Willa Cather’s Quietly Shattering War Novel

One of Ours,” Willa Cather’s novel of youth, the prairie, influenza, and war, was one of the author’s greatest successes, winning her the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. It also elicited some of the most scathing criticism of her career. Edmund Wilson called the novel a “pretty flat failure.” H. L. Mencken said that its scenes of the First World War were “fought out, not in France, but on a Hollywood movie-lot.” Ernest Hemingway wrote, to Wilson, “Wasn’t that last scene in the lines wonderful? Do you know where it came from? The battle scene in Birth of a Nation. I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman she had to get her war experience somewhere.” Hemingway’s familiarity with D. W. Griffith’s infamously racist film perhaps says more about him than it does about Cather, who rarely went to the movies.

Professional resentments aside, “One of Ours” remains a subject of debate, and is far less widely read than such Cather classics as “O Pioneers!” and “My Ántonia.” The author herself wondered whether she had fallen short in the culminating battlefield scenes, in which a naïve young Nebraskan named Claude Wheeler goes to his death. “I expect the last part runs pretty thin,” she wrote to her friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher. “I tried just awfully hard. But that’s the fascinating thing about art, anyhow; that good intentions and praiseworthy industry don’t count a damn.” To Mencken, she wrote, “It may be a complete mistake.”

Modern readers may be more forgiving. When I revisited “One of Ours” in recent weeks, I found it as haunting as anything I’ve read in this bewildering year. What seized my attention, not unexpectedly, was the section devoted to the flu pandemic of 1918. The virus strikes a boatload of American soldiers on their way to the European battlefields. Cather, who fought off the flu, makes the striking decision to elide pandemic and war into a general season of death, one for which her young American is woefully unprepared. 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.

“One of Ours,” like so much of Cather’s work, is based on people she knew. Claude Wheeler is modelled on her cousin G. P. Cather, who was killed at the Battle of Cantigny, in May, 1918, in one of the first major engagements by the American Expeditionary Forces. G. P.’s father, George, Cather’s uncle, was the first of the wider Cather family to settle in Nebraska; he arrived in 1873, and Willa came west with her family a decade later, having spent her early childhood in Virginia. The George Cather home still stands, and is associated with the National Willa Cather Center, in Red Cloud, Nebraska. To walk through the property is to get a palpable sense of the isolated farm life that Cather describes so vividly in her books.

The early chapters of “One of Ours” revisit the familiar territory of lives on the prairie, with the significant difference that we have moved forward in time from the hardscrabble late-nineteenth-century setting of “O Pioneers!” and “My Ántonia.” Claude’s father is a prosperous landowner who no longer needs to work much for a living. His son has grand ambitions and romantic longings but no particular talents. He glimpses a loftier existence when, during a spell in college, he befriends a cultured German family, the Erlichs, whose home life is considerably warmer and livelier than his own. He then has the misfortune to fall in love with a woman whose aloofness dims his hopes. Volunteering for the Army gives him an escape and a purpose.

The entire first part of the book is an idyll that goes incrementally sour. Modernization, mechanization, and commercialization have altered the tempo and tone of small-town life. The onset of the First World War creates divisions between newer and older immigrant families. When the United States declares war, in 1917, hysteria grips the community. A hardworking farmer named Yoeder is dragged into court on suspicion of making pro-German remarks, and responds, “I have nothing to say. The charges are true. I thought this was a country where a man could speak his mind.” Claude, as he completes his military training, takes satisfaction in the admiring glances that his new uniform wins him, and tries to exercise his authority on a group of boys who torment an old German woman. “See here,” he says to one, “aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” The boy answers, “Oh, I don’t know about that!” Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world “safe for democracy” is in question even before Claude sets sail for Europe.

Celebrated antiwar novels by the likes of Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, and Erich Maria Remarque were unambiguously blunt in showing the brutality of the war and the duplicity of its rhetoric. Cather was more reserved, to the point that many readers thought she still believed in the “Great Crusade.” During the war, she had indeed been caught up in the chauvinist wave, describing her cousin as one of “God’s soldiers.” Although she set those ideas aside, she gave Claude no epiphany about the horror of it all. Instead, he dies in the grip of his illusions. “This one boy’s feeling is true,” she explained to Mencken. The underlying reality is clear enough in the potent tableau that she creates as Claude’s troop ship passes the Statue of Liberty: “That howling swarm of brown arms and hats and faces looked like nothing but a crowd of American boys going to a football game somewhere. But the scene was ageless; youths were sailing away to die for an idea, a sentiment, for the mere sound of a phrase . . . and on their departure they were making vows to a bronze image in the sea.” The ellipsis is Cather’s own—a pause that covers a well of thought.

The ship is called the Anchises, after Aeneas’s father, who, in some tellings, is blinded or lamed by the gods after his union with Aphrodite. The section devoted to the Anchises’s voyage is a strange, hallucinatory, altogether remarkable piece of writing, and it is closely based on the diary of a doctor who made such a voyage himself. In 1919, that doctor treated Cather for the flu, and she persuaded him to let her use his diary. At the beginning, the neophyte soldiers are in boisterous high spirits, singing, cavorting, boasting. Then they begin to fall sick and die, their minds assaulted by delirious episodes that seem all too familiar in the covid-19 era. Cather shows how the ship’s close quarters make it a perfect breeding ground for contagion. “The boys lay in heaps on the deck,” she writes, “trying to keep warm by hugging each other close.”

To the spectacle of misery Cather adds a fine layer of irony. One of the soldiers is a big German-American named Fritz Tannhauser, who, when fever takes over, starts babbling in his native language. “His congested eyeballs were rolled back in his head and only the yellowish whites were visible. His mouth was open and his tongue hung out the side.” Another soldier, known mainly as the Virginian, experiences a violent nosebleed and is dead not long after. The names are chosen carefully. Tannhäuser is the hero of a Wagner opera that experienced mass popularity in America before the First World War. “The Virginian” was Owen Wister’s best-selling Western novel, from 1902—a founding text of cowboy iconography, and the work of an outspoken racist. Cather casts her subsidiary characters in the mold of heroes, but the flu lays waste to their bodies before they even catch sight of the battlefield.

In the wake of the nightmarish flu section, the war scenes unfold as the hazy dream narrative of a young man who already has one foot planted in another world. Claude can sustain his illusion only by ignoring the blood-soaked reality of the battlefield and training his gaze elsewhere. He has sharp, sudden perceptions of natural beauty in the wasted landscapes of France—moments that remind me of the surreal nature idylls of Julien Gracq’s novel “A Balcony in the Forest” and Terrence Malick’s film “The Thin Red Line,” two other unconventional tales of war. Despite his obliviousness, Claude garners fleeting insights. He befriends a soldier named David Gerhardt, a brilliant young violinist who has given up on the pursuit of art. Gerhardt tells him that the war will not “make the world safe for Democracy, or any rhetoric of that sort.” But he does wonder whether “the young men of our time had to die to bring a new idea into the world”—a peaceful community of nations, perhaps. Gerhardt dies shortly before Claude does, resigned to his fate. As for Claude himself, “he died believing his country better than it is.”

One can understand how this nuanced, ambivalent portrait of the soldier spirit failed to satisfy radical-minded readers of the period. Claude learns nothing; he is a fool, albeit a holy kind of fool. The war is simply the setting for the last act of his rambling drama. But one can also guess that Cather’s keen-eyed, skeptical exploration of American masculinity went over the heads of the male-dominated literary community of her time. Antiwar novels may have jettisoned the old-fashioned archetype of masculine valor, but they put a new kind of modernist machismo in its place—the man who wraps himself in a new armor of pitilessness and disillusionment. No such transfiguration is vouchsafed the soldiers in “One of Ours.”

In the quietly shattering final pages of the novel, Cather spells out the price of that tough-skinned bravado. A year or two after the end of the war, Claude’s mother thinks of how some homecoming soldiers are unable to reënter reality, and die by their own hand. “Some do it in obscure lodging houses, some in their office, where they seemed to be carrying on their business like other men. Some slip over a vessel’s side and disappear into the sea.” Mrs. Wheeler takes a thin comfort in the sense that Claude might have suffered the same fate: “One she knew, who could ill bear disillusion . . . safe, safe.”

Alex Ross