Wednesday, May 3, 2017

“A French garden in Hamilton”

Godfrey St. Peter, professor, historian, writer of an eight-volume Spanish Adventurers in North America, is something of a conquerer in his own midwestern town:

Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (1925).

Elaine and I just finished reading The Professor’s House, and we’ve now read, aside from a handful of uncollected stories, all of Willa Cather’s fiction. Elaine was reading the novel for the second time; I was reading it for perhaps the twentieth time (still finding new things to notice). I’ve been trying to decide upon a passage that might interest a reader, and this paragraph is the best I can do. If the professor seems like a mock version of his — it’s a telling word — “adventurers,” imposing a foreign order upon a place, well, he is. But set against that mockery are the generous descriptions of the garden’s delights: slender poplars, geraniums dripping over a wall. Tom Outland’s name at the end of the paragraph, the first reference to him in the novel, adds a note of mystery.

To my mind, The Professor’s House is Cather’s greatest novel and one of the greatest American novels. It’s an experiment in form (with lapidary, musical, and painterly analogies to account for its three-part structure), an exploration of cultures modern and ancient, and an examination of what Cather calls “the double life” of human connection and utter aloneness. The novel has haunted me from the time I first read it. I was younger than Tom Outland then, and older that Godfrey St. Peter now.

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

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