Monday, January 28, 2019
One of Ours by Willa Cather
From Nebraska farm to French battlefield
Willa Cather’s novel One of Ours was published in 1922 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Though not quite a masterpiece like My Ántonia or O Pioneers!, One of Ours is yet another strong work of literature from this master of Great Plains regionalism. As in those earlier works, Cather provides a naturalistic depiction of Nebraska farm life, but in this novel the scope broadens from its rural setting to the larger world stage with the outbreak of the First World War.
Claude Wheeler lives on his parents’ farm in Frankfort County, Nebraska. More thoughtful and sensitive than the average farm kid (as one would imagine Cather herself must have been), Claude chafes at the role in which the circumstances of his birth have placed him. He attends a local Christian college, but longs to go to the state university, both to satisfy his intellectual curiosity and to enjoy a more cosmopolitan social scene than his rural community affords. He wants the freedom to be his own person and live a life of his choosing, but family demands require him to quit school and manage the farm.
Trying to make the best of his situation, he enters into a misguided marriage. Cather telegraphs the inappropriateness of this match to such a degree that the reader wonders why Claude would go through with it, but within his insular community it seems his options for finding a life partner are limited. For a work written by a female author, it is surprising how unsympathetically the wife character is depicted. Cather’s take on this marital union is really quite one-sided, amounting to a trap for Claude that smothers any hopes and dreams he may have harbored. When America enters World War I, Claude enlists in the Army. For him, the war is a liberating experience, as it finally frees him from the stifling role that he’s lived his whole life.
Cather’s war narrative is rather meandering, focusing more on the mundane side of military life than on combat, and Claude is far more contemplative than the average doughboy. Music is a common theme in Cather’s fiction (see The Song of the Lark), and she couldn’t resist making one of the soldiers a classical violinist. There are hints of a nonphysical homosexual relationship between this character and Claude. Nevertheless, the book is neither as dull nor as wistful as John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, and probably more true to the life of a typical soldier than Ernest Hemingway’s idiosyncratic A Farewell to Arms. The tone of One of Ours strikes a fine balance between disgust for war and reverence for military service. It has been criticized for not being anti-war enough, for making the Great War seem too glamorized or romantic, but the perspective from which Cather approaches the war, as viewed through Claude’s eyes, is truthful to the psychology of the character. She admirably captures the mixture of bravery, fear, shell shock, and awakening sense of purpose that might have fought it out in the mind of a Midwestern farm boy who finds himself at war in France.
One of Ours reads like two separate books connected by only a single thread: Claude. Not surprisingly for Cather, the first half set in Nebraska is really very good. Claude’s military career in Europe, however, is hit or miss. The book often defies expectations, but the ending feels like a foregone conclusion. Altogether, however, the pros outweigh the cons. I prefer One of Ours over both Three Soldiers and A Farewell to Arms. Even though it does have its share of faults, it may be the best American novel of World War I that I’ve read thus far.
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