Monday, December 30, 2013

Willa Cather: One of Ours

I’m a huge fan of the fiction of Willa Cather. For many years, though, I’ve avoided reading her early, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, One of Ours. I’d heard that it was a jingoistic hymn to World War I, whitewashing the violence and pointlessness of that bloodbath. I happen to find a copy of the book on sale recently, and decided to give it a chance, since the centenary of the start of that war is approaching, and World War I has been on my mind. I found out that the novel is much more complex and interesting than I had heard.

Photo of Willa Cather by Edward Steichen
The main character of One of Ours, Claude Wheeler, is the strapping son of a Nebraska grain farmer in a town where his family ranks among the leading citizens. Claude grows up at a time that is somewhat familiar politically—his state is split between an aggressive Christian fundamentalist movement and liberal free thinkers, epitomized in the book by the Erlich family, who live in Nebraska’s college town of Lincoln.

Interestingly, the Erlich sons, who are part of the progressive trend, play football. At the time this book takes place, about 100 years ago, colleges were transitioning from divinity schools to a more science and liberal arts oriented curriculum. Football at that time was a rebellion against the otherworldliness of religious studies. Claude is the star player for a very bad football team, half-heartedly fielded by the only college his parents will pay for, a religious school dominated by a prissy and egotistical minister whom Cather scathingly portrays in the novel.

After college, Claude returns to the farm town where he grew up, and is caught in a trap. The only girl in town he can marry is Enid Royce, who is bright, but swept up in the fundamentalist craze. Her interests in life are to ban alcohol consumption and become a Christian missionary in China. Prohibition does actually pass in Nebraska during the course of the novel, and Enid runs off to China to take care of her ailing sister, who is already a missionary.

Claude becomes a surprisingly existential figure for a Nebraska farm boy. He yearns for some larger meaning or connection in his life. When the United States is drawn into World War I, Claude immediately enlists.

Cather does portray much of the suffering in World War I. The episodes on the boat over to France, where the young recruits are devastated by the deadly flu epidemic before they even arrive in Europe, are particularly poignant. The action in the trenches at the front is sometimes very graphic and violent, but in the end, Cather leaves the reader with a sense that the war was mostly a good thing, even for the men who died so horribly young. She even suggests that the U.S. military had given rise to a new, selfless breed of adventurer.

Reinforcing this view, an appealing, young Frenchwoman describes to Claude her memory of U.S. soldiers returning from a major battle: “I was in Paris on the fourth day of July, when your Marines, just from Belleau Wood, marched for your national fête, and I said to myself as they came on, That is a new man.… As Claude looked at her burning cheeks, her burning eyes, he understood that the strain of this war had given her a perception that was almost like a gift of prophecy.”

One might reasonably ask what good it is to be a new man who is slashed to bits by shrapnel. But for Cather, coming from the confining life of small town Nebraska, any exposure to the more sophisticated ways of the continent seemed worth the price. Ultimately, One of Ours is not about the glories of war, but about the necessity for a life that has more juice to it than the religiosity and gossip of Main Street U.S.A.

Other posts about Willa Cather: 
Writers I Can't Stop Reading, Part 3
A Writer Moves West, Part 3: Intimate History

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer


  1. Good and fair review that gives sufficient feel of the novel to decide whether to read.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I can't say enough about Willa Cather, even when I don't completely agree with her point of view.