In The Music Man, a musical comedy set in the early 1900s, the conman and boys' band salesman Harold Hill, who is aboard a train bound for central Iowa, answers the question "How far are you going, friend?" with the quip "Wherever the people are as green as the money, friend." This answer, though comic, conveys a perception of the people of Middle America that Cather undoubtedly recognized and, to some degree, embraced. The American doughboys she pictures in One of Ours, and not just Claude Wheeler, are representatives of this American type and of what her friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher called "dear, tender-hearted, uncomprehending America" (241). While Claude has rightfully been described and criticized as a romantic quester and idealist whose beautiful beliefs make his character unbelievable in the face of the realities of war, what has gone largely unrecognized is that Claude and his compatriots are cut from the same cloth. They are all, or once were, as green as their money, and if Claude is innocent in the extreme, his fellow doughboys are equally naïfs, bumbling young Adams before the Fall.
That these young soldiers come from the center of the nation —largely Kansas and Nebraska—is more than an indication of Cather's personal roots. They are sons of the not undefiled but less contaminated frontier of the Middle West. Like Ellen Boardman in Canfield Fisher's war story "A Little Kansas Leaven," they empathize greatly, dream largely, and strut innocently. Their simple idealism is America's lost heritage, revived for her salvation. While the last third of One of Ours focuses on Claude and his perceptions of war and of his fellow soldiers, Cather's narrative voice—not to be confused with Claude's—introduces more than one green doughboy whose entrenched values are unassailable and who embraces his mission as "God's errand into the wilderness." To keep clear the distinction between Claude's vision and Cather's is tantamount in understanding this text. As Jean Schwind points out in her article "The 'Beautiful' War in One of Ours," Claude's "romantic vision of war" (56) and "the romantic sensibility" of the novel are "part of Cather's fiction, and not the unintentional by-product of her authorial naïveté" (57). When Schwind asserts that Claude's "beautiful beliefs in One of Ours are exclusively Claude's" (56), she distinguishes between the narrative and authorial viewpoints, but Claude's view is not singular among those offered by other characters of the novel. It belongs to Claude's compatriots as well. Claude is not the only romantic boy who goes off to war.
In the first chapters of "The Voyage of the Anchises," Cather repeatedly refers to the recruits as "boys," using "men" almost exclusively when they act in concert and under command. As boys, they "moan and shout" (267) when their train makes an unexpected stop, they crowd to the windows to discover the cause, and they come running back to leap aboard the train as it, "like an old turkey-hen," recalls its brood (269). The "boys were disappointed," Cather writes (272), when a misty morning obscures the New York skyline and ruins their "vacation" vista. For the "twenty-five hundred boys, as for Claude" (273), their first glimpse of Lady Liberty inspires a fierce patriotism, and they sail forth "like nothing but a crowd of American boys going to a football game somewhere" (272). They wear looks of "fine candour, . . . cheerful expectancy and confident goodwill" (280-81). In Claude's estimation a "modelled" face like that of the marine Albert Usher stands out as more manly. His regrets and reminiscences seem filled with experiential meaning that is lacking in the Swedish "boys" whose rendition of "Long, Long Ago" entertains the troops (283).
The "open, credulous face" of Claude, whom Victor Morse recognizes as a "novice" (288-89), is replicated in the troops who have made homage to their Goddess Liberty. Their naïveté begins to erode, though, as the flu epidemic sweeps the ship. "The boys lay in heaps on the deck, trying to keep warm by hugging each other close," and Cather writes tellingly that "excepting those who were sick, the boys turned out to a man" for the first burial at sea (293, italics added). Even the big German-American Fritz Tannhauser dies "in perfect dignity . . . like a brave boy giving back what was not his to keep." Like the others, he was "one of those farmer boys" who "only wanted to serve" (300). During the height of the epidemic, Claude, as naïve as his companions, sees one of his "men misconducting himself, snivelling and crying like a baby —a fine husky boy of eighteen who had never given any trouble" (294). Claude's success in bringing the boy back to a manly pose is due largely to his identification with the youth. They are both Nebraska boys, whose towns, Claude reminds him, thought they were sending off men and fine soldiers (295).
That Cather chose the term "boy" to characterize these raw recruits is hardly accidental. As Steven Trout notes in his work on Cather and the iconography of the war, "Cather relied in part on the kind of imagery used by organizations such as the American Legion, the Red Cross, and the Society of the First Division" (66) in writing One of Ours as a kind of memorial fiction to her lost cousin, and to those Nebraska boys so like him. Surrounded by the greatest propaganda campaign in history in support of a war, Cather realistically described the naïve enthusiasm of her culture in recruiting its boys for what would be the greatest slaughter of the modern era. In Words That Won the War, James R. Mock and Cedric Larson summarize the power of that campaign on the nation as a whole: "The Committee on Public Information had done its work so well that there was a burning eagerness to believe, to conform, to feel the exaltation of joining in a great and selfless enterprise" (6). The campaign reached into even the remotest areas and targeted specifically those rugged youths of rural America whose strength and stamina would offer the best hope for "bleeding France." So effective was the dissemination of this propaganda that when a "simple, uneducated family, far from urban centers of information and five thousand miles across the sea and land from the battlefields of France, sat down to a threshers' supper in the summer of 1918 they were more conscious of the World War than many more literate people had been of any war since fighting began" (Mock and Larson 6).
That vast appeal to the nation to give up its sons, its boys, was reinforced by a barrage of war posters, which Cather undoubtedly saw. To secure family support for the doughboys, the Victory Boys organization, for example, launched its poster campaign with phrases such as "A million boys behind a million fighters" and "Every American Boy should Enroll in the Victory Boys." For the brothers who were left out of the great adventure because they were too young, here was the opportunity to support the older "boys." One Victory Boys poster showed a little farm boy in overalls with his hand on the shoulder of a soldier who thrusts his bayonet forward. Even if they were too young to serve, boys were not too young to help the war effort. Likewise, the YMCA campaign touted, "Help Us Help Our Boys." In these posters, youth like Claude and his compatriots are pictured as uniformed boys who are little different than they were back home. The YMCA lass pours coffee "For Your Boy"; the Red Cross is "Our Boys' Big Brother," ushering them toward a cozy, lighted home on a hillside in France. Numerous posters call for socks and books for "our boys," and the Salvation Army, picturing an all-American maid with doughnuts and coffee, assures that they "get it to the boys in the trenches over there." Parents are pictured encouraging others to buy liberty bonds for their boys. "You Help My Boy Win the War," pleads one mother whose soldier son's arm encircles her. Even industry is targeted through the U.S. Fuel Administration poster to "Stand by the Boys in the Trenches: Mine More Coal."
Even living in Frankfort, Nebraska, Claude too would have been inundated by such images and influenced by their sophistries. Like his companions, Claude is, to a large degree, "the provincial American midwesterner [who] was not accustomed to dealing with words and abstractions" (Cooperman 52-53). Embracing the war rhetoric that described not only himself but also the bestial Hun, Claude is forced to reconsider his preconceived notions of self-identity and of otherness. The idea of the German Menace, as depicted in war posters, is foreign to his experience. He has only known hard-working German farm neighbors and the well-educated, gracious Erlich brothers, all of whom he admires. Claude muses, "a month ago he would have said they had all the ideals a decent American boy would fight for. . . . He still cherished the hope that there had been some great mistake; that this splendid people would apologize and right itself with the world" (166, italics added). To justify his enlistment, Claude can embrace the war rhetoric, even if never fully convinced of its truth, and he remains, as Stanley Cooperman writes, "a good boy, a pure adolescent," and he will be "a brave soldier, an effective officer" (130).
When he then finds himself part of the AEF, Claude is neither still a boy, though perhaps he longs to be, nor yet fully a man. The iconography of the war confirms that he must, though, play a double role in the national imagination. The posters refer to the men in uniform when the troops are wounded or at a military disadvantage: "Our men need drugs and bandages," proclaims one war bond poster; "Our men need first aid kits," reads another. "Shoot Ships to Germany and help American Win," claims a 1917 poster, for without ships, "our men will not have an equal chance to fight." As Cooperman argues, then, "It was still possible for the young men setting out on their bold journey in 1916 or 1917, backed by rhetoric and traditional ideas of what was involved with fighting, to think of war in terms of traditional heroism and a chance for a free visit to a Europe they knew largely from novels" (46). Anxious to escape the narrow experiences of small-town Middle America, they could envision themselves joining "the men of history books, the brave soldiers of destiny, doing something more vital than putting in a crop and wondering what the prices would be next harvest time" (Cooperman 52, italics added).
Like Claude, the doughboys thus were destined to live "a double life" (303). They are men on the outside but unflagging boys on the inside. Not having yet developed the "wisdom of the serpent" (as has Victor Morse) or the cultural sophistication of David Gerhardt, the doughboys arrive in France starved for homegrown food and for affection. The "boys" fall like wolves upon the cheesemaker's stock (325) and, like Canfield Fisher's characters, throw American greenbacks at everything in a kind of apology for their behaviors. The shopkeeper sees them as "grown men" (327) with "large, well-shaped hands" (325); simultaneously, they are little boys who cannot even count money and care not if they are cheated. They bumble about on ungainly adolescent legs, stubbing their toes and then examining with keen interest the sunken step, the perpetrating cause of their accident (327). Their "good humour" is unabashed by any situation, and they cannot recognize the flimsiness of the "fictitious values" that they believe will protect them from harm (326). They wear their innocence like a shield, convinced that they will make the world safe. They explore churches because in their minds it was an inescapable duty to do so. Like little boys—Cather's word choice—they express astonishment that fields actually host poppies and that alfalfa grows anyplace beyond the American prairies (339). Every doughboy has his plans to visit Paris, each with a different and confused mental picture of what he will find there. They associate with the famous city "only attributes they [have] been taught to admire"—immensity, vastness, hugeness (341).
Convinced that they harbor secret knowledge that could repair and restore "bleeding France," these boys vow to return after the war and to establish an American Eden, themselves acting as young Adams who will install waterworks and teach the French peasant how to farm. This singular self-assuredness of youth is a cultural bluster that disguises an innocence both attractive in its idealism and repulsive in its arrogance. Claude reminds his "boys" about Americans' bad reputation for "butting in on things" (343), but they laugh off the idea as ludicrous. In their naïveté they are confident that they best model all that is great and good in life, and they cling to time-honored beliefs, one even stoutly arguing that cherubim still guard the Garden of Eden.
All in all, the young Americans, who believe themselves progressive and knowing, mimic the Pal Battalions of "fresh-faced school boys" that they encounter (377). Like the British youth battalions, who, as Claude observes, were "a giggly lot," the American doughboys too are "very young" (374), Cather writes. But Claude doesn't believe that "American boys ever seem as young as that" (378). Claude implicitly makes the distinction between his American boys and British lads, a linguistic variant that underscores the kind of relationship Claude would later develop with the troops under his command. Members of the Pal Battalions are the endearing lads of the Victorian aesthetic movement: fair-haired, "especially beautiful, brave, pure, and vulnerable," the "bright boy knights" (Fussell 275). Cather, an admirer of A. E. Housman's work, was surely aware that the Shropshire Lad (1896) had essentially given to the war the image of the "beautiful brave doomed boy" (Fussell 282). In British diction, though, the designation "brave boys" is an homoerotic extension of the term "men" but connotes less sexual attachment than the term "lad" (Fussell 282). Claude, who embraces the American idiom, does not perceive of these "fresh-faced schoolboys" in such terms. Rather than potential lovers, they are pathetic sacrifices to a god of war. He dismisses them as unlike his own doughboys, who were true soldiers, the rightful subjects of patriotic song: "Turn the dark cloud inside out, / Till the boys come home" ("Keep the Home Fires Burning"). Claude would separate the men from the boys, but for Americans back home, the men of the AEF were their boys.
Terribly afraid of "being disliked" and even more afraid of being duped (380), the naïve doughboys are cheered by anything that reminds them of home and the strength of the America that lay behind them—American goods boxes, binders, and even field flowers. Taking to heart the French perception of them as heaven-sent saviors, "men of destiny" (390), these naïve doughboys would, like "new men, just created in a new world" (433), re-create in Beaufort the prairie Edens they have left behind.
That Cather intended Claude as the prototype of the young and naïve American soldiers is without question. Drawing upon the character of her cousin G.P. Cather, who was killed at Cantigny in 1918, Cather made clear that her protagonist was "just a red-headed prairie boy" whom she came to know better than herself. While she found it hard to "cut out all picture making" in this novel because, as she noted, "that boy does not see pictures," she was willing "to pay the price" for conveying an accurate portrait of "this boy" (qtd. in Mahoney 39). Cather allowed to Claude, even on the battlefield, a more culturally enlightened companion, like the Erlich brothers, who could introduce him to "many human and cultural pleasures and realizations" (Sergeant 183), uncolored by the rosy hues of naïve idealism. This "man" appears as David Gerhardt.
Gerhardt's character was, Cather admitted, inspired by her acquaintance with David Hochstein, the young violinist whom she had first met in 1916. In writing to friends about her three brief encounters with Hochstein, Cather notably refers to him as a "man," never a boy, although he was at age twenty-four approximately the age of Claude. He inculcated the "something splendid" that Claude would seek, and Cather uses that very word, first to describe Hochstein's playing and later in recording his attitude toward his comrades in camp: the men were "splendid," "fine fellows," and he was "learning a great deal" from them, he remarked ("Fiction Recalls" 54). On her first encounter with Hochstein, Cather noted his youthfulness—"very young and fresh among the older men"—but she carefully avoids referring to him as boyish. He is, instead, "a very thoughtful young man" who kept his opinions to himself and didn't draw "rash and comforting conclusions" about the war (53). Like Gerhardt, this man did not accept that "any war could end war" or that this war would make the world safe for democracy (53). Later meeting Hochstein after he had been in camp for a few weeks, Cather saw "a much discouraged young man" and writes that "It was soldiers of his kind, who hadn't any simple, joyful faith or any feeling of being out for a lark, who gave up most, certainly" (54). Like G.P. Cather, Hochstein died in France in 1918, and Cather later found herself recalling the violinist when she was searching for a character who could provide for Claude that "splendid friendship" with someone he could admire. Hochstein's figure "walked into my study," she said, and became that friend, David Gerhardt. She writes, "I had not known him very well, but neither would Claude Wheeler know him very well; the farmer boy hadn't the background, the sophistication to get very far with a man like Hochstein" (qtd. in Bohlke 56-57). In this statement alone, Cather confirms her intent to separate the men from the boys and sets the stage for the encounter of naïve idealism with mature realism in her so-called war novel.
Cather introduces Gerhardt to her narrative through Lieutenant Colonel Scott's viewpoint. He tells Captain Maxey, who needs a replacement officer, "I think I've got a man here . . . a New York man . . . who [has] some experience" (346). While Claude finds nothing patronizing in Gerhardt's manner, he is "ill at ease" with the young officer, perhaps because, as Cather writes, "he did not look boyish" (347). Claude's later assessment of "a man like Gerhardt" as belonging over here in the war because he "had always lived in a more or less rose-coloured world" (375) not only smacks of irony but also reveals Claude's limited understanding of the complex man with whom he billets. By contrast, Claude views the dead Victor Morse as heroic, a kind of "debauched baby," a "little fellow from a little town" for whom the war provided a cinematic backdrop to die like a rebel angel (375). Cather believed that it was men like Gerhardt and Hochstein, not the Victor Morses, who would give up the most in a war like this one, but the boyish Claude is incredulous when Gerhardt asserts that he's lost "much more than time" and can "never go back to the violin" (407). Like Hochstein, Gerhardt explains that he sought no exemption from service: "I didn't feel I was a good enough violinist to admit that I wasn't a man" (407). Almost replicating her own comments on Hochstein, Cather has Gerhardt remark that he doesn't know what the war is for, but it is "certainly not to make the world safe for Democracy, or any rhetoric of that sort" (409).
In his subsequent admission that he now believes in immortality, something about which Claude is confused and unsure, Gerhardt separates himself from the boys philosophically, much as he is separated from them socially. Echoing the Biblical passage "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child; . . . when I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (I Corinthians 13:11), Gerhardt comments that such "ideas used to seem childish to me" but recognizes how befuddling these ideas are still to a boy like Claude. "Oh, don't bother about it!" he advises Claude. "If it comes to you, it comes" (410). Claude, now twenty-five, is "having his youth in France" (410-11); David is concluding his manhood. What seems "childish" to Claude is not the troubling ideas of life, death, and immortality but the absurd tensions he had felt as a prairie youth when he thought he was "going to miss everything" (411). Now part of the "big show" (358), as the war was called, he sees as destiny his meeting with "a man like Gerhardt" whom "he could envy, emulate, wish to be" (411).
Like so many of his fellow doughboys, though, Claude, with his romantic idealism, is destined to remain a boy, never to become the man he wishes to be. After hearing David play his violin for Madame Fleury, Claude has a brief epiphany about his own inadequacies. He is "torn between generous admiration and bitter, bitter envy" (418). Cather writes: "He felt that a man might have been made of him, but nobody had taken the trouble to do it" (418). But, like the boys he commands, Claude lapses into a romantic illusion that the beautiful things in life are recoverable. He tells Gerhardt, "It's men like you that get the worst of it. . . . But as for me, I never knew there was anything worth living for, till this war came on" (419). Claude refuses to believe that the war "has killed everything" (418); in fact, he asserts, "I don't believe it has killed anything. It has only scattered things" (419). The distinct gulf between Claude's voice and Cather's is evident here. Her affection for this "inarticulate" youth "butting his way through the world" (Cather qtd. in Merrill 78) is as genuine as is her respect for the man who realizes that no one is ever going back to anything (409). Cather implies that indeed men could "still die for an idea" (419), but boys like Claude would only die for the wrong idea.
In their advance to the front, Claude, who is deeply committed to his "own adventure" and to "the bright face of danger" (420), goes to find a place for his men to sleep (421), and in response to Captain Maxey's directive, "Come along, boys," Claude counters, "The men are pretty well beat out, Captain Maxey" (425-26, italics added). Believing that he now knows about life and war, Claude promotes his troop of weary boys to heroic status as splendid men. They take the road as haggard men (426) but begin "squaring their shoulders and throwing out their chests" (428) in a show of childlike bravado before the residents of Beaufort. Later when treated almost like gods for having driven out the Germans, Claude's company revels in the attention they receive, and "the boys [lose] all their bashfulness" (436). Only after observing the troops' relationships with the village women does Claude feel that he must lecture "his men" (436). But, just as in the incident of discovering the dead German officer's photograph of his male lover, Claude does not admit that his men's philandering is anything more than harmless flirtation that merits scolding. For Claude, his splendid men are wonderful boys too, and adult sexual behavior and its consequences are not something he wishes to acknowledge. Claude's admiration for the boy-men under his command follows what Paul Fussell describes as a "standard experience during the war," that is, an "officer's discovery that his attitude toward his men, beginning in anxiety and formality, [turns] into something close to devotion" (164). He cannot chastise them, for they have become a part of himself; together they form a true comitatus. Together as men they have embarked on the "great adventure," sanctioned by a shared, boyish idealism.
Interestingly, in the penultimate chapter of the novel, as Company B attempts to hold the Boar's Snout and the Moltke Trench, Cather interchangeably refers to the troops as men and boys, Claude's very perception. They are boys when they are wilted with fatigue or frightened and repulsed by the escaping gases from decaying bodies. They are men when they relieve the exhausted Texas contingent, "dying men" when their trenches explode beneath them, and men who "had become like rock" as they hold the position (451-52). Blind to taking any action except by express command, these doughboys become at once the objects of Cather's respect and of her regret.
Biographers of Cather recount with what interest and compassion she talked with returning men of the American Expeditionary Forces, even having groups of them visit at her Bank Street apartment. She visited sick ones at the hospital and was "moved by these encounters" (Woodress 305). Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant records that Cather "wanted to know" about the war, but as Cather wrote in a letter to Sergeant, many of the thousands of returning doughboys were reluctant to tell all, sure that "they did not win the war," and they "hid their decorations . . . under their greatcoats" (155, 154). Still, Cather wrote, they were "so surprisingly endearing, vital!" (qtd. in Sergeant 154). Her simultaneous attraction to these youths and repugnance for the sacrifice they had been asked to make underscore her narrative stance, which appears at times "unstable and shifting," as Sharon O'Brien has pointed out (191). Cather clearly found the "results of this roll call on the prairies" both "terrible" and "wonderful" (qtd. in O'Brien 192). She knew the slim chance such prairie youths had of returning from a war that took eight million lives, but if some vestige of that lost simplicity might endure, she was ready to welcome it.
Cather's vision, however, is not Claude's limited vision. Raymond Wilson correctly asserts that "the person who created the cynical realism of David Gerhardt could not have had Claude's naïveté" (30). Cather is not Claude, but Claude is "meant to be a representative foot soldier" (Skaggs 41). He is one of our boys, in all his innocence, as some early reviewers realized. "Miss Cather intended Claude to be not an exceptional type but a thoroughly representative American soldier," writes Heywood Broun in his New York World review of 1922 (133). "His companions in the regiment were like him, American boys never more American than in foreign surroundings and in circumstances unforeseen, inexplicable and appalling," writes another contemporary reviewer (Lovett 146).
If Cather overidealized the American doughboy and the war, as John H. Randall III claims (170), many of her contemporaries did not see it. Rather, they saw in Cather's doughboys their own boys. But that such naïfs should survive the war was problematic, except for their natural vigor and physical stamina. Cather describes the returning transports' decks covered not with boys but "with brown men" (455, italics added). "They are not the same men who went away"; they are melancholy, indifferent, and thoughtful (455). A "slightly cynical expression" lies on some faces, and their expressions are likely to "puzzle [their] friends when [they] get home" (456, 457). These returning soldiers are no longer naïve boys. They are men who "square their shoulders and smile knowingly at one another" (457). Only the few return, though, for, like Claude, "Most of the boys who fell in [the] war were unknown, even to themselves. They were too young" (394). Mrs. Wheeler realizes this fact and thinks that "the flood of meanness and greed had been held back just long enough for the boys to go over" but that "one by one the heroes of that war, the men of dazzling soldiership, leave prematurely the world they have come back to" (458, italics added). The slow-witted but compassionate Mahailey knows instinctively these facts and offers the final characterization of Claude and what he represents: "You'll see your boy up yonder," she tells Mrs. Wheeler (459).
In 1915 Henry James wrote that the war had "used up words . . . and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression" (qtd. in Buitenhuis 61). Through the experience and propaganda of war, language had changed, had even been devalued. Claude, as a representative of his time and of his peers, struggles to find the words that will suffice. He is the doughboy, and they, he. But, in the final analysis, these boys are expected to perform as men, to shed their naïveté and to make the world safe. Cather's war novel thus offers more than the portrait of a singular, disillusioned youth whose high ideals go unmolested by a convenient death. Claude's comrades in arms are as important to Cather's purpose as is her protagonist. If Claude is proud of his "wonderful men" (453), as he perceives them to be, Cather has great affection for her "American boys who had a right to fight for a civilization they knew" (312). They were as green as their money, but they were "dear, tender-hearted," and fully American.