One of Ours (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


In the post World War I era, Willa Cather's story of a Nebraska farmer's idealized departure to defend France met a mixed reception. By then, the romance had been taken out of the war, and Claude Wheeler's willingness to fight and die in a foreign country for ideals he can barely articulate created a cultural controversy. Ultimately, One of Ours won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922.
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One of Ours

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In the post World War I era, Willa Cather's story of a Nebraska farmer's idealized departure to defend France met a mixed reception. By then, the romance had been taken out of the war, and Claude Wheeler's willingness to fight and die in a foreign country for ideals he can barely articulate created a cultural controversy. Ultimately, One of Ours won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922.
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Willa Cather's One of Ours (1922) tells the story of Claude Wheeler, a young Nebraskan who discovers his mettle and finds meaning to his life as a participant in World War I. Contemporary readers must come to their own conclusions about whether the novel ultimately valorizes or questions Claude's willingness to die in a foreign country for ideals he can barely articulate. One of Ours earned author Willa Cather the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1923; it also occasioned fierce controversy on the pages of newspapers, journals, and literary magazines. At issue in these debates were Cather's authority as a woman to write a war novel and whether her apparently positive attitude toward the Great War was in step with antiwar sentiments expressed by younger authors like John Dos Passos, e. e. cummings, and Ernest Hemingway. The ruckus marked the first time that professional critics and the reading public were at odds about the quality of Willa Cather's work, with a small but vocal set of critics dismissing One of Ours as sentimental, unrealistic, and overrated, and other critics, as well as many readers, defending the novel as forthright, uplifting, and compelling. So fierce was discussion about One of Ours that, for years, an uneasy silence fell around this novel, with readers and critics devoting their attention to less problematic works, such as O Pioneers (1913) and My Antonia (1918); in more recent years, however, Cather scholars have called for a reexamination of the novel, and have suggested that it is a far more complex piece of writing than either supporters or detractors realized when they were so passionately debating its merits.

Renowned for such novels as O Pioneers! and My √Āntonia, Willa Cather (1873-1947), is often thought to be exclusively a chronicler of the early days of Nebraska's settlement. Born in Winchester County, Virginia, and relocated to the town of Red Cloud, on the plains of Nebraska, at age nine, Cather graduated from a rigorous academic program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and moved to Pittsburgh in 1896. In Pittsburgh, Cather worked in journalism and, by age twenty-two, was made managing editor of Home Monthly magazine. Cather then worked for McClure's, publishing her own early prose and poetry in other magazines, until the author Sarah Orne Jewett counseled her to leave her job and devote herself to writing, as well as to turn her attention to the Nebraska and Virginia of her childhood. This advice to concern one's self with the terrain and populations of one's earliest environs is not unlike that which Edith Wharton received from Henry James, who wanted his young friend to turn her back on European themes and locales in order to plumb New York and its society in her work. Taking Jewett's advice made a decisive difference in Cather's career, as taking James' advice had made in Wharton's literary career; Willa Cather became one of the preeminent authors of her generation.

When she died in 1947 Willa Cather was still one of the most esteemed writers of her time, although she had been the target of disdain by some influential critics in the 1930s. Such critics decried what they considered to be Cather's lack of political engagement; however, one might argue that these critics simply misread her work, which is always concerned with such matters as environmental destruction, the pervasiveness of the profit motive in human interactions, the plight of immigrants, and the manner in which many of America's poorest and weakest inhabitants are, sometimes literally, ground up in the wheels of commerce and progress. Thus, despite the formal elegance and lucidity of her work, which in no way resembles the cruder muckraking work of some of her more clearly activist colleagues, Cather can readily be considered a politically engaged author, as well as one who questions, with love and fierce intellect, some of the most unexamined but cherished notions of the United States of America, such as the idea that deserving people, like cream, always rise to the top. In One of Ours, Claude Wheeler is the cream of his Nebraska town, and of his oppressive family. Bullied by his father, his brother, and by his wife, Claude enlists and becomes a leader of men, the sort of officer whose men will lay down their lives to earn his respect; however, his moment of transcendence is cut short when he, like his men, is mown down by enemy gunfire. Overlooked and criticized as being out of step with his father's and his town's notions of practicality and masculinity, Claude must flee the putative land of opportunity in order to become the man he is meant to be.

Regardless of critical slings and arrows, Cather produced provocative work throughout her career; indeed, her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), a novel about slavery, evil, and complicity in evil, elicits passionate response over half a century after its publication, most notably in Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's volume of criticism Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). In recent years, scholars have called for a reappraisal of One of Ours, attempting to rescue it from the uneasiness that has surrounded it since the boisterous disagreement that reigned in the years immediately following its publication.

Among the ironies about the controversy surrounding both One of Ours and its subsequent award of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction are that it was the first of Cather's novels to make the best-seller lists, and that it was a success with former soldiers and their families. The majority of those critics who disparaged One of Ours did so on the grounds that it was unrealistic; thus, the fact that ex-soldiers and their families purchased, read, and praised the novel is of some interest, since one would imagine that such readers would be among the first to object to an unrealistic or idealized depiction of the war in which they had so recently been embroiled. In fact, a perusal of contemporary reviews and responses to One of Ours reveals two startling facts: first, that the critics were evenly divided on the matter of the quality of Cather's novel; second, that the readers of newspapers and magazines that published negative assessments of the novel felt moved to write stirring responses when the novel received poor reviews. Thus, a negative review would be followed by reader rebuttals, which were responded to by the initial reviewers, and which prompted more responses from readers. These interchanges could go on for weeks, highlighting both the range of opinion about the novel, and the contested nature of any attempts to impose meaning upon the war itself, since such epistolary battles generally focused upon whether Cather's narrative was appropriate or accurate to particular readers' experience of World War I.

It is equally worth noting that the matter of women's qualifications to write about war loomed large, if generally unspoken, in some of the more negative reviews. Ernest Hemingway famously alleged that Cather had written her war scenes from footage of the film Birth of a Nation, writing "Poor woman she has got to get her war experience somewhere." In truth, Cather had done meticulous research about the war and individual battles of the war, and had also lived in France for two months to get a feel for the country that occupies a third of her novel; nonetheless, the allegation that she had needed to crib from the cinema to pen a battle scene stuck, taking some of the luster from her accomplishment.

As we begin the twenty-first century, Cummings' The Enormous Room (1922), Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Dos Passos' Three Soldiers (1921) are among the novels people think of when grasping for the titles of works about World War I. That this has occurred despite the fact that Edith Wharton's A Son at the Front (1923) and Cather's One of Ours were the more highly respected works at the time they were published suggests that these men such as Hemingway were successful in arguing that men, not women, are singularly equipped to speak the truth about war. In addition to being penned by men, the three aforementioned works are vigorously anti-war, while Wharton's and Cather's novels accept the premise that the war was necessary, and that it was fought to preserve goodness and liberty from German authoritarianism. Thus, several things were at stake in the debate over the merits of the novel, and the actual literary quality of Cather's, or even Wharton's, work, was not always chief among them. Rather, who had the authority to comment upon war, and how they earned that authority was of singular importance.

Literary critic Merrill Maguire Skaggs describes One of Ours as the story of "a young man who has everything who feels little but failure until the moment of his heroic and therefore fulfilling death." Claude, the novel's protagonist, is not ungrateful and unmoored from the realities of life; rather, he is, despite his incipient greatness, treated as a mere cog in his family's machine. He wishes to attend college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, but his parents, afraid of the influence the university's more worldly faculty and students might have on him, send him, instead, to a third-rate church-affiliated college, which transmits accepted knowledge to its students, rather than encouraging them to ask questions, push intellectual boundaries, or even do original research. When Claude is finally able to take courses at the university and to undertake an independent research project-on Joan of Arc-he begins to realize his intellectual potential. Scholarship, he finds, is exciting, and the act of sifting through information to find the answers to a question that vexes him gives him his first sense of mastery in his life. However, as befits Claude's dreadful luck, his intellectual revelation coincides with his father's decision to withdraw him from college altogether, on the premise that he needs Claude's labor on the family farm more than Claude needs an expensive and impractical education. Furious at once again being at his father's capricious beck and call, Claude nonetheless returns to the farm and suffers his father's and brothers' scorn for what they see as intellectual pretensions. He absorbs their amused contempt and never notices what Cather's narrator tells us: that Claude is a comfort to his mother and their housekeeper, and that his generous willingness to fix the things that break around their house makes him a source of wonderment and pride to them.

Lonely and in need of companionship, Claude decides to marry Enid Royce, a young woman whose own father warns Claude against marrying her. A staunch romantic, Claude proposes to Enid anyway, on the premise that marriage will change her from a "cool, self-satisfied girl" into a loving wife. He builds a house for them to live in, and, despite evidence to the contrary, he assumes that Enid will be the first person in his life to truly love and treasure him and his ideals. Enid, however, prefers a world of ideas to a world of flesh, and, although she marries him, she refuses to consummate their relationship, or to treat Claude as anything other than a male housemate whose attitudes and actions she hopes to improve through lectures and good example. The two pursue separate lives in the house Claude has built until Enid leaves Claude to do missionary work in China. With all this behind him, it is not hard to fathom why Claude Wheeler, a vigorous and unappreciated young man who feels himself condemned to toil in his father's fields for the rest of his life, might decide it important to enlist in the American Expeditionary Force and defend France, the land of Joan of Arc, whose life kindled the first stirrings of emotional and intellectual intensity in his otherwise stifled life.

Some of the less enthusiastic reviews of One of Ours suggest that the novel romanticizes war, and that the view Cather paints of the destruction of the war, and the loss of life it entailed, was sentimental and idealized. More recent scholars, however, suggest that this supposed weakness is really an indicator of Cather's ability to imagine the perspective of her protagonist. Deborah Lindsay Williams suggests that Claude Wheeler, not Willa Cather, is an unrepentant romantic, and that Cather simply depicts his ideals and observations, with little authorial meddling. For instance, Cather carefully describes the ravaged French countryside that greets Claude and his fellow soldiers; Claude, however, only notices the discipline and fortitude of his men, and he misses entirely the wreckage that Cather shows her reader. Thus, the ravages of war are present in the novel, and only readers who identify too closely with Claude, or who are too deeply alienated from Cather, will miss them. Merrill Maguire Skaggs suggests that One of Ours is "saturated in irony," and neither sentimentalizes war nor underestimates its costs.

While the opinions of scholars and critics can certainly be compelling and enlightening, it is ultimately the right of a careful and engaged reader to come to decisions for him or herself. This edition of Willa Cather's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel One of Ours will permit readers to acquaint themselves with Claude Wheeler, a young man who, for most of the novel has every material thing a person might want, but lacks a sense of meaning to his life. Having met Claude and seen his life through his eyes, as well as the more dispassionate eyes of Cather's narrator, readers will be able to formulate their own ideas about whether Claude's enlistment is a rush toward glory or a willful plunge towards death. They will, as well, be able to ruminate about the ways the issues Cather raises in One of Ours remain with us, over eighty years since its initial publication, and to come to their own conclusions about whether the book truly is one of the great neglected World War I novels, as some have suggested.

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  • Posted October 9, 2011

    Can't beat Willa

    Loved this book set in WW I. Willa Cather had an amazing way of capturing the heart and the poingancy of prairie life.

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