The Professor’s House is different from most of Cather’s more famous works, which feature immigrants, pioneers, and life in the lower Midwest. Interestingly, I’ve found that I tend not to care much about those works. My Antonia was okay but not terribly memorable, and I couldn’t get past a few chapters of O Pioneers. But when I read Death Comes for the Archbishop, which strayed from the norm, I adored it. The Professor’s House also strays, and I enjoyed it much more than the country life books, though not as much as Archbishop.
The book focuses on Professor St. Peters. The professor has taught for years at the university, and is finishing up a multi-volume set of books on Spanish history which have won him awards and money. He and his wife decide to buy a new house with the money. They pack up and leave the house they lived in for twenty years and that their two daughters grew up in, but for some reason, the professor can’t leave. The upheaval causes a deep depression that is intensified by a rift between his daughters (after one comes into money) and a growing sense that he no longer knows the people he’s lived with all his adult life. The book is far more of a character study of a man falling deeper and deeper into despair than a plot-based book.
I loved this. As someone who has struggled with depression myself, I think Willa Cather did a fantastic job showing how the cycle can begin, so small that it’s virtually unnoticeable, and then how it can spiral until it’s completely out of control. Her prose was beautiful as usual. My only complaints about the book was that near the end, it split into the story of the professor’s former almost-son-in-law who died years back, and the book seemed to lose focus. Tom’s story is interesting, but didn’t really do anything to enhance the professor’s. Once we got back to the professor again, everything closed up a bit too quickly. I would have liked to see the progression from part one to part three a little slower and more natural. Other than that, though, it was beautiful. I think I will definitely stick to these sorts of books by Cather.