It’s not only re-reading Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House at the same time as reading the final volumes of Proust’s novel that brings the one into proximity of the other. It is also passages like the following:
To this day St. Peter regretted that he had never got that vacation in Paris with Tom Outland. He had wanted to revisit certain spots with him: to go with him some autumn morning to the Luxembourg Gardens, when the yellow horse-chestnuts were bright and bitter after rain; to stand with him before the monument to Delacroix and watch the sun gleam on the bronze figures–Time, bearing away the youth who was struggling to snatch his palm–or was it to lay a palm? Not that it mattered. It might have mattered to Tom, had not chance, in one great catastrophe, swept away all youth and all palms, and almost Time itself.
Or, later in it:
The Professor knew, of course, that adolescence grafted a new creature into the original one, and that the complexion of a man’s life was largely determined by how well or ill his original self and his nature as modified by sex rubbed on together.
What he had not know was that, at a given time, that first nature could return to a man, unchanged by all the pursuits and passions and experiences of his life; untouched even by the tastes and intellectual activities which have been strong enough to give him distinction among his fellows and to have made for him, as they say, a name in the world. Perhaps this reversion did not often occur, but he knew it had happened to him, and he suspected it had happened to his grandfather. He did not regret his life, but he was indifferent to it. It seemed to him like the life of another person.
Like Proust’s, Cather’s novel wants to capture and meditate on lost time. However, unlike in her other great novels where a private experience of time and a sense of historical time pollinate one another, in The Professor’s House Cather is preoccupied with private time and private memories as they assert themselves over, and quietly fall out of contact with, the public and historical. Whatever the history of Tom Outland’s Mesa, it is significant for St. Peter as Tom Outland’s Mesa.
Even the names participate in the design: despite a surname evoking the first Bishop of the Church of Rome, the Rock upon which it is built, Godfrey St. Peter is indifferent to religion or else atheistical; he has suppressed his original first name, Napoleon, in a further turn from the ambitiously Historical self-image of the nineteenth century in which he was born; he is served, by a longtime maid, Augusta, whose name echoes Augustus’ whose Roman Imperium set the foundation for the Church; his son in law, Louis Marsellus, who might be Jewish, bears a name that echoes that of the Emperor Augustus’ closest male relative, Marcellus. But we are supposed to feel not the charge of historical meaning, but its absence, or the mockery such a charge could inspire.
But Cather’s imagination works out the work of Time quite differently from Proust’s, presents, as it were, an idea of the experience and effects of Time that, compatible with Proust’s, is quite distinct. For Cather, a life’s continuity, and the continuity also of private and public time, the time of a nation and the time of a single life, is inseparable from the discovery and formation of property. Property, that is, is not a given, a notion, but is instead, in Cather’s novels, the consequence of personhood, and the consequence of relations between peoples. It is, like time itself, a fundamental concept by which life can think and know itself, providing a life with identity, unity, dimension.
Lionel Trilling in a ungenerous and patronizing review essay of Willa Cather, published in The New Republic, makes the wrong thing of the place of property, and the property of place, in The Professor’s House:
Indeed, “making the most of things” becomes even more important to Miss Cather than the eternal striving of art. For, she implies, in our civilization even the best ideals are bound to corruption. “The Professor’s House” is the novel in which she brings the failure of the pioneer spirit into the wider field of American life. Lame as it is, it epitomizes as well as any novel of our time the disgust with life which so many sensitive Americans feel, which makes them dream of their pre-adolescent integration and innocent community with nature, speculate on the “release from effort” and the “eternal solitude” of death, and eventually reconcile themselves to a life “without delight.” Three stories of betrayal are interwoven in this novel: the success of Professor St. Peter’s history of the Spanish explorers which tears him away from the frontier of his uncomfortable and ugly old study to set him up in an elegant but stifling new home; the sale to a foreign collector of the dead Tom Outland’s Indian relics which had made his spiritual heritage; and the commercialization of Outland’s scientific discovery with its subsequent corruption of the Professor’s charming family. With all of life contaminated by the rotting of admirable desires, only Augusta, the unquesting and unquestioning German Catholic seamstress, stands secure and sound.
It’s easy–too easy–to claim a novel indicts corruption, the failures of civilization. Reading Trilling, despite his conspicuously extraordinary intelligence, it is possible to trace most of the stultifying claims for literature that are peddled in mediocre high school classrooms. It’s not that Trilling’s description of Cather’s novel lacks eloquence or is wrong in its terms; it is that it is incomplete, disproportionate, and, as often in Trilling, it decides too soon to approach a novel as a treatment of ideas, rather than a discovery of them. It refuses to literature its right to being provisional. Cather is not–that is–endorsing the Professor’s view; she does not purport to present a final or entire picture.
But Trilling is a great reader, and he is worth arguing against: the three betrayals to which he points are all, he recognizes, commercial. They are also, as commercialism implies, matters of property. It’s too easy to elide the distinction, to forget how differently each of the three betrayals represents a knot of disputes and redefinitions of property that cannot and will not be settled. Nor does Cather suppose such disputes and contestations of meaning to be distinctly modern, a sign of failing civilization; they are there in Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock too. They are not just the stuff of history, but they what makes history itself suitable for a novelist–providing the points of intersection with the private, with the bodily, with the habitual and the felt.
Trilling’s essay is a response to Cather’s own 1922 essay, “The Novel Démeuble” “in which,” Trilling explains, “she pleaded for a movement to throw the “furniture” out of the novel—to get rid, that is, of all the social facts that Balzac and other realists had felt to be so necessary for the understanding of modern character. “Are the banking system and the Stock Exchange worth being written about at all?” Miss Cather asked, and she replied that they were not. Among the things which had no “proper place in imaginative art”—because they cluttered the scene and prevented the free play of the emotions—Miss Cather spoke of the factory and the whole realm of “physical sensations.”” He recognizes that she does include objects in her novel, and he is even strangely unperturbed by how what he calls Cather’s “mystical concern with pots and pans” that he feels to be at one with “the gaudy domesticity of bourgeois accumulation glorified in The Woman’s Home Companion” does not square with Cather’s statements as he understands them in her 1922 essay. He concludes that Cather’s novels are, for the most part, unsuccessful, as a consequence of her artistic intentions (he also sniffs at the lack of dramatic–by which he means erotic–situations between men and women, seeming to miss how much erotic attraction there is between the men in her books): “The novel has been démeublé indeed; but life without its furniture is strangely bare.”
Granting that Cather’s own views may have developed or altered, it is somewhat shocking to hear her disparage furniture, given its vivid, actually living and active, presence in her best novels, from A Lost Lady to Death Comes. But then it also somewhat shocking to find Trilling complaining about its absence for the very same reason. Whatever Cather is doing with objects and things in those novels, it is evidently not “furniture” as she understood the word in 1922; and whatever she is doing with objects and things in those novels, it is also not what Trilling wants furniture to be; that stuff, for him, are only so many “pots and pans” to which she attends with a kitschy “mystical concern.”
When you read all of Trilling’s essay, and find, between the bookend claims about the novel without furniture, an argument about Cather’s desire for a more innocent life, integrated with the environment, instilled with a nostalgic frontier ethos, it becomes evident that Trilling thought that Cather was dispensing not with objects, but with what the specific sorts of entity that she alludes to in Balzac, the stock exchange and the banking system; and Trilling, I suspect, takes this to mean that Cather is dispensing with symbols of modern civilization and modernity more generally, that she is failing to move her art into the twentieth century, retreating to the past because (so he thinks) the twentieth century is hopelessly corrupt. Hence his final verdict.
Cather, it is apparently, means by “furniture” something quite different from what Trilling does. Both the essay and the novels suggest that she does. In the former, she contrasts Balzac with Tolstoy, the latter also devoted to the depiction of material objects:
Tolstoi was almost as great a lover of material things as Balzac, almost as much interested in the way dishes were cooked, and people were dressed, and houses were furnished. But there is this determining difference; the clothes, the dishes, the moving, haunting interiors of those old Moscow houses, are always so much a part of the emotions of the people that they are perfectly synthesized; they seem to exist, not so much in the author’s mind, as in the emotional penumbra of the characters themselves. When it is fused like this, literalness ceases to be literalness—it is merely part of the experience.
In her novels, though, a more positive notion what the right depiction of material objects, for her realist vision, might be, and what the “furniture” she disparages is not.
The novels are about how objects become a “part of experience”: by being transformed into property. “Furniture,” in contrast, is property that is not a “part of experience,” that is not genuinely possessed. “Furniture” is what we see in The Professor’s House when the St. Peter’s daughter Rosalind travels with her father to Chicago on a shopping spree; it is what the Professor, and Cather, dislike. Not at random does Cather select The Stock Exchange and the Banking System as instances of “furniture” in Balzac. Though not objects, they are represent holdings of value that must be, by their nature, always at a remove from individual experience, incapable of possession and the self.
What Cather objects to, then, is a certain assumption about property that is characteristic of the realist novel, perhaps an essence of the realist novel if we trace it to Defoe. The problem is that such an assumption, or acceptance, of what counts as property, as “mine and yours,” hinders the novelist from representing the development of a person in time, prevents them from exploring how identity is constituted by bodies in the world, in habit and in routine, in ritual and in labor, and from situation personal experience within historical experience, where the private need to give, to pass on, or to sell objects finds satisfaction and frustration within the conditions of law, violence, conquest, religious sanction, and stress of the environment that surround an individual.
The history of North America, as historian Allan Greer, has recently argued, coincides with a history of property itself, as a concept and norm; the conflicts within North America, Greer writes, were not only conflicts over property, but conflicts over what property is–and over what, in the formulation devised by anthropologist Maurice Godelier in his rehabilitation of Mauss’ The Gift, exists to be sold, what exists to be given, and what exists to be passed on. Cather wanted, and achieved, a realism that granted property its full reality, and that granted reality the depth that comes in part because of a common human propensity to give, pass on, and sell, which takes many forms.
Hegel does not need to be taken to mean only a bourgeois conception of property–a narrowly historical conception of property–when he writes of the concept (Philosophy of Right, 45):
But I as free will am an object to myself in what I possess and thereby also for the first time am an actual will, and this is the aspect which constitutes the determination of property, the true and rightful factor in possession. If emphasis is placed on my needs, then the possession of property appears as a means to their satisfaction, but the true position is that, from the standpoint of freedom, property is the first existence of freedom and so in itself a substantial end.
And Tom Outland means nothing simple by “possession” when he narrates what it meant for him to be on the mesa:
I remember those things, because, in a sense, that was the first night I was ever really on the mesa at all–the first night that all of me was there. This was the first time I ever saw it as a whole. It all came together in my understanding, as a series of experiments do when you begin to see where they are leading. Something had happened in me that made it possible for me to co-ordinate and simplify, and that process, going on in my mind, brought with it great happiness. 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. It had formerly been mixed up with other motives; but now that they were gone, I had my happiness unalloyed.
Virgil resides in Cather’s words here, as Outland takes possession of what the Roman poet meant when he wrote of filial piety: the devotion to the household gods that must be kept passed on, that cannot be given or sold, but that here, we learn, can be–not made–but determined by a particular stance towards the world. Outland has, whether the epiphany can last, whether it is entirely convincing, discovered a sort of property for himself, without conquest or violence, without law. Recognizing, as he does, possession as a state, property as an event, Outland does not insist on its permanence; it is instead an arrangement of self and world, a hard-won reconciliation, now encountered, soon lost.