I can't say that Willa Cather is one of my very favorite authors, but I do enjoy her writings. With this review, I
celebrate having completed all her novels. There is still one poetry collection I have not read, some short story collections, many of which contain duplicate
stories and some essays and non-fictional works. So basically, I am very close to completing her for her
Index Page, unless or until other materials come along.
I don't actually own the paper copy of this book. Way back when, as I was searching for her books, The University of Adelaide was the only source I found for the free digital version, but they shut down their digital library several years ago, sadly. In fact, Dover has only made it available since 2021, nearly 100 years since it was first published, in 1925. They now carry most of her novels, but I don't recommend buying them because eBooks are free elsewhere. I would NEVER pay for an eBook! In any case, the blurb Dover created for this book is helpful. Cather really doesn't specify its locality, other than being close to Lake Michigan and it seems fairly close to Chicago. Upon doing a bit of research, there actually is a Hamilton in Michigan in Heath Township, near the east shore of the Lake, but not really close to Chicago. Still, perhaps, Cather didn't just make that town up. They travelled there by train, so it probably didn't take that long. The story takes place during prohibition, and I looked that up for the dates, which were 1920-1933. I didn't realize it lasted that long. As far as I'm concerned, it should still be in effect. Also, it wasn't until the end that I understood Cather's purpose behind the story. Had I been more familiar with the 1920s. there would have been less confusion. Maybe. So this is a good blurb. Dover's paper edition, by the way is 160 pages, so it's not a very long book.
This bittersweet tale begins when the successful Professor Godfrey St. Peter and his wife move into a comfortable new house. On the eve of the move, Godfrey analyzes his life, family, and friends: his two daughters' marriages have removed them from the home, and the loss of his most outstanding student (and once son-in-law to be) leaves him feeling without purpose. His desire to stay in his old study and cling to what used to be sparks deep introspection in a story that explores a mid-life crisis and family life in a 1920s Midwestern college town.
Luckily, the ever-expanding
Project Gutenberg now has this
book available for free, as always. Other good sources to check are Internet Archive and Faded Page. More and more free digital editions—there are millions
of them, really—become available every day, it seems. Download what you want and save on flash drives. I have probably 5-6 hundred on two different drives,
including an index with links to the source of each book, in case anything gets lost and so I can share it when I write my reviews. Anyways, here is the
page for this book. It contains spoilers, so read the book first. There are some interesting points to ponder, but I don't agree with all
of them. Still, this is one of those books that has no conclusion, and can be interpreted many ways.
And now, a bit about the story. It is made up of three sections: "The Family," which is by far the longest, and supplies background and present information about Professor Godfrey St. Peter; his wife, Lillian; their daughter Rosamond and her husband Louie Marsellus; and their younger daughter Kathleen and her husband, Scott McGregor, and a bit about their old German seamstress, Augusta. In addition, there are other characters connected with the university, plus the landlord of the original house, uncle of Augusta. But the really central figure in all of it is Tom Outland, killed in the war, but whose presence within the St. Peter family was one of the greatest influences for the direction the story goes. The middle section is from the story he tells St. Peter one evening. The final section, "The Professor," is very short, and winds up the entire novel in a rather jolting manner, so that we finally understand where the opening section is headed. I will say nothing more about that so I don't give it away.
As with many female writers of earlier times—for instance Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett come readily to mind—the action moves very slowly, and is not compelling as a Dickens or even Jane Austin novel, for that matter. I've noticed with most of Cather's books that they don't become that interesting until over half-way through, but looking back, I can see the importance of the beginning material. Indeed, the most exciting part in this one is "Tom Outland's Story," but it is the final few chapters that get one flying through the pages.
The other thing that had left me confused was whether or not anything in this story is historical. Cather did write historical novels and my two favorites, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock are definitely so. Others are semi-historical, such as what is known as the "Prairie Novels"—an account of early settlers in the Midwest, but not technically historical novels. The "Tom Outland" section takes place in New Mexico and is about finding a lost cliff dwelling of an ancient civilization. I was first made aware of these structures not too long ago in the book The Popol Vuh, although that one is in Colorado. So I did some research and came up with some interesting stuff. According to this article, it indeed is a particular dwelling in which Cather has built her story. This is a very detailed article concerning Willa Cather's personal connection to Cliff City, and the people who discovered it. So, it is semi-historical. The facts exist, but Cather's story is still fiction.
Willa Cather's Mesa Verde Myth
Here she is while visiting it in 1915, followed by a map showing cliff dwellings throughout New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.
I know this is really not the main theme of the novel, but Cather has made it an important sub-theme, in fact she
wrote it before the other two sections Plus, it is my habit to learn everything I can from each book I read, So therefore, here is more info. Goodness! What amazing structures.
Puye Cliff Dwellings
The Gila Cliff Dwellings
Below is a picture of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in the Arizona-New Mexico Mountains ecoregion.
And here is a Wikipedia article on the
Mesa Verde National Park in the Four Corners area of Colorado. Archaeologists have traced the earliest civilizations who dwelled, or at least crossed the
area to 7500 BCE. Wow! I find that interesting! Here are more gorgeous photos and info from
The Archaeological Conservancy And last here is the
Google search page for images. As you can see, I LOVE investigating things like this!!
OK, enough of that, and back to the business at hand. Now that I've presented some preliminary material, let me continue with a rough summary. Because the story moves so slowly, I will just comment on the major themes and events.
As mentioned above, the novel is a bit confusing until enough facts are established for us to understand the story's foundations. The very first chapter is the longest in the first section, because it establishes those facts. Professor St. Peter, in his fifties, has been working on his life passion for years—an eight-volume history of the Spanish Adventurers. Little interest was found when he began the project, but with the last two volumes, he won the "Oxford prize for history, with its five thousand pounds, which had built him the new house into which he did not want to move." That sentence is the heart of the story.
Lillian has already moved into the new house, where the professor has a nice study. Augusta for all these years has shared her attic sewing room with the professor's study. The house, owned by Augusta's uncle is about as ugly and uncomfortable as possible. But it was here that St. Peter raised his family and in the little attic study, where he wrote his worthy history. We also learn a bit about St. Peter's background, his marriage and his family, and as the book unfolds, we continue to gain a clearer picture of the situation. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about the house is the beautiful French garden he has painstakingly built over 20 years.
On this morning, Augusta arrives to remove her sewing items, particularly the naked mannequin "busts" which were a point of humor between her and St. Peter. She is surprised to see him working there, as the rest of the house is empty. She comments that they can move together, but he says he's not moving. Yet. He still needs to finish his work, and won't let her removed her "ladies." She thinks he's kidding. He is being humorous, but he's not kidding. Why will he not leave? That question pervades the novel, although it is just in the back of our minds. He tells Augusta he will pay the whole year's rent to remain there, but she's not sure her uncle will agree.
And so the novel moves along, and we hear about Tom Outland, one of St. Peter's former students, who became his close friend. We learn about his daughters and their husbands. Kathleen's husband, Scott, is a journalist—quiet and not that ambitious, who harbors a distinct dislike towards Rosamond's husband, Louie. In fact, as the story progresses, the dislike extends to the sisters, who were once very close. Everything has changed. Lillian seems to have transferred her affections to her sons-in-law. And as for St. Peter? He dares not face what is going on within him because it would disturb his tranquility, his routine, his whole life. But it is and it does, whether he chooses to face it or not.
We gradually learn much more about Tom Outland. He showed up at the St. Peters residence a poor, uneducated tramp, but turned out to be a genius, going to college and inventing something called the "Outland Vacuum" which I guess had to do with flight. It is when Louie announces that their new, luxurious home will be named after him that there are some explosions. He had been Rosamond's fiancé and left all he owned to her in his will when he went off to war, expecting to return. Rosamond married Louie too soon after his death, and it was her husband that exploited the invention, making them very rich and arrogant. It was another professor, Dr. Crane, who had worked hand-in-hand with Outland, and after his death, developed his invention. He was sickly and quite poor, and really needed money, but got nothing. There is a great deal of resentment from many people towards Rosamond and Louie.
These are the themes that continue to develop throughout the first section. The second section relates the story Tom told St. Peter, of his life out west as a cowboy. He was an orphan, his parents both dying as they attempted to relocate out west, and his discovery of the Cliff City. He had a close friend, Roddy Blake, who discovered it with him, and who sold it out to a foreigner when Tom had travelled all the way to Washington D.C. to interest the Smithsonian. These chapters are the best in the book, and paint a horrible picture of the (ongoing) self-absorption of government employees, and that part is actually based on true, although as the article I have linked above states, she greatly exaggerated it. HA! If she were alive now, it would be considered mild compared to the current greed, corruption, evasion, avoidance and lies that emanate from that city here in 2023. Since I have not yet included my usual quotes, here are some from Chapter VI of "Tom Outland's Story" relating his experience in D.C..
At last the Commissioner returned, but he had pressing engagements, and I hung around several days more before he would see me. After questioning me for about half an hour, he told me that his business was with living Indians, not dead ones, and that his office should have informed me of that in the beginning. He advised me to go back to our Congressman and get a letter to the Smithsonian Institution. I packed up my pottery and got out of the place, feeling pretty sore. The head clerk followed me down the corridor and asked me what I'd take for that little bowl he'd taken a fancy to. He said it had no market value, I'd find Washington full of such things; there were cases of them in the cellar at the Smithsonian that they'd never taken the trouble to unpack, hadn't any place to put them.
I went back to my Congressman. This time he wasn't so friendly as before, but he gave me a letter to the Smithsonian. There I went through the same experience. The Director couldn't be seen except by appointment, and his secretary had to be convinced that your business was important before he would give you an appointment with his chief. After the first morning I found it difficult to see even the secretary. He was always engaged. I was told to take a seat and wait, but when he was disengaged he was hurrying off to luncheon. I would sit there all morning with a group of unfortunate people: girls who wanted to get type-writing to do, nice polite old men who wanted to be taken out on surveys and expeditions next summer. The secretary would at last come out with his overcoat on, and would hurry through the waiting-room reading a letter or a report, without looking up.
And a bit later.
I had been in Washington twenty-two days when I took the secretary out to lunch. It was an excellent lunch. We had a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem. I'd never heard of such a wine before, but I remember it because it cost five dollars. I drank only one glass, and that pleased him too, for he drank the rest. Though he was friendly and talked a great deal, my heart sank lower, for he wouldn't let me explain my mission to him at all. He kept telling me that he knew all about the South-west. He had been sent by the Smithsonian to conduct parties of European archæologists through all the show places, Frijoles and Canyon de Chelly, and Taos and the Hopi pueblos. When some Austrian Archduke had gone to hunt in the Pecos range, he had been sent by his chief and the German ambassador to manage the tour, and he had done it with such success that both he and the Director were given decorations from the Austrian Crown, in recognition of his services. Then I had to listen to a long story about how well he was treated by the Archduke when he went to Vienna with his chief the following summer. I had to hear about balls and receptions, and the names and titles of all the people he had met at the Duke's country estate. I was amazed and ashamed that a man of fifty, a man of the world, a scholar with ever so many degrees, should find it worth his while to show off before a boy, and a boy of such humble pretensions, who didn't know how to eat the hors d'œuvres any more than if an assortment of cocoanuts had been set before him with no hammer.
Imagine my astonishment when, as he was drinking his liqueur, he said carelessly: "By the way, I was successful in arranging an interview with the Director for you. He will see you at four o'clock on Monday."
And all comes to nothing because it's all about the personal ambitions of government employees.
I got my interview with the Director of the Smithsonian at last. He gave me his attention, he was interested. He told me to come again in three days and meet Dr. Ripley, who was the authority on prehistoric Indian remains and had excavated a lot of them. Then came an exciting and rather encouraging time for me. Dr. Ripley asked the right sort of questions, and evidently knew his business. He said he'd like to take the first train down to my mesa. But it required money to excavate, and he had none. There was a bill up before Congress for an appropriation. We'd have to wait. I must use my influence with my Representative. He took my pottery to study it. (I never got it back, by the way.) There was a Dr. Fox, connected with the Smithsonian, who was also interested. They told me a good many things I wanted to know, and kept me dangling about the office. Of course they were very kind to take so much trouble with a green boy. But I soon found that the Director and all his staff had one interest which dwarfed every other. There was to be an International Exposition of some sort in Europe the following summer, and they were all pulling strings to get appointed on juries or sent to international congresses—appointments that would pay their expenses abroad, and give them a salary in addition. There was, indeed, a bill before Congress for appropriations for the Smithsonian; but there was also a bill for Exposition appropriations, and that was the one they were really pushing. They kept me hanging on through March and April, but in the end it came to nothing. Dr. Ripley told me he was sorry, but the sum Congress had allowed the Smithsonian wouldn't cover an expedition to the South-west.
And that's all I will say, and there is plenty more to this story than what I have related. If you are a fan of Willa Cather, or are familiar with her writings, please do read this. If not, I recommend becoming acquainted with her by reading O Pioneers!, the first of her three famous "Prairie Novels."
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