End Notes: The Professor’s House

When Liz Christman mentioned that she was reading Lucy Grayheart, I had to think a moment before I identified it as a Willa Cather novel. Liz went on about how much she was enjoying it and we all listened. No one else at our well-read table had read the novel. In a group made up to Tom Stritch, Ron and Pat Weber, Dave and Lou Solomon, Marvin O’Connell, and my omniverous wife, this does not often happen.

The conversation swung away from the novel and went on to the monkey business of the night. It was someone’s birthday and we punish longevity with doggerel, songs, and, in the case of Stritch, lengthy recitation. Is there anyone else who can recite “The Road to Mandalay” in its entirety?

The next morning, I wandered into the back room where my eye alighted on the two volume set of Willa Lather in the Library of America edition. I opened the second volume to Lucy Grayheart. It was the following day that I put it down. It is a wonderful novel, a period piece, but timeless.

While I was at it, I went on to The Professor’s House. I had read this before. Little did I think that I would shortly be living at least the beginning of the story. The hero of the novel has built a house with the proceeds of a work he wrote in the rented house where he raised his family. After the move, he finds he cannot work in the optimum surroundings of the new house, and he rents the attic of the old house so he can go on writing.

 

After thirty-three years in the house in which I write, we will move in a few days to a spanking new place where I will have a dream study in which I fear I will be unable to work. For decades I have worked in the what we called in the description of the house a “traditional basement.” This is no “lower level.” Here I have been serenaded by the roar of the furnace, the sound of washer and dryer, the hot water being taxed to the limit.

Only as I prepare to leave do I realize what comfortable squalor I have worked in all these years. All my books but the first, a demanding but true book on analogy, were written here, but I did do another book on analogy here, Aquinas and Analogy, in better bookstores everywhere. And it is here that I began to write fiction.

When we bought this house, the price, so risibly low as it now seems, was beyond us, so I borrowed twice to get us into it. Facing the prospect of double mortgage payments for five years, I decided to do something about it. To dig I was unable, to beg I was ashamed. I taught all day and wanted evenings with my family. What to do? As a Marine in Los Angeles I had read a proptreptic writers’ magazine that emphasized the fortune to be made producing fiction. I went down to the basement, put my typewriter on the workbench, and began. God only knows how many stories and novels and mysteries have been written there. I added bookshelves and an easy chair, the area was carpeted, more bookshelves were added. Eventually, computers replaced typewriters.

But it is the rest of the house that haunts me most, and the acre and a half that Connie turned into a garden. I can stand in the upstairs hallway and half expect my children to emerge from those bedrooms, although in recent years the knee-high people have been grandchildren. This house has been the scene of so much of our lives—the kids going off to school, graduations, jobs to other cities. And three of my daughters were married from this house.

As I write, the rooms are filled with pasteboard cartons. All my books are boxed. The kitchen cupboards are all but bare. I am alone here for the nonce. I hear voices, remember fun and the sadness. So many things that are as present to me now belong to long ago. It occurs to me that I am old. I begin to feel somewhat posthumous.

Forgive me for being so personal. The deadline for the column has arrived and my plan to write about St. Malachy’s prophesy about the papacy, and the medallions high above the nave in St. Paul’s outside the walls, has gone a glimmering. It was to be a thoughtful, well- wrought piece, verging on the wise. But in the event, writing where I am, my subject chose me. Soon I will be in the hands of the movers. But we will still be spun on our way by the Prime Mover, and I will take my consolation from that.

Ralph McInerny

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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