Source File: cat.cs004.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 4

Willa Cather's One of Ours and the Iconography of Remembrance

Thirty years ago, in a book entitled World War I and the American Novel, Stanley Cooperman established an interpretation of American First World War literature that has dominated critical discussion ever since: focusing on writers such as Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, William March, and Thomas Boyd, Cooperman concluded that the American literary legacy of the First World War was unparalleled in its expression of disgust, disillusionment, horror, and contempt. This outpouring of revulsion toward the war stemmed, Cooperman explained, from two sources: first, the messianic, propaganda-inspired zeal with which Americans hurled themselves into the war to end all war; and second, the highly impersonal, arbitrary style of warfare that these would-be crusaders actually encountered in France. For Cooperman, the enduring literature of the war portrayed the disillusioning collision between the two—between American idealism and the realities of a conflict dominated by applied technology: machine guns, poison gas, and long-range artillery (which accounted for 75 percent of all American casualties in the Meuse-Argonne battle [Cooperman 63-64]).Conditioned to regard themselves as chivalrous exemplars of American manhood and frontier traditions, and pledged to the romanticized heroism of their Civil War precursors (á la Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage), the so-called doughboys found themselves in an upside-down war, one in which their individual skills as riflemen meant nothing and in which death came roulette-style, carried by high-explosive projectiles (fired by an invisible enemy miles away) that dismembered, eviscerated, or atomized their victims. As a further affront to innocent American expectations, such combat, it was found, could drive men insane, pounding them into shell-shock or suicide. According to the literary record, Cooperman insisted, the Great Crusade had been the Great Sham: duped by propagandists, fed into a poorly led, poorly trained army, and then simply herded across no man's land, those soldiers fortunate enough to survive the killing fields in France returned to the United States stripped of any idealism or innocence.

Not surprisingly Willa Cather's novel of the Great War, One of Ours (1922), did not fare very well in Cooperman's analysis: the story of Claude Wheeler, a thwarted romantic who discovers in war the "something splendid" previously lacking in his life as a Nebraska farmer, hardly fits into the pattern of disenchantment that Cooperman located at the heart of American First World War literature. Thus, while noting Cather's presumably unintentional coupling of Claude's sexual frustration with his zest for combat, Cooperman dismissed the novel as sentimental and ignorant; unlike the eyewitnesses, who presumably knew better, Cather, who wrote of the war secondhand, simply perpetuated wartime propaganda, her "forever fresh faced, ruddy, and preferably Nordic" (Cooperman 31) young soldiers bearing little resemblance to the brutish cannon fodder of John Dos Passos's Three Soldiers or Thomas Boyd's Through the Wheat. Cooperman conceded the effectiveness of the Nebraska chapters; once the action shifts to France, however, One of Ours "falls back upon the stereotypes of war rhetoric, the picture of clean-cut American boys marching to save the world" (30). Nor was it possible, Cooperman claimed, to read this distasteful element of the novel ironically. Contrasting Dos Passos' social realism with Cather's alleged fantasies, Cooperman concluded, "where the naiveté of Three Soldiers represents dramatic irony, the naiveté in One of Ours represents Miss Cather herself" (33).

As Cather studies exploded in the 1980s, critics aspiring to resuscitate the novel offered counterthrusts to Cooperman's arguments by rejecting the notion that One of Ours is free from dramatic irony and by redefining the work as a character study rather than a war novel. 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" (326). At about the same time another influential Cather scholar, Susan J. Rosowski, approached the novel in terms of Claude Wheeler's "willed blindness," noting constant ironic discrepancies between the protagonist's enthusiasm and the often horrific scenes that confront him in the trenches. For Woodress and Rosowski both, One of Ours was a book not about the Great War but about Claude's limited perceptions of his Quixotic experiences, which reach their climax in his mock-heroic journey "over there." "The truth of the war," wrote Rosowski, "lay in a boy's experiences of it, and this boy was young, naive, and romantic. . . . Most certainly his views were shaped by convention; that is the point" (109).

I open this essay with such a lengthy summary of positions put forward by other critics in order to illustrate the two highly polarized readings that One of Ours tends to elicit—one dismissive of the text's apparent endorsement of patriotic clap-trap, the other resolutely committed to exposing an ironic subtext. Indeed, in surveying criticism from the 1990s one sees that opinion on the novel remains as starkly divided as the opposing trenches on the Western Front. Among the naysayers, for example, we find Hermione Lee, who considers One of Ours "a painful and unsatisfactory book" (179), due largely to its unsuccessful mythologizing of the Great War, and Guy Reynolds, who contends that after loading the novel with a number of shockingly gory scenes, Cather then seemingly felt entitled to "present the idealistic glory of war without apology" (121). In contrast, Merrill Maguire Skaggs emphatically asserts that "the central fact about One of Ours that one must see in order to read it intelligently at all is that the book is bathed and saturated in irony" (40). Clearly, as Cather critics, we have not yet agreed whether this troublesome novel is One of Ours or not; despite Skaggs's enviable confidence, there are still plenty of readers who would eject it from the Cather canon as a hopelessly dated period piece, one whose portrayal of personal liberation through war (if read without the expectation of irony) is entirely offensive.

In what follows I have tried to occupy a critical no man's land, if you will, between these two positions and, by situating the novel within a hitherto unfamiliar context, to offer a reading that stands as an alternative to both. Thus my analysis represents an effort to understand Cather's text not by placing it in relationship to other, now more "acceptable" war novels (such as Ernest Hemingway's Farewell to Arms or Three Soldiers), nor by approaching its more disturbing and problematic statements as necessarily ironic. Instead I want to look more closely at the relationship between One of Ours and America in the early 1920s, paying particular attention to Cather's adoption of a specific and culturally pervasive pattern of imagery. I essentially agree with the novel's detractors that One of Ours attempts to fit American participation in the Great War into a consoling mythic structure, that it represents more (or, for those who dislike the book, decidedly less) than a character study of a solitary lost Nebraskan. However, this statement should be modified in two ways. First, the mythologizing at work here is not to be confused with the propaganda used to generate support for the war effort while it was underway; rather, Cather's text reflects myths used by many Americans to remember the war and to make sense of the more than 100,000 American soldiers who died in it. As we will see, the visual imagery of military mourning and commemoration has a great bearing on the novel. Second, this myth-making is, as the ironic reading demonstrates through its very existence, often undermined by the incorporation of material that directly contradicts it or eludes its control—though this instability owes itself less, I believe, to conscious artistry (as the advocates of the ironic reading imply) than to the limitations of the myths themselves.

My claim that One of Ours is very much a novel about the Great War or, more specifically, what the war meant to Americans at a specific point in its aftermath perhaps first requires some justification. After all, more than half of the narrative takes place in Nebraska. And of course, one could argue that the war serves primarily as a vehicle for Cather's anatomy of a particular American youth, what Joseph Urgo calls the "prototype of the rebel without a cause" (157). Indeed, seen in this way, the war chapters address what happens when the rebel without a cause finally discovers one—the wrong one—and then becomes a mindless enthusiast and, paradoxically, the ultimate conformist; according to this reading, the war functions merely as a catalyst. Yet several pieces of evidence weigh against moving the Great War to the margins of the text, not the least of which (if we may momentarily indulge in the so-called intentional fallacy) are the testimony of Cather's own correspondence, in which she expresses her desire to offset the more negative view of American soldiers presented in Dos Passos's Three Soldiers (Lee 169), and the sheer level of intensive, highly personal engagement displayed by the writer as she worked on the novel from 1918 until 1922—a period, we should recall, during which Cather studied G. P. Cather's wartime letters to his mother, interviewed numerous soldiers, consulted a New Hampshire doctor's diary for details on troop ship epidemics, journeyed to her cousin's original grave site in France, and in short, did everything she could to understand what the war must have been like for a sensitive, inarticulate midwesterner. The novel's reception further suggests its interaction with myths of the American war experience. In particular, it seems doubtful that the hundreds of admiring letters that Cather received from former servicemen in 1922 commended the book as a dissection of a particular American type or as an alleged satire of martial idealism.[1] On the contrary, the book presumably appealed to many veterans precisely because it depicted a young American's love affair with France, as well as his sense of contributing to a noble and personally enriching cause. If Cather truly meant for the book to be wholly removed from the category of war fiction or to be read as a work of sustained irony, then the citation on the 1923 Pulitzer Prize awarded to One of Ours missed the point as well: "For the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood" (Schorer 452).[2]

So, if American participation in World War I is one of the central subjects in the text, does the novel celebrate the Great Crusade as Cooperman claimed? The answer is yes and no. The disparity between Cooperman's interpretation of One of Ours and Woodress's and Rosowski's suggests to me that the novel is itself deeply conflicted on the subject of the Great War, hardly a surprising conclusion once we consider that in the 1920s American attitudes toward the conflict were seldom clear-cut or uniform. True, a considerable number of servicemen turned novelists (such as Dos Passos and Boyd) did their best to demolish the myth of the Great Crusade—and as we will see, One of Ours contains plenty of scenes that rival these eyewitness authors in gruesome details. Yet affirmations of the myth also appeared, as thousands of veterans, many of whom had experienced the war at its worst, flocked to the newly founded American Legion, an organization devoted to celebrating American participation in the Great War, and as communities across the United States entered a commemoration craze so prolific that even today its legacy is ubiquitous. By the late 1920s the Kansas City metropolitan area, for example, could boast of its own miniature Arc de Triomphe (the Rosedale War Memorial, which overlooks Rainbow Boulevard, itself named after the famous 42nd "Rainbow" Division), a highway dedicated to the 35th Division (Harry S. Truman's outfit), the inevitable Pershing Boulevard (what city in America is without one?), and—to top it all off—the massive Liberty Memorial, a shrine to the 400 Kansas Citians killed in France, complete with twin museum chambers and a 217-foot observation tower. These domestic reminders of the doughboys' sacrifices and glory were paralleled abroad by the efforts of the American Battle Monuments Commission (chaired by Pershing himself), whose colossal shrines still loom over the long-forgotten battlefields of the Marne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne regions in France.

A memorializing effort of particular significance to One of Ours occurred in 1921 when the body of G. P. Cather, Willa's cousin and the model (in many respects) for Claude Wheeler, was disinterred from a war cemetery in France and returned to his hometown of Bladen, Nebraska. As far as I know, Cather did not witness the subsequent ceremony—the Bladen Examiner would almost certainly have commented on her presence if she had—but the episode illustrates the way in which the tendrils of military ritual and myth-making worked their way into the nation's collective consciousness and into the very soil of the Nebraska Catherland. As the first Nebraska officer killed in the Great War and a posthumous recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the deceased attracted all the ritual and fanfare that the American Legion and the citizens of Bladen could muster. Attended by more than 2,000 people, including former members of G.P. Cather's company, the burial ceremony featured a program in the Bladen Opera House, where the flag-draped casket was displayed beside the hero's eleven military medals, and culminated in a procession to the East Lawn Cemetery featuring "eight flower girls uniformed as red cross nurses" and a "hearse drawn by two white horses" ("Impressive Military Funeral"). The granite memorial subsequently erected in G. P. Cather's memory still stands, its bronze plaque bearing a likeness (considered accurate by those who knew him) of the uniformed officer. Though the American Battle Monuments Commission offered ample consolation for Americans affluent enough to visit the former Western Front, the reburial of American soldiers in their homeland—a gesture that sought literally to reincorporate the dead into the culturally and geographically familiar, thus evading any problematic realities "over there"—occurred in hundreds of communities across the nation and reached its symbolic culmination, also in 1921, with the interment of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

Rather than reverting to "war rhetoric," then, Cather's novel actually utilized what I will call an iconography of remembrance, a collection of images and metaphors that runs throughout these acts of commemoration and that was embraced by thousands, if not millions, of Americans in the 1920s in order to make sense of a bewildering and costly national experience, one that claimed twice as many American lives as the Vietnam War. The presence of this iconography in One of Ours is hardly surprising when we consider that the book is, in a sense, a memorial—a memorial both to its protagonist, who dies a hero's death in the penultimate chapter, and (less directly) to G. P. Cather, the focus of the novelist's obsessive interest for four years. In other words Cather's subject, one of a life cut short by war, invited a then-popular discourse of mourning and commemoration. Viewed from a position of hindsight, after twentieth-century history has rendered the concept of the Great Crusade absurd, it is easy to dismiss this dimension of the novel as propagandistic (Cooperman's position) or to conclude that anything that might seem dated to readers today is therefore intentionally ironic (Skaggs's view); neither of these interpretations, I think, fully addresses the novel within its cultural context. To do so requires the excavation of all-but-forgotten historical artifacts, including American war memorials and unit histories, both designed as homages to the dead.

One motif linking the novel to such artifacts is Cather's emphasis on eastward movement—or, if you will, manifest destiny in reverse. Indeed, One of Ours might have been called "The Journey Eastward." Cather opens the novel, suggestively, at sunrise and sends her protagonist (whose childhood bedroom naturally faces the east) first to Lincoln, where he awakens to the artistic richness of Europe, then to France, where he dies defending a sense of culture and sophistication all but forbidden on the practical American plains. Moreover, the titles of the final three books create a triptych that conveys the theme of eastward flight: "Sunrise on the Prairie," "The Voyage of the Anchises," and "Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On."

As these titles suggest, One of Ours offers a new myth of American destiny and places this destiny in a new direction—not west, on the frontier, but east, in the Old World. As Joseph Urgo writes, the novel "situates itself on a liminal moment in American history . . . when the nation made its turn away from hemispheric isolation toward involvement in a major European war"(145)—and, I would add, away from the preoccupation with the now-vanished frontier toward the notion of the New World triumphantly rescuing the Old. Early in the novel, as the sun sets behind Denver Claude sees "the statue of Kit Carson on horseback pointing westward," but the era of endless possibilities closer to the Pacific has now, literally, entered its twilight: "there was no West, in that sense, anymore" (100). More than any of Cather's other novels, One of Ours signals the death of the American frontier and all its attendant mythology. Mechanization and intolerant, evangelical Protestantism (the ironically satanic, spark-emitting auto-mobile that Claude's wife, Enid, drives to and from her temperance meetings unites the two) have taken over the prairie where Claude's father once encountered Indians and buffalo. And, in place of the vibrant, ethnically diverse setting presented in O Pioneers! or My Ántonia, with its rich blend of first-generation immigrants and frontier free-spirits, the first half of Cather's war novel confronts us with an increasingly consumer-oriented and homogenized American Midwest, a place of cultural conformity, big business, and the emergence of everything associated with the appropriately constrictive term "Bible belt." Like James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus—or, for that matter, Tom Outland, the similarly thwarted young American in Cather's The Professor's House—Claude ultimately flies eastward from a suffocating homeland, and again like Dedalus, he seeks the destiny promised by his name: in Nebraska, Claude realizes, people pronounce his name as if he were a clod of dirt; only in France will the Gallic beauty and romantic potential of his title be understood.

Though this notion of war as the means of delivery from an oppressive, frontierless America is understandably absent in patriotic memorials, which typically portray the Great Crusade as an extension of domestic virtues abroad, the imagery of triumphant eastward motion is virtually universal—and not only in monuments constructed by Americans. Perhaps its most spectacular and stirring incarnation appears in the French shrine to the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American aviators who served with the Allies prior to the American declaration of war. Located near Paris, the shrine features a series of enormous stained-glass windows that depict an American eagle, outlined in biplanes, crossing the Atlantic, soaring above Mont-Saint-Michel, and driving eastward toward the enemy in the skies above Chateau-Thierry and Hartmannswillerkopf. The motif was also embraced by an organization whose memorializing efforts were of particular significance to the Cather family, namely the Society of the First Division, the regular army division with which G. P. Cather served until his death at the battle of Cantigny. Founded in 1919 by former field officers, the society sponsored reunions, supervised the construction of divisional monuments in France, and ultimately recorded the exploits of the "Big Red One" in an elegantly formatted book, the History of the First Division during the World War (1922). Here, as in the Lafayette Escadrille shrine, images of eastward movement abound: we see troopships resolutely pitted against the stormy Atlantic and, in one particularly evocative pen-and-ink drawing, a Gallic rooster encircled by the sunrise with an American flag waving in the background. Another illustration, entitled the "The Chosen Corp," depicts an army of phantoms (like the Angels of Mons) marching ever onward in the clouds above a French cemetery (figure 1). Even the dead, it would seem, moved east—despite the fact that American soldiers quickly adopted the British expression "gone west" as a euphemism for phrases like "blown up" or "machine-gunned."

In addition to this relentless emphasis on eastward movement, One of Ours shares with the commemorative gestures of its day a distinct variety of medievalism. Given the belief, widely held in the 1920s, that America had "come to the rescue" of civilized Europe and defeated a nation of barbarians who disregarded the rules of limited warfare, it is not surprising that chivalric motifs pervade the iconography of remembrance. For example, the United States Victory Medal, awarded to every American participant in the Great War, displays on its face the image of Civilization, a winged, Valkyrie-like Amazon armed with a sword. Likewise, the official certificate given to veterans wounded overseas depicts the robed figure of Columbia knighting a kneeling soldier whose steel helmet (adopted, ironically, to deflect such thoroughly modern projectiles as high-power bullets and shrapnel) gives him a conveniently medieval appearance. The rhetoric of the document matches the flamboyance of its visual image. Its caption reads, "Columbia bestows to her son the Accolade of the New Chivalry of Humanity." In the same vein, an illustration from the History of the 77th Division, the New York unit that included the famous "Lost Battalion," captures the so-called Spirit of the Argonne in the form of a Yankee Colossus who, outfitted with sword, helmet, and shield, bears down on diminutive Huns (figure 2).

In One of Ours Claude Wheeler first imbibes the romance of the Middle Ages and receives his first impressions of the country for which he will give his life through the legend of Joan of Arc. As a child Claude discovers an old picture of the Maid of Orleans dressed in her armor and learns the "essential facts" of her story, appropriately enough, from his mother, who subsequently parallels the medieval heroine by combining militancy with saintly faith when the Germans invade Belgium. Later, after momentarily escaping from Temple College to study European history at the University of Nebraska, Claude writes a thesis examining the Maid's testimony during her trial. Significantly, the project becomes "for a time . . . the most important thing in his life" (53). Throughout Claude's adolescence and early adulthood Joan of Arc stands literally at the center of his conception of France, a deeply romantic vision that Cather renders through a string of phrases linked by ellipses: "about [Joan of Arc's] figure there gathered a luminous cloud, like dust, with soldiers in it . . . the banners with lilies .. . a great church . . . cities with walls" (54). Joan of Arc's story also demonstrates, at least to Cather's protagonist, that "ideals were not archaic things, beautiful and impotent; they were real sources of power among men" (339). As he prepares his thesis, Claude suddenly marvels at the way in which "a character could perpetuate itself . . . by a picture, a word, a phrase" and "be born over and over again in the minds of children" (54).

Characters in Cather's fiction often experience such visionary moments or epiphanies—as Jim Burden does throughout My Ántonia—while constructing mythologies that bestow a sense of order and meaning to their lives. Yet Joan of Arc is an icon whose significance extends far beyond Claude's individual history and the parameters of Cather's text. In fact, the Maid of Orleans played a significant role in the way grieving Americans looked back on the Great War, embodying both the spirit of France for which the doughboys fought, and in many cases sacrificed themselves, and the virtues of the chaste Christian soldier, a creature that the YMCA (whose somewhat less than popular field canteens and wholesome entertainments the American army heartily endorsed) had tried its best to manufacture in France. Once again, if we open the History of the First Division during the World War, we see that Cather's text shares an iconography that must have appealed to nostalgic veterans and bereaved family members alike. The frontispiece, for example, portrays an American soldier on horseback flanked by medieval nobility, including Richard the Lion-Hearted (whose tomb several of Cather's soldiers visit in Rouen); to the soldier's right, hovering near his divisional banner and leading him forward with an inverted sword, is Joan of Arc (figure 3). Another painting, entitled "The Gold Star" (a reference to the ribbon pin that signified participation in a battle), also illustrates this frothy mixture of medievalism, martial regalia, and the militant Christianity associated with the French saint: here, beside the profile of a helmeted youth, a crucifix appears—superimposed on a medieval broadsword (figure 4).

Like the stained-glass windows of the Lafayette Escadrille shrine, these paintings capture, at least for me, the spirit of Claude's war experience, as related by a narrator whose viewpoint often seems inseparable from the protagonist's—or at the very least extremely difficult to distinguish. Through their heraldry and evocations of medieval heroes (and heroine), they place the American soldier triumphantly within the traditions of Europe; in the same way, Claude discovers a sense of belonging, of connection, in the Old World that culminates in his idyllic afternoon with Mme Olive. The antithesis of Claude's born-again wife, who leaves him in order to join her missionary sister in China, Mme. Olive is also a modern Joan of Arc, still elegant and cultivated but exhausted by war. Claude's rapport with her is almost instantaneous. He becomes "almost lost to himself in the feeling of being completely understood, of being no longer a stranger" and concludes that "[t]wo people could hardly give each other more if they were together for years" (316). Appropriately, it is shortly after this profound encounter that Claude contemplates the inscription on the graves of unknown French soldiers ("Soldat Inconnu, Mort pour La France") and realizes the depth of his own devotion to France: "A very good epitaph, Claude was thinking. Most of the boys who fell in this war were unknown, even to themselves. They were too young. They died and took their secret with them,—what they were and might have been. The name that stood was La France. How much that name had come to mean to him, since he first saw a shoulder of land bulk up in the dawn from the deck of the Anchises" (318-19).

By examining monuments and divisional histories I have argued that One of Ours, while shaped by Cather's unique imagination, also reflects a then-popular effort to establish a consoling mythology of the Great War. Yet any consideration of imagery in One of Ours would be incomplete without acknowledging that the narrative sometimes lurches out of control and momentarily accommodates an ironic, even nihilistic, vision of the Great Crusade, the very thing that the iconography of remembrance sought to dispel. Perhaps the best example of this instability occurs when Claude and several fellow officers bathe in a shell hole. The scene opens innocently enough, as yet another display of the indomitable good humor (and inevitable good looks) that Cooperman found so offensive in Cather's crusaders. But then Claude retrieves a grisly relic from the bottom of the makeshift swimming hole—a German helmet "coated with rust and full of slime." The men scramble out as "big sleepy bubbles" rise to the surface. Claude has unwittingly "opened a graveyard" (296). Instances of the grotesque or the macabre are not unusual in Cather's fiction; one thinks of the bizarre vignette in My Ántonia in which a mysterious tramp hurls himself into a thresher or of Pavel and Peter, renowned throughout their native Russia as "the men who had fed the bride to the wolves" (40). Yet the bathing scene in One of Ours is more sinister than these seemingly arbitrary instances of horror: as if lifted from one of Siegfried Sassoon's wartime shock poems or the pages of All Quiet on the Western Front, the episode ominously juxtaposes the naked physiques of young soldiers with corpses;[3] war, we see, is a matter of turning healthy young men into bloated cadavers at the bottom of a muddy hole. And Claude's own body, though killed Hollywood-style with a bullet through the heart, will ultimately undergo the same corruption.

As if to curtail such terrible implications, Cather ends the scene on a strained note of humor as Claude and his companions erect a sign that facetiously designates the shell hole "a Private Beach" (296). In other places, however, the horror of the Great War enters the text with such force that the mythic structure collapses entirely. When Claude and Sergeant Hicks encounter a 16-year-old English soldier, for example, they receive a chilling lesson in the realities of modern, industrialized warfare. The boy calmly describes how his Pals Battalion was massacred at the Somme: "We couldn't even get to the wire. . . . We went over [the top] a thousand, and we came back seventeen" (204). And finally, as Claude broods over the graves of the unknown soldiers, absorbed in his bittersweet contemplation of La France, the more down-to-earth Sergeant Hicks points to the absurdity of the war in a moving (albeit implausible) speech that seems to come from a different novel: "Somehow, Lieutenant, 'mort' seems deader than 'dead.' It has a coffinish sound. And over there they're all 'tod,' and it's all the same damned silly thing. Look at them set out here, black and white, like a checkerboard. The next question is, who put 'em here, and what's the use of it?" (319). As these disturbing and incongruous scenes suggest, there were clearly moments when Cather doubted the reassurance offered by her own iconography.

Unlike Skaggs and other advocates of the ironic reading, however, I do not see these breakdowns in Cather's mythology as evidence of a sophisticated subtext that runs throughout the book; rather, they demonstrate the strain to which the notion of the Great Crusade was subjected as it attempted to explain a complex and, in many ways, puzzling episode in the nation's history. As Reynolds points out, "[t]he unevenness of the text, the technical failures and clashing discourses, testify to Cather's difficulties in gauging the true 'national significance' of the war" (123). Yet such problems were not simply Cather's; they pervade the cluttered, overly insistent imagery of American First World War memorials as well as the tortured, quasi-Masonic symbolism contained in the unit histories that sought to justify and to explain their "rolls of honor." Cather's difficulty in determining the "national significance" of the war is, I believe, what stands at the very heart of One of Ours (hence the polarized readings that the novel attracts), and it is what most ties the text to its cultural milieu. Therefore, in closing, I would like to suggest something of the troublesome ambiguity that surrounded the American experience of the Great War, an ambiguity that Cather perhaps sought to dispel through myth but only succeeded in recreating.

In the eyes of France, Great Britain and Canada (whose combined casualties in the Great War numbered more than 6 million) the lavishness of American war memorials, both at home and abroad, must have seemed disproportionate to the United States's actual achievements. After entering the conflict in its fifth act and suffering only a fraction of the casualties inflicted their allies, the Yanks apparently wanted more than their fair share of credit. When examined more closely, however, the memorials' gigantism and allegorical excess express not boastfulness but uncertainty, an uncertainty that has its origins in the contradictory realities of America's Great Crusade. Indeed, almost everything about American participation in World War I defied assimilation into a tidy master narrative. Although 1 million American soldiers fought in the six-week battle of the Meuse-Argonne and endured a poison gas-filled hell equal in misery to the very worst campaigns of World War II, their contribution to the Allied victory in November 1918 remained questionable, even dubious. One historian, in fact, has described Pershing's exhausted army as "reaching the end of its tether" by the time of the Armistice (Cooke 251). For the real "Spirit of the Argonne" one need only peruse period photographs that depict 10-mile-long traffic jams leading to the battlefield or consult the often hair-raising statistics tucked away at the back of unit histories: for example, by the end of its five-day stint in this terrible battle the 139th Infantry, a regiment of Kansas National Guardsmen, could assemble only 58 percent of its enlisted men and 53 percent of its officers (Kenamore 48); the rest were either dead, wounded, or "missing" (a category that included "stragglers from the lines," men who had basically run for their lives). Equally revealing is the fact that G. P. Cather's First Division, the longest serving in the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF), received more than 30,000 replacements during its year and a half in France.[4] Since a division at full strength contained approximately 27,000 men, this figure says volumes about the typical doughboy's chances, once in battle, of avoiding illness, shellshock, wounding, or death.

Yet despite the grim odds faced by Americans unfortunate enough to experience combat, the war seemed, in many ways, anticlimactic. Only a quarter of the 4 million men inducted into the U.S. Army in 1917 and 1918 ever heard a hostile shot. Only 2 million ever reached France. And then there was disease (principally influenza), which, to the consternation of those wishing to view the war dead as evidence of American martial ferocity, claimed roughly the same number of lives (about 55,000) as German bullets and shells (Stallings 375-81). Nor did the immediate aftermath of the Great War fail to shroud the event in contradiction and ambiguity. Woodrow Wilson's humiliating concessions at Versailles, where Allied statesmen made the Second World War inevitable, followed by the refusal of the American Congress to support the League of Nations, called into question whether the world would ever be made safe for democracy. In addition, while the nation spent millions on war memorials men disabled during the conflict received little if anything from the newly created Veterans Bureau, an organization so corrupt that its exposure during Senate hearings in 1923 was second only to the Teapot Dome scandal in outrageous revelations (see Severo and Milford 247-63).

Thus, with their penchant for abstraction, idealistic rhetoric, and baroque, symbol-laden imagery, American war memorials and unit histories represented not mindless jingoism but a sincere, perhaps even desperate, effort to impose meaning upon a perplexing set of incongruities. In this sense they protest too much, their very excesses exposing the void they seek to conceal. Cather also struggled to interpret an event that affected her intimately. Most notably, the war had rained destruction upon France, a nation she deeply loved, and claimed the life of her Nebraska cousin, whose restlessness and fear of stagnation while living on the Plains, she came to discover, partially resembled her own. Cather's anxieties while researching and writing One of Ours, an act of compulsion carried out over four years, reveal the insistent demands that the war made upon her imagination: she knew that her best work involved the remembrance of things long past, but she pushed ahead with One of Ours, a work of considerable immediacy, anyway. By the same token, she recognized the seemingly insurmountable difficulties faced by a noncombatant in describing modern warfare, but nevertheless she made the attempt. Put another way, for Cather, like millions of Americans, the Great War simply had to be cast into coherent myth. It had to be made sense of. It is little wonder, then, that the novel Cather ultimately produced both utilizes a popular imagery of consolation and remembrance (after all, the death of a relatively famous and honored family member partially inspired the text) and displays subtle tensions and ambiguities. By mirroring the consciousness of its romantic protagonist, who dies fulfilled, exuberantly defending La France, One of Ours became a war memorial in words akin to those created in granite or stained glass. But Cather was too complex of an artist not to leave some cracks in Claude's monument.


This essay is based on a paper that I delivered as the after-luncheon address at the 1997 Midwestern meeting of the Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society, held in Red Cloud, Nebraska. I wish to thank Kris Bair for her kind invitation to speak and the members of the audience for their patience (during what proved to be a rather lengthy presentation) and encouragement. I am also indebted to James Barloon, Marilyn Coffey, and Robert Rook, all of whom scoured the manuscript for blunders and, as usual, offered invaluable suggestions.

 1. Edith Lewis later recollected snippets of this fan mail: "'I was in France for over three years, first with the French Foreign Legion, and later with the Americans. And I think that the last part of One of Ours is the most perfect picture of the war that I have read.' . . . 'I cannot express the emotions you have aroused—I have not felt them since I went through Hoboken in a troop train'—this was the sort of thing they wrote. Some of the letters might have been written by Claude Wheeler himself'" (Lewis 123). (Go back.)
 2. In Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant's opinion, One of Ours received the Pulitzer for one simple reason: "Thousands of American parents and many veterans, too, saw the rewards of their sacrifices here displayed gloriously" (181). The inscription on the prize, stipulated in the Pulitzer will, led to Sinclair Lewis's notorious refusal of the award in 1926; for a full account, see Schorer 451-53. (Go back.)
 3. Among American writers disenchanted with the Great Crusade, the juxtaposition of nudity with the horrific power of modern weapons was virtually a convention. For example, Lawrence Stalling's novel Plumes opens with the image of its protagonist showering under a water-tap in Paris; the rest of the novel documents his torturous recovery from multiple leg wounds. (Go back.)
 4. This figure appears on a period postcard (produced by the YMCA) that lists the accomplishments of the First Division, which included losing more men than practically any other unit in the AEF. Total casualties for the division numbered 21,612. The "Roll of Honor" in the History of the First Division during the World War, which lists the names of the 4,411 First Division soldiers who died in France, takes up more than 60 pages. (Go back.)


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