47 pages 1 hour read

Willa Cather

The Professor's House

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1925

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather depicts the inner struggles of Godfrey St. Peter, a history professor struggling to understand his identity in middle age. Published in 1925, the novel moves from the fictional college town of Hamilton, Michigan, to the deserts of the American Southwest, where St. Peter’s most brilliant student, the late Tom Outland, had discovered the ruins of an ancient pueblo village. Haunted by the missed opportunities of the past, St. Peter struggles to participate in the lives of his wife and daughters as he comes to terms with the possibility that his most intellectually and personally stimulating years might be behind him.

This guide is based on the 2018 Reading Essentials e-book edition of The Professor’s House.

Content Warning: This guide describes and discusses the source text’s depiction of suicidal ideation and the misappropriation of Indigenous culture.

Plot Summary

The Professor’s House tells the story of Godfrey St. Peter, an accomplished historian, who finds himself dissatisfied with his seemingly settled, comfortable life as a college professor in the fictional town of Hamilton, Michigan. Although he and his wife have built a new, modern home, St. Peter remains attached to the old house they rented for over two decades. He maintains their old home so that he can continue to use its attic as his study. Remaining at the old house allows him to stay close to the memory of his friendship with a man named Tom Outland.

Tom was killed in combat in World War I, but he looms large in the minds of St. Peter and his family. At the time of his death, Tom had been engaged to marry St. Peter’s older daughter, Rosamond, who inherited the patent for one of Tom’s inventions. The money from Tom’s invention allows Rosamond and her husband, Louie Marsellus, to live much more luxuriously than Rosamond’s parents or her sister, Kathleen, and Kathleen’s husband, Scott McGregor. Scott resents Louie’s influence in shaping Tom’s legacy; Louie only came to Hamilton after Tom’s death but was instrumental in making Tom’s inventions profitable. For St. Peter, neither son-in-law can measure up to Tom, who shared with St. Peter a deep connection to the American Southwest. As St. Peter goes through the motions of family life, he ruminates about the past and seeks shelter in his study in the old house, where he plans to edit Tom’s diary for scholarly publication while his wife, Rosamond, and Louie travel through France for the summer.

Part 2 presents Tom’s first-person narrative of the time he spent exploring the mysterious Blue Mesa in New Mexico alongside his friend Rodney Blake. After spending a season as cattle herders, living in the shadow of the seemingly impenetrable mesa, Tom and Rodney discover an abandoned Indigenous city carved into a box canyon inside the mesa. Over the course of the summer, they excavate tools, clothing, and even bodies that suggest the extent of this ancient civilization. After a few months, Tom travels to Washington, DC, hoping to secure interest in and funding for further study of the Blue Mesa, but finds little of either. When he returns to New Mexico, Tom is horrified to learn that Rodney has sold the artifacts to a German trader. Rodney and Tom have a falling out, and Rodney disappears.

The final part of the novel returns to St. Peter, who has lingered over the project of editing Tom’s account of the mesa over the course of the summer. Even as he prepares to teach his fall classes, St. Peter does not believe he will see the end of the semester. However, his doctor cannot find a medical cause for St. Peter’s exhaustion. When he nearly allows himself to perish from carbon monoxide poisoning in his study, St. Peter realizes that he does want to live, even if he must do so without “delight.” He steels himself for his family’s return to Hamilton and resolves to continue to keep his study at the old house.

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