Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Source: Purchased: ebook
Willa Cather's 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative of the making of a young American soldier
Claude Wheeler, the sensitive, aspiring protagonist of this beautifully modulated novel, resembles the youngest son of a peculiarly American fairy tale. His fortune is ready-made for him, but he refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his crass father and pious mother, all but rejected by a wife who reserves her ardor for missionary work, and dissatisfied with farming, Claude is an idealist without an ideal to cling to. It is only when his country enters the First World War that Claude finds what he has been searching for all his life.
In One of Ours Willa Cather explores the destiny of a grandchild of the pioneers, a young Nebraskan whose yearnings impel him toward a frontier bloodier and more distant than the one that vanished before his birth. In doing so, she creates a canny and extraordinarily vital portrait of an American psyche at once skeptical and romantic, restless and heroic.
I love Willa Cather – I was born in Nebraska, and her books really resonate with me.
I don’t think that One of Ours will end up a Cather favorite, but I am really enjoying it. I’ve read a fair amount of reviews that say that the section set in Nebraska that describes the experience of an American farmer viewing the war from a distance is the best part of the book, and so far, I would certainly agree that it is outstanding. She describes the early 20th century farm experience masterfully, and, as reader, I really admired the way that she brought the news of the war into the story as something that emotionally impacted the characters without affecting them in any substantive way.
Claude Wheeler, the main character, is based on her cousin, G.P. Cather, who died in 1918 in Cantigny France. This is a 1916 photograph of a group of young Nebraskan men who fought. Cather is the young man behind the sign that says 1916.
One afternoon in the first week of September Mrs. Wheeler was in the kitchen making cucumber pickles, when she heard Claude’s car coming back from Frankfort. In a moment he entered, letting the screen door slam behind him, and threw a bundle of mail on the table. “What do you, think, Mother? The French have moved the seat of government to Bordeaux!
I really love the juxtaposition here of Mrs. Wheeler making cucumber pickles with the news about the war. It is so remote, and homely, and illustrates how life goes on, even in wartime, in the places that are distant from the war. All during WWI, women must have made pickles, which seems sort of crazy from where I sit, looking backwards, like the entire world should have stopped for that four years, and just watched, holding their breath, what was happening in France and the other war fronts.
Claude joins the military in order to escape from Nebraska, and from a terribly failed marriage. He is a young man who spends most of the beginning sections of the book in the midst of a great existential crisis. He doesn’t fit in with the people around him. He has doubts about Christianity, he is an intellectual who doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to participate in intellectual life or debate. Briefly, while he is in college in Lincoln, he begins to blossom into someone with greater self-confidence and becomes more comfortable with who he is and the doubts that he has.
Now he dismissed all Christian theology as something too full of evasions and sophistries to be reasoned about. The men who made it, he felt sure, were like the men who taught it. The noblest could be damned, according to their theory, while almost any mean-spirited parasite could be saved by faith.
Perhaps I identified with this aspect of Claude’s personality because THIS is the very struggle that I experience when I think about Christianity.
Returning home to the farm, Claude falls in love with Enid, a childhood friend and girl from a neighboring farm, and persuades her to marry him although she is deeply religious and wants to go to China as a missionary. In another time, Enid probably would not have married. In this time, she appears to have married him not because she loves him and wants to build a life with him but because he is her mission – she is to bring him back to God. It’s the worst sort of self-abnegation on her part because she is going to fail, and they are both going to be miserable.
In the depths of this lassitude the thought of Enid would start up like a sweet, burning pain, and he would drift out into the darkness upon sensations he could neither prevent nor control. So long as he could plough, pitch hay, or break his back in the wheatfield, he had been master; but now he was overtaken by himself. Enid was meant for him and she had come for him; he would never let her go. She should never know how much he longed for her. She would be slow to feel even a little of what he was feeling; he knew that. It would take a long while. But he would be infinitely patient, infinitely tender of her. It should be he who suffered, not she. Even in his dreams he never wakened her, but loved her while she was still and unconscious like a statue. He would shed love upon her until she warmed and changed without knowing why.
This section is beautiful and heart-breaking because we know that Claude is going to be disappointed, and that Enid isn’t going to be much of a participant in the marriage. Even her father knows that this decision is going to be bad, that the marriage will be a failure. “What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.”
Cather is at her best when she is writing about her characters, picking out tiny moments and events and thoughts and using the most emphermeal minutia to illuminate them, bathe them in light, as an artist adds light to a painting to highlight something she wants the viewer to see, to notice. Cather is respectful of her characters, even when they are foolish or self-centered or misguided.
When Claude joins the military, Cather writes:
He believed that he was going abroad with an expeditionary force that would make war without rage, with uncompromising generosity and chivalry.
According to wikipedia, Cather learned of G.P.’s death reading a newspaper in a hair salon. She said this about it:
From that on, he was in my mind. The too-personal-ness, the embarrassment of kinship, was gone. But he was in my mind so much that I couldn’t get through him to other things … some of me was buried with him in France, and some of him was left alive in me.
I haven’t gotten to the sections about WWI – those are coming, and it feels a bit like impending doom.