Response to “Tom Outland’s Story.” The Willa Cather Short Story Project

Have you read “Tom Outland’s Story” this month? I’ve had a busy and somewhat tiring month and just got around to re-reading it this evening (at sunset, as captured in the photo above).

As I mentioned in the reminder post, this story is actually part of Willa Cather’s novel, The Professor’s House. It is in many ways the heart of that novel, but it also holds its own as a short story.

You can really see the development of Cather’s style and her growth as a writer from last month’s story, “The Enchanted Bluff,” published in 1909, to this story which was published in 1925.

I’ve read Tom’s story several times and always admire Cather’s skill at taking the reader along into the landscapes in which she places her characters. I can feel the dusty town of Pardee, the cool depths of the mesa’s canyons, and the wide open grazing lands.

One of my favorite descriptions is when the foreman takes Tom to the winter camp:

“The cabin stood in a little grove of piñons, about thirty yards back from the Cruzados river, facing south and sheltered on the north by a low hill. The grama grass grew right up to the door-step, and the rabbits were running about and the grasshoppers hitting the door when we pulled up and looked at the place. There was no litter around, it was as clean as a prairie-dog’s house.”

I love the hominess of this description and what the narrator observes and chooses to share. The protected setting of the cabin, the flora and fauna, and the fact that the prior inhabitants left the place tidy, which is something Tom finds again in Cliff City.

The alliteration is also pleasing: grama grass grew, rabbits running, and grasshoppers hitting. I know this story is set in New Mexico, but the biggest grasshoppers I’ve ever seen are in Nebraska. I can hear the sound they make when they hit up against something that’s man made, like a door. It’s a detail that makes the scene both specific and timeless.

At the end of the story when he’s apparently lost so much — the artifacts, Mother Eve, and his best friend — he feels like he’s really seeing the Mesa for the first time. As a whole. He says, “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.” I’m curious about what you think of this. Does Tom possess the Mesa or does it posses him?

One last question, and it’s a biggy. Some of the rising questions in Cather Studies are those concerning issues of race. What do you think of Cather’s representation of Tom and his interaction with the Native American ruins and remains he “discovered”? Can Tom be considered a colonizer?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions or whatever most resonates with you about this story — please leave a comment below.

Event notice: This year’s Brandeis Novel Symposium is going virtual and the novel under discuss is The Professor’s House. November 6, 2020. For more information and to register CLICK HERE.

One comment

  1. I have not read The Professor’s House yet so this was like reading a brand new short story to me. The beautiful descriptions of the setting reminded me alot of Death Comes for The Archbishop, which is my favorite Cather novel of the ones I’ve read so far.

    I think the Mesa possesses Tom at the end. From the beginning of the story he has such reverence for the Cliff City and the people who lived there. It felt like a deep spiritual reverence to me. He ended up regretting going to Washington once he recognized that no one there had the same desire to preserve, study and understand the people who had lived there. I think he wished he would have listened to his very first reaction upon seeing the cliff city, “As I stood looking up at it, I wondered whether I ought to tell even Blake about it; whether I ought not to go back across the river and keep that secret as the mesa had kept it.” (p.434).

    The ending of the story was heartbreaking to me. Tom lost his friend forever. Rodney did what he did out of love for Tom, and did not recognize that selling the artifacts was something that would be horrifying to Tom. The story did make me reflect on how many sacred places have been lost for purely materialistic purposes. I also think Cather’s story was an intimate and sobering example of the destructiveness of colonization. It seemed ironic to me that during Tom’s last month at the Cliff City and cabin he was reading and studying the Aeneid. So much to think about!

    Thank you for mentioning the Brandeis Novel Symposium. I signed up for it and look forward to reading The Professor’s House in full.

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