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From Cather Studies Volume 6

Looking at Agony

World War I in The Professor's House

I like a look of agony, Because I know it's true— Emily Dickinson

In her prefatory note to Not Under Forty (1936), Willa Cather famously wrote that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts." Why she picked this year has not been satisfactorily explained, for she announces the split as a public event rather than the personal one that critics often understand her to mean.[1] Biographers and critics tend to point to the scathing reviews that her 1922 war novel One of Ours received and that caused Cather to sink into a depression as the reason she may have marked 1922 as a significant year. I believe, however, that Cather's ongoing attempt to understand World War I drove her to pick 1922 as the decisive year: at the end of One of Ours, the narrative indicates that Claude Wheeler died pointlessly, leaving us and Cather to wonder why the war occurred and how wars could be stopped. She tackled World War I again, less directly, in her 1925 novel The Professor's House, and in this novel she plays with a far more unsettling conclusion: that war is simultaneously meaningless and unavoidable.

The novel reflects a modernist postwar sense of alienation, fragmentation, and emptiness in Professor Godfrey St. Peter. But through "Tom Outland's Story," we see a different experience and understanding of society and civilization that seem to belie what we think we know about war. That is, most war novels reject war and the ideals that rationalize war; Cather's One of Ours distances itself from its war hero, Claude Wheeler, and from the propaganda of war through the eyes of Claude's mother and returning veterans in its last pages, all of whom understand that Claude's sacrifice has not changed the world. Tom Outland, however, is not Claude Wheeler. Claude enlists in the army in search of something bigger to compensate him for his sense of loss; Tom too has experienced loss, but the differences in what the two men have lost are profound. Claude's losses consist mainly of things he never had: a loving, supportive relationship with his father, a challenging education, a fulfilling marriage, and a society that values what he wants to give. Tom, on the other hand, has lost a true friend through his own self-righteousness, his innocence at the hands of the U.S. government bureaucracy, and an ancient society that gave him a sense of belonging. Tom Outland is not the immature, needy character that Claude Wheeler is. He is optimistic and idealistic but not naïve. So why does he join the fight, and why is Professor Godfrey St. Peter's middle-age malaise centered on Tom Outland's story?

This essay will address both questions, focusing first on "Tom Outland's Story" and then moving to the Professor. Tom's tale, which precipitates the Professor's crisis, resonates through the Professor's search for meaning. The ruling connection, I believe, is the concept of civilization, particularly ideas about the power of art and about the ideal society toward which members of the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Progressive Movement believed the United States was heading. Cather was deeply disturbed and depressed by the war, in part because she, like many other intellectuals and artists, saw Europe as her cultural home; Janis P. Stout, studying Cather's essays about her 1902 European tour, tells us that "France, in particular, she saw as a center of both natural beauty and high-art treasures" (165). The portrayal of Germans as kindly artists in The Song of the Lark (1915) suggests Cather also had sympathies with German culture, and the act of aggression on Germany's part must have been particularly disturbing to her. More broadly, Cather wrote amid the optimism of the Progressive Movement; Guy Reynolds, in Willa Cather in Context, describes the political and social motivations and programs that loosely fall under the Progressive banner and which can be seen as united in the quest to better the world: "Progressives thus formulated a Utopian imagery of a purified nation, a fervent language of renewal. Their secular heaven was squarely in the tradition of American idealism, a redeployment of the classic images of the godly city on the hill" (12). World War I did not destroy the impetus of Progressivism, but it did shatter the widely held belief that society was always improving and would one day reach a pinnacle of peace and prosperity.

The Professor's House takes the form of an almost entirely domestic plot: the St. Peters are in the process of moving to a new house, purchased with money won by the Professor's academic achievement, though the Professor himself resists leaving the old house, to which he is bound by both professional and personal memories. His once loving relationships with his daughters and wife are now worn out and painful; his daughters, Rosamond and Kitty, in particular are bitten by consumer greed distressing to their father. His wife, Lillian, sensing her husband's emotional indifference and clinging to her own youth, has shifted her attention from him to her sons-in-law. The Professor's detachment from his family culminates in his decision to remain at home while they travel to Europe for the summer. Their absence allows him time to loaf and daydream and to analyze his own life, in the process recalling the story of his protégé and Rosamond's former fiancé, Tom Outland, who before coming to Hamilton discovered the ruins of an ancient society in the American Southwest. As the Professor travels backward in his life and through Tom's, he must face what Steven Trout identifies as "the thing not named" in the novel (151): the Great War.

At first glance, the description of Tom Outland's departure for Europe in 1914 suggests the typical war story: a young man leaves for battle at the behest of an older man, one associated with ideals. At the beginning of the war, Father Duchene, the priest who helped Tom and his partner Rodney Blake in their study of the ancient civilization on the mesa, comes through Hamilton on his way to help refugees in his native Belgium. This circumstance fits with the propaganda that grew in the United States to convince Americans to go to war; in his 1996 study Propaganda for War, Stewart Halsey Ross shows that the British insisted the reason for the war was defense of Belgium neutrality and that British propagandists, in order to outrage Americans, exploited and even invented stories of atrocities committed against Belgians by Germans (46- 47). It is not unreasonable to assume, as do the Professor's son-in-law Louie Marsellus (40) and many readers and critics, that Tom dashed off to be a hero on the wings of romanticism and idealism. This interpretation of his motives, however, does not coincide with what else we know about Tom; Louie, after all, has never met Tom, and even he notes that Tom's procurement of a patent for his invention is "curious" for "such a hot-headed fellow" (40). Critics often fail to account for growth or change in Tom, encapsulated as he is both within the text and within the Professor's view of him. But I think it quite likely that Tom learns from his experiences and his own weaknesses and that he changes as a character.

Although he is not unique in doing so, Tom does not go to war with the American military; he leaves in 1914, long before the United States publicly committed to the Allies, and fights with the Foreign Legion.[2] Having been to Washington to try to raise interest in his finds on the mesa and suffered under its bureaucracy, perhaps he knows that he cannot wait for the U.S. government to take action. In Washington he boards with a man who has "some position in the War Department. How it used to depress me to see all the hundreds of clerks come pouring out that big building at sunset! Their lives seemed to me so petty, so slavish" (232). Tom sees that war has become an institution populated and run by drones.[3] He also witnesses the man and his wife agonize over whether they will receive an invitation to a reception, and once they have been invited they both suffer over the wife's dress. Tom is disgusted with this concern for appearances and the living beyond one's means that it requires, but he must also note the link between the profit produced by war, problematic in itself, and the inability to enjoy it. An "Austrian Archduke" figures prominently in the director of the Smithsonian's self-satisfied stories "about balls and receptions, and the names and titles of all the people he had met" (231), suggesting that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand might not strike Tom as a great loss. In general, Tom's Washington episode portrays the U.S. government as insulated and insular, symbolized by "the fence that shuts in the White House grounds" (233). The president, in Tom's experience, is out of touch and inaccessible to his constituency and to the larger obligations of the nation; though Theodore Roosevelt would have been president when Tom was in Washington, the "shut in" White House signifies President Woodrow Wilson's isolationist stance—and, in fact, the isolationism of many Americans. Finally Tom leaves Washington, "wiser than I came" (236). This experience helps explain why, in August 1914, Tom leaves for war rather than wait for the U.S. entry in May 1917. He does not go to war for his country but rather for "civilization"— a sentimental ideal, perhaps, but not a national one.

Tom's story shows that he was, at one time, an idealistic young man, but he has seen his ideals fail not only through government bureaucracy but also through his own internal weakness. When he returns to the mesa after his failed visit to Washington, he attacks Roddy for selling the artifacts that are so precious to him and that are, to him, symbolic of the power of friendship: "There never was any question of money with me, where this mesa and its people were concerned. They were something that had been preserved through the ages by a miracle, and handed on to you and me, two poor cow-punchers, rough and ignorant, but I thought we were men enough to keep a trust" (244). His disappointment in Roddy demonstrates that even the most sacred of personal relationships can fail to live up to his standards. Nevertheless, he enjoys the quiet time of study and reflection on the mesa that follows Roddy's departure. Gradually, however, he acknowledges within himself a selfishness and impurity of motives, an inability to forgive his friend, and a self-centeredness that drives Roddy away: "The older I grow, the more I understand what it was I did that night on the mesa. Anyone who requites faith and friendship as I did, will have to pay for it. I'm not very sanguine about good fortune for myself. I'll be called to account when I least expect it" (253). By cherishing people dead and gone more than the living, he destroys his ideals about himself as a loyal friend, and he accepts any retribution he will receive as just.

Even before his Washington trip, however, Tom Outland learns a harsh lesson about civilization—one that Tom, the Professor, readers, and Cather herself may not want to learn. Father Duchene tells Tom that the civilization on the mesa was probably destroyed because its members became too rarefied, too absorbed in the "higher" calling of the arts to remember how to engage in physical violence: "With the proper variation of meat and vegetable diet, they developed physically and improved in the primitive arts. They had looms and mills, and experimented with dyes. At the same time, they possibly declined in the arts of war, in brute strength and ferocity" (220). Father Duchene speculates that they "[made] their mesa more and more worthy to be a home for man, purifying life by religious ceremonies and observances, caring respectfully for their dead, protecting the children, doubtless entertaining some feelings of affection and sentiment for this stronghold where they were at once so safe and so comfortable" (220). Ultimately, however, he suggests that this Edenistic society was "probably wiped out, utterly exterminated, by some roving Indian tribe without culture or domestic virtues, some horde that fell upon them in their summer camp and destroyed them for their hides and clothing and weapons, or from mere love of slaughter" (221). Father Duchene may not be the most reliable narrator—for one reason precisely because he insists on narrating, as John N. Swift points out (18-19)—but his is the version that Tom seems to accept, as he writes it into his diary (223). The ancient society becomes a model for Progressivism, as Reynolds demonstrates; by looking at "Tom Outland's Story" in light of the Progressive Movement, "the great, good places of Cather's fiction emerge as part of a larger cultural pattern, namely the Utopian idealism of progressive America and its reforming drive to recreate the nation as an earthly Eden" (15).

Reynolds further argues, however, that Cather could not sustain her belief in such societies, that "she also imagined the dream's failure" (15). The ideal of an ever-improving society is subverted by one of Tom and Roddy's most precious finds: a mummified woman they call "Mother Eve," whom they identify as the maternal source of the people and of their culture. But she died in violence: "We thought she had been murdered. . . . Her mouth was open as if she were screaming, and her face, through all those years, had kept a terrible look of agony" (214). Tom and Roddy do not and cannot know the story of this brutal death, but they ought to have recognized that her body and her "terrible look of agony" contradict Father Duchene's interpretation of the society as peaceful and "purified." Father Duchene later suggests that she was murdered for adultery (223), committing further violence against the dead woman by imposing his own interpretation onto her body and simultaneously suggesting that an ideal and peaceful society still has the right to exact lethal vengeance on its unfaithful women.

A society "too far advanced for their time and environment" (221)—the concept may have come back to Tom when Germany invaded Belgium. Western society generally was shocked at the event, believing Europe to be too far evolved for such violence to take place.[4] Practically speaking as well, the United States was unprepared, lacking a significant standing army and relying on a poorly trained National Guard. Historian Robert H. Zieger shows that as late as 1916 many Americans, though supportive of a navy, did not see the point of an army and were not properly informed as to its need: "Proponents of army enlargement . . . painted lurid pictures of massive ocean-borne attacks of forays up the Mississippi by battle-hardened, yet somehow unbloodied, enemies" (38). In The Professor's House, however, Tom Outland has learned through the destruction of his beloved ancient society that violence is sometimes necessary and that a culture that forgets this lesson risks total annihilation. (Not coincidentally, it is a German who buys Tom and Roddy's artifacts and a Frenchman as well as the Belgian priest who take an intelligent interest in the archeological find [235-36].)

Godfrey St. Peter studies his family and his memory of Tom Outland in an attempt to understand aging and his inevitable death. As Susan J. Rosowki argues, the Professor's self-analysis takes the form of journeying inward, past his family and Tom to his "original self." Rosowski ably discusses this journey, but I intend to pause longer over Tom and the First World War and to explore further what both mean to the Professor. The placement of Tom's story indicates that it serves as part of the process of the Professor's self-analysis and thus functions as a catalyst for the moment of laxity that amounts to an attempt at self-destruction. In the first part of the novel, we see that the Professor has suffered significant, though not unusual, losses, including his daughters' growing up, the ending of the intimate part of his marriage, the death of Tom, and the passing of the Professor's own youth. But a larger cultural loss the Professor must face is the rift that World War I created in his life and in his society. It is only through Tom's story that World War I begins to make sense to the Professor, although in a most disturbing way: wars exist because they have to be fought, not to "make the world safe for democracy" or to rescue Belgians or for any of the other reasons sold to the American public. Rather, they must be fought because people will fight them. Even brilliant, sensitive, educated Tom, who thinks of long-dead Indian women as his "grandmothers" (243) and who spends hours entertaining the Professor's daughters, participates in the horror of the Great War, presumably committing violence in the name of stopping it. Father Duchene's interpretation of the destruction of the mesa people serves as a warning: Americans must remember the arts of war or they will be annihilated. The death of "Mother Eve," however, redirects Father Duchene's didactic story from a warning to a no less frightening social comment: the mummy's "look of terrible agony" indicates that the mesa people were not so rarefied after all, and her violent and unexplained death suggests to the Professor that violence simply exists.

Though he rarely thinks of it, Professor St. Peter, like Cather and many Americans, continues to mourn the war and struggles to understand it. For him it is one of a series of disappointments in his life, "one of many lost causes" (143). But it is also a particular horror with which he must come to terms: he recognizes intellectually that it destroyed a young generation for a false ideal, but he does not feel it. Thinking of the dead Tom, he regrets the trip to Paris the two of them never had time to take, and the war becomes "chance" that "in one great catastrophe, swept away all youth and all palms, and almost Time itself" (260). He never tries to imagine the violence of war itself, including the many possible painful ways Tom may have died. For the Professor, Tom's death is minutely personalized (as in the never-taken trip) or broadly viewed (as the "great catastrophe") but has little to do with Tom himself. The clearest memory the Professor has of Tom, apart from Tom's story in which the Professor is not a participant, is the day Tom walked into the St. Peters' garden, lunched with the family, and gave the girls turquoises—a moment frozen in the Professor's mind: "'Hold them still a moment,' said the Professor, looking down, not at the turquoises, but at the hand that held them: the muscular, many-lined palm, the long, strong fingers with soft ends, the straight little finger, the flexible, beautifully shaped thumb that curved back from the rest of the hand as if it were its own master. What a hand! He could see it yet, with the blue stones lying in it" (121). The Professor fails to find a way to mourn Tom specifically, his death making even his life seem unreal. Instead of grieving, the Professor simply cuts himself off from his past.

This is not an entirely unconscious psychological step, however; the Professor knows that he has not fully mourned Tom or the war. Sharon O'Brien argues that in writing One of Ours Cather walked a fine line between "combat envy," a woman's desire to understand the transforming effects of battle, and "survivor guilt," the complex reaction of the woman writer to her power of narrating a dead soldier's story: "[Cather] was profiting at the soldiers' expense, deriving a release of creative energy from their suffering and death" (197). In The Professor's House, it is not Cather but the Professor who must face survivor guilt. He consistently resists financial gain from Tom's death, refusing Rosamond's offer to give him money from Tom's invention: "There can be no question of money between me and Tom Outland. I can't explain just how I feel about it, but it would somehow damage my recollections of him, would make that episode in my life commonplace like everything else" (62). Yet even in this passage the Professor's way of "profiting" from Tom's death becomes clear; he lives off the memories of his friendship with Tom. This in itself eats at the Professor as a form of "survival guilt," and he risks further "profit" through his idea to publish Tom's diary with an introduction—a project that seems to fall by the wayside after his near-suicide. The Professor's "survival guilt" is further complicated by the tricky problem of memory. Trout points out that none of the characters in The Professor's House effectively remember or memorialize Tom Outland— a problem, Trout argues, endemic to American postwar society in general. Even if the Professor could hold on to Tom's memory, he seems reluctant to do so. He tells his wife when she asks what disturbs him, "It's the feeling that I've put a great deal behind me, where I can't go back to it again—and I don't really wish to go back" (163). This sentence is often read as the Professor facing midlife and rejecting his family; it is also his recognition that he no longer wants even Tom back. During the Professor's summer daydreams while his family is away, Tom gets replaced: "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 . . . the original unmodified Godfrey St. Peter" (263). By the end, the Professor acknowledges his inability and even unwillingness to keep Tom alive in memory, a failure for a historian equivalent to killing Tom all over again but simultaneously a way to avoid further "profit" from Tom's death.

World War I figures in the Professor's life not only as the loss of Tom and the signifier of a greater cultural loss but also as a turning point in his relationship with his daughters. The war corresponds to the coming-of-age and marriages of Rosamond and Kitty—in other words, their participation in the world of adult sexuality. For the Professor, I suggest, the latter event is just as traumatic as the horror of war in Europe and forever inextricably bound to it, sewn together like his daughters' dresses. He thinks longingly of the days when Kitty and Rosamond were children: "Sitting thus in his study, long afterward, St. Peter reflected that those first years, before Outland had done anything remarkable, were really the best of all. He liked to remember the charming groups of three he was always coming upon,—in the hammock swing between the linden-trees, in the window-seat, or before the dining-room fire" (125). The war "swept away all youth," not only Tom's but also Kitty's and Rosamond's; the house in which the Professor remains holds the ghost of young Kitty, sitting silently on the stairs with her hand swollen by bee stings until her father is ready to leave his work (88). Unexplored in the novel is the Professor's reaction to Rosamond and Tom's engagement or any details of their relationship at all. We do, however, discover a fragment about Kitty's engagement: "Kathleen had never been deaf to reasoning, deaf to her father, but once; and that was when, shortly after Rosamond's engagement to Tom, she announced that she was going to marry Scott McGregor" (65). That Kitty's one moment of defiance of her father is in her decision to marry—or in her choice of whom to marry—signals both the Professor's claim on his daughter and the defeat of that claim in the face of her status as an adult. The violent fate of Tom's "Mother Eve"—stabbed for infidelity, as Father Duchene speculates, and then lost down a cliff and abandoned as trash by the German profiteer—resonates through the novel, indicating severe penalties for female disloyalty. Rosamond's engagement to Tom may have provoked feelings of betrayal in her father, who later wonders if there is "no way but Medea's" (126) to keep hold of his daughters. Demaree C. Peck argues that the Professor "wishes to prevent his children from becoming 'owned' by others" and implies that by keeping Augusta's dress frames in his study, he attempts to hold on to his little girls (199-200). Tom Outland, ironically, is the form in which the loss of the Professor's daughters first appears, not only in his engagement to Rosamond but also in his storytelling, which made him a favorite with the girls when they were little. In fact, the earliest conflicts emerge in the Professor's exclusion from the circle of Tom, Rosamond, and Kitty; as Kitty reminds him, "You know Tom told us about [Roddy] long before he ever told you" (131).

The threat to the Professor's possession of his daughters does not end with Tom's death, for other suitors come and he still loses his girls, intellectually and physically. As adults, Kitty and especially Rosamond fail to worship their father and repeatedly submit him to their petty materialism and quarrels; they no longer have their "generous impulses" (126). The novel, in fact, is full of unfaithful women: Kitty and Rosamond betraying their father by marrying, Rosamond moving on after Tom's death, the possibility of Rosamond's continued feelings for Tom after her marriage to Louie Marsellus (109), and Lillian St. Peter's shifting of her emotional loyalties to her daughters' husbands. The Professor accepts, even welcomes, his wife's new interests: "With her sons-in-law she had begun the game of being a woman all over again. She dressed for them, planned for them, schemed in their interests. . . . It was splendid, St. Peter told himself. She wasn't going to have to face a stretch of boredom between being a young woman and being a young grandmother" (79). Happy though he may be for Lillian, her redirected attention must only remind him of his own lost youth and that he no longer needs a woman planning and scheming for him. The full impact of his daughters' marriages on the Professor can best be seen on the day he almost gasses himself; he carries in his pockets letters that bring clear news of Rosamond's "infidelity"—that is, expectations for "the advent of a young Marsellus" (273). He can no longer hold his daughters close, childlike and sexless, as he does their dress forms, now that Rosamond is expecting her own child.

Thus Professor St. Peter must reconcile himself not only to the losses in his life but to the reality of his world. He cannot stay in his "walled-in garden" (14), and he cannot permanently escape to the freedom of swimming in the lake (30). He prefers peace and solitude, even quiet family time, but all these things rest on an underlying violence. Even a trip downstairs from his study is a "perilous journey" (27). His "civilization"—the worlds of domesticity, art, and intellectualism—exist only in balance with danger and violence. The reference to Medea links great art and culture with sexual jealousy and the slaughter of children, and the murder of "Mother Eve" shows that "civilization" rests on violence, whether it is the civilization of the ancient people or the civilization that grows out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Professor's great scholarly achievement, Spanish Adventurers in North America, pays homage to violence, for such explorers sacrificed many Native peoples in their quests—the Professor's life work, then, glorifies the type of violence that may have destroyed the ancient society of Tom Outland's mesa. Even in his personal life the Professor benefits from suffering, embodied in young Kitty's swollen hand and her refusal to disturb him despite her pain. His first name is actually Napoleon, a name kept secret from his daughters, just as the violence of Western civilization is kept secret through the illusion of social evolution. Merrill Maguire Skaggs argues that, artistically, the novel celebrates and pairs art and destruction, pointing to the Professor's lecture in which he says, "The Christian theologians went over the books of the Law, like great artists, getting splendid effect by excision" (qtd. in Skaggs 77), and that the Professor "is immensely interesting partially because he is so appealing and so appalling" (78). Peace and violence, comfort and loss in this novel are inextricably linked.

The only way to keep living, the Professor finds, is to disengage from his family but to root himself in its forms. In The Professor's House domesticity is associated with both women and men. Tom and Roddy's domestic life on the mesa has been well documented.[5] The basis of this domestic life is companionship and cooperation; of Roddy, Tom says, "What he needed was a pal, a straight fellow to give an account to" (185). The relationship between the two men rests on this notion of accountability and responsibility to someone else. Not until their cook and housekeeper Henry arrives, however, are they described as a "happy family" (198), indicating that the housekeeper is a necessary part of domestic order. Henry's death is tragic to Tom and Roddy, and, significantly, it immediately precedes Father Duchene's interpretation of the civilization and the decision to send Tom to Washington.

The Professor, like Tom, relies heavily on the benefits of domesticity in order to create his intellectual work. He enjoys the sounds of his family in his house as he writes (101). Of course, the Professor clearly regulates his view of domestic activities; his very claim of enjoying the sounds below in the house demonstrate his requirement that household activities remain distant. He prefers the less personal link of his work to the seamstress Augusta's work. They share space during the weeks Augusta sews for the family, and when the St. Peters move to the new house the Professor insists that Augusta's frames for dressmaking be left behind. Augusta functions within the St. Peter household much as Henry does on the mesa; she establishes and maintains domestic order: "Augusta, he reflected, had always been a corrective, a remedial influence" (280). She understands impersonal domesticity; when the Professor confesses, the night he almost dies, that he feels lonely "for the first time in months," Augusta replies, "That's because your family are coming home" (279). The spinster Augusta ironically understands that one can feel more isolated in the presence of people one loves than in actually being alone. She also serves as a mediator through which the Professor understands death: "He used to say that he didn't mind hearing Augusta announce these deaths which seemed to happen so frequently along her way, because her manner of speaking about it made death seem less uncomfortable. She hadn't any of the sentimentality that comes from a fear of dying. She talked about death as she spoke of a hard winter or a rainy March, or any of the sadnesses of nature" (281). Augusta, as domesticity in embodied form, makes death, whether strangers', Tom's, or the Professor's own, part of the natural order.

Ultimately, the routine, reliable nature of housekeeping saves the Professor, and not only literally. In his deepest despair, the Professor thinks that falling out of love means "falling out of all domestic and social relations, out of his place in the human family" (275), but he discovers that domesticity is more powerful than personalities. Critic Ann Romines establishes domestic ritual as a way of ordering the world in the face of chaotic forces: "A woman who achieved faculty and made effective ritual of her house-keeping was taking on godlike status, as she pushed back confusion daily, to create her own domestic sphere" (10). Through the process of housekeeping we can understand how the Professor's world has been and will again be manageable. If "Time" is so nearly destroyed by war, Cather looks to the cyclical nature of housekeeping as a way to defy time. Both the Professor and Tom comment that they cannot and do not want to go back in time; Tom leaves his diary hidden in the canyon because he "didn't feel the need of that record. It would have been going backward" (252). Eventually, however, he does go "backward" and reclaim the diary. Augusta, who "pushes back confusion daily," represents truths that survive the war—the comforts of homemaking and of another human presence: "If [the Professor] had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her presence would have suggested the proper action" (279-80). The Professor's rescue by Augusta perhaps seems too contrived, but the inevitability of the Professor's journey shows us that Augusta's presence is in fact natural and expected, even required: "He even felt a sense of obligation toward her, instinctive, escaping definition, but real. And when you admitted that a thing was real, that was enough—now" (281). Tom Outland understood this obligation— again, "now," after Roddy leaves. Unlike Tom, who valued his dead "grandmothers" over the living, present Roddy and came to regret his priorities, the Professor has the opportunity to continue to live with his family and make good on his obligations.

In a comparison of Kate Chopin's The Awakening with The Professor's House, Katherine Joslin notes the parallels between Edna Pontellier's and Godfrey St. Peter's attempts to reject domesticity and parenthood, and she concludes that "both novels suggest that in a sense there is no place beyond the house, no transcending the domestic world" (179). For Edna this revelation must end in suicide, but the Professor manages to make his peace with domesticity, if not with his family. In The Professor's House Cather looks into agony; she faces difficult, even heretical, truths: that war, though pointless, is unavoidable and that family love may wear out and die. Both of these points seem to be contrary to "civilization," but Cather suggests instead that "civilization" is created by an impersonal feeling of responsibility rather than by individual and unreliable loyalties: "There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound" (281). Here, finally, the Professor has come to find a reason to keep living: family ties may loosen and wither, but ties among "the human family" do not.


 1. Cather also states in the prefatory note to Not Under Forty that "the book will have little interest for people under forty years of age." She saw World War I as a defining break not only for herself but for a whole generation. (Go back.)
 2. Meirion and Susie Harries point out that fifteen thousand Americans volunteered for the war before the United States officially declared war (41). (Go back.)
 3. Among other writers, John Dos Passos makes a similar charge in Three Soldiers (1921). (Go back.)
 4. In Edith Wharton's A Son at the Front (1923), George Campton calmly dismisses the talk of impending war: "People are too healthy and well-fed now; they're not going off to die in a ditch to oblige anybody" (32). (Go back.)
 5. See, for example, Lindemann, "Fear of a Queer Mesa?" for an extended discussion of the connection between Tom and Roddy's domesticity and the "Rooseveltian heteronormativity" that Tom finds in Washington (52). (Go back.)


Cather, Willa. Not Under Forty. New York: Knopf, 1936.
Cather, Willa. One of Ours. New York: Knopf, 1922.
Cather, Willa. The Professor's House. New York: Knopf, 1925.
Harries, Meirion, and Susie Harries. The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917-1918. New York: Random House, 1997.
Joslin, Katherine. "Finding the Self at Home: Chopin's The Awakening and Cather's The Professor's House." Kate Chopin Reconsidered: Beyond the Bayou. Ed. Lynda S. Boren and Sara deSaussure Davis. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992. 166-79.
Lindemann, Marilee. "Fear of a Queer Mesa? Faith, Friendship, and National Sexuality in 'Tom Outland's Story.' " Willa Cather and the American Southwest. Ed. John N. Swift and Joseph R. Urgo. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. 43-54.
O'Brien, Sharon. "Combat Envy and Survivor Guilt: Willa Cather's 'Manly Battle Yarn.' " Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation. Ed. Helen M. Cooper, Adrienne Auslander Munich, and Susan Merrill Squier. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989. 184-204.
Peck, Demaree C. The Imaginative Claims of the Artist in Willa Cather's Fiction. Selinsgrove PA: Susquehanna UP, 1996.
Reynolds, Guy. Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.
Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.
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