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Willa Cather's Godfrey St. Peter: historian of repressed sensibility?

Hayden White notes in "The Burden of History" that a "good deal of twentieth century literature . . . manifest[s] a hostility toward the historical consciousness . . . evidenced most clearly in the practice of using the historian to represent the extreme example of repressed sensibility in the novel and the theater" (31). White traces the distrust of the historian to the decades before World War I when "[e]verywhere there was a growing suspicion that Europe's feverish rummaging among the ruins of its past expressed less a firm sense of control over the present than an unconscious fear of a future too horrible to contemplate" (35). This fear was amply confirmed by World War I. Not only did historians fail to anticipate the war, but afterwards they also seemed incapable of "making sense of . . . [it] in any significant way" (36).

In The Professor's House, Willa Cather's historian Godfrey St. Peter rummages "among the ruins of the past" in Spain, Mexico, and the American Southwest and writes his magisterial Spanish Adventurers in North America in the decades before World War I. The action of the novel takes place, though, in the immediate post-war period, when St. Peter gradually retreats from the facts of contemporary history as they are embodied and enacted by his family, who have become, in the 20s, grasping and materialistic. St. Peter, then, would seem to approximate White's historian of "repressed sensibility" only in the last pages of the novel when he retreats from the facts of modernity, and this retreat, I will argue, can be connected to St. Peter's indirect experience of history, through the death in World War I of his former student, Tom Outland. This experience of the eruption of history is so powerfully unmanageable that St. Peter, for the most part, suppresses it, and this suppression accounts, I believe, for the lack of consensus about this novel and for the uneasiness of many critics about it.(1) Cather does not, however, see the suppression of history and the final diminishment of St. Peter as a failure either (in White's terms) of "sensibility" or of "will" (31). Rather, she sees her historian as enmeshed in a set of patriarchal assumptions--ones that undergird his history, the Spanish conquistadors, and World War I--whose contradictions are brought to unresolvable crisis by that war. Those contradictions result in St. Peter becoming, by the end of the novel, White's historian of "repressed sensibility," and Cather sees that his extinguishment, as person and as historian, makes him yet another victim of the patriarchal violence of World War I.

Almost no critical attention has been paid to St. Peter as historian and to the nature of his history, but Cather was careful to characterize that history early in the novel. For most of the years of the project, he had worked in an intellectual vacuum and "without encouragement":

For all the interest the first three volumes awoke in the world, he might as well have dropped them into Lake Michigan. They had been timidly reviewed by other professors of history . . . Nobody saw that he was trying to do something quite different--they merely thought he was trying to do the usual thing, and had not succeeded very well. They recommended to him the more even and genial style of John Fiske. (32)

The reviewers of his first three volumes seem professionally disabled by the reigning paradigm, unable to see how he was consciously departing from late nineteenth-century assumptions about historiography, ones defined by White in "The Burden of History": "when historians claim that history is a combination of science and art, they generally mean that it is a combination of late-nineteenth-century social science and mid-nineteenth-century art" (43). In contrast to an earlier generation of "literary" historians like Bancroft, Prescott, and Parkman, who made no effort to "achieve authorial invisibility" (Novick 45), St. Peter shares some assumptions of the historians who were "in pursuit of the authority of science" and who "distanced themselves" from any claims that history was either art or literature (Novick 40). Given this paradigm shift in the time that St. Peter was writing, the reviewer's recommendation of John Fiske as a model is significant. Although he believed himself a scientific historian (see Berman 211-12), and although he was widely read and respectfully reviewed, Fiske was little more than a synthesizer of other people's work. His "true talent lay in popularization rather than in original historical research or composition" (Berman 226).

The reviewer's recommendation of Fiske, however, has another important implication because Fiske, in his The Discovery of America (1892), covers much of the same history as does St. Peter. Fiske gives an account of some of the early Spanish explorers in what would become the American Southwest, and he clearly has an Anglophile's anti-Spanish bias. In his discussion of the effects of the Inquisition on the Spanish character, for instance, he combines his prejudice against the Spanish with a kind of Darwinism to produce the claim that the Inquisition "was a device for insuring the survival of the unfittest" (2: 565). If the Spanish in the Americas are the "unfittest" of nationalities, then all non-Europeans are ranked even lower on the evolutionary scale. In Fiske's carefully constructed hierarchy, "as a people the Arab-Moors were of a far higher type than the Turks" (2: 556). Native Americans like the Zuni, first encountered by the expedition of Fray Marcos, are ranked even lower. They are said to possess "the metaphysics [and] the common sense of the middle status of barbarism" (2: 505).

This racist ranking is a consequence of Fiske's "scientific" ideas (ones widely accepted at the time). He believed in what has been called "Anglo-Teutonism" or "Anglo-Saxonism." This doctrine, which moved quickly from Tacitus' description of the Germanic tribes to English parliamentary democracy and on to American democracy (Berman 137), proclaimed that Northern European institutions were the highest expression of political "evolution." Proponents distinguished between non-white peoples, but also "between superior and inferior whites"--the superior being the Germans, Americans, and English, while the inferior were all other Europeans. This belief brought Fiske to accept, in 1894, the Presidency of the Immigration Restriction League,(2) which wanted to ban the immigration of racially inferior peoples such as "the Slavs, Latins, Greeks, and Hungarians" (Berman 250). The conclusion of Fiske's The Discovery of America is quite consonant with the assumptions of the League. The Spanish, claimed Fiske, were still medieval, inhospitable toward "new ideas," dull and rigidly conservative (2: 566-67). The English, in contrast, through their openness to new ideas and encouragement of individuality, have, as a "race," either "vanquished or absorbed" other European "races" in "regions open to colonization" (2: 569). His distaste for the inferior Spanish leads, however, to some curious results:

It was the prerogative of a Christian Spaniard to appropriate the fruits of other people's labor; and we have seen this feeling at work in many details of the Spanish conquest of America . . . the circumstances of Spanish history were such as to cast upon labor a stigma especially strong by associating it with men of alien race and faith who were scarcely regarded as possessing any rights that Christians should feel bound to respect. (2: 556)

His perspective allows him a surprising degree of sympathy for the Native American "barbarians" confronted by rapacious and inferior Europeans, such as the Spanish.

St. Peter is being offered, obviously, as the antithesis of Fiske. He is not a writer of popular narratives; rather, he is a writer of a historical text that comes to be seen by younger historians as an exciting "experiment." "The two last volumes brought him a certain international reputation and what were called rewards--among them, the Oxford prize for history" (33). As he writes his experiment, "the whole plan of his narrative was coming clearer and clearer . . . [and] all the foolish conventions of that kind of writing [Fiske's] were falling away" (32). Clearly, St. Peter's history is a radical departure from the popularizing Fiske who worked, unreflectingly, within the conventions. Unlike Fiske, St. Peter has done important archival work, and has broken significant new ground both in substance and design. As a result, Cather "intends the reader to accept the Professor's book as a great work" (Thomas 145). Written at a time when modernist writers of fiction were abandoning the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel, St. Peter's history might seem, because of its radical design, to fulfill White's call for histories that overthrow "outmoded conceptions of objectivity" and that, without entirely breaking with narrative, use the "techniques of literary representation which Joyce, Yeats, and Ibsen have contributed to modern culture" ("Burden" 43). If St. Peter shares with Fiske some conception of the "objectivity" of history, his massive formal experiment would seem to signal a kind of liberation of sensibility, a clarifyingly new way of seeing the history of the Spanish in America. For that reason, he could almost be seen as the counterexample to White's assertion that the historian's claim to be "an artist appears pathetic when it does not appear merely ludicrous" ("Burden" 31).

On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that although St. Peter's history is formally innovative, it is still undergirded by a set of patriarchal assumptions that have remained untouched by that experimentation. In order to unpack the tension between St. Peter's androcentrism and the experimental structure of his history, it will be necessary to examine the nexus of associations in the text surrounding nature, women, and Native Americans. For example, Cather considers the "plan" of St. Peter's history important enough that she creates for it a moment of almost visionary genesis that is connected to nature. In France, St. Peter chances on the idea of writing about the early Spanish explorers, and while he is sailing along the southern coast of Spain "everything seemed to feed the plan of work that was forming in St. Peter's mind: the skipper, the old Catalan second mate, the sea itself." From the boat, he gazes out at the Sierra Nevadas:

St. Peter lay looking up at them from a little boat riding low in the purple water, and the design of his book unfolded in the air above him, just as definitely as the mountain ranges themselves. And the design was sound. He had accepted it as inevitable, had never meddled with it, and it had seen him through. (106)

The "design" of the history is given to St. Peter in a creative reverie, in a womanless environment linked to nature, to the sea, and, in particular, to gazing out into the "air."

This imagery connects the origin of St. Peter's history to the pueblo Tom Outland discovers on the Blue Mesa. Tom admires the setting of the town hanging "like a bird's nest in the cliff, looking off into the box canyon below, and beyond into the wide valley . . . facing an ocean of air" (213). Clearly, the "ocean of air" is meant to have much the same influence on the inhabitants of the pueblo as the "sea" and the "air" of the Mediterranean did on St. Peter--in an almost Thoreauvian sense, the best of human design has its source in nature, something that Outland notices immediately when he discovers the pueblo. In the center of the town is a tower that "seemed . . . to mark a difference. I felt that only a strong and aspiring people would have built it, and a people with a feeling for design" (203-04). As the text links, through nature, the design of St. Peter's history with the design of the pueblo, it also simultaneously problematizes that linkage. For the pueblo was not, like the "little boat" in the Mediterranean, where St. Peter envisions his history, solely a male environment. In fact, on the mesa, the domestic artifacts of women predominate.

In a cavern there, Outland discovers a "common kitchen" (209) with water jars, stoves, and clay ovens. Elsewhere he finds clothing, "yucca moccasins, and what seemed like cotton cloth, woven in black and white. Never any wool, but sheepskins tanned with the fleece on them" (213). In addition to these women's artifacts, Outland also admires the quality of the pueblo's construction. It was a place that hadn't been built "in a hurry. Everything proved their patience and deliberation" (212). The patience and deliberation of the Native American artifacts are a stark contrast to the shabbiness of the house in which St. Peter has spent most of his life, but these artifacts, more importantly, seem to connect the Indians, St. Peter, and contemporary women's work, personified by Augusta, his family's sewing woman.

St. Peter and Augusta have shared, for many years, an inconvenient room at the top of the house, a room where he has written his history and where she has made clothes for his wife and two daughters. They even have shared storage space: her patterns and his notebooks are kept underneath a couch. On one side were "piles of note-books and bundles of manuscripts tied up in square packages with mason's cord. At the other end were many little rolls of patterns, cut out of newspapers and tied with bits of ribbon, gingham, silk, georgette" (22). Although the contrast of materials (mason's cord and ribbon) highlights the difference between women's and men's work, what St. Peter and Augusta discover is that "in the middle of the box, patterns and manuscripts interpenetrated." St. Peter observes: "'I see we shall have some difficulty in separating our life work, Augusta. We've kept our papers together a long while now'" (22-23). The "interpenetration" of their "papers" and their "life work" points to a seemingly radical conflation of spheres. St. Peter would like to think that the masculine has taken on qualities of the feminine, a point reinforced when the narrator observes that "the records and the ideas" were "woven into their proper place in his history" (25, my emphasis).

The trope of weaving recurs later in the novel when St. Peter remembers the effort of writing his history while

domestic drama . . . went on beneath him. His mind had played delightedly with all those incidents. Just as, when Queen Mathilde was doing the long tapestry now shown at Bayeux--working her chronicle of the deeds of knights and heroes--alongside the big pattern of dramatic action she and her women carried the little playful pattern of birds and beasts that are a story in themselves; so, to him, the most important chapters of his history were interwoven with personal memories. (101)

Like Queen Mathilde, he has woven, in recollection, his "playful pattern," his chronicle of domestic drama, the progress of his marriage and of his children growing up, but as Robert Frost warned, every "metaphor breaks down somewhere" (41), and this one breaks down quickly. St. Peter apparently wants his work and that of women to have a commonality of interest, but his underlying and unexamined assumptions deny any such convergence. Although St. Peter sees his work like that of Queen Mathilde, she produces an artifact that combines "dramatic action" and "a little playful pattern," one that combines the historical and the domestic. St. Peter, by contrast, produces only the dramatic action. The interweaving of history and memory is completely private, unrevealed even to the characters in his "domestic drama." And as the novel continues, his memory of the domestic becomes a way of avoiding a confrontation with a present (and a changed domesticity) that he cannot abide. In his valedictory mode, he realizes, late in the novel, that he "had two romances: one of the heart . . . and a second of the mind--of the imagination" (258). That shift from "mind" to "imagination" allies him, as does the word "interwoven," with Mathilde, except that the "imagination," in the ease of St. Peter, has been used solely on the historical materials. The historical record, in being encoded in narrative by the imagination, can be transformed, but what seemingly cannot be imaginatively transformed is the "history of his own family" (258), which has developed in ways that baffle and often repel him.

Although St. Peter conflates his work as a historian with traditional women's work, his analogy suppresses patriarchal assumptions encoded in the very fabric of nineteenth-century history. If writing history can in some ways be thought of as weaving a tapestry, writing is, more importantly, a solitary male preserve that insists on hierarchical distinctions. As Susie Thomas has pointed out, Cather imagines women's work as less hierarchically structured: "the Queen and her women work all the tapestry, big and little" (126). One might be tempted further to say all of them work on the tapestry, while St. Peter works alone, separate from his family. This hierarchy is further enacted in the way in which he thinks about Mathilde, whose history is a "chronicle of the deeds of knights and heroes" interwoven with a "pattern of birds and beasts that are a story" (my emphasis). As Hayden White has argued, historians since the nineteenth century have hierarchized various kinds of history. The lowest is the annals, while a "higher" form is the chronicle ("Narrativity" 21), and the apex is the full-blown nineteenth-century history, like those, in America, of Prescott, Parkman, and Henry Adams. In St. Peter's eyes, Mathilde's "little playful action" that tells a story is hierarchically inferior to the "chronicle" of "the big pattern of dramatic action," and as White has argued, the chronicle itself is inferior to the true history, in part, because

the chronicle, like the annals but unlike the history, does not so much "conclude" as simply terminate; typically it lacks closure, that summing up of the "meaning" of the chain of events with which it deals that we normally expect from the well-made story. The chronicle typically promises closure but does not provide it. ("Narrativity" 20)

Because of the very nature of family chronicle, St. Peter is unable to transform his memories of his family into an unproblematic story, nor can he provide satisfying closure because of the recalcitrance of contemporary history. Critical of how his family seems to have changed through their participation in the post-war boom, he is, in the midst of the Prohibition, unhappy with a shift in American values that leaves him with a symbolically dwindling supply of sherry. He has, however, in his formal history been able to transform the less recalcitrant material, the traditional chronicles he has transcribed, like those of Fray Francisco Garces (259), into story through the imagination, the powers of which are, as we have seen, allied to nature. Despite the patriarchal assumptions that differentiate their work, however, St. Peter and Mathilde are alike in one crucial respect: both produce artifacts--the narration of St. Peter's history and the Bayeux tapestry--that commemorate the acts of adventurers, of conquerors. In contrast, the artifacts of the pueblo dwellers that Outland discovers allow him to construct a narrative, as Father Duchene says, of defeat, of being "utterly exterminated" (221).

This tension between adventure and the extermination of the Indians and of Outland is never confronted directly by Cather. Instead, the text slowly begins to call into question the term "adventure"--though in its first appearance, in the title of St. Peter's history, it seems entirely unproblematic. That title, however, Spanish Adventurers in North America, might make us suspect that St. Peter's history is an unreflecting Eurocentric celebration of the exploits of these Spanish explorers. Cather is careful to show the extent of its ambitions by references to Fray Marcos (114) and to Fray Garces (259). Fray Marcos de Niza, one of the earliest of the explorers, reached what would be southern Arizona in 1539 (Bannon 16), while Garces, one of the last explorers, was involved over two hundred years later in trying to find an overland route from Arizona to California (Bannon 116). The extent and scope of the Spanish explorations of what St. Peter thinks of as the "great dazzling Southwest country" (258) was almost epic, and clearly in contrast to Fiske, St. Peter is a Hispanophile in his history and a Francophile in his life. For a man who grew up essentially on the American frontier, he is almost startlingly Eurocentric, but that Eurocentrism must be viewed against the background of Fiske's unambiguous anti-Spanish (and anti-Catholic) prejudice. St. Peter's celebration of the exploits of the Spaniards can be seen as an anti-racist attempt to broaden a definition of American culture, and St. Peter's history is, as Walter Benn Michaels has written, "an exercise in 'purely cultural studies'" (228). St. Peter's effort of historical revisionism and cultural inclusivity has its limits, however, which are set by St. Peter's patriarchal values, for what the text of the novel (and presumably the history) does not represent are the consequences of those epic explorations for the local, non-European cultures. As Bannon has written, the Native Americans were to be christianized by the "'mission as frontier institution'" (234):

With the Indian [sic] congregated, the varied tasks of the missionary were somewhat simplified. Regularly these went far beyond instruction in the tenets of the Christian faith. The mission was an agency for the transmittal of the white man's civilization . . . his crafts and skills, his political, economic, and social patterns. It was designated to put the Indians on the road to becoming an integral part of the Spanish society. (235)

To be quite harsh, the consequence of these "explorers' adventures" (258) was the destruction, through the process of "becoming an integral part of the Spanish society," of the indigenous cultures in their pure form, a destruction that the novel is oddly silent about. The silence is even more curious given Tom Outland's sensitivity toward, almost reverence for, the pueblo and its artifacts.

That reverence is compromised, however, by the idea of adventure that Tom brings with him to the Blue Mesa as part of his cultural baggage. As Gilbert and Gubar remark, "when Tom and his buddy Rodney Blake light out for the territory . . . their adventures are similar to those of the books they take with them, Robinson Crusoe in particular" (208). Even the townspeople recognize the particularly literary quality of their enterprise on the mesa: "folks weren't bothered none about that mesa so long as you fellows were playing Robinson Crusoe" (237). Gilbert and Gubar alert us to the genre Cather is exploring--that of the male idyll, which is always an escape from women, society, and history. The male idyll is, of course, always precarious, and it is inevitably disrupted by what it seeks to escape. Tom's idyll with Rodney Blake is broken by Blake's decision to sell the artifacts (the "'relics'" [243] Outland significantly calls them), whereas the Professor's idyll with Tom is broken only by the irruption of history in the guise of World War I.(3) St. Peter insists that his connection to Outland was outside society and history. As he says to his daughter, Rosamond, about Outland: "'Your bond with him was social, and it follows the laws of society, and they are based on property. Mine wasn't, and there was no material clause in it'" (63). Susie Thomas argues that the relationship of Outland and St. Peter "survives because it is intellectual, Platonic. It has nothing to do with money or sex. . . . That is its virtue: because they are friends rather than lovers, there is not marriage and children, and ultimately, disillusionment" (140). The novel both enacts and critiques the male idyll, and although Tom Outland rushes off to the adventure of the First World War, he nevertheless is the only male character who begins to realize the limits of the concept of "adventure."

This insight begins to be enacted after his failure to interest the Smithsonian in the mesa and after Rodney has sold the artifacts to a European collector in his absence. Tom returns to the mesa, spends a night there alone, and achieves a visionary state analogous to St. Peter's ecstatic moment of origin on the Mediterranean. "It was possession. The excitement of my first discovery was a very pale feeling compared to this one. For me the mesa was no longer an adventure, but a religious emotion. I had read of filial piety in the Latin poets, and I knew that was what I felt for this place" (251). The puerility of "adventure" is replaced by a "religious emotion," the spirit of Robinson Crusoe replaced by that of the Aeneid, which Outland studies and memorizes throughout his sojourn on the mesa. Male adventure is replaced by piety in the male line. His study and his almost mystical possession of and rapport with the mesa sensitize him to historical loss, and the passage from the Aeneid that Outland quotes to St. Peter--Infandum, regina, jubes renovare dolorem--expresses his awareness of the possibility of the extermination of cultures. Outland quotes the beginning of Aeneas's narration of the fall of Troy:

Sorrow too deep to tell, your majesty, You order me to feel and tell once more: How the Danaans leveled in the dust The splendor of our mourned-forever kingdom. (2: 3-6)

Mediating his feelings through the Aeneid, Outland laments the "splendor of . . . [a] mourned-forever kingdom," that of the mesa, a place whose inhabitants have been "utterly exterminated" (221), and a place that he has, of necessity, forsaken, and for which he now feels a "religious emotion." This experience of "religious emotion" can be glossed by a sentence from a lecture of St. Peter's in which he claims that "[a]rt and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had" (69). Happiness for these men does not find any of its sources in the domestic realm, in "domestic drama." Outland experiences ultimate happiness in his solitary idyll, when the pueblo and the mesa become for him a "religious emotion." He approaches in this idyll a mystical-aesthetic fusion similar to what St. Peter achieves in his history, a text that stands, like the pueblo, as a monument to a moment of triumphal balance that cannot be achieved again. Filled with filial piety, Outland goes off, soon after August 1914, with the Belgian priest who taught him Latin, and disappears into the maw of World War I (the circumstances of his death are never alluded to). Outland dies in the War, and St. Peter is left with a sense of curiously unarticulated, diminished possibility in the post-war world.

This sense of diminishment has some of its sources in Outlands's disappearance (there is no longer the potential for adventure in St. Peter's life), and in the circumstances of St. Peter's life, not only in the untransformed family history and in how that history is enmeshed in the history of America and Europe, but also in the history St. Peter lives through, in particular the rupture of World War I. The completion of his masterwork "brings him no peace" (Thomas 145), because he feels that the social and cultural assumptions that have undergirded that work have disappeared along with Outland. The eruption of World War I and St. Peter's reaction to it allow us also to see how, despite the formally experimental nature of his history, he is still ideologically a traditional historian of the type described by Hayden White: "They continued to believe that if one eschewed ideology and remained true to the facts, history would produce a knowledge as certain as anything offered by the physical sciences and as objective as a mathematical exercise" ("Factual Representation" 125). St. Peter is still the scientific, the "objective" historian, who believes that he is positioned outside history, and because of that stance he is like those historians that White discusses who threw up their hands after the war and as much as admitted that "no explanation, at least on historical grounds, was possible" ("Burden" 36). "Historians have failed to find explanations to the war [sic] that correspond to the horrendous realities" (Eksteins 291), and like them, St. Peter is unable to make sense of the war or of Outland's death. He never finishes writing the introduction to Outland's diary, which to "mean anything . . . must be prefaced by a sketch of Outland, and some account of his later life and achievements" (171). If he were to "account" for Outland's later life, St. Peter could not maintain his position as "objective" historian, outside history. To write that narrative would have meant confronting the effects of Outland's invention on his family, effects that he deplores, and it would also mean confronting, among Outland's "achievements," his "death and glory" (41). To write about Outland enmeshed in contemporary history would be to come face-to-face with what Outland mourns in his quotation from the Aeneid: the destruction, by the European civilization that St. Peter idolizes, of a generation of young men, as well as the extermination of the pueblo dwellers. This earlier destruction, I would argue, is a displacement on Cather's part of the culturally destructive "adventures" of the Spanish explorers. She is pointing us toward a set of connections that St. Peter himself was incapable of making. Because of his romantic view of the Spanish explorers, St. Peter is blinded to their cultural destructiveness, and because of his enmeshment in the history of his time, he is unable to see parallels between what he loves, European civilization, and what seems utterly incapable of rational explanation--World War I. Cather seems to be suggesting, then, that the conquistadors and World War I, as cultural products, grew out of the same set of male assumptions about the world. Furthermore, she wants us to see that the male idyll is intimately connected to the destructive impulses of Western civilization, and she wants us in particular to question the relationship between the originary moment of St. Peter's text--in a womanless environment--and the subject of that text, the exploits of "adventurers."

For St. Peter, by contrast, World War I seems unconnected to anything before it, almost an irruption of the demonic. In one of the few direct references to World War I in the novel, he imagines it in apocalyptic terms: the war "in one great catastrophe, swept away all youth and all palms, and almost Time itself" (260). Revealingly, in revising the novel late in her life, Cather "excised" this passage "as being perhaps too emotional" (Lee 237). This "emotional" quality is almost like a bursting out of the repressed in St. Peter's life and in the novel. Cather's remark in the late 30s, that "[t]he world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts" (Not Under Forty v) is often quoted, and her experience of this cultural rupture may account for the power of The Professor's House. After World War I, it may be that "rather than being a social experience, a matter of documentable reality, history was individual nightmare, or even, as the Dadaists insisted, madness" (Eksteins 293). Modernism flees history, and Cather, incapable of making any significant sense of the war and its consequences, enacts in the novel the consequences of cultural rupture while she is repressing, in her portrayal of St. Peter, the origins of that rupture. She has (and St. Peter has), as Marianne DeKoven has argued of other modernist writers, "suppressed" history. She has turned "away from the devastating facts of modern history--a gesture of survival as well as denial--and [as a result] . . . [has] render[ed] those facts with greater power than direct representation would give" (DeKoven 151). This dynamic might help to explain the curious hollowness of Cather's direct representation of World War I in One of Ours, in which Claude Wheeler dies with no disillusion: "for him the call was clear, the cause was glorious. Never a doubt stained his bright faith. . . . He died believing his own country better than it is, and France better than any country could be" (458). His mother lives on to witness the post-war disillusionment of the survivors, but her son's experience of combat is very much in the mode of "adventure," and unconnected to the kinds of corroding ironies Paul Fussell explored in the Great War and Modern Memory. Unable to link the experience of combat with post-war disillusionment, Cather, in The Professor's House, has muffled the historical referent of World War I and connected that referent to a historian's consciousness of personal and historical loss, as represented by the absence of Outland and the absence of the First World War from the text. In doing so, she has produced a novel that forces us to experience history as "an unassimilable, subterranean dissonance, denying us any illusion of clarity, mastery, or resolution" (DeKoven 151).

This text is thus self-consciously more problematic than it has appeared to those, like Alice Petry, who want to read the conclusion of The Professor's House as overtly spiritual, as a transcendence of the historical rather than, as I have been arguing, an acknowledgment of historical necessity. Petry maintains that in the final pages of the novel St. Peter has achieved a state of spiritual quietism, that the "ending of the novel is . . . insistently affirmative" (30). Given Cather's emphasis on what St. Peter is now bereft of, I cannot see how the novel could be called affirmative in any sense but one. St. Peter now feels no "obligations toward his family" (281), and he realizes that probably he will have to live the rest of his life "without delight, without passionate griefs" (282) (and without adventure), but he does feel an instinctive "sense of obligation" (281) toward Augusta. St. Peter clings to minimal human connection through this woman, but he sees her as the "bloomless side of life that he had always run away from" (280). His conclusion in the last sentence of the novel that "he could face with fortitude . . . the future" (283), is a stoical resignation to the knowledge of diminishment, to a "bloomless" and slightly grim life.

As long as history is distanced and displaced into the romantic adventure of the conquistadors, St. Peter can maintain the stance of the formally innovative yet "objective" historian, standing outside history. When he must confront history closely and intimately, however, his abilities as a historian fail and his sensibility collapses. In the end, St. Peter exemplifies what Nietzsche warned of in "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life":

history can be borne only by strong personalities, weak ones are utterly extinguished by it. The reason is that history confuses the feelings and sensibility when those are not strong enough to assess the past by themselves. He who no longer dares to trust himself but involuntarily asks of history "How ought I to feel about this?" finds that . . . [g]radually all congruity between the man and his historical domain is lost. (86)

Just as much a victim of World War I as Outland, St. Peter is, by the concluding pages of the narrative, extinguished as a person and as a historian by the historical contradictions he can neither confront nor begin to interpret. In The Professor's House, then, Cather gives us a way of seeing how formally innovative histories can still remain contaminated by patriarchal and positivist assumptions. For her, the repression of St. Peter's sensibility and the collapse of his personality are secondary. For St. Peter (and to a lesser degree for Cather herself), the patriarchal violence of World War I results in a crisis of interpretation and representation, a crisis that is simultaneously experienced in his alienation from post-war culture, and in his alienation from society and his family. In the end, the novel presents us with a diminished St. Peter who, like the text, is unable to confront the facts of World War I and of modernity, and who broods beneath the monumental design of his history "without delight,"(4) having, ironically, been transformed by history into White's historian of repressed sensibility.(5)


1David Daiches' impatience with the novel is typical: "The full meaning of the professor's crisis and its resolution is never fully examined, and a note of deliberate mystery remains to the end" (101).

2Although Peter Novick quotes Fiske as having written that the "inferior" immigrants were "beaten men from beaten races" (81), I have been unable to substantiate this citation.

3St. Peter experiences the male idyll with Outland in the Southwest and in Mexico during the summers of 1912 and 1913. Their third summer together "in Paris . . . never came off: Outland was delayed by the formalities of securing his patent, and then came August, 1914" (259).

4His alienation is even more remarkable when one considers that he is about to become a grandfather. It's almost as if that were the nudge that pushes him over the brink, that deprives him of his desire to live when he is overcome with gas.

5This essay is dedicated to the memory of the late Richard Lautz, my mentor at La Salle College in the years 1968-1971, who first told me about a "heartbreaking" novel I'd never read, The Professor's House. I would also like to thank my colleague, Dr. Theodora Graham, for a helpful reading of an earlier draft of this essay.


Bannon, John Francis. The Spanish Borderlands Frontier: 1513-1821. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1970.

Berman, Milton. John Fiske: The Evolution of a Popularizer. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961.

Cather, Willa. Not Under Forty. 1936, New York: Vintage, 1953.

-----. One of Ours. 1922. New York: Knopf, 1986.

-----. The Professor's House. 1925. New York: Vintage, 1953.

Daiches, David. Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1951.

DeKoven, Marianne. "History as Suppressed Referent in Modernist Fiction." ELH 51 (1984): 137-52.

Eksteins, Modris. The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. New York: Anchor, 1989.

Fiske, John. The Discovery of America. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton, 1892.

Frost, Robert. "Education by Poetry." Selected Prose of Robert Frost. Ed. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Latham. New York: Collier, 1966. 33-46.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1989.

Michaels, Walter Benn. "The Vanishing American." American Literary History 2 (1990): 220-41.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life." Untimely Meditations. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. New York: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Petry, Alice Hall. "In the Name of the Self: Cather's The Professor's House." Colby Library Quarterly 22 (1987): 26-31.

Thomas, Susie. Willa Cather. Savage: Barnes and Noble, 1990.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage, 1983.

White, Hayden. "The Burden of History." Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978. 49-61.

-----. "Fictions of Factual Representation." Tropics 121-34.

-----. "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality." Critical Inquiry 7 (1980): 5-27.

Wilson is assistant professor of Humanities and Writing at Penn State Harrisburg. He has published essays on John Edgar Wideman, John Updike, and Philip Roth. Other essays are forthcoming in African American Review and English International.
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