Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1982, pp. 232-38.
I n a comment to Edmund Wilson, Ernest Hemingway ridiculed the war scenes in Willa Cather's One of Ours (1922) and implied the general inferiority of her effort: "Look at One of Ours," he wrote, complaining about the frivolity of the American reading public. "[Pulitzer] Prize, big sale, people taking it seriously. You were in the war weren't you? 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 was right; Cather's warfare is often trite stuff, but that is not really a major problem, for One of Ours is hardly a battle novel. However, Cather can be faulted for under-developing her material, belaboring the obvious, violating verisimilitude through "message" dialogue, and allowing her feelings about the war to invade character consciousness. Yet, as the effort of a mature novelist, One of Ours must have another side that makes it worth considering. To avoid understating the weaknesses of the novel, I will review them before suggesting a positive interpretation.
Frequently Cather's failure to develop her material takes the form of summarizing rather than approximating what is going on in her characters' minds. For example, when her hero Claude Wheeler is forced to return to Temple College we are told, "he knew that he was going back to the wrong school, that he was wasting both time and money. If he had to do with strangers, he told himself, he could take up his case and fight for it. He could not assert himself against his father or mother, but he could be bold enough with the rest of the world." Although we learn significant things about Claude, we feel cheated of character development here; we remain distant, outside, unable to share his experiences. Cather concludes the passage with a question: "Yet, if this were true, why did he continue to live with the tiresome Chapins?" However, Claude seems so remote at this point that we are not sure if he is asking himself this, or if Cather is asking us.
Related to this kind of failure are recurring suggestive inclusions that mystify rather than illuminate. For example, after Claude bayonets a dandified German officer and dismisses the picture of a pale, dreamy-eyed young man in his locket as that of a kid brother, Claude's more sophisticated buddy, David Gerhardt, glances at it "with a disdainful expression," but protects Claude from the obvious truth about the officer. Claude then notices that David "looked at him as if he were very much pleased with him,-looked, indeed, as if something pleasant had happened in this room" (p. 367). Claude wonders if David is pleased because he had displayed nerve in going in after the sniper, and we are left wondering also. Was it because of Claude's courage or because of his innocence? Cather's subsequent comment only adds to our confusion: "Claude had often observed that when David had an interesting idea, or a strong twinge of recollection, it made him, for the moment, rather heartless" (p. 368). A few pages later, during one of the rare opportunities Cather's soldiers have to fornicate, David comments, "'Do you realize, Claude, you and I are the only men in the Company who haven't got engaged?'" (p. 374). How are we to respond to these comments? Do they tell us something about the DavidClaude relationship? One of Ours is, after all, the story of the rejection of marriage and heterosexual love for the violence of war and for friendship with a member of one's own sex. Like Jim Burden and Niel Herbert, Claude fears sex. He had been scared away by the advances of college date Peachy Millmore, and we are told of his "sharp disgust for sensuality. He had an almost Hippolytean pride in candour" (p. 51) that is "whiteness" (in the obsolete sense) and "unstained purity." Including but failing to exploit such incidents as that of the German officer is a fault; "to touch and pass on" would work in a book like Death Comes for the Archbishop, but One of Ours is a different kind of book.