Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs004.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 4

The Professor's House

Prohibition, Ripe Grapes, and Euripides

And if there is no god of wine, there is no love, no Aphrodite either, nor other pleasure left to men. —Euripides, Bacchae

Toward the end of The Professor's House, in the summer of 1921,[1] Professor St. Peter's family physician compliments him on his gourmet cooking and his private stock of appropriate drink: "I wish you'd ask me to dine with you some night. Any of that sherry left?" To which St. Peter replies: "A little. I use it plentifully." His consumption is not at all disconcerting to Dr.Dudley: "I'll bet you do! But why did you think there was something wrong with you?" (268). What really matters in the two men's talk is their tacit disapproval of the scarcity of imported wines in the early years of Prohibition,[2] a time when America finds itself "split in two, socially," according to St. Peter's son-in-law Scott McGregor. "It's not hard on me, I can drink [illegal yet easily available] hard liquor," he tells Louis Marsellus, St. Peter's other son-in-law. "But you and the Professor like wine and fancy stuff" (108). Critics of Cather's fiction seem to have overlooked the topical and consequential role of wine in St. Peter's life, while her biographers have paid little or no attention to her pleasure in good wine and inevitable displeasure with the 18th Amendment, the National Prohibition or Volstead Act,[3] whose repressive implications undoubtedly contributed to her sense that "the world broke in two in 1922" (Not Under Forty v). My essay examines the significance of Prohibition and wine as part of the psychological, mythic, and autobiographical complexities of TheProfessor's House. Since the novel is Cather's "most personal" one in the mind of Edith Lewis (137), someone who should know what is prohibited to say in such matters, it is reasonable to begin by sampling some of the wine in Cather's house.[4]

In one of the travel letters she wrote for the Nebraska State Journal during her European tour with Isabelle McClung in 1902, Cather expresses her epicurean delight in a dinner in Avignon, with its "ten courses, each better than the last, with wines that made us sad because we knew we would never taste their like again" (qtd. in Curtin 936). This unambiguous reference connects with Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant's wistful recollection of Cather's view of meals as "one of life's serious pleasures," during which"[c]onversation must never divert one from the quality of the food on the plate and the wine in the glass" (51). On the same subject, Lewis recalls the "many dinner-parties" she and Cather gave in New York after moving to their spacious Bank Street apartment in 1912 (88). Although Lewis does not mention wine in this context, its presence is understood from her later reference to "the jolly Italian wine-dealer . . . from whom we bought supplies" during "the Bank Street years" at the edge of Greenwich Village (177, 178).[5] In a comparable way, Professor St. Peter, who lives and teaches in a small town on Lake Michigan, would buy wines from an Italian importer in nearby Chicago (176).

Such purchases, however, were difficult to make after Prohibition went into effect in January 1920, so Cather implied in a quirkily pointed way in an interview for the Omaha Daily News of 29 October 1921: "Miss Cather denied living in Greenwich Village. 'The village doesn't exist,' she said. `How could it in these times when the last cellar is empty?' " (Bohlke 31). Apparently not everyone's private stock was as generous as that of St.Peter, who, by "a lucky accident," had laid in "a dozen dozens" (98) of bottles of sherry before 1920. That is to say, Cather's comments about Greenwich Village and empty cellars should not be taken at face value because of their ironic edge, which must have been sharpened by the occasion for the interview, namely her speech to the Omaha Fine Arts Society and her being the guest of honor at a dinner sponsored by the League of Women Voters (Bohlke 31). In other words, Cather found herself in a somewhat uncomfortable situation; she was being celebrated and at the same time cornered in a context that can be seen to reflect, at least implicitly, some of the results of long crusading by the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League (Clark 71-99). Although Cather does not appear to be on record as a voice against Prohibition, her cultural predisposition is evident in her dislike of reformers (Sergeant 92-93), in her need for privacy (Woodress xiv, 141, 475)and during her Omaha visit, in her sarcastic reference to Nebraska as being "particularly blessed with legislation that restricts personal liberty"(Bohlke 149). It makes sense to read this comment as a veiled allusion to the fact that Nebraska had been the 36th state to ratify the 18th Amendment, which thereby became the law of the land (Root xi). Furthermore, Cather had once condemned the Temperance fanatic Carry Nation in an editorial column for being "a woman with a passion of violence and bitter speech" (qtd. in Curtin 851), without, however, mentioning her notorious "hatchetation" of saloons that was much in the news at that time (see Clark 81). More than likely, Cather had always wanted to stay publicly aloof from the Temperance debate, as if sharing the view of the narrator in The Professor's House, for whom Prohibition used to be "unthinkable" (98).

When Cather began work on the novel in the fall of 1923, total Prohibition had already become rethinkable here and there as, for instance, in New York's decision to repeal the state law necessary to enforce the Volstead Act (Clark 167). The need for such public rethinking would have been more than obvious to Cather during her stay in France earlier that year; her signing a letter to H. L. Mencken with "Prohibitionally yours" (qtd. in Woodress 339) speaks for itself, particularly in light of Mencken's well-known praise for alcoholic sustenance (Sinclair 92-98). On a more personal level, Cather's long visit with Isabelle McClung and her husband Jan Hambourg in their house near Paris would have brought back some bittersweet memories of losing her friend Isabelle through marriage in 1916 and, as Woodress suggests (277), of having herself arranged the couple's wedding reception at a New York establishment called Sherry's. It may seem capricious to associate Sherry's with St.Peter's sherry, yet such verbal juggling, according to Merrill Maguire Skaggs, is characteristic of Cather as a"self-conscious . . . manipulator of her texts and subtexts" who leaves little room for "unrelated details in [her] fiction" (187). In other words, her old and new impressions of Isabelle, her recursive experience of the absence of alcoholic prohibition in France, and the now somehow prohibitive presence of her once closest companion as Mrs. Hambourg may at least partly account for St. Peter's stoic resignation at the end of the novel to his having "never learned to live without delight. And he would have to learn to, just as, in a Prohibition country, he supposed he would have to learn to live without sherry" (282).

Given the sense of inevitability and the painful intensity with which Cather experienced her need for psychological independence from Isabelle (Stout209-10; O'Brien 240), the word sherry also works as a wry homonym for the French word chéri(e), seemingly complementing Cather's loss of Isabelle no less than St. Peter's loss of the cherished companionship of Tom Outland, his loss of delight in his wife with whom he had originally fallen in love in France, and his loss of delight in his scholarly self. It might be tempting to brush aside the sherry/chéri(e) connection, were it not for Cather's linguistic manipulativeness, which makes her dwell on a decidedly Spanish wine in the novel. Almost innocuously, sherry allows Cather to distance herself from some of her emotional associations with France and to reconnect to her strong interest in the Spanish past of the American Southwest. This interest, as well as the need for distance from memories of France, she projects onto St. Peter in his role as her fictional other. While Cather calls his opportunity to purchase his stock of sherry in Spain "a lucky accident" (98), he was as ready for it as Cather was for her opportunity to reassess in the form of fiction her relationship with Isabelle.

Sherry, however, is also considerably stronger than red or white wine; consequently, St. Peter's telling Dr. Dudley "I use it plentifully" ought to raise questions about his consumption of alcohol in response to the various forces of deconstruction he has had to face at his university, in his marriage, and in his increasingly dispirited private self. Yet so-called alcohol dependency and alcohol abuse are surely not the issue here. While "plentifully" more than likely serves as an acerbic allusion to Prohibition, the choice of "use" indicates the wine's utilitarian nature to him as a symbol of physical, spiritual, and scholarly pleasure. The fact that sherry, though not one of the ardent spirits, should be an effective agent to raise St. Peter's spirit temporarily is thus the result less of alcohol as such than of the venerable history and elevated image of wine; it serves him as a buffer against the veneration of commercial and utilitarian values in his family and at his university, values he perceives as insidious threats to humane culture. Ironically, Thorstein Veblen's related concept of "conspicuous consumption"(60, 64) fits St. Peter's epicurean inclinations as well as it does, for instance, his daughter, Rosamond's, buying sprees. Indeed, his conspicuous taste for imported vintages could easily conjure up notions of European decadence and defiance of middle America's traditionally puritanical values,[6] especially because Cather's professor of European history keeps some of his sherry in his study, where he had written his unconventional but internationally acclaimed The Spanish Adventurers in North America (98).

There is one description of his enjoying his wine there in connection with a lunch his wife had packed, complete with "one of her best dinner napkins "because of his dislike of "ugly linen" (102). In terms of lunch, this scene seems rather full for a man who at one point told his wife that "[t]oo much is certainly worse than too little—of anything" (154). The occasion had been Rosamond's grand purchase of furnishings for her new house.[7] Yet St. Peter's after thought about too much "of anything" inevitably turns one's attention to his lunch decorum and fondness for gourmet meals and wines in general, as if such matters of taste were prerequisites for his work, in accordance with Nietzsche's dictum that, "for any sort of aesthetic activity or percepti on to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication" (71). For Nietzsche, intoxication can take many forms beside drunkenness; in each case, though, "[t]he essence of intoxication is the feeling of plenitude and increased energy" (71-71).

Being low in energy is precisely what St. Peter comes to admit to Dr. Dudley; so low indeed that he does not even mention his feeling close to death (269). There is, however, no convincing evidence to suggest that alcohol has become for him a depressant rather than a pleasant stimulant. The social reality of Prohibition would of course have contributed to his malaise. Thus his final perception of America as "a Prohibition country" reflects his resignation to the Volstead Act as such and to its potential subtext: the prohibition of living one's life deliberately, of pursuing one's ideas and ideals regardless of whether they question or subvert the collective ideal of habitual sobriety and godliness, culture and commerce in Middle America. Indeed, St. Peter was once almost relieved of his professorship for lacking in accountability appropriate to a university increasingly governed by the applied rather than liberal arts and sciences (55, 58, 140). Above all, though, outward Prohibition forces him to deal inwardly with his having let himself become a creature of "habit"(59,167) in his work and in his reliance on wine as an indicator of his savoir vivre. Thus his decision not to join his wife, their daughter, Rosamond, and her husband on a trip to France may have been at least an unconscious if not a deliberate attempt to put himself in a situation where he cannot easily evade his need for introspection by simply replenishing his supply of wine, which so it appears, has been running low concurrently with his life energy, his esprit, and Prohibition.

"Pleasant is solitude among manageable things. And among manageable things, the most manageable for me are words," says George Santayana ("Idler" 4). St. Peter's opting for solitude—his study and French garden at the old house and his own beach on Lake Michigan—reveal how prohibitively unmanageable words have become for him. In his private life, his family's letters from France "certainly deserved more than one reading" but rarely received it (270); in his professional life as a man of letters, words have become increasingly difficult for him to arrange, as they touch creativity, art, and religion. It is as if the sherry he keeps in his study can no longer moderately temper his scholarly notions that religion and art "are the same thing, in the end" (69) and that "even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin" (68).

One can't speak of coincidence when Cather has St. Peter express these thoughts in a class held on "an intense September noon—warm, windy, golden, with the smell of ripe grapes and drying vines in the air, and the lake rolling blue on the horizon" (67). During his student years in France, St. Peter would refer to Lake Michigan,"the inland sea of his childhood" (29), as "altogether different" from the Channel and the Mediterranean: "I don't know, il est toujours plus naif"(31). Although the native grapevines on its shores are also more naif or wild, so to speak, than the vinifera vines along the northern coast of the Mediterranean, the September ripeness and smell of the wild grapes suggest their natural fermentation, turning them into not-so-naive markers of Dionysian undercurrents. These undercurrents appear to guide the novel from its September beginning to its September ending a year later, if one accepts the implicit seasonal presence of the grapes. Their allusion to a form of"neglected wilderness" constructs a mythical context for St. Peter's introspective needs as well as for his taste for cultivated grapes and wines.[8]

With this in mind, the lunch scene already mentioned deserves another look, not least because it occurs just three months after the memorable September noon above, on Christmas Day, an occasion likely to test St. Peter's habitual withdrawal into his study: "He peered with interest into the basket his wife had given him—a wicker bag, it was really, that he had once bought full of strawberries at Gibraltar. Chicken sandwiches with lettuce leaves, red California grapes, and two shapely, long-necked russet pears" (102). His"peering with interest" reaches beyond the food, back to his first impulse to do research in Spain, a notion that had come to him on one of his vacations in France with his then-young family and had been the beginning of his falling out of love with his wife, his Hawthornean birthmark as a scholar, as it were. His wife's lunch presence, meanwhile, through her deliberate choice and "thoughtful" (102) preparation of the basket, could also not have gone unnoticed by St. Peter, given the associative alertness of his mind. Gibraltar would be a suitable backdrop for the self-pitying despair with which he had wounded his wife a few days earlier by telling her, "We should have been picturesquely ship-wrecked together when we were young" (94). Yet that notion, seen in conjunction with the wicker basket, also suggests a wish for rebirth. On the one hand, the textual emphasis on the basket alludes to the floating cradles in patriarchal myth or legend;[9] on the other hand, it points to baskets as harvest-related symbols sacred to goddess figures such as Isis and as related symbols of the birth-giving body (Walker, Dictionary 119-20). The implications for St. Peter are obvious. Though literally "a formidable swimmer" (39), he finds himself spiritually and emotionally far adrift, as if his "inland sea" has proven no less enticing but more confusing as a maternal symbol than the Mediterranean itself.

The actual lunch in the basket addresses a specifically marital subtext to St. Peter's dilemma. The memory of the luscious berries of yore, with their sensuous connotations of his former infatuation with his wife, jars with the loveless state of his marriage and with his present perception of the food: "shapely" but more maternally than sexually suggestive fruit from the pear tree, sacred to Hera, mother of the gods in Greek mythology; grapes, sacred to Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine and women in Euripides' Bacchae; and sandwiched pieces of meat that, whether it comes from a hen, a capon, or a cock, derives its name from the latter.[10] To digest his wife's silent commentary on their marriage through her "thoughtful" lunch for him, he may have taken more than one glass of his ritual cheer; I say this because of one direct reference elsewhere to his having a cocktail as an antidote for emotional pain (155). At the same time, the grapes in his lunch, by being vinifera hybrids from California rather than wild, native ones from near Lake Michigan, serve as a reminder of the growing unavailability of wine as well as his seemingly concomitant unavailability as a husband and general inability to love or to create. He appears to have fallen victim, as Eric Thurin has argued (270), to his epicurean predilections, which have undermined even his Emersonian faith in the equation of art and religion. Ironically, St. Peter's longstanding and almost religious fondness for wine has become a habit that may still allow for his seeming contemplation of awater-into-wine miracle to deal with Prohibition but can no longer redress the apparent prohibition in his marriage of the mystical association of water with Aphrodite and wine with Dionysus (cf. Walker, Encyclopedia 1066, 236). He had been confusing the physical and social sides of marriage with the, in alchemical terms, chymical ideal of marriage. The latter, as in the famous miracle at Cana, with its pre-Christian, Dionysian roots (Walker, Encyclopedia 466), addresses "the development of [one's] soul" and "a deeper understanding of God" (Wehr 41, 44): in short, the process called individuation in Jungian psychology.

This process has been troubling St. Peter due to his tendency of"consciously or unconsciously conjugating the verb 'to love'—in society and solitude, with people, with books, with the sky and open country, in the lonesomeness of crowded city streets. When he met Lillian, it reached its maturity. From that time [on] .. . existence had been a catching at handholds" (264), among which good wine and food have been more reliable ones to him than love, spirituality, and religion. His gradual recognition of the fateful unruliness of love and his consequential self-prohibition of conjugal love (12, 34, 35) coincide with his increasing sense of loss of the language of the heart, soul, and spirit, of love, wisdom, and creativity, language in which grammar suitable only to the intellect does not succeed. Yet despite St. Peter's long habit of "marital escape" (Grumbach 333), it is too simplistic to conclude, as Thomas Strychacz does, that "St. Peter's creativity depends upon the absence of female and familial ties" (53). After all, he has remained very much drawn to the symbolic presence of the female and the feminine, particularly in the solitudes of his study and his beach on Lake Michigan. Whether in the confines of culture or the freedom of nature, St. Peter tends to find himself caught in Dionysian undercurrents.

In his Humanization of Willa Cather: Classicism in an American Classic, Erik Thurin speaks authoritatively of Cather's "Dionysian and Aphroditean impulse" as part of the "subtle, often hidden, patterns of symbol and myth" in her work in general (90). Although the sherry in The Professor's House and its apparent connection to Euripides' play about Dionysus receive no attention, Thurin does explain the veiled allusion to the Bacchae in St.Peter's pointed reference to his wife about Euripides' fate as an old man allegedly hiding from women in "a cave by the sea" (The Professor's House 156). Given the obvious analogy between that cave and his own study-sanctuary with its view of Lake Michigan, what St. Peter does not mention is Euripides' being found out and killed, similar to Pentheus, by frenzied women (Thurin 275). Yet, unlike Euripides' young king who rejects Dionysus out of fear, Cather's middle-aged professor has long been welcoming him naively, so it seems, as the god of wine, while increasingly questioning him as the god of women. In an unexpected development, official Prohibition seems to have brought home to him the relevance of Dionysus' words to Pentheus: "You do not know the limits of your strength. You do not know who you are"(Euripides 565). Through the androgynous figure of Dionysus, "the effeminate stranger" (556), Euripides can here be said to address the importance of individuation, while implicitly warning against both fear of and unduly physical emphasis on sexuality concerning the roles of men and women in this archetypal process. Indeed, Dionysus's stated mission in the drama is to redeem the reputation of his mother from slander going back to her pregnancy with him. He spares only Teiresias, who regards the chasteness of a woman's "character and nature" (555) as not threatened by Dionysus and calls Pentheus a "raving fool" (557) for taking mere gossip about women's sexual wildness as sufficient cause to condemn Dionysus's divinity as fraud and to outlaw, as it were, the psychological reality of his mystery.

Although St. Peter has never feared sex, he has come to amplify and thereby reject his wife's sexual side. As a diminutive of lily, her name, Lillian, may originally have made him feel comfortable with the flower's strong sexual symbolism; and even now, his questioning her modesty or chasteness is less a matter of sexuality as such than of sexuality displaced by forms of conspicuous material consumption from which St. Peter prefers to distance himself readily in his study. At the same time, however, he does not want to part from his "ladies" (21), the female forms Augusta, his family's seamstress, keeps there: "The one which Augusta called 'the bust' stood in the darkest corner of the room, upon a high wooden chest. . . . It was a headless, armless female torso .. . richly developed in the part for which it was named. . . . Though this figure looked so ample and billowy (as if you might lay your head upon its deep-breathing softness and rest safe forever), if you touched it you suffered a severe shock, no matter how many times you had touched it before. . . . It was . . . very disappointing to the tactile sense, yet somehow always fooling you again" (17-18). Even when reduced to a mock-up, woman maintains her mysterious "caprices" that Cather had already referred to in her early journalism (Kingdom of Art 414). It is therefore perhaps tempting but difficult to accept Doris Grumbach's argument that St. Peter's fondness for the forms is evidence of his "misogynist, tired and privately cynical mind" (333), when he clearly appears still drawn to the sexual and supra-sexual aspects of woman as indispensable to his Dionysian quest for self. That is why even his keeping bottles of sherry in the chest under "the bust," the same sherry he enjoys in a carefully polished glass with the lunch mentioned earlier, is less a private yonic joke than a way of acknowledging the danger of trivializing wine and sexuality at the expense of their symbolic connotations and interconnectedness in the Dionysian myth to which Cather refers by way of St. Peter's familiarity with the Bacchae. This very late play by Euripides, as William Arrowsmith has put it, "constantly recedes before one's grasp, advancing, not retreating, steadily into deeper chaos and larger order" (530).

Similar to Euripides, whose escape to his womblike cave by the sea ironically takes him into the ancient symbolic world of the Triple Goddess, St. Peter complements his withdrawals into his study with retreats to his beach on his "inland sea," as if hearing Aphrodite's mermaids singing might solve his implicit puzzlement about Dionysus's Maenads in the Bacchae.[11] On his "little triangle of sand" there are "seven shaggy pine-trees" (70). The triangle is a conventional yonic symbol as well as a sign of the triple nature of the Goddess as virgin-mother-crone (Walker, Encyclopedia 1016). The evergreens, not surprisingly, are suggestive of Dionysus's sacred tree, the pine, whose cones, like the one on Dionysus's thyrsus, are of traditional phallic significance (Walker, Dictionary 31). Indeed, the frequent symbolic association in mythology of the pine cone with the lotus flower and the symbolic interchangeability of lotus and lily (Walker, Dictionary 469, 428) serve to underline both Lillian's absence on the beach and, during her trip to France, St. Peter's "novel mental dissipation, "namely, to be able to "lie on his [beach] for hours" with his eyes fixed on the pines (263). On one occasion Cather has him vicariously "drink up the sun" by watching the trees do so (263); on another, he is as if intoxicated by "their ripe yellow cones, dripping with gum and clustering on the pointed tips like a mass of golden bees in swarming time" (270). The Dionysian image of drinking up the sun combined with the Aphroditean one of bringing down the moon—bees being associated with, for example, Aphrodite in particular and the moon goddess in general—gives rise to the idea of a honeymoon's less common association with impending death (Walker, Dictionary 415). In other words, St. Peter's eyes are fixed on the pines while his mind's eye, in its suggestively Dionysian state of "dissipation," sees Pentheus spying on the Maenads from his hidden perch high in an evergreen tree just before being discovered and torn to pieces by them.

"Ever-increasing fatigue" (271) of body and spirit, the psychosomatic consequence of St. Peter's self-reflective reading of the Bacchae on his beach, reaches its lowest point, his near-suicide, shortly after his witnessing a storm from his study window: "Great orange and purple clouds were blowing up from the lake, and the pine-trees over about the Physics laboratory were blacker than cypresses and looked contracted, as if they were awaiting something. The rain broke and it turned cold" (275). The storm puts an end to the smell of ripe grapes in the air and to the spell of Dionysian myth as symbolized above all by the pine trees to which Cather has drawn attention about a dozen times before the storm scene. The ones on campus, by being close to the physics building where Tom Outland, St.Peter's former protégé, used to do his research, complement the ones on the beach. On the one hand, they remind one of the question of sexual preference in the Professor's attempts at conjugating "to love," especially in conjunction with Cather's own questions with regard to Isabelle McClung's marriage (Grumbach 338). On the other hand, their proximity to the physics laboratory points to the dilemma of traditionally male science's laboring to decode and control nature. By analogy, St. Peter shares in the dilemma to the degree that his study under the roof is his arts and religion laboratory with its own connection to physis in his walled-in, man-made garden, whose affinity with Rappaccini's garden in Hawthorne's famous story has not gone unnoticed (Strychacz 51).

What the French garden, the study, and the laboratory share with the beach is, I suggest, their connectedness to the psychological reality of the Eternal Femine. In "experimental physical terms," says Santayana, Goethe's Eternal Feminine may be defined as "a tempting passivity in matter, obedient in all directions to an infinitely plastic will," which serves as the basis of America's "trust in work and experiment" ("Americanism" 42). St. Peter's trust in his creativity, however, comes to a halt in his protracted experience of the far from passive energy of the Eternal Feminine in his psychological and mythological experiments on himself, his "falling out of love" with his wife, with society, and with himself. While the National Prohibition Act may thus have saved him from trying to postpone his need for introspection by escaping into wine, it has, from a Jungian perspective, also forced St. Peter to realize that the real source of his despair is his dryness of spirit and soul. His crisis is a religious one that, by the mid-1930s, Jung would consider typical of "the more intelligent and cultured [individuals] who, finding a return to the Church impossible, come up against archetypal material . . . which can no longer be mastered by a narrowly personalistic psychology" (33). In his inadvertent Dionysian/Euripidean adventures into the archetypal world of the unconscious, St. Peter has, as it were, come upon ripe, wild grapes beyond the reach of his hand, his head, and as Cather suggests, his heart: "This is really a story of 'letting go with the heart,'" she says in a fly leaf note in her presentation copy of the novel for Robert Frost (Sergeant 215).

P. D. Charles, who found the source of Cather's quotation to be in the last line of Frost's poem "Wild Grapes," accepts Cather's selection as evidence that the novel's main theme is "the death of love" (71). Frost's poem, however, may serve as a not so pessimistic subtext for the novel: his wise-woman speaker appears to reject the possibility that "let[ting] go with the heart" is an advanced "step in knowledge"; it would not have given her the weight she lacked as a little girl to hold on to a tree-bound vine of wild grapes for the picking rather than being carried aloft by it (Frost 126, 125). Similarly, she implies, her present weight in symbolic grapes of knowledge and wisdom as a woman would become trifling again, should she "need learn to let go with the heart" (126). Her counterpart in the novel is the sewing woman.

Augusta Appelhoff is "a reliable, methodical spinster" but "not destitute of fun" (16, 23). Being a Catholic, she serves as an ironic reminder to St.Peter of his mother's Methodism having displaced his father's Roman Catholicism; moreover, as a German Cathotic, she would also be against Prohibition (Jensen 73, 76).[12] Her implicit affinity with the Professor in this respect appears to be more than superficial. Since her last name can be transliterated as apple garden, she would be at least nominally at odds with the prohibition against eating from the symbolic tree of life in Eden the apples that most appropriately for the novel, become grapes in Gnostic scripture (Walker, Dictionary 487). Cather encodes Augusta's mythic connections further by way of her first name's allusion to Juno Augusta, the great goddess of prepatriarchal Roman mythology (Walker, Encyclopedia 79).[13] Underneath the sewing woman's "plain, solid face" (23) as a spinster and seamstress, there is the virgin and mother side of the not always ominous Crone or Atropos aspect of the Triple Goddess (Walker, Encyclopedia 187). This conclusion would be far-fetched, were it not for a number of innocuous pieces of evidence to the contrary: Augusta is "needed" whenever a death occurs in families she works for (280); and in St. Peter's case, she is very much needed when she chances on his nearly asphyxiated body in his study. While he has been ready for a renewal of life in daydreamlike regressions to his "primitive" or "original self"(265, 267), he lacks a mother to sober his mind, so to speak, from his Dionysian and Euripidean misadventures with the phenomena of the feminine; not his "strong-willed Methodist mother" (30), whose prohibition of wine and myth would have gone without saying, but Augusta, reassuringly "seasoned and sound and on the solid earth" (281) and able to help him find his bearing again. Augusta Appelhoff, I suggest, is a somewhat quixotic example of Cather's trying "to come to value the feminine and seek to reconnect with matriarchal sources" (Donovan 156). Although Augusta's high regard of the Virgin Mary is part of her Catholicism, it does not obliterate the connections of Mary, seen as, for example, "the Mystical Rose" (99), to the Great Goddess of matriarchal mythology. In this context, even the "archaic' forms'" (31) belonging to Augusta and guarded by St. Peter in his study, the silent witnesses, as it were, to his near-suicide, have turned into archetypal figures for him. Their power lies outside the safety of his solitude as well as outside both the mediating influence of his sherry and the constraints of national Prohibition.

It is the latter, above all, that provided a social context for Cather to explore the prohibition of wild grapes of archetypal psychology and myth. Naturally, her still fermenting novel avoids any explicit final resolutions other than "At least, [St. Peter] felt the ground under his feet. He thought he knew where he was, and that he could face with fortitude the [returning family] and the future" (283). In private life, of course, Cather, a once-upon-a-time Baptist, joined the Episcopalian Church (with its close liturgical ties to the Catholic Church) late in 1922, whereas St. Peter appears only curious about Catholicism; she also thought about the possibilities of psychoanalysis, according to Sergeant (238), who herself had become a student of the psychology of C. G. Jung in the 1920s. Yet Cather also needed to feel her feet on the ground in places of relative solitude such as the Canadian island of Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy, where she would spend most of her summers from 1922 to 1940, where, says Lewis, good wines were relatively easy to come by (137, 193),[14] and where the crescendo of the Jazz Age was easy to filter out temporarily, especially in 1925 when not only The Professor's House but also The Great Gatsby was published.

Given the autobiographical subtext of The Professor's House, including the fact that the novel was partly written on Grand Manan (Lewis 137), it is reasonable to see Cather give a complimentary nod to St. Peter's newfound "fortitude," one of the "gifts of the Holy Spirit" (Jeffrey 307). Although Prohibition has forced him to confront the limitations of his epicurean habits, the tone of Cather's conclusion—"he supposed he would have to learn to live without sherry" (282, emphasis added)—suggests he supposed wrongly. Indeed, Prohibition did not stop Cather from serving sherry to Sergeant, who then wondered somewhat unnecessarily "whether Willa ever served cocktails"(253). At home and in her fiction, Cather, so it seems, at least occasionally enjoyed getting at or by the Prohibitionists. In The Professor's House this is evident not only in the sherry motif and in "the usual Prohibition lament" that comes with "the cocktails" before dinner(107) but also in St. Peter's lectures that are said to go against the Methodist affiliation of his university at Hamilton (70); even the possible location of the town may have a dry edge to it. Although Woodress puts Hamilton on the east shore of Lake Michigan (367), some of the textual evidence favors the Illinois side since the university—it is not called a college—is only a half-hour train ride from Chicago (153). This would suggest Northwestern University, which was founded by Methodists in Evanston, a town that was dry before, during, and after Prohibition; moreover, "Saint" Frances Willard, the founder of the WCTU, had been dean of women as well as professor of aesthetics at Northwestern (Illinois 325, 330-31). These impression points from the Midwest add proof to a reading of The Professor's House as an anti-Prohibition novel with complex Dionysian undercurrents and, unlike the Bacchae, not without wry humor about the allegedly "simple gift of wine, the gladness of the grape" (Euripides 559).


 1. David Harrell is undecided whether the novel opens in 1919 or 1920 (220). The Christmas dinner in book 1 includes "the usual Prohibition lament" and comments about the ready availability of illegal liquor (107-08); in other words, it is December 1920, St. Peter's consultation of Dr. Dudley occurs the following year. (Go back.)
 2. "Production of wine in the United States in 1919 was over 55 million gallons; in 1920 it sank to 20 million; in 1922 it was just over 6 million." The wine still being produced was, at least officially, for sacramental, medicinal, and similar legal purposes (Pinney 436). Prohibition's effect on imported wines is self-explanatory. (Go back.)
 3. Robert Nelson, for instance, makes nothing of Cather's interest in vintages even though his specific subject is "Willa Cather and France." See also note I. It is worth noting here that the Lynds added a footnote to their famous 1929 study Middletown, regretting their neglect of the role of alcohol during Prohibition (277 n.8). (Go back.)
 4. For the novel's autobiographical subtext, see, for example, Stout and Woodress (367). (Go back.)
 5. Cf. Sergeant's recollection of shopping with Cather in Greenwich Village: "We paused to buy from a great crony of hers, an old Italian" (116-17). It is interesting that Sergeant does not reveal what they bought. (Go back.)
 6. Homemade wines for personal consumption were not prohibited under the Volstead Act (Clark 133); their perceived cordial nature may well be the reason for this. (Go back.)
 7. St. Peter's reservation brings to mind Cather's preference for the unfurnished, at least in fiction, according to "The Novel Démeublé," an 241 The Professor's House essay she published just a year and a half before starting The Professor's House (On Writing 33-43). (Go back.)
 8. "Neglected wilderness" is Cather's figure of speech for Marie Shabata's orchard in O Pioneers! (151). In his emphasis on total control, St. Peter's French garden, of course, is another form of disregard of the wilderness. (Go back.)
 9. It is more than coincidence that there are at least three references to adoption in the novel: as a baby Tom Outland "had been informally adopted by some kind people" after his mother's death; St. Peter recalls "his adoption into the Thierault household" as a student in France; Augusta "found [St.Peter] on the floor" of his study after his accident and became to him almost like an adoptive mother who helped him reenter "the world of men and women" (115, 264, 278-79). (Go back.)
 10. Given that the occasion is Christmas Day, it is tempting to see an analogy between the chicken sandwich and the pears of the lunch and the Christmas carol about the partridge in the pear tree; this would be in keeping with Cather's intertwining of Christian and pre-Christian motifs. (Go back.)
 11. "Hearing . . . mermaids singing" is an adaptation of the title of May Sarton's tangentially related novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. (Go back.)
 12. The house of her uncle, St. Peter's landlord, is "covered with hop vines" (51). Since Fred Applehoff does not like growing plants just for decoration, the idea of homemade beer is not implausible here. (Go back.)
 13. Onomastically, Augusta Appelhoff and Louis Marsellus, in conjunction with the reference to the Aeneid (113), point to a web of classical allusions with Juno Augusta or the Great Goddess implicitly the center: Augustus Caesar, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, took his title from the Goddess, as did his wife Livia Augusta (Walker, Encyclopedia 79). Marcellus, their nephew and adopted son, died young, while an earlier Marcellus was a successful Roman general; both are mentioned at the end of book 6 of the Aeneid (173-74). To sort out the loose and tight strands of Cather's allusions requires another essay. Suffice it to add here that she also refers to the Roman emperor, his wife, and their son in the context of vineyards and wines in her 1902 travel letters already mentioned (Curtin950). (Go back.)
 14. Grand Manan is part of New Brunswick; in other words, Canadian prohibition laws were in effect from 1917 until 1927. Before 1922, though,it was legal to import alcohol privately, and at any time, it was not difficult to bypass the liquor laws, especially in St. John, the mainland city closest to the island (Grant 175-84). (Go back.)


Bohlke, L. Brent, ed. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Cather, Willa. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.
Cather, Willa. Not Under Forty. New York: Knopf, 1936.
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.
Cather, Willa. The Professor's House. 1925. New York: Vintage, 1973.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. Foreword by Stephen Tennant. 1949. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.
Charles, Sister Peter Damian. " The Professor's House: An Abode of Love and Death." Colby Library Quarterly 8.2(1968): 70-82.
Clark, Norman H. Deliver Us from Evil. New York: Norton, 1976.
Curtin, William M., ed. Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews,1893-1902. 2 vols. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
Donovan, Josephine. After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1989.
Euripides. Bacchae. Trans. with an introduction by William Arrowsmith. Vol. 4 of The Complete Greek Tragedies. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1958.
Frost, Robert. "Wild Grapes." Selected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.
Grant, Barry J. When Rum Was King. Fredericton NB: Fiddlehead, 1984.
Grumbach, Doris. "A Study of the Small Room in The Professor's House ." Women's Studies II (1984): 327-45.
Harrell, David. From "Mesa Verde" to The Professor's House . Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1992.
Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide. Compiled and written by the Federal Writers' Project, Work Projects Administration, State of Illinois. Chicago: McClurg, 1939.
Jeffrey, David Lyle. "Gifts of the Holy Spirit." A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Ed. Jeffrey. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1992. 307-08.
Jensen, Richard. The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971.
Jung, C. G. Psychology and Alchemy. Vol. 12 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Ed. Herbert Read et al. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Ind ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living. New York: Knopf, 1953.
Lynd, Robert S., and Helen Merrell Lynd. Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. 1929. New York: Harvest, 1956.
Nelson, Robert. Willa Cather and France: In Search of the Lost Language. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1968.
O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.
Root, Grace C. Women and Repeal. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1934.
Santayana, George. "Americanism." " The Idler and His Works" and Other Essays. Ed. Daniel Cory. New York: George Braziller, 1957. 21-53.
Santayana, George. "The Idler and His Works." " The Idler and His Works" and Other Essays. Ed. Daniel Cory. New York: George Braziller, 1957. 3-20.
Sarton, May. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. New York: Norton, 1975.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1963.
Sinclair, Upton. The Cup of Fury. Great Neck NY: Channel, 1956.
Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. After the World Broke in Two: The Late Novels of Willa Cather. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990.
Stout, Janis P. "Autobiography as Journey in The Professor's House ." Studies in American Fiction 19 (1991): 203-15.
Strychacz, Thomas F. "The Ambiguities of Escape in Willa Cather's The Professor's House ." Studies in American Fiction 14 (1986): 49-61.
Thurin, Erik Ingvar. The Humanization of Willa Cather: Classicism in an American Classic. Lund, Sweden: Lund UP, 1990.
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. 1899, 1912. New York: Mentor, 1953.
Virgil. Aeneid. Trans. W. F. Jackson Knight. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1958.
Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. New York: Harper Collins, 1988.
Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. New York: Harper Collins, 1983.
Wehr, Gerhard. The Mystical Marriage. Trans. Jill Sutcliffe. Wellingborough, England: Aquarian, 1990
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.