesa, alludes to the frontier, itself a mythological "Garden of Eden far removed from the evils of the Old World" (Wrobel 5, 4). Despite its Edenic associations, however, the garden's rigid precision has ominous overtones. As a figure for the frontier, it does not seem far enough removed from the "evils" of the Old World. In fact, it is more European than American: the Professor, we are told, "had succeeded in making a French garden in Hamilton" (6). Transplanting the American Eden from France, the Professor reenacts the imperial conquest of the New World: he ultimately gets "the upper hand" of his "bit of ground" (6).

Although the Professor struggles valiantly to transplant a European garden to his tightly controlled, walled-in yard, he would prefer to "cultivate" Louie Marsellus, the embodiment of overseas expansion, as a distant "stranger in the town" (64). Unlike the flowers, the garden, and even Tom Outland, whom he succeeds as Rosamond's husband, Marsellus is not easily contained or domesticated. With "acquaintances . . . from the Soudan to Alaska" (27) and an ability to converse easily about "conditions in the Orient" (26), he is a far cry from the conventional American pioneer. His commercialization of Outland's scientific legacy—a revolutionary type of airplane engine—makes him a participant in the United States's effort to "colonize space" (Douglas 434, 454). In addition to being ambitious and internationally connected, Louie is also Jewish, a fact that enables the novel to use anti-Semitic stereotypes in its ambivalent critique of American globalism. The narrator points to Louie's ethnicity by observing that "[t]here was nothing Semitic about his countenance except his nose—that took the lead" (32). Later in the novel Kitty remarks defensively, "Does [Rosamond] think nobody else calls him a Jew? Does she think it's a secret?" (70). Drawing on the centuries-old stereotypes of the wandering Jew, who belongs to no particular country, and the greedy money lender, who grows rich without producing anything, Cather appropriates the Jew as a symbol of global, economic expansion. In her study of the perception of Jews in nineteenth-century America, Louise Mayo notes that, for people who lived in rural, agrarian areas (like the Nebraska prairie), "Jews were aliens, not part of the 'producing classes,' often 'detested' middlemen. While the Jewish banker, unlike the storekeeper, was beyond the immediate experience of the average American, he learned about that evil figure from Greenback leaders who warned of international Jewish banking houses" (128). Cather alludes to the stereotype of the unproductive Jew when she establishes a contrast between Tom Outland, who is creative but earns no profit from his creativity, and Marsellus, who, in Schroeter's words, "has no creative genius whatever, but knows how to make money"(371).[15] As a chemical engineer, Marsellus is identified with an unavoidable future that is fast replacing the old frontier lifestyle. Schroeter asserts that, for Cather, "the engineer was the new man. He and his machinery were pulling us relentlessly away from the past and into the future. And so she merged Jew and engineer in one" (372).[16]

Given the Professor's resistance to the future, his tendency to withdraw from the world, and his self-proclaimed antimaterialism, his aversion to Marsellus is not surprising. St. Peter thinks of his son-in-law as "unusual and exotic" and resists adopting "anyone so foreign into the family circle" (64). The Professor's discomfort, according to Walter Benn Michaels, stems from a nativist pluralism in which the Jew was regarded as an unassimilable racial Other. Michaels asserts that American identity was reimagined at the beginning of the twentieth century as an ethnic inheritance from the Indian, a legacy that was "something more than and different from the American citizenship that so many aliens had so easily achieved" (374). According to this nativist view, Tom Outland, who claims the cliff dwellers as his "ancestors" (219), is the appropriate son-in-law for the Professor, while his replacement by Marsellus "compromises the family" (Michaels 378). Michaels attributes the exclusionary racialization of American identity to American anti-imperialism, which used the resistance to "burdening the United States with . . . 'fresh millions of foreign negroes'" as one of its chief arguments against the colonization of the Philippines (386-87 n.1). Although I agree that "anti-imperialism promoted racial identity to an essential element of American citizenship" (Michaels 366-67), I do not read Cather's novel as unequivocally anti-imperialist. By the 1920s American imperialism no longer took the form of outright territorial acquisition; in place of colonization was a more insidious process of economic, political, technological, and cultural expansion. In this context Marsellus is less a representative of the unassimilable Other than a figure for the United States's own global role. Moreover, the novel's view of Marsellus is more balanced than the Professor's. Whereas the Professor is withdrawn from his family and inconsiderate of others' feelings, Marsellus is sociable, generous, and kind. Ultimately, St. Peter (and perhaps the novel as well) ends up liking the energetic entrepreneur in spite of himself. "Vanquished" by Marsellus's generosity and charm, he exclaims, "Louie, you are magnanimous and magnificent!" (149). Like so many other images in this text, that of the greedy, intrusive Jew loses its original associations and turns into its opposite.[17]

The Professor's House depicts the futility of St. Peter's resistance to his Jewish son-in-law by suggesting that Louie is not really "foreign" at all, that he actually fits quite easily into the Professor's world. Both Rosamond and Mrs. St. Peter quickly accept him, and he seems genuinely interested in the Professor's books and lectures. Moreover, when Mrs. Crane insultingly calls Marsellus an "adventurer" (119) the term links him both to Tom Outland and to the Professor's Spanish adventurers. St. Peter recalls how his daughters regarded Tom's childhood as "a gay adventure they would gladly have shared" (105), one that they found more exciting than all their "adventure books"(112). The Professor himself, although withdrawn from the outside world, is nonetheless closely associated with the Spanish "adventurers" about whom he writes. He is "commonly said to look like a Spaniard" (4), and his eyebrows look "like military moustaches" (5). Marsellus, then, shares a legacy of adventure that St. Peter claims for both Tom and himself. Like the figure of the Jew, the term "adventure" changes in the course of the narrative, losing its original association with American continental expansion (in the form of the Spanish conquest and Tom's exploration of the mesa) and becoming associated instead with the United States's global economic development. The progression from Tom Outland's frontier exploits to Marsellus's life of overseas travel and economic success seems inevitable. When St. Peter allows Outland into his family circle, Marsellus is not far behind.

Two years before the 1925 publication of The Professor's House, in her article "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle," Cather announced that "[i]n Nebraska, as in so many other States, we must face the fact that the splendid story of the pioneers is finished, and that no new story worthy to take its place has yet begun" (238). There was a "new story," of course, a story to which Cather herself tentatively alluded in her ambivalent portrait of Louie Marsellus. Nevertheless, with the exception of a few oblique references,[18] her fictional writing after The Professor's House does not return to the subject of twentieth-century U.S. expansion. Her later expansionist novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, are set in the nineteenth and seventeenth centuries, respectively, and depict Europeans converting and colonizing the New World. These works pickup where the frontier novels leave off: they, too, celebrate American expansion by depicting it in its mythologically untainted, continental form. By 1938, when Cather gave her account of The Professor's House and characterized "Tom Outland's Story" as an American, landbound version of a European sea voyage to the colonies, she was able to overlook the complicating presence of Louie Marsellus, the symbol of twentieth-century globalism. In her writing at least, American expansion had come home to stay.


 1. Written to Pat Knopf, Alfred Knopf's son, on 12 December 1938, the letter was published (in abbreviated form) in 1940 in the College English Association newsletter and then reprinted after Cather's death as the essay "On The Professor's House" in On Writing. (Go back.)
 2. According to Richard White, one important element of the frontier tradition was the idea that "the experience of pioneers . . . stripped them of their past and gave them a new and uniform set of American characteristics" (26). (Go back.)
 3. For a discussion of the icon of the log cabin, see White 19-21. The view from atop the mesa also recalls the dominant image of the frontier in illustrations and paintings, in which the viewer has a sense of "[s]tanding on the height and watching progress unfold" (White 15). Outland vividly describes "the feeling of being on the mesa, in a world above the world. . . . Down there behind me was the plain, already streaked with shadow, violet and purple and burnt orange until it met the horizon" (217). (Go back.)
 4. At the time when Cather was writing The Professor's House, 14 of the then 20 Latin American nations had "some form of direct North American presence" (Smith 153). American military involvement was particularly heavy in the countries of the Caribbean, where the United States occupied Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua (LaFeber 266 [map]). In addition to these military interventions, more than "1,000 American-controlled businesses exercised significant influence in at least three-fourths of the Latin American countries" (Paterson, Clifford, and Hagan 350). As for Asia, there were 13 American colleges and 2,500 missionaries in China by the 1920s, and throughout the early decades of the twentieth century "the United States maintained troops on Chinese soil and gunboats on Chinese rivers" for the stated purpose of protecting its interests and preserving order (Kiernan 137; Paterson, Clifford, and Hagan 342). (Go back.)
 5. Wrobel describes in detail the postwar obsession with the frontier: Typical of the nostalgic predilections of the time were the cowboy novels of Emerson Hough, The Covered Wagon (1922) and North of 36 (1923), which lauded the colorful individualism and heroism of the cowboy, and Bernard De Voto's The Crooked Mile (1924), The Chariot of Fire (1926), and The House of Sun-Goes-Down (1928), which chronicled the westward movement and the influence of the frontier on the American character. Owen Wister reminisced about the good old days When West Was West (1928). Philip Ashton Rollins searched for 'the spirit of the Old West' in his 1922 work, The Cowboy. . . . Cowboy stories, homesteading tales, and accounts of pioneer exploits abounded in publications such as Scribner's, Harper's, and even the more intellectually charged American Mercury during the 1920s. (105-06) (Go back.)
 6. According to David Harrell, "Book I is set in 1919 or 1920 and Book III a year later; and . . . the events in 'Tom Outland's Story' probably occurred from 1903 to 1907" (208). Jo Ann Middleton observes that the domestic sections of the novel, which are set around the time that the novel was written, seem less connected to the present moment than "Tom Outland's Story," which takes place almost two decades earlier: "Part of the tremendous contrast between books 1 and 2 is the shift from third person, which is distancing and allows for a certain nostalgic tone, to the first-person narrator, which requires a different reaction from the reader. We do not register at first, however, that Tom is speaking after the fact; everything that he says is also colored by nostalgia and imperfect memory" (115). The past thus has the quality of being more "present" to the reader than the contemporary moment, an effect that underscores the novel's resistance to the contemporary reality of overseas expansion. (Go back.)
 7. According to White, the notion of empty land was itself an important aspect of frontier mythology (9, 17). Cather frequently referred to the frontier's putative emptiness, both in descriptions of her own childhood and in her fiction (see Woodress 36; My Ántonia 7) (Go back.)
 8. Cather achieves a similar effect in her 1916 Mesa Verde essay, when she inaccurately describes Richard Wetherill as "the first white man who discovered the ruins in its canons [sic] forty-odd years ago" and asserts that "[u]ntil that time the mesa was entirely unexplored" (Rosowski and Slote 83). Harrell points out that, "[a]lthough this account may seem accurate in general, its details are quite different from those of the actual event. To begin with, Richard was not the first white man to discover ruins in Mesa Verde, a fact noted by the park brochure for 1915 [when Cather made her visit]. . . . In fact, Anglo excursions had begun as early as the mid-nineteenth century, so that by 1888 Mesa Verde and its treasures, far from being 'entirely unexplored,' were already familiar to a great many people" (96). (Go back.)
 9. Cather was not the only writer of the frontier to use sea imagery when describing the West. Referring to the closing of the frontier in 1907, Charles Moreau Harger described the pioneer's covered wagon as the "Mayflower of the prairie lands," which had become a "faded wreck cast far ashore" (qtd. in Wrobel 93). (Go back.)
 10. E. K. Brown identifies the poem in Rhythm in the Novel 76 n.1. (Go back.)
 11. Cather's (ironic?) references to Napoleon in her early writing suggest the imperialist legacy of her own work (The Kingdom of Art 168, 224, 229). Writing in a friend's album in 1888, she listed "Bonaparte" as her favorite character in history (Bennett 112-13). (Go back.)
 12. Lee's reference to Cather as an adventurous explorer echoes many similar descriptions in Cather scholarship. Lionel Trilling, for example, writes: "Looking for the new frontier, [Cather] found it in the mind" (9). Cather invited the association of her artistic project with that of the pioneers by using images of writing to describe the frontier. In One of Ours the Nebraskan prairie is described as "the great rolling page where once only the wind wrote its story" (7-8). (Go back.)
 13. Many critics have pointed to the similarities between Cather and the Professor and have debated the extent to which he embodies her own perspective on topics ranging from modernity and commercialism to female sexuality. See, for example, Stout 210. There are also many similarities between the Professor and the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who, like St. Peter, mourned the passing of an era and viewed progress as an enemy. (Go back.)
 14. For other discussions of the symbolism of the house, see Brown, Critical Biography 240-45; Brown, Rhythm in the Novel 71-78; Edel. (Go back.)
 15. The anti-Semitism of Cather's writing has been well documented. In Schroeter's words, Cather's portraits of Jews "all show the Jew as repulsive from a physical point of view, vulgar from a social and esthetic point of view, and acquisitive from a moral. A foreigner or outsider, he is seen in the role of invader and aggressor" (367-68). As I discuss above, however, I find Schroeter's conclusions about the depiction of Marsellus reductive. According to his analysis, "Willa's 'message' is simply that America is falling into the hands of the Jews" (373). Although he points out that Louie's character is not as negatively portrayed as the Jews in Cather's early fiction, Schroeter's argument does not adequately account for the ambivalence of Marsellus's portrait, nor does it explore the relevance of Jewish stereotypes to the novel's expansionist themes. (Go back.)
 16. For some Americans frontier mythology offered a comforting escape from the kind of progress that Marsellus represents: "The qualities of woodland wilderness and of heroic, unbridled pioneer individualism served as a kind of antidote to fears of impersonal technological progress in the 1920s" (Wrobel 98-99). (Go back.)
 17. My disagreement with Michaels's notion of Cather as an anti-imperialist also puts me at odds with Reynolds's argument in Willa Cather in Context. Although Reynolds helpfully points to the pervasiveness of imperial themes in Cather's writing, he ultimately situates her in the anti-imperialist camp by asserting that her interest in "a historiography founded on geology and archeology" results in the undermining of imperial self-confidence: "Imperial history, an anthropocentric account of mankind's achievements, is eroded by the newly-perceived non-human chronologies" (52). Reynolds's emphasis on the racial and ethnic diversity of Cather's fiction turns Michaels's argument on its head, since he suggests that Cather's resistance to nativism is anti-imperialist: he describes "the gulf between her vision of a pluralist America still linked to Europe and the increasingly dominant historiographical views of Turner and Roosevelt, where America is exceptional, unique and culturally homogenous" (Reynolds 66). In this reading Cather's fiction offers an antidote to imperialist Anglo-Saxonism. (Go back.)

 18. One such reference is to Henry Seabury's business dealings in China in "The Old Beauty," a posthumously published story that Cather wrote in 1936. (Go back.)


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