Spring 2003

Mowers Tree logo


Image of Steven Trout at the WWI Symposium, courtesy Larry Lindgren, Cottonwood StudiosSteven Trout at the WWI Symposium, courtesy Larry Lindgren, Cottonwood Studios

from From "The Namesake" to One of Ours: Willa Cather on War

by Steven Trout

This is a brief portion of Dr. Trout's essay exploring Cather's war poetry and fiction. In the section printed here, Dr. Trout examines One of Ours. His recent book, Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War is reviewed on page 13 of this edition. Dr. Trout is an Associate Professor of English at Fort Hays State University.

A second reason for reexamining Cather's Civil-War writings is that they establish motifs that reappear, nearly twenty years later, in One of Ours. For instance, in her short story ["The Namesake"], as in One of Ours, Cather associates her lost military hero with pre-industrial America and with a less exploitative attitude toward the national environment. Hartwell's boy uncle, we are told, planted a "locust tree" in the garden of the family homestead, and throughout the story we see the Hartwell property, with its fading memories of Civil-War era sacrifice and nobility, menaced by industry, as "gas wells and coal shafts," together with "great glass and iron manufactories," advance to the "very door" of the family residence, their pollution threatening to extinguish the "only spot for miles along the river where any of the original forest growth still survived" (141-42). By the same token, in One of Ours, Claude Wheeler stands in dramatic opposition to the nineteenth-century mechanization of American agriculture and the pragmatic, neo-utilitarian values used by farmers to justify the destruction of indigenous plant and animal life. While Claude's brother Ralph, who exemplifies the machine-loving spirit of his age, accumulates so-called labor saving devices in the Wheeler's cellar, Claude prefers more traditional tools and patiently repairs the handle on Mahailey's antiquated kitchen knife when the other family members threaten to buy her something new. Claude also acts as caretaker for a natural environment that is under siege in both One of Ours and "The Namesake." As a child, he flies into a rage when his father senselessly destroys a healthy cherry tree. Later, while married to Enid, he preserves a wooded area on his property (an inexplicable extravagance in the eyes of his resource-devouring neighbors) as a refuge for the game birds that his brother Bayliss would otherwise slaughter. In both works-as in the sylvan vision of English war poets in 1914-the soldier's passion for pastoral beauty is seemingly wedded to a desire to be absorbed into that beauty through death. The custodian of nature moves effortlessly into the fatal role of warrior.

An even more intriguing anticipation of One of Ours occurs in the poem "The Namesake," when the speaker speculates on the causes of his uncle's enlistment and ironically contrasts the attractions of war with those of the departing soldier's lover: Tell me, Uncle by the pine, Had you such a girl as mine, When you put her arms away Riding to the wars that day? Were her lips so cold, instead You must needs to kiss the lead? Had the bugle, lilting gay, Sweeter things to say than she? (25-26)

Cather's metaphorical treatment of war as a sexual rival who inevitably proves more enticing than the soldier's actual sweetheart follows a well-worn tradition in Western poetry (see, for instance, Andrew Marvell's "To Lucasta: On Going to the Wars"). However, it is difficult not to think of Claude's wife Enid-whose lips are cold indeed-when reading these lines or of the many erotically charged passages in One of Ours that describe Claude's love affair with France and the army of Crusaders that he believes he has joined. Although expressed ironically in "The Namesake," this notion of war as a liberation from peacetime disappointment, especially sexual disappointment, nevertheless looks ahead to the story of Claude Wheeler's vicissitudes in matrimony and his subsequent rebirth as a soldier in the American Expeditionary Forces. Again, the phrase "things that have long teased the mind" perhaps describes the subject material in One of Ours with a surprising degree of accuracy.

In the essay "When I Knew Stephen Crane," a fictionalized reminiscence published shortly after the writer's death in 1900, Cather recalled asking Crane how he managed to write The Red Badge of Courage in only nine days: . . . he replied that, though the writing took very little time, he had been unconsciously working the detail of the story out through most of his boyhood. His ancestors had been soldiers, and he had been imagining war stories ever since he was out of knickerbockers, and in writing his first war story he had simply gone over his imaginary campaigns and selected his favorite imaginary experiences. (776)

During her arduous, three-year effort to complete One of Ours, Cather could only dream of such swift composition. "It took more out of me than any book I ever wrote," reads the inscription on the limited first edition that Cather presented to Carrie Sherwood.[1] In some respects, however, her account of Crane's creative process looks ahead to her own war novel. Although One of Ours required painstaking research into the organizational and technological minutia of the American Expeditionary Forces, and derived much of its impetus from the immediate tragedy of G.P. Cather's death, the parallels between Claude Wheeler and the fictionalized ancestor featured in the two versions of "The Namesake" suggest that Cather, like Crane, also relied upon an imaginative picture of war sketched out early in her childhood (thanks to the ever-present memory of her uncle) and colored by nineteenth-century conceptions of military glory and romance (as endorsed, by the GAR).

However, this connection between Cather's war writing and Gilded-Age culture can also be overemphasized. Indeed, a closer look at the short story "The Namesake" reveals that Cather's characteristic attention to grotesque detail is already out of sync with the lofty abstractions that this early story seems to endorse. When Hartwell learns the details of his uncle's death from a local veteran, we suddenly find ourselves not in the world of Henry James, with its decorous insinuations and barely glimpsed beasts in the jungle, but in that of Emile Zola, where the most gruesome realities receive unsparing description. Charging toward the breastworks, Hartwell's uncle was first wounded, we are told, by a shrapnel projectile, which burst overhead and tore away "the boy's hand and forearm" (144). Too worked up by fear and adrenalin to comprehend his wounds, the Color Sergeant "laughed, shouted something which his comrade did not catch, caught the flag in his left hand, and ran on up the hill"—until "a second shell carried away his left arm at the armpit" (144). For Hartwell, this grisly story embodies the "glory of youth," "that impetuous, generous passion stirring the long lines on the march, the blue battalions on the plain" (144). Yet once separated from Hartwell's romantic gloss, the horrific details of his uncle's fate, so casually dropped into the text, suddenly lead one to question whether there is anything glorious about death in combat (144). What, finally, is the basis for Hartwell's misty assertions that the Civil War embodied "the glory of youth," that the military bugle is the "very throat of that boyhood that spent itself so gaily, so incredibly" ? The story of a 16-year-old boy who, transformed by shock into a berserker (note the character's half-insane "laughter"), is literally blown to pieces at the mouth of a cannon.

Here, in miniature, are the same tensions that characterize Cather's most controversial novel, published 15 years later. Like the sections of One of Ours that reflect Claude's perspective on the Great War, Hartwell's narrative carries the reader, on waves of purple prose, to the conclusion that military sacrifice defines all that is best in one's "race and blood and kindred." At the same time, however, the story subverts this celebration of violence-just as One of Ours does-by memorably, and unsparingly, presenting the effects of weapons on flesh and bone. Indeed, with a little effort, a critic bent on constructing a more palatable, politically correct reading of "The Namesake" could even argue that the entire story is intentionally ironic-that Cather demonstrates, through Hartwell's delusional account, how even an expatriate artist, an outsider to the cult of the American Civil War, can be led to sentimentalize violence and, even more perversely, to construct his sense of identity out of the suffering and death of others. Interpreted in this way, the cannonball that so matter-of-factly dismembers the Color Sergeant is also aimed at the romantic interpretation of war that Hartwell embraces and perpetuates through his patriotic statuary.

Such a reading, which attributes to a nearly 100-year-old story the same ideological perspective as the latest Pat Barker novel, would, in my view, go too far. Cather's sense of connection to her uncle; her formative experiences in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, and Red Cloud, Nebraska; the aura of unassuming nobility invariably attached to the Civil War veterans who appear in her novels; and the enthusiasm and conviction that Cather, along with thousands of other American artists and intellectuals, initially displayed when the United States entered the Great War for Civilization—all these pieces of evidence suggest that we would do well to avoid planting twenty-first-century attitudes within the early writings of a complex author whose life spanned the tastes and ideologies of the Gilded Age and the modern era. Yet the contrast remains between the affirmative vision of military sacrifice that "The Namesake" seems, on so many levels, to endorse and the hair-raising grotesqueries that appear once the text turns its attention to the actual battlefield. If, as I have suggested, One of Ours owes far more to Cather family history and to nineteenth-century American culture than one might assume, then it is equally important to note the tension that results when the romantic constructs of military experience that inform Cather's war writing run up against her subversive penchant for the grotesque and the macabre.

In One of Ours, a complex and chilling analysis of war and its place in the American psyche, this tension is everywhere. Here, the subversive horrors that lurked within Hartwell's ostensibly patriotic narrative have grown to appropriately hideous proportions. In "The Namesake," the madness (again, note the young soldier's freakish laughter) of actual combat appears in a flash of literally explosive illumination that Hartwell's romantic commentary quickly smothers with its resumed talk of youth and glory. Indeed, Hartwell's graphic account of the Color Sergeant's dismemberment, inserted into the middle of patriotic musings all but scripted by the GAR, resembles those other moments, in far better works, when the seemingly placid and decorous world of Cather's fiction momentarily erupts with unexpected violence and terror. Our brief glimpse of patriotic gore in "The Namesake" belongs in the same category as the tramp's bizarre suicide in My Ántonia, Ivy Peter's psychotic and sadistic blinding of the woodpecker in A Lost Lady, and the parenthetical tale in Shadows on the Rock of the little girl devoured by carp at Fontainebleau. The scene of the soldier's demise is shocking because, like these other examples, it seems to come out of nowhere. In Book V of One of Ours, on the other hand, the distribution of romance and horror is radically reconfigured. No longer manifested as a sudden, unaccountable intrusion into an otherwise comfortable (and comforting) text, the nightmarish realities of battle now receive recognition throughout the narrative—so much so, in fact, that they ultimately create an ironic counterpoint, as Susan J. Rosowski and other critics have noted, for the romantic, Hartwell-like sentiments expressed by Claude Wheeler.

Cather's presentation of physical wounds in One of Ours suggests just how far she had traveled by the early 1920s in her thinking about the pain and misery inflicted by war. James Woodress has attributed the curious prevalence of injuries in Cather's fiction—especially severed limbs—to the novelist's traumatic childhood encounter with a "half-witted" boy who threatened to cut off her hand (Woodress 27). However, the ubiquitous references to mutilation in One of Ours carry additional significance, especially when set beside the Color Sergeant's fatal wounds in "The Namesake." Certainly the number of characters maimed in some fashion is remarkable—even if we exclude the Wheelers' mare Molly, who, on the second page of the novel, loses one of her hooves through the negligence of a farm hand. For example, the Lost American, the doughboy turned Frenchman whom Claude so envies, can no longer recall his prewar existence thanks to a severed "nerve" in his neck. At the same time, his left arm has been "amputated below the elbow" (269). Louis, the pleasant Frenchman whom Claude encounters when calling upon Mademoiselle Olive, is likewise an amputee. And then there is the dying patient, a victim of gas gangrene, who attracts Lieutenant Wheeler's attention during his visit to the Base Hospital—a "poor fellow whose face and trunk were wrapped in cotton" (271). An orderly informs Claude that the wounded man originally suffered from nothing more serious than a shot-off finger. Yet another memorable reference to a lost appendage appears when Claude and his men notice a human hand jutting out of the wall of the Boar's Head Trench: "the five fingers, well apart, looked like the swollen roots of some noxious weed" (361).

Note

 1. Sherwood's copy of One of Ours is part of the Nebraska State Historical Society's Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Collection in Red Cloud, Nebraska. I must thank Dorothy Mattison of the WCPM for allowing me to examine this rare volume. (Go back.)

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. "When I Knew Stephen Crane." 1900. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902. Ed. William M. Curtin. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1920. 771-778.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1987.