I belong to a book club. The members chose The Professor’s House by Willa Cather as our book for December. Tonight I put down the book I was reading and began this one. It opens with a university professor named Godfrey St. Peter, walking around the house he rented the past 20 years. From page one:
It was almost as ugly as it is possible for a house to be; square, three stories in height, painted the colour of ashes—the front porch just too narrow for comfort, with a slanting floor and sagging steps. As he walked slowly about the empty, echoing rooms on that bright September morning, the Professor regarded thoughtfully the needless inconveniences he had put up with for so long; the stairs that were too steep, the halls that were too cramped, the awkward oak mantles with thick round posts crowned by bumptious wooden balls, over green-tiled fire-places.
Oh, the needless inconveniences he suffered. And then on page 12, the professor throws a hissy fit over something that has nothing to do with his work: writing a history of the Spanish Conquistadors. He shares his home office with a sewing-woman, who’s the niece of his landlord, and she comes in to remove the dress forms she kept in the room. She asks the professor to hold the door open for her and he says,
“No, I won’t! Not at all. You don’t need her to make curtains. I can’t have this room changed if I’m going to work here. He (the grocery boy waiting downstairs with his cart) can take the sewing-machine–yes. But put her (one of the dress forms) back on the chest where she belongs, please. She does very well there.” St. Peter had got to the door, and stood with his back against it.
Can you imagine David McCullough, Herodotus, or any other writer of history acting like such a prima donna? From the dust jacket blurb and from what I’ve read online, the title character of The Professor’s House becomes even more self-involved as the story progresses. And in the end, doesn’t experience an epiphany that he’s been an ass to his wife and children.
So I put down The Professor’s House and went back to reading James Michener’s Chesapeake, in which no one—despite starvation, disease, war, being burned at the stake, toiling in the fields, religious persecution, taxation without representation, bigotry, slavery or any inconveniences—throws a hissy fit. Instead they get on with building or rebuilding their life, which no one does in The Professor’s House.