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From Cather Studies Volume 4

Epicurus in Hamilton

St. Peter's Contemplative Retirement to the Attic Study and Garden in The Professor's House

Over a dish of steaming asparagus, swathed in a napkin to keep it hot, and a bottle of sparkling Asti, they talked and watched night fall in the garden. If the evening happened to be rainy or chilly, they sat inside and read Lucretius The Professor's House

Godfrey St. Peter's enigmatic withdrawal has elicited much of the critical commentary upon The Professor's House. Two competing schools of thought have developed in trying to explain it. Leon Edel, one of the first and most influential commentators to tackle the withdrawal crux, inaugurated what can be called the biographical hypothesis.[1] According to Edel, in the novel, no objective correlative exists to warrant the depression that he believes caused St. Peter's withdrawal. Instead, the objective correlative can be traced to "Miss Cather's inner problems, which did not permit her to resolve clearly the problems of the character she had projected into her novel" (120). Thus, he deduces that St. Peter's depression reflects the depression Cather herself experienced after the unexpected marriage of Isabelle McClung. The other school of thought interprets the problem of St. Peter's withdrawal nonbiographically. E. K. Brown, a key proponent of the nonbiographical interpretation, believes that St. Peter's retirement amounts to a "profound, unconscious preparation for death" (245), while others argue that St. Peter's retirement constitutes either an escape from society's competitive materialisms or a kind of religious/philosophical quest.[2]

Although many of these interpretations offer persuasive explanations for aspects of the withdrawal crux, St. Peter's retreat—whether rooted in biographical or nonbiographical considerations—still remains enigmatic. Moreover, none of these interpretations sufficiently accounts for Cather's association of St. Peter's withdrawal with the two particular places—the attic study and garden—to which he retires. Given their importance, it behooves us to reexamine the specifics of these two settings: what uniquely suits them for St. Peter's withdrawal? An answer to that question, I believe, emerges from a series of often times overlooked allusions, suggestions, and figures of speech. When compiled they coalesce into a recognizable framework of associations—that is, a context in which to reevaluate St. Peter's enigmatic withdrawal.[3] Cather's remarks in "On The Professor's House," in fact, provide my reading strategy for interpreting these allusions, suggestions, and figures of speech as such a context or "window" as she puts it: "In many of them [the modern Dutch paintings], 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 gray sea. . . . In my book I tried to make Professor St. Peter's house rather overcrowded and stuffy with new things . . .—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." (974). In other words, if St.Peter's withdrawal represents the foregrounded scene and if the allusions, suggestions, and figures of speech combine to form a context (or "window") by which to reexamine it, then what does this "window" reveal?

I would like to suggest here that it recharacterizes St. Peter's withdrawal as an epicurean withdrawal to contemplative retirement. In order to advance this interpretation, I shall first compile the allusions, suggestions, and figures of speech and demonstrate that Cather portrays St. Peter's retirement to his attic study as a retirement into the mind, in accordance with traditional literary depictions of retirement into the mind as a retirement into an attic study. Second, I shall argue that Cather's figurative representation of this withdrawal descants on an ancient theme: the choice between active involvement in public life or withdrawal to a life of contemplative retirement. Writers have rendered contemplative retirement not only as a withdrawal into the mind but also as a withdrawal into the garden. Significantly, Cather presents St. Peter's garden retirement in just those terms—particularly epicurean retirement—and conceiving of St. Peter's retirement in this manner enables us to tease out his many other epicurean qualities. Ultimately, then, exploring the specifics of these two settings will illuminate the larger question of St. Peter's withdrawal to them.

The first clue to the epicurean nature of St. Peter's withdrawal emerges from the way Cather specifically portrays St. Peter's retreat to his attic study as a retirement to the mind. This portrayal correlates St. Peter's attic study and head in terms of their physical position: the attic resides in the house as the head rests on the body. In fact, the detailed description of the region of St. Peter's head between the top of his ear and the crown exactly aligns his brain with the attic study, stressing their relationship: "'The thing that really makes Papa handsome is the modelling of his head between the top of his ear and his crown; it is quite the best thing about him[,]' [Kathleen once remarked.] That part of his head was high, polished, hard as bronze, and close-growing black hair threw off a streak of light along the rounded ridge where the skull was fullest. The mould of his head on the side was so individual and definite, so far from casual, that it was more like a statue's head than a man's" (5). Cather reinforces the correspondence by equating the mind and attic study in the allusion to the "two spent swimmers" in Macbeth: "It was in those very years that he was beginning his great work; when the desire to do it and the difficulties attending such a project strove together in his mind like Macbeth's two spent swimmers" (The Professor's House 16). This allusion invokes the scene from Macbeth act I, scene 2, where a messenger reports to King Duncan that at one point in a recent battle, the two sides locked in a temporary stalemate: Doubtful it stood, As two spent swimmers, that do cling together And choke their art (9-11) In The Professor's House, though, the antagonists have been internalized to St. Peter's mind in a kind of psychomachia: St. Peter temporarily paralyzes himself by vacillating between enthusiasm ("desire") and hesitation ("difficulty"). The allusion, then, externalizes two internal experiences as personifications, conflating St. Peter's mind and attic study as the site of a simultaneously metaphorical and literal struggle.

Cather underscores this conflation of St. Peter's mind and attic study even more explicitly in the following sentences that detail the progress of the eight-volume history produced out of his struggle: "During the fifteen years he had been working on his Spanish Adventurers in North America, this room had been his centre of operations. There had been delightful excursions and digressions; . . . But the notes and the records and the ideas always came back to this room" (16). Obviously, Cather specifies the attic study as the place in the house where St. Peter thinks; less obviously, though, the metaphors for this process of thinking project the mental activity out of St. Peter's mind into the room itself, thereby equating the room and mind. For the narrator points out that "it was here [that] they [the notes, records, and ideas] were digested and sorted, and woven into their proper place in his history" (16). However, these metaphors of digesting, sorting, and weaving progressively displace the activity of thought from inside the body ("digesting") to outside to the room itself ("weaving")—in fact the very same room where Augusta also sews. The narrator additionally underscores the relationship between St. Peter's historical synthesis and weaving by, elsewhere, associating writing with the weaving of tapestry: "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" (85). This self-referentiality—the tapestry of Mathilde weaving a tapestry—perhaps extends to St. Peter and Cather too, as if through this "window" Cather were also, self-referentially, describing her own artistic practice or, as Sharon O'Brien has suggested, externalizing "the psychological state central to her creative process" (The Emerging Voice 409).

Finally, Cather conflates the house and body most explicitly in the figure of speech "the human house," the figure she selects to suggest St. Peter's relationship with his dwelling: "sometimes he found that the oil-can in the closet was empty; then, to get more, he would have had to go down through the house to the cellar. . . . On that perilous journey down through the human house he might lose his mood" (17-18). While in a literal sense "human house" indicates the part of the house occupied by humanity from which St. Peter has withdrawn in order to write his books, in a figurative sense "human house" combines the body and the house, reminding us of the allegorical depictions of the house as a human body that appeared so frequently and prominently in the works Cather undoubtedly read.[4] These depictions, significantly, allegorize the mind as an attic study. Perhaps John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress represents the best example. According to Cather's biographers, Cather learned to read and write from it, indeed, rereading it as many as eight times during one of her first winters in Nebraska (Woodress, Her Life and Art 41; Lee 28). This work, so crucial to forming her imagination, repeatedly allegorizes the body as a house. For example, when Christian (and later Christiana) visits the House of the Interpreter, he learns that various rooms represent various aspects of a person (for example, parlor corresponds to the heart [Bunyan 61]). Not unlike St. Peter's house, the Palace Beautiful features a study where extensive documentary records reside and histories are written (Bunyan 86-87). A more detailed and explicit depiction of the allegorized mind/attic study appears in another work Cather probably encountered in those anthologies of poetry in her library: Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, which allegorizes the body as the Castle of Alma, the soul (c.9.21-60). Beginning at the castle walls (which represent the skin), Spenser leads Prince Arthur and Sir Guyon through the gate (the mouth), past the outer defenses and guards (tongue and teeth), into the hall (throat), through the kitchen (internal organs), by the parlor (heart), up the stairs (spinal chord), and finally into the "stately Turret," the head (2.9.44 ln. 8). This turret has three rooms, each representing one of the three faculties of the mind (imagination, reason, and memory). A sage presides over each room/faculty and advises Alma (the soul) accordingly. In particular, the chamber of memory is for the sage Eumnestes ("Good Memory") who is assisted by the boy Anamnestes ("Reminder"). Together they search the worm-eaten scrolls, parchments, and records in Eumnestes' library, the allegorical representation of Alma's memory. To connect this allegorical tradition to The Professor's House, I should point out that Shakespeare's act I,to which we have already seen Cather allude, similarly characterizes memory as "the warder of the brain" (1.7.66).

Given the pervasiveness of this allegory in works Cather undoubtedly read (and that arguably influenced her), it should come as no surprise that Cather allegorizes St. Peter's attic study and his mind in much the same fashion. We have seen that Cather portrays St. Peter's head in terms of a stone edifice and places the attic study in a location corresponding to the brain. In addition, St. Peter's attic study particularly resembles allegorical attic-studies in terms of their contents and function: all have a sage with a collection of papers from which each weaves history.[5] Perhaps this interpretation can add to the host of significances Cather scholars have already attributed to it. O'Brien, for example, demonstrates the ubiquity of the attic study in Cather's life and works: Cather herself, during childhood, occupied an attic bedroom that represented an important setting for fostering her creativity and growth; the attic reappears throughout Cather's corpus (The Song of the Lark, "The Best Years"); it recalls the sewing room in the McClung's house which served, for a time, as Cather's study; and more generally, Cather always seemed to gravitate to the attic at the houses where she resided (The Emerging Voice 84-86). The context I am suggesting adds another wrinkle to these, substantiating Dorothy McFarland's observation that the attic study is "the symbolic 'mind' of the house" (73).

The subtlety of Cather's allegorical depiction enacts Cather's dictum that a modern novelist writes "by suggestion rather than by enumeration" ("The Novel Démeublé" 836). Indeed, by opening a window onto a backgrounded scene, Cather intimates "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel" ("The Novel Démeublé" 837). What is the "inexplicable presence of the thing not named"? In this case, I submit that one such presence is the literary tradition underlying Cather's treatment of St. Peter's withdrawal—in fact, the same tradition that broods over both this novel and indeed Cather's entire literary career.[6] Furthermore, because Cather selects both loci classici of contemplative retirement—the study, as we have seen, and the garden, as we shall now see—as the sites of St. Peter's saga, St. Peter's withdrawal resembles the ancient dilemma between participating in public life or withdrawing to a private life of contemplation. More specifically, reconsidering St. Peter's withdrawal with respect to the garden topos reveals it as an epicurean form of garden retirement and teases out his epicurean characteristics.

Let us consider St. Peter's garden. Like the attic study, it too has elicited valuable critical commentary. Thomas Strychacz, for example, believes it has a "wide mythic significance in the context of American culture": recalling numerous works of American literature, it evokes "the vision of the settler making a garden of a New World wilderness" (50). An ambiguous setting, though, it simultaneously "suggests a sterile imposition of order" (what with its absence of grass) as well as "foreign, Old World values" (51). Others agree that the garden is "out of place" (Harrell 195). David Harrell considers it "a virtual study in congruity. In a distant way it reflects the French-Canadian side of St. Peter's ancestry; but, like the Marselluses' Outland, it has 'no vestige of American feeling,' certainly no vestige of Hamilton feeling" (195). Hermione Lee adds that "the cultivation of his 'walled-in' French garden in an American city, like the cultivation of his intellect and sensibility in a material world, makes him something of a spiritual snob" (238).

I agree with these critics that St. Peter's garden is "out of place" in the sense that it is not native American though I trace its origins back further than St. Peter's French heritage. While I agree with Strychacz that St.Peter's garden has a "wide mythic significance," I perceive that significance somewhat differently—in a context even wider than Strychacz's. For millennia writers have imagined the garden as one of the loci classici of perfect repose. The Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, represents the Garden of Eden as its earthly paradise. As A. Bartlett Giamatti points out, the word paradise derives from the old Persian word pairidaeza, which means "enclosed garden" (II). Thus the notion of paradise as an enclosed garden influenced Old Testament representations of paradise such as the Garden of Eden and Solomon's garden in the Canticles (not coincidentally, Cather cites both gardens in The Professor's House [192, 83]). The Garden of Eden features two prominent trees at its center: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge (Gen. 2:9). In the luxuriant shade of such trees Adam enjoyed blissful serenity while fulfilling his commission to tend the plants of the garden (Gen. 2:15). Hebrew and Christian commentators often interpreted this enclosed garden (as well as the enclosed garden of Solomon's Canticles) allegorically, viewing it as "a landscape of the mind, a place in the topography of the soul" (Giamatti 81). Thus its cultivation represents a cultivation of the mind.

In some important respects St. Peter's garden resembles an Edenic paradise, as Missy Kubitschuk has observed: "walls girdle St. Peter's garden, two prominent trees tower at its center, and St. Peter, like Adam (prior to Eve's creation), tends his plants in the garden's shady tranquillity" (15-16). Cather also characterizes St. Peter's gardening as an extension or mirror of his mental life. For typically in the summers the garden becomes his refuge, the place where he can withdraw from family relationships to live, like Adam prior to the creation of Eve, as a "bachelor again." As such, he leads an Adamic life of cultivating his mind while writing under the linden trees and conversing with Tom Outland. Finally, in the fall (when the novel's action occurs), he escapes to his garden to retreat from "the unpleasant effects of change," again retreating to renew his mind.[7] Cather confirms the mind-garden relationship by having St. Peter carry a geranium blossom from the garden to his study in the novel's opening pages (7).

St. Peter's garden also has affinities with representations of the garden in classical literature, which Cather studied extensively.[8] Ancient Greeks and Romans conceived of the garden as a pristine golden world that existed prior to the ravages of time and change, a luxuriant setting where the teeming soil and tranquil shade produced a blissful life of ease, rustic simplicity, and inner harmony such as St. Peter tries to recover in his garden. Thus the garden of the golden age epitomized the satisfaction and completeness of this life, the landscape mirroring "one's interior state of soul" (Giamatti 43-44). However, after the passing of the timeless golden age and the onset of ravaging time, retirement to the garden represented an attempt to bring "one's environment into harmony with one's standards and needs" (Giamatti 45), much as St. Peter attempts to "evade the unpleasant effects of change" (The Professor's House 7) by cultivating his plants—and by extension, his mind—in his garden. Some classical writers, such as Virgil in his eclogues, imagined this recovery of harmony in a retreat to the gardens of the pastoral world, which embodied refuge from the activity of the city or court. Others envisioned this recovery in the Garden of the Hesperides or the Elysian Fields.[9]

These characteristics suit the classical garden for another kind of garden retirement: epicurean withdrawal.[10] Epicurus founded his school of philosophy in a garden outside of Athens where he and his disciples lived alife of contemplative retirement, earning the appropriate name of "philosophers of the garden." In this garden Epicurus advocated a life of pleasure that consisted not of gross sensual hedonism, as the term "epicurean" today mistakenly denotes, but rather of measured austerity devoted to avoiding pain and attaining the pleasures of the mind.[11] Such pleasures, significantly, derived from contemplation in a life of retirement: "the immunity which results from a quiet life and the retirement from the world" (Oates 36). Contemplative retirement best occurs when one can withdraw from public affairs and achieve ataraxia, "freedom from disturbance."[12] Epicurus epitomizes this ideal in his famous maxim, fragment 86: lathe biosas, which means "live unknown," or translated literally, "be unknown living" (Oates 52).

Like Epicurus, St. Peter insulates himself in his garden retreat and attic study so that he too may enjoy ataraxia. This context clarifies Harrell's observation that St. Peter's garden "helps define his character" (195). Indeed Cather foregrounds the extraordinary measures he takes to attain ataraxia, such as regularly working late into the night four evenings a week, including Christmas Day; routinely skipping family vacations; and most poignantly, composing a "contract" forbidding his daughter Kathleen "not on any account to disturb him in his study"—even when she was stung by a bee (4, 8,18, 82, 7, 73). As extraordinary as these measures may be, Cather best portrays St. Peter's quest for ataraxia in imagery that may echo a famous image in Lucretius's De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), the work that preserves the fullest surviving records of epicurean doctrine and with which Cather was familiar.[13] Lucretius depicts epicurean imperturbability in terms of a person gazing out over water, undisturbed by commotion: "Pleasant it is, when over a great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore upon another's great tribulation: not because any man's troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive what ills you are free from yourself is pleasant" (2.1.1-4). "[T]o perceive what ills you are free from yourself," to revel in your own insulation—this epitomizes epicurean detachment. Perhaps not coincidentally, this same image of detachment reappears throughout The Professor's House. Significantly, St. Peter experiences precisely the kind of pleasure Lucretius describes when he peers out the windows from his suite at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago and observes a snowstorm out over the waters of Lake Michigan (The Professor's House 75). He similarly savors this pleasure during his last summer alone when he spends day after day loafing at the lake, gazing out at the water (The Professor's House 239, 241).

This imagery reinforces the imperturbability St. Peter seeks in his attic study: from there, St. Peter gazes out upon the waters of Lake Michigan and imbibes their rejuvenating influence: "There was one fine thing about this room. . . . From the window he could see, far away, just on the horizon, along, blue, hazy smear—Lake Michigan, the inland sea of his childhood. Whenever he was tired and dull, when the white pages before him remained blank or were full of scratched-out sentences, then he left his desk, took the train to a little station twelve miles away, and spent a day on the lake with his sail-boat" (20). Indeed, gazing out at the water affords St. Peter not only these discrete moments of inspiration but also the original insight he required for conceiving of his entire eight-volume history: he reflects that the "design of his book unfolded in the air above him" as he lay in the bottom of a boat, musing on the passing sights, while "skirting the south coast of Spain" (89).[14]

Withdrawn from familial disturbances, St. Peter cultivates the epicurean life of the mind not only by writing his eight-volume history but especially by developing a friendship with Tom Outland. This friendship blossoms during the summer St. Peter writes the third and fourth volumes of his history. While the family vacationed in Colorado, St. Peter and Outland spent many afternoons together swimming at the lake and still other evenings together reposing in the garden. Cather stresses that St. Peter savors these golden days, this time of exquisite epicurean pleasure, both sensually and intellectually: It was just the sort of summer St. Peter liked, if he had to be in Hamilton at all. He was his own cook, and had laid in a choice assortment of cheeses and light Italian wines from a discriminating importer in Chicago. Every morning before he sat down at his desk he took a walk to the market and had his pick of the fruits and salads. He dined at eight o'clock. When he cooked a fine leg of lamb, saignant, well rubbed with garlic before it went into the pan, then he asked Outland to dinner. Over a dish of steaming asparagus, swathed in a napkin to keep it hot, and a bottle of sparkling Asti, they talked and watched night fall in the garden. If the evening happened to be rainy or chilly, they sat inside and read Lucretius. (154-55) As Erik Thurin observes, "there is no reason to believe that St. Peter reads De rerum natura merely as a way of sharing Outland's interest in science. His doing so on rainy days is presented as an alternative and complement to the epicurean dinners he treats Outland to" (270).

St. Peter's friendship with Outland redoubles with a significance heretofore unseen by critics when we consider that Epicurus and his disciple, Lucretius, both emphasized friendship as a key component of epicurean pleasure.[15] Epicurus stresses its preeminence by asserting that "the noble soul occupies itself with wisdom and friendship: of these the one is a mortal good, the other immortal" (Oates 44). In lines that could apply to St. Peter's devotion to Outland, Lucretius writes, "but still it is your merit, and the expected delight of pleasant friendship, that persuades me to undergo any labor, and entices me to spend the tranquil nights in wakefulness, seeking by what words and what poetry at last I may be able to display clear lights before your mind, whereby you may see into the heart of things" (1.1.140-45). St. Peter and Outland's friendship similarly occurs in a teacher-student relationship and blossoms during tranquil nights in the garden, the traditional site of epicurean instruction: "it was there he [St.Peter] and Tom Outland used to sit and talk half through the warm, soft nights" (7). Indeed, Outland's appearance precipitated St. Peter's best writing: "Just when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off for him, along came Outland and brought him a kind of second youth.... If the last four volumes of "The Spanish Adventurers" were more simple and inevitable than those that went before, it was largely because of Outland"(234). St. Peter's reminiscence for Outland throughout the novel descants upon Epicurus's theme: "sweet is the memory of a dead friend" (Oates 49).Thus it is not coincidental that St. Peter and Outland, two epicureans pursuing the epicurean ideal of friendship, should read together Epicurus's disciple, Lucretius.

St. Peter's other characteristics mark him as an epicure as well. These include his distaste for Kathleen's envy. He counsels her, "you must not, you cannot, be envious. It's self-destruction" (69). Epicurus similarly warns, "We must envy no one: for the good do not deserve envy and the bad, the more they prosper, the more they injure themselves" (Oates 43). Following Epicurus, St. Peter also disapproves of Rosamund's greed, which manifests itself in the "singularly haughty" expressions distorting her face when she storms from Kathleen's home and revolts against the prospects of giving charitable gifts to the Cranes and McGregors (67, 51,146-47). In words that could inform St. Peter's counsel to Rosamund, Epicurus writes, "the love of money, if unjustly gained, is impious, and, if justly, shameful; for it is unseemly to be merely parsimonious even with justice on one's side" (Oates 42).

More obviously, Cather red flags St. Peter's epicurean qualities by emphasizing his antipathy to conventional religion, a characteristic that several have remarked in connection with his name symbolism (Godfrey/God-free) but not in connection with Epicurus.[16] According to Lucretius, Epicurus defied religion at a time when most groaned under its yoke: When man's life lay for all to see foully groveling upon the ground, crushed beneath the weight of Religion, which displayed her head in the regions of heaven, threatening mortals from on high with horrible aspect, a man of Greece [i.e., Epicurus] was the first that dared to uplift moral eyes against her, the first to make stand against her; for neither fables of the gods could quell him, nor thunderbolts, nor heaven with menacing roar, nay all the more they goaded the eager courage of his soul, so that he should desire, first of all men, to shatter the confining bars of nature's gates. Therefore the lively power of his mind prevailed, and forth he marched far beyond the flaming walls of the heavens, as he traversed the immeasurable universe in thought and imagination. (1.1.63-77) As with Epicurus, the strictures of conventional religion, if anything, provoke St. Peter's defiance. He repeatedly slights the church; he conspicuously avoids religious observance in general, not only working through Sundays and Christmas without so much as a thought to their possible religious significance but also eschewing church attendance—again inconspicuous contrast to Augusta and Langtry, both of whom he intercepts on the way from and to service, respectively (83, 8z, 42). Cather seems to foreground St. Peter's lack of (conventional) religion by having Augusta display such surprise and shock upon discovering St. Peter's ignorance of something so basic as the Magnificat (83). In addition he utters blasphemies during lectures; he refers to his own apostasy (55-56,15); and he even baits Christians, such as Augusta and his university students. More subtly, St.Peter seems to seize every opportunity to portray Christians unfavorably: not only does he point out that a nun, "flapp[ing] up like a black crow," prevented him from innocently handing a bouquet of flowers to a schoolgirl in Paris (88) but also, apparently because it "amused him very much," St. Peter goes out of his way to compose a picture (one, significantly, "that had nothing to do with the subject" that occasioned it) that depicts an Islamic defender of Jerusalem sympathetically but a Christian crusader with "his square yellow head haughtily erect, his unthoughtful brows fiercely frowning, his lips curled and his fresh face full of arrogance" (59-60). Not only does St.Peter, then, conspicuously lack—even defy—conventional religion (hence the pun on his name, "God-free"), which in and of itself may suggest epicureanism, but in place of that religion we find a code of behavior that replicates the code of Epicurus.

The dead giveaway to that code, of course, is St. Peter's pursuit of pleasure. We have seen this pursuit in the kinds of dinners he prepares for himself and Outland: the exquisite culinary delights, the ambience of dusk in a secluded garden, the savoring of Lucretius, the matchless experience of mutual intellectual stimulation. It appears everywhere else in The Professor's House: from the experience at the opera to the stroll in Paris to even the linen napkin Lillian includes with his lunch (76-78, 86-88, 85). In addition, St. Peter's pleasures feature the unique mingling of austerity and indulgence that make them particularly epicurean kinds of pleasure. He endures, for example, the inconveniences of his attic—the cold, the dangerous gas stove, the glaring lightbulb overhead—only because eschewing such necessities allows him to have his "luxuries." Cather further qualifies St. Peter's hardships by adding that St. Peter "was by no means an ascetic. He knew that he was terribly selfish about personal pleasures, fought for them. If a thing gave him delight, he got it, if he sold his shirt for it"(16-17). Selling a necessity to purchase a luxury epitomizes the epicurean mixture of asceticism and indulgence. This epicurean pursuit of pleasure also characterizes his intellectual life generally: St. Peter reflects with pride that for over 30 years, he scrimped and saved his time and energy by means of "eliminations and combinations so many and subtle that it now made his head ache to think of them" in order that he might carry on "an engrossing piece of creative work" (19). Thus whether in his garden, in his attic study, or in his pursuit of pleasure, generally, St. Peter lives a particularly epicurean life.

E. K. Brown observed over 40 years ago that "it is by a scrutiny of the approach to houses that the deepest meaning in the novel will disclose itself" (240). My scrutiny of the attic study and garden here, however, yields a less ambitious claim: Cather's choice of both the attic study and the garden as the sites of St. Peter's retreat suggests that she presents St. Peter's withdrawal as a twentieth-century pursuit of epicurean retirement. This proposition provides another context for Judith Fryer's description of St. Peter: "A product of his own time and place—America in the early 1920s—he is, like his contemporaries, expatriated intellectuals and imagined characters who people an increasingly alienated wasteland, out of touch" with "his world and ... his own nature" (304). Furthermore, explaining St. Peter's enigmatic withdrawal to the garden and attic study as a form of epicurean retirement both strengthens and gains strength from both the biographical and nonbiographical interpretations of the withdrawal crux we reviewed earlier. On the one hand, the literatures underpinning the tradition of epicurean retirement provide a genealogy for major dimensionsof the novel that critics have long acknowledged to exist in Cather's life and work generally but have not yet developed in association with this novel and the character of St. Peter specifically. On the other hand, epicurean retirement buttresses nonbiographical interpretations of St. Peter's withdrawal, providing a well-established tradition and symbology to corroborate the arguments of those who argue that St. Peter's retirement constitutes an escape from competitive materialisms or a kind of religious/philosophical quest.


 1. For representative variations upon the biographical hypothesis, see Lee(258), Swift (306-08), Woodress (Her Life and Art 207), Bloom and Bloom(81-89), and Grumbach. (Go back.)
 2. For representative nonbiographical interpretations, see Stouck(Imagination 100), Thurin (267), Petry (28), Kubitschek (13-14), and Skaggs("Glance" 427). (Go back.)
 3. Alice Bell's excellent essay "The Professor's Marriage" similarly compiles allusions to frame her interpretation. (Go back.)
 4. For more on Cather's reading see O'Brien, The Emerging Voice 78-81.Evidence of Cather's reading, particularly a familiarity with English Renaissance anthologies that may have included Spenser, recurs in the manyallusions that season The Professor's House. For example, she cites Shakespeare five different times (16, 35, 141, 146, 233), thereby corroborating here her well-documented mastery of Shakespeare. See O'Brien's notes to the Library of America edition for further illumination on Cather's allusions in The Professor's House (Later Novels 968-71). (Go back.)
 5. Lee suggests that "The Professor's House is, in one sense, the house of memory" (214), while Fryer's discussion of The Professor's House follows her ninth chapter, entitled "Body, Memory, Architecture," a title that intimates the nexus of body, mind, and house I am uncovering. For a fuller discussion of the importance of memory to The Professor's House, see Swift. (Go back.)
 6. Speaking of Cather's early journalistic writing, Erik Thurin observes,"If the classics make up such a large portion of her frame of reference, it is because they have taken hold of her imagination in a very special way. Everything points to a deep affinity between Cather and the classical world; she does not approve of everything in it, but it is the repository of standards and images that are important to her" (23). More generally, Cather cultivated a lifelong expertise in Western literature. As yet few have explored the impact of this expertise on The Professor's House generally and none the impact upon Cather's characterization of St. Peter specifically. (Go back.)
 7. The lost city on the blue mesa, too, represents a kind of paradise. It resembles a walled garden in being ringed by trees, and Cather even compares it to "the hanging gardens of Babylon" (171). Like St. Peter's garden, it also becomes a refuge where Outland renews his mind after the fiasco in Washington DC (225-29). (Go back.)
 8. For more detailed studies of Cather's classical training and the pervasiveness of classical allusions in her work, see Randall, Thurin, Sutherland, and Stouck. (Go back.)
 9. Significantly, in The Aeneid, the epic poem Tom Outland studies and quotes extensively—the first time standing in St. Peter's garden—(96,227-28), Virgil portrays the Elysian Fields as such an idyllic garden: the "places of delight, . . . green park land / Where souls take ease amid the Blessed Groves" (6.855-56). (Go back.)
 10. Of the commentary on The Professor's House I surveyed, only three critics conceive of St. Peter as an epicure at all and then only in the briefest of passing references: Edel refers to St. Peter as a "Gallic epicure" (101); Thurin labels St. Peter an "Epicurean-Transcendentalist" (279); and Stouck notes the allusion to Lucretius ("Professor's House" 209-10). (Go back.)
 11. Epicurus, fragments 48, 66, 60, 85, Vatican fragment 79, and letter to Menoeceus (Oates 49-52, 44, 32). Stouck corroborates the importance of such contemplation in his observation that in The Professor's House Cather upholds the "ideal of contemplation as the highest form of civilized activity" (Stouck, "Professor's House" 203). (Go back.)
 12. Renaissance garden poems such as Abraham Cowley's "The Garden" and Andrew Marvell's "The Garden" describe the ideal Adamic life as a bachelor's life of intellectual stimulation in one's garden, while St. Thomas More's Utopia posits a narrator and a traveler, Raphael Hythloday, who sit in the narrator's garden as Hythloday describes the country of Utopia, much as the dead Outland (through his diary) tells St. Peter in St. Peter's garden of the utopic civilization on the blue mesa. In addition, More's dialogue probes the activity/retirement dichotomy in its exploration of whether the scholar should participate in worldly affairs or withdraw to his studies. Indeed, Outland and St. Peter represent both sides of this dichotomy, Outland exemplifying the active life and St. Peter the retired life. For Cather reifies this binary not only by inserting Outland's "active" diary between the narratives of St. Peter's "retirement" from family life but also in the very language and style each character uses. As Lee puts it, St.Peter's language is "sophisticated, metaphorical and contemplative," the "Europeanized 'written' language of reflection"; Outland's, in contrast, is simplistic, plain, and active, the "native [American] 'spoken' language ofaction" (252, 279-80). (Go back.)
 13. In his study of Cather's classicism, Thurin believes that allusions to Lucretius in Cather's writings "suggest that Cather was not entirely unacquainted with Lucretius" (138 n.18). Voicing this conviction more strongly, he later argues that a passage in "Before Breakfast" is "accompanied by so many parallels with Lucretius' text that one must assume that the author has the well-known beginning of De rerum natura in mind"(361, 363 n.15 ). (Go back.)
 14. Outland enjoys a similar kind of repose from his vistas on the blue mesa (190-91, 225-28). (Go back.)
 15. Epicurus, Vatican fragments 23, 28, 34, 39, 52, 78, fragment 50 (Oates41-44, 50). Obviously, my discussion of epicurean friendship broaches a much larger critical debate concerning the nature of St. Peter's and Outland's relationship. In contrast to the epicurean ideal of friendship I am suggesting, Thurin argues that St. Peter's conception of friendship resembles Plato's position in the Symposium (271). For another contrast, Doris Grumbach and Eve Sedgwick see St. Peter's friendship with Outland (and Outland's with Roddy Blake) as disguised homosexual love (Grumbach 338-43, Sedgwick 68), interpretations that Stephen Tanner persuasively refutes (Tanner 109-11). Finally, in yet another explanation of the St. Peter-Outland friendship, Woodress argues that it originates from Cather's own friendship as a high school teacher with a student ("The Composition of The Professor's House" 119-20). (Go back.)
 16. Skaggs, After the World (73-76), Swift (308). Epicurus's skepticism appears in his letter to Herodotus, letter to Menoeceus, and fragment 58 (Oates 14, 30, 50). (Go back.)


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