Books That Inspire 2009

The Professor's House
Willa Cather

Although perhaps best known for her "pioneer" novels—especially O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and A Lost Lady—Willa Cather"s enduring critical reputation as one of the premier American novelists of the 20th century rests as much on her nine other novels, her story collections, and her essays on writing as on her more popular works. After moving from Virginia to the "sheet-iron" flat prairies of Nebraska at the age of nine, Cather (1873–1947) attended the University of Nebraska and worked as a teacher and journalist in Pittsburgh before moving to Manhattan in 1906. Despite having achieved popular success with O Pioneers! and My Ántonia and winning a Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, Cather claimed that her world "broke apart" in 1922. Her next two novels, A Lost Lady and The Professor’s House, portray characters in states of near existential crisis. In The Professor's House (1925), Cather drew her inspiration less from the Great Plains than from the American Southwest. Sandwiched between the frame tale of Godfrey St. Peter, a professor of Spanish American history at a Midwestern university, the heart of the novel lies in the section called "Tom Outland's Story," a novella about one of St. Peter's brilliant students who is inspired by the American Southwest (like Cather herself). Cather's description of Outland's epiphany when he stumbles across a previously undiscovered pre-Columbian cliff dwelling ("a little city of stone, asleep") provides some of the richest descriptive prose in 20th-century American fiction. A key motif of the novel: the roles of art and religion amid the distractions of vulgar materialism during the Roaring Twenties. In contrast to the disenchantments of St. Peter, Outland embodies "old perspectives transformed by the new effects of light." As an enduring example of Cather's finest work, The Professor's House reminds readers that despite the "catastrophes of chance," human striving toward nobility and purity of heart can redeem our baser instincts: "Wherever humanity has made that hardest of all starts and lifted itself out of mere brutality, is a sacred spot."

Daniel Simon
Assistant Director & Acting Editor
World Literature Today