One of Whose?

Though One of Ours won a Pulitzer Prize for Willa Cather when it first came out, it is not the best known of her works. Instead, Cather is known for works like O Pioneers! and My Antonia. It’s easy to see why Cather might have won a Pulitzer for One of Ours, but also why it might be forgotten. Published in 1922, One of Ours was a novel about World War I that tried to blend patriot idealism with realist treatments of violence, all the while evoking personal relationships in ways that are half realistic, half modern and alienated. The “one of ours” of the title is Claude Wheeler, who the novel follows from adolescence, to college and back home to the Nebraska farm again, through a brief disappointing marriage, and on to an untimely death in World War I.

While male writers like Hemingway attacked Cather’s treatment of the war, she’s vividly descriptive in many instances, and these would have brought the war home in sharp, bombshell flashes to her American readers. In fact, at times the mix of domestic elements, artistic and same sex longings, and damage done by the war is almost surreal. (Take a peek at the scenes of the amputee helping in the garden, or the corpse gas bubbling up from the swimming hole and you’ll see what I mean.) Despite this, some writers simply thought her too distant from the war to represent it well.

These days, though, there are other reasons why the novel’s faded. Most of these are simple: Cather’s power often comes from her vivid, intricate memories of her childhood on the Great Plains. She loved these people, these towns, this land, and it comes through. Strikingly, her portrait of these different locations and situations, one of the things that changes is her understanding of their economic structures.

Cather’s descriptions of her Nebraska roots show an economic understanding of the farmer’s world that runs so deep as to be intuitive. Rather than being some pure and Romantic retreat from the world, these farmers calculate at all times. They aren’t cold, and they are by no means purely rational; Claude Wheeler’s family is, without being seen through rose-colored glasses, often loving, especially the women. However, they know what the hired men cost, what it costs to go to school, to town, etc. One of Claude’s father’s first responses to news of the war is an awareness of what this will do to farm prices. He takes the different markets into account, and even, in his way, measures how the distance from the war (and the war’s staging areas in the U.S.) will affect markets, determining where they should ship their crops.

While economics are woven in with other factors—urban backgrounds versus farm, faith vs. reason, economics are always present when Cather’s discussing the Midwest. By contrast, later in the novel, her understanding of economic realities go in and out like a weak radio signal. When Claude’s traveling to Europe, there are vivid sketches of black market dealings among the military, but when he’s actually with his company and marching, Cather’s economic understanding essentially evaporates. She understands that war causes hardship, but there’s no intuitive feel of how this shapes people to match her understanding of the farm economy. In a way, this is what her critics are responding to. It’s a failure to understand specialized economic pressures, as much as a failure to capture violence, that makes the book’s ending unsatisfactory.

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