The Professor’s Commencement by Willa Cather

The Professor's Commencement by Willa Cather

Up this month for the Willa Cather Short Story Project is “The Professor’s Commencement.” As mentioned in the reminder post, it was published in New England Magazine in 1902 when Cather was in her early years as a high school teacher.

Here’s the link to read it on the Willa Cather Archive:

High school professor

“The Professor’s Commencement” is about Emerson, a high school English professor who is retiring after thirty years. He lives with his widowed sister, Agatha Graves, and has been working on a book for years that he realizes he may never finish. I couldn’t help but wonder if Cather was thinking about what her life could be like if she chose to live out her life as a high school teacher.

Emerson teaches at the same high school from which he graduated. He flubbed his commencement recitation all those years ago and his sister thinks his retirement dinner is a good time and place to revisit and heal that old mistake. It does not go well.

War to protect youth

The Professor feels like he has fought a decades-long war, battling to allow his students their youth and to instill in them a sense of truth and beauty before they are ingested into the industrial grind of Pittsburgh. Beyond the classroom window is the grime and noise of industrialization. At times, the noise from outside overwhelms, canceling out the voices of the students as they read or recite beautiful passages. Inside the school are the same dusty old subjects that teachers teach year after year to vibrant young people who wait for the bell so they can burst out of the building.

Emerson reflects that perhaps he has wasted his life. He looks at his colleagues whom he judges as thinking themselves youthful because they are surrounded by youth. A mistake the professor thinks he himself may have made. Now that Emerson will not be surrounded by youth, he realizes his age. He is only 55, but seems much older.

An overabundance of literary and artistic references and allusions make “The Professor’s Commencement” a bit of a chore to read. Although it was fun to see Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face” make an appearance.

The other professor

I couldn’t help thinking of Cather’s 1925 novel, The Professor’s House, a story about another professor nearing the end of his career who finds himself unhappy. Both professors also lose their favorite students. I imagine there are more comparisons to make, but it has been some years since I last read The Professor’s House. I do wonder if either man is seeing himself and his life through distorted lenses.

Have you read “The Professor’s Commencement” by Willa Cather? What did you think? What are your thoughts about the title?

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