Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Pulitzer Project: One of Ours

One of Ours earned the Pulitzer in 1923. This story of a Nebraska farm boy who ends up dying in France in World War I is not novelist Willa Cather's best work. I had the advantage of reading it in the context of some of Cather's other writings as I was unable to find a library copy that was a stand-alone edition of the novel.

One of Ours was the final work included in Early Novels and Stories -- final in the sense of being the concluding piece in the book; I have no way of knowing if it was the last thing the editor picked for inclusion -- so by the time I read it I'd already gone through The Troll Garden (collection of short stories), O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. I suppose I could have jumped straight to One of Ours, but several people had mentioned either O Pioneers! or My Antonia as "must reads," so I took their advice. After reading the earlier novels and then reading One of Ours, I could only conclude that the judges for the Pulitzer were honoring Cather for multiple novels, not just one.

One of Ours is not a weak book. It's actually quite good; it's just not as good as the other novels. This could be due to the World War I theme -- critics at the time assailed Cather for romanticizing the war because Claude Wheeler (the hero) has more than his fair share of internal monologues in which he thinks of it as a noble cause, the finest thing he's ever done, and the reason he was born. I didn't view as a romanticization. Cather is quite detailed in describing the horrors that had accompanied the war, the families devastated, the countryside ruined (and still ruined -- Orion had an article recently about World War I unexploded ordnance from the Battle of Verdun still making 12 million acres of land uninhabitable and unusable; several people die every year in the attempt to find and clear that ordnance), and lives cut short. Cather may romanticize Claude; she doesn't romanticize the war.

From what I've read and heard, Cather's strongest works were nourished by her Nebraska roots. Her family moved to south central Nebraska from Virginia when she was quite young. She graduated from Red Cloud high school, and then went on to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Early Novels and Stories includes a capsule biography in the form a timeline that provides brief descriptions of various periods in Cather's life.

One of Ours draws heavily on Cather's Nebraska background. The Wheeler farm is located in the same part of Nebraska that Red Cloud is, southwest of Hastings, close to the Kansas border, and definitely on the Great Plains. Mr. Wheeler is a contradictory figure, a large, hearty man with the reputation of being more interested in watching others work than doing it himself but who nonetheless has taken a small homestead and turned into a large, profitable farming operation. He comes across, at least to the modern reader, as a sadistic bully in his relations with his wife and his middle son, Claude. The oldest Wheeler son is gone from home when the book opens, living in town and operating a successful farm implements business. The two younger boys, Claude and Ralph, are still at home, not quite grown but close to it. Both have finished high school; Claude has just finished his second year at a small church-owned college in Lincoln. Claude is serious, hard-working, and totally reliable. Ralph seems to be more of a wastrel, impulsive, and lazy. Naturally, when Mr. Wheeler buys a ranch in Colorado and needs someone to run it he delegates the task to Ralph, the slacker son.

Claude is a good natured youth, totally miserable at home, of course, but no one recognizes his misery -- or, if they do, they discount it. He's also incredibly passive and unimaginative. He spends a lot of time feeling wretched and thinking there should be more to life than there is, but can't figure out what -- and, despite being technically an adult and thus capable of making his own decisions, he lets his parents run his life. He didn't want to attend the church college, and doesn't really want to be a farmer, but just accepts both fates as inevitable. Eventually he ends up married to a girl he's known since childhood, a girl who has grown up to be a religion and temperance fanatic, not to mention a vegetarian. Not exactly the best choice for an agnostic farmer who enjoys good steak and whiskey, but he marries her anyway. One of Cather's standards in every novel seems to be at least one example of a really bad marriage -- One of Ours features several fairly dysfunctional relationships, but Claude's is definitely the worst.

And then the U.S. gets into World War I. Claude decides to enlist, discovers a sense of purpose, and goes off to France. His fate is predictable.
I think the biggest problem I had with this book was the way Claude drifts. He's wretched, but he keeps his wretchedness to himself, and just goes in whatever direction people push him. The few times he actually makes choices for himself they turn out badly. He proposes, and ends up trapped in a loveless marriage. He enlists, and ends up dead. Cather's other books are full of examples of human tragedy, too, but the characters either seem more resilient or unfortunate victims of events they couldn't control. Antonia gets walloped by fate (an unfaithful lover who leaves her pregnant and disgraced), but she rebounds. Thea Kronberg (The Song of the Lark) is also totally misunderstood by her family, although they do recognize she has musical talent, but she's self-aware enough to know she has to get out of her hometown if she's ever going to be happy. People end up dead in O Pioneers!, and while the deaths make sense in terms of literary conventions there isn't the same sense of them sleepwalking through life that Claude projects.

Now that I've started on Cather I suppose I'll have to read the rest of her oeuvre. She has a real gift for descriptions -- the reader can almost smell the prairie -- and the books seem to hold up reasonably well. I've always been curious about her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, as it was inspired by a real incident, the 1907 Quebec bridge disaster, and I did a lot of reading about the disaster back when I researching my dissertation. I've heard Alexander's Bridge is also one of her worst as the setting is so far removed from her own background, but I think I'll go looking for it next anyway.

Photos are old ones I found in a family album. I have no clue who those people in the first one are. They're on a post card that was sent to my grandmother. The cemetery is a World War II cemetery in France; the photo was taken in 1944.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. Ashamed to admit I don't think I've read any Cather at all. Maybe with my Great War interest I ought to start with this one.


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