One of Ours by Willa Cather (1922) – two reviews
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One of Ours by Willa Cather is a 1922 novel telling the story of Claude Wheeler, the son of a Nebraska farmer and a religious mother. He drifts through what seems to be a predictable life, devoid of purpose, until he goes to war in Europe. Though it won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, it received mixed reviews.
Critics panned its idealized view of World War I. Acid-penned literary legend H.L. Mencken, for example, wrote that her depiction of war “drops precipitately to the level of a serial in The Lady’s Home Journal … fought out not in France, but on a Hollywood movie-lot.”
Other critics and fellow authors, including Ernest Hemingway, who had actually seen military duty, agreed. They found her view of war as a salvation of Claude’s otherwise meaningless life to be grossly sentimentalized. One of Ours was published the same year as Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos, to which it was often compared unfavorably. Three Soldiers, also a novel, offered an anti-war perspective.
Still, with One of Ours, Willa Cather gained a greater readership, and some critics thought it was a fine piece of writing. Evidently the Pulitzer committee did as well. In a detailed essay titled Willa Cather’s One of Ours and the Iconography of War, Steven Strout noted:
“In 1987 James Woodress, Cather’s foremost biographer, claimed that the harsh response the novel provoked in several reviewers (most notably H. L. Mencken) stemmed from inattentive reading: such reviewers ‘did not read the novel carefully to see that Cather had no illusions about the war’ and ‘simply ignored the fact that the novel is told mostly from Claude’s point of view.'”
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See also: A 1918 review of My Antonia by Willa Cather
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Contemporary reviews by readers on Goodreads are somewhat mixed but largely positive, so it may be fascinating to revisit this lesser-known novel by one of America’s great authors. In 2020, a piece in the New Yorker by Alex Ross, “Willa Cather’s Quietly Shattering War Novel” does just that:
“What may have irritated Cather’s contemporaries was not the inaccuracy of her military scenes—and there are a few howlers to be found—but the way that she demotes the war experience in favor of a longer view. From the outset of the book, she tracks the spread of a male disease of pride and fear.”
Here are two opposing views from the time the novel was published in September, 1922:
A positive review of One of Ours
From the original review in New York Herald Sun, September, 1922: Willa Cather has one of the necessary ingredients of genius –– the capacity for taking infinite pains –– in liberal measure.
There is never anything slipshod or hasty about her work. It is several yeas since she has published a novel, and two years since her volume of short stories. Now in this she shows not only the brilliancy and power of her earlier stories but also a broader, deeper maturity.
She is dealing gravely with serious things and speaking of them out of a profound and accurate knowledge of life. If her understanding of the makeup of human creatures is not so wide in its scope as that, for example, of Mrs. Watts or Mrs. Deland, she is wise enough to keep out of unknown, or inexperienced territory.
The story of one young man, perhaps overelaborated
This novel is built upon a large scale, and if there is any room for slight fault finding, it is, perhaps, a little too long. It does not drag, but is sometimes slightly overelaborated. Yet one would regret the omission of any of its incident, as it is all so good in quality even where the particular incident may be redundant. She is never prosy, but she sometimes does hold on to one note a bit longer than necessary.
The story is very definitely that of one young man. Claude Wheeler is more than a leading figure; he is overshadowingly the whole story, all the other characters being entirely subsidiary, of little importance except as they touch upon him and affect him.
We are looking at life, almost all the time, through his eyes; he is done from the inside while the others are more externalized, as we see them, for the most part, also through his vision of them. It is a method that has marked advantages, especially in that it keeps the novel a unit.
The trajectory of a young life
The story takes Claude from his nineteenth year through his unhappy youth, his uninterrupted education, his mistaken marriage, and the war up to his gallant death in action shortly before the armistice.
He is the second son of very well to do people living on a farm near a minor town in Nebraska. His father is a man of force, but of rather course fiber; not exactly harsh or unkind, but out of sympathy with the finer things of life and capable of small cruelties which seem to him to be comic.
He despises his older son, Bayliss, who is a cold, selfish, small souled and physically weak creature, but he can get on with him. He also understands his younger son, Ralph, but Claude is of a different makeup, and there is sympathy between them.
Claude is not the kind to fit into any of the accepted grooves as ordained in the custom of his neighborhood. He is an idealist, but withal solid in his idealism. He aspires to something beyond the ambitions of his associates and does not feel that life is very well worth while if it means no more than earning a living.
Falling into college and marriage
He is sent to a small and feeble denominational college at Lincoln, and his mother is emphatically pious, a staunch believer of the old school. Not that there is anything fanatic about her, but she is incapable of understanding the mental attitude of the younger generation and fears that the State University is a godless institution, and therefore corrupting.
Claude is in sullen rebellion, but at last manages to matriculate as a special student in his history at the university and begins to perk up. He also falls in with enlightening friends––of German ancestry, and some of German birth. But at that point his father decides he wants Claude at home, to run his farm.
Next comes marriage, largely due to the accident of propinquity, with the beautiful but very thin souled Enid. As the one woman who really understood something of him puts it:
“If he married Enid, that would be the end. He would go about strong and heavy, like Mr. Royce (Enid’s father), a big machine with the springs broken inside.”
And so it turned out. enid finally leaves him to go to China to look after a missionary sister of hers who is ill. But she has completed the wreckage of Claude’s life in most essentials.
The finality of war
Then comes the war, and way out for him. He finds himself, at last, in the trenches, but death is the only real release for such a spirit. Space limits forbid any detailed examination of the war chapters, but they may be recommended as one of the finest and most moving presentations of the American soldier and his reactions in France that has as yet appeared.
The larger impression of America in the war is also accurate and grimly critical as well as understanding. Miss Cather knows her Nebraska and the middle Western type with its faults as well as its splendid virtues. The book is a very fine, strong piece of work.
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One of Ours by Willa Cather on Amazon*
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A critical review of One of Ours
From the original review in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 9, 1922: Willa Cather’s One of Ours should be read in conjunction with Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos, because of the tremendous differences between the two novels, although both deal with the reactions of a soul caught in the turmoil of the great war.
Three Soldiers was criticized severely in some quarters for its raw and unpatriotic realism which laid bare the horrors and stupidities of war. That criticism was on the ground of the undesirable propaganda. On this ground no such objection can be raised to Willa Cather’s story.
Showing war to be a beautiful thing?
One of Ours shows war to be rather a beautiful thing. Its total effect is that of a recruiting pamphlet or a morale lecture by a YMCA secretary. It holds out the organized international slaughter which started in 1911 as the great event that stirred the world; that brought wider social interests to hitherto narrow souls; that gave new and interesting experiences to the dull farmer’s boy from the Middle West; that brought 2,000,000 men of Puritan America in personal contact with the great things of Europe and the Far East. It constitutes a paean of the Mad War.
As such propaganda, as a justification for the war, One of Ours must be dismissed by all but the relentless militarist or the relentless sentimentalist. There is some excuse in reason for organized war on the ground of patriotism.
After all, your own country comes first and if the less-intelligent and less-civilized foreigners insist on fighting or insulting us we must be ready to fight back. We must be prepared or be annihilated. There may be a fallacy in this argument, but on the surface is has the appearance of logic.
But in One of Ours this consideration does not enter. War is found useful, however, because its “educational” value; not to the race but to the individual.
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See also: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
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A dull life amplified
Claude Wheeler has grown up on a dull farm in Iowa, has married a dull and uninspiring wife and is apparently scheduled to live the rest of his life and die in perfect dullness. He has had yearnings for better things, for a more joyous and pagan existence, but his surroundings are too much for him.
The influences of a Puritan mother, of a stupid, small mid-Western community are all for property and religion and a scheme of life in which beauty and adventure are counted sinful. Internally dissatisfied, he nevertheless gives up.
And then comes the war with its larger patriotic urge. Claude enlists and becomes a lieutenant. He conducts men across the ocean and into the front line trenches. Physically miserable, he finds spiritual satisfaction in leading good men in the good fight. He lives a fuller life in 50 days than was possible in a cycle of Iowa. And he dies a glorious death.
A flawed justification of war
Now, by no stretch of an elastic logic can it be argued that the case has been proven. Whatsoever may be the spiritual advantages accruing to a Claude Wheeler, these cannot ever be enough to justify a war, with its death and misery, in the lines and behind, to those for whom it was not an adventure.
However much Claude Wheeler may have needed the uplifting experience, that did not justify his killing of a single stupid German for the leading to his death of a single private soldier of his own company.
Of course the truth is that war, and the army experience, has no such “educational” value as the moral lecturers would have it. The cultural levels of any army is very low and therefore could educate only those who come to it from a level of culture still lower.
For that reason Willa Cather wisely picker her protagonist out of an environment of stifling stupidity. That there are many such in the country and in the world is still insufficient reason for inaugurating a general blood-letting for their entertainment and enlightenment.
A study of a dull and drifting life
As a study in the psychology of a morbid farmer’s boy who might have got more fun out of life than he did with a little more daring in his mental make-up, One of Ours makes a better showing. Willa Cather has delineated the planess, hit-or-miss progress of Claude Wheeler’s timid soul with great detail.
For this reason, the story suffers. It has little narrative compulsion about it. The tide of event drifts hither and yon and Claude Wheeler drifts with it. If he would only strike out now and again in the direction he wants to take, there would be more dramatic events, a better story. But he doesn’t.
One of Ours is a well written story but of a dull life.
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More about One of Ours by Willa Cather
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- Full text of One of Ours on Project Gutenberg
- Listen to One of Ours on Librivox
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