Spring 2003

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Memorial Fictions:

Willa Cather and the First World War

Written by Steven Trout
University of Nebraska Press, 2002
Cloth: $40.00
Reviewed by Derek Driedger

Cather scholars seeking evidence to combat the enduring disapproval of One of Ours will welcome Trout's extensive analysis and praise for Cather's Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Memorial Fictions sets out to place both One of Ours and The Professor's House firmly in the canon of World War I literature, and among Cather's greatest novels. Trout contests the lack of appreciation for One of Ours by examining how the novel is more modernist than readers have previously acknowledged. According to Trout, what readers need to pay attention to throughout their reading are the "contradictory discourses, jarring thematic juxtapositions and conflicting perspectives" supplied by Cather (147). Memorial Fictions clearly indicates why Book Four and Book Five in One of Ours are worthy of praise alongside the Nebraska chapters, for Cather's larger focus is to examine the "paradoxical nature of war and the idealism it inspires" (53).

Stemming from a large knowledge of America's preparation, participation, and commemoration of World War I, Trout outlines One of Ours as a deconstruction of the American mindset toward the war. Chapter one analyzes the commemoration efforts of Americans, including: the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Lieut. G.P. Cather's funeral in Bladen, Nebraska, and the efforts of the Society of the First Division to memorialize the war dead. He also includes a discussion of Cather's decision to write about World War I as a commemorative act. Chapter two focuses on the novel itself, including Claude's shift from an unsatisfied Nebraskan to a motivated American in France. Claude's transformation is discussed largely within the context of the American Expeditionary Forces' agenda. Chapter three asserts that Cather evoked well-known and memorialized legends of the war during her battle scenes, especially the depiction of Claude's death. Chapter four moves to a discussion of The Professor's House as a novel largely focused on the aftermath of the war, especially the difficulty of finding closure.

While Trout only spends a little over 40 pages analyzing The Professor's House, he does suggest an interesting reading of the novel. He reads The Professor's House as an extension of One of Ours and theorizes that World War I is "the thing not named," since such violence is unthinkable to an intellectual such as Godfrey St. Peter. St. Peter's constant reflection on the unnecessary loss of Tom Outland, and his isolation leads to a novel of silence, "because silence, Cather suggests, is finally the only language that fits an unthinkable world war" (189). Trout's view of the ending also derives from the manner in which "the thing not named" invades St. Peter's private, silent space.

Trout's argument is explained clearly and his evidence suggests the complexity of Cather's understanding of war as well as the complexity of her fiction itself. His book contains a dozen illustrations, helpful notes, and a works cited and index beneficial to not only students of Cather, but also those interested in America's involvement in World War I. This book is sure to create more discussion of One of Ours and The Professor's House, as well as to provide an avenue to increase Cather's reputation in the canon of World War I literature.