In his 1987 biography Willa Cather: A Literary Life, James Woodress compares One of Ours to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Thematically and structurally, according to Woodress, the works, conceived on opposite sides of the Atlantic, address the question of social disintegration; in his words, both works open "with a panorama of society's failures, followed by views of personal failure . . . and [end] with a promise of spiritual rebirth" (329). Woodress's assertion that the novel deals with social and personal failure is a virtual given. Claude Wheeler cannot negotiate the spiritual void he finds in the materialistic world of his brothers, Ralph and Bayliss, and therein lies much of the conflict that sends Claude to war. But Woodress's suggestion that the novel demonstrates "a promise of spiritual rebirth" plays down the cynicism, ironically that of the religious Evangeline Wheeler, that closes the novel in a place far from The Waste Land's optimistic cultural and spiritual synthesis. Nothing about Lovely Creek changes as a result of Claude's sacrifice. While the enemy abroad is ultimately defeated, the enemy at home survives with a vengeance.
One of Ours was a difficult novel for Cather to write. She suffered through several periods of illness as well as the psychological trauma of revisiting the life and death of her cousin G.P. Cather, who served as her model for Claude Wheeler. Cather also renewed her friendship with Dorothy Canfield Fisher during the composition of the novel because Cather needed Canfield Fisher's expertise to complete the sections of the novel set in France. Cather and Canfield Fisher had traveled together to France in 1902, and at the time, Cather had been painfully aware of her own provincialism and envied Canfield Fisher's sophistication. When Claude Wheeler arrives in France, he is equally aware of his shortcomings and becomes, in fact, resentful. Janis P. Stout argues that these sections of the novel, and Cather's reliance on Canfield Fisher's help in developing them, reveal Claude's sense of insufficiency as well as Cather's own. According to Stout, Cather's reliance on Canfield Fisher "demonstrates how central, in Cather's conception of the novel, was Claude's sense of cultural deprivation" (49). Like Edith Wharton's A Son at the Front and Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier, One of Ours is a novel of the home front, a largely corrupt home front from which escape is desirable. If the novel seems in places to glorify war, to see war as a noble endeavor that finally gives purpose to Claude Wheeler's life, it does so with a sense of bitterness and betrayal and with a strong sense of irony.
Claude Wheeler never loses sight of the spiritually blighted world that produced him. Frankfort, Nebraska, stands for all that is wrong with American culture—its materialism and its religious fanaticism. Steven Trout calls Frankfort "a place of cultural conformity, big business, and the emergence of everything associated with the appropriately constrictive term 'Bible belt' " ("Iconography" 195). Trout's association of big business with the rural Frankfort rings truer than we might imagine. Cather produces in the figure of Claude's brother Bayliss a far more sinister model of American acquisitiveness and coercion than the image of Frankfort alone can achieve.
In the early decades of the twentieth century as science and technology triumphed, the entrepreneurs who made their fortunes researching and manufacturing the new products to fuel American consumerism became important figures in the public eye. Two in particular, Henry Ford and John Harvey Kellogg, promoted their products with a religious zeal, and in doing so, dramatically changed American culture. Both men were evangelical in their approach to business; like Bayliss Wheeler, both believed they knew what was best for American consumers. Business, religion, science, and technology all were to work together to create utopian worlds where everyone drove a basic black Model-T Ford and "learned to live on nuts and toasted cereals" as Enid Royce and her mother do (103). The worlds Ford and Kellogg sought to create were indeed worlds of frightening conformity and little artistic beauty and little pleasure—the same kind of world Bayliss Wheeler and Enid Royce inhabit and, ironically, the same kind of world Americans and the British believed would result from a German victory in the war. And of course by the mid 1930s, Henry Ford had become an icon in what was rapidly becoming Nazi Germany.
Henry Ford perfected the assembly line, paid an astonishing five dollars a day to his workers, and made the Model-T affordable so all his employees could buy one. Ford also published anti- Semitic articles in the Dearborn (MI) Independent and employed former boxers to discourage union activity in his plants. Because Ford did not trust the decision-making capabilities of his workers, he officially discouraged drinking and smoking on the part of his employees. Reputed to have said, "History is more or less bunk," Ford remains one of history's most controversial figures. In 1915 Ford financed a trip to Europe, his Peace Ship, in an effort to stop the war, an endeavor that clearly did not succeed and, once the United States entered the war, turned popular opinion against him. An article concerning Ford's unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat in Michigan in the July 1918 issue of Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper endorses Ford's opponent, Truman Newberry, in terms that make Ford out to be manipulative and clownish. Before naming Ford as the subject of his diatribe, Edwin Ralph Estep, author of the piece, raises the rhetorical question whether or not it is "politically practicable to slip an anti-detection suit over a man's past and rush him to the capitol in the guise of a tongue-tied angel with a blue-eyed baby stare" (79). Estep names Ford and goes on to call him, among other things, "the demon propagandist and ship leaser, . . . who put forth a harrowing belch because the United States wanted to loan France and England a few honest dollars that didn't belong to him" (79). Part of Estep's attack involves linking Ford with "an Austrian adventuress," undoubtedly Rosika Schwimmer, who came to the United States on a peace mission and enlisted Ford's help. Schwimmer was one of the "couple of hundred homogomphs" Ford provided with "a free trip to Europe" (79). Ironically, Schwimmer, a feminist and a Jew, was forced to leave Europe years later when Hitler came to power. The year of her death, she was also nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, hardly the accomplishment of an adventuress (Flowers and Lahutsky 366). Two things are notable here. First, by 1918, in spite of his successes in the automotive industry, Ford was despised for his opposition to the war; the veiled reference in the Leslie's article implies that his connection to Austria motivated Ford's desire for peace. While this article is clearly jingoistic, Ford was also undeniably a Nazi sympathizer before the United States entered World War II. Ford was one of Adolf Hitler's idols. According to John Betton and Thomas J. Hench, Hitler had photos of Ford in his office, and Ford's German plant, Ford Werke, employed slave labor during World War II at the same time his American plants manufactured war planes (533-34). Propaganda of all sorts aside, it would appear that Ford's opportunism—he was after all a major entrepreneur— informed his decisions. When his antiwar efforts failed in 1915, Ford returned to the United States and converted his automobile plants to munitions plants, although Frank Wicks's laudatory article in Mechanical Engineering claims he refused to take any profits from the plants. These details are pertinent because they reveal the same kind of amorality reflected in Bayliss Wheeler. Ford ran his plants with the same kind of paternalism, the same kind of interference, and the same kind of spying, as it were, that Bayliss employs against Claude, against Gladys, and even against his mother. Appropriately, Henry Ford becomes a deity in Aldous Huxley's futuristic novel Brave New World, which was written while Ford was still alive. Our Ford, as he is called, encourages his followers to remain childlike and to enjoy the art of consumption, to believe, as one of the clichés of the day dictates, that "ending is better than mending." Consumerism and social control join forces here to create a world Bayliss Wheeler would undoubtedly understand. Bayliss is a small-town version of Ford in all his negative glory.
Like Henry Ford, John Harvey Kellogg changed the face of American culture. More than merely the father of Corn Flakes, Kellogg promoted dietary and lifestyle restrictions at his Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Kellogg began his medical career at a religious institution and pursued his career with religious enthusiasm. A short filler article published in the journal Pediatrics describes some of the outlandish treatments prescribed for patients at the Kellogg sanitarium. Underweight patients were subjected to treatments similar to those used by S. Weir Mitchell to cure "hysteria." Patients often consumed over twenty meals a day and had sandbags placed on their abdomens and their teeth brushed by attendants to avoid burning calories (528). Elizabeth Fee and Theodore M. Brown also point out that one of the Kellogg foundations, the Race Betterment Foundation, was devoted to the "science" of eugenics, a parallel to Ford's anti-Semitism and his connection to the Nazis.
World War I propaganda consistently portrays German Kultur as a monster that seeks to control, convert, and destroy. Within this context, Bayliss reflects many of the characteristics of Kultur. Once in France, Claude realizes that Bayliss's world is one to which he does not wish to return. The world Bayliss has created, the world he forces others to inhabit, is no different from the regulated and mechanistic enemy machine. Claude believes, "No battlefield or shattered country he had seen was as ugly as this world would be if men like his brother Bayliss controlled it altogether" (339); that is, Bayliss and the enemy are indistinguishable. In fighting a vague and largely unseen enemy, Claude is fighting the "careful planners" like Bayliss and, by extension his wife, Enid, who are trying to "put [the world] into a straight-jacket" (339). Ironically, while the war frees Claude personally and gives him a sense of purpose, he is helpless against the enemy at home. Bayliss is a force of nature and, like Enid, a force to be reckoned with. The war Claude faces at home is as ugly as the one he faces at the front.
Frankfort is a prison to Claude. Most prominent among his jailers are Bayliss and his father, Nat. Both men keep an eye on Claude, judging and belittling as opportunities arise, but Bayliss instigates much of Claude's torture. Early in the novel when the circus comes to town, Claude thinks about inviting his friend Ernest Havel to eat at the local hotel but does not because he knows Bayliss and his father believe dining out is a form of "putting on airs," a transgression for which he would be criticized. If the two found out—and Claude insists, "Bayliss heard everything"—they would, Claude believes, "get back at him" (11).
This system of surveillance and punishment creates of Frankfort a panopiticonlike model, what Foucault refers to in Discipline and Punish as a "disciplinary society" (209), with Bayliss in place as enforcer and executioner. Before the war, Bayliss as well as Enid focus their attention on their "virulent Prohibition[ism]," both literally and figuratively. Bayliss wants to "regulate everybody's diet by his own feeble constitution" (9), and Enid, who goes on yearly pilgrimages to Battle Creek with her mother, is bent on both dietary and religious conversion and sexual repression. Enid has no roosters among the hens on their farm, what neighbor Leonard Dawson refers to as doing "missionary work among [her] chickens" (168). Bayliss is also acquisitive. He buys the old Trevor place, a mansion and local landmark, with the intention of tearing it down rather than restoring it. And always, Bayliss is controlling. He has most likely given the unconventional Gladys Farmer her fur coat with the intention of marrying and thus controlling her. Gladys herself believes that "her own little life was squeezed into an unnatural shape" because of Bayliss (129).
On the surface at least, Bayliss backs up his evangelical beliefs by declaring himself a pacifist when the war breaks out. But Bayliss's pacifism is only an extension of his desire to acquire and control. As he argues against the war in his hardware store, Bayliss repeats not a peaceful philosophy but a cynical one that wants to control the world. America should remain out of the war and, in his words, "gather up what Europe was wasting," at which time, "she would be in actual possession of the capital of the world" (190). Like a vulture, Bayliss would let the two powers fight it out and then scavenge the battlefield for its spoil, a plan unparalleled in its ability to ignore pain and bloodshed, a plan unparalleled in its amorality.
Bayliss's desire for personal and national acquisition mirrors the Allied perception of Germany's desire for world dominance. Before the outbreak of war, however, Americans admired the qualities of hard work and orderliness attributed to Germans and the German "national character." Based on what he has seen of his German neighbors, Claude believes "the German people were preeminent in the virtues Americans most admire; a month [before the outbreak of war] he would have said they had all the ideals a decent American boy would fight for" (136). Reflected here, of course, is Cather's own admiration for the immigrant vitality celebrated in My Ántonia and elsewhere. But the question of German nationalism is foreign to Claude, and he is surprised at the German invasion of Belgium. In England and the rest of Europe, German militarism was widely distrusted and feared. Rudyard Kipling, for instance, hated Germans with a vengeance and did so long before his son Jack was killed in the war. The poem "For All We Have and Are" makes use of the pejorative term "Hun," as do earlier poems as well. In a letter to Herbert Baillie in January of 1916, after Jack went missing at the battle of the Somme, Kipling declares, "the German is typhoid or plague—Pestis teutonicus, if you like" (355-56). Kipling aside, Germany's preparation for a European war was no secret to many associated with German Emperor Wilhelm II, or Kaiser Bill, as Americans became fond of calling him. James W. Gerard, ambassador to Germany from 1913 to 1917, reports, second hand, a conversation between "a beautiful American woman of [his] acquaintance," (96) and the Crown Prince, son of Wilhelm II, in which the Crown Prince is reported to have said that if his father didn't start a war with the rest of Europe and American, he would. According to Gerard's "acquaintance" the war would be "just for the fun of it" (96). This conversation, which took place during the winter before the war, expresses a prevalent understanding of German military philosophy, albeit an oversimplified one linked to the concept of "Kultur," a word that came to stand for all that was wrong with Germany and German society and that became the focus for the demonization of Germany in both British and American propaganda.
In 1915, two years before American involvement in the war, Funk and Wagnalls published a tiny dictionary of war-words, "A key to the Spelling, Pronunciation and Meaning of many terms brought into public notice by the War." This dictionary defines the word "Kultur" as "Progress, advancement, and achievement in all forms of theory and practice, whether political, economic, scientific, social, or artistic, including the processes involved and the results attained, both mental and material; civilization" (17). This definition, of course, describes all the virtues Claude Wheeler refers to in his assessment of German character, but when the concept is demonized in propaganda, it becomes "That Monstrous Thing Called Kultur" alluded to in an advertisement for Liberty Bonds in the August 1918 issue of The National Geographic Magazine. According to the ad copy, Americans are too clean and upright to understand the consequences of Kultur but must, even so, buy war bonds to defeat it. Since the definition of Kultur includes economic endeavor, propaganda published during the war also points to German manufacturing as a facet of German militarism and the evils represented by Kultur. American propaganda leaflets, many published by the American Defense Society, a patriotic organization that lists Theodore Roosevelt as its honorary president, allude to a so-called deal between German manufacturers and the German government. Struck during a series of meetings beginning as early as 1912, the deal promised money and land to German manufacturers who supported the Kaiser's war efforts. The details of the agreement were supposedly revealed in a pamphlet written by August Thyssen, who was promised mining land in Australia and a loan with which to develop it. One American pamphlet entitled The Most Damning Revelation of Germany's Turpitude Ever Published tells the Thyssen's story and concludes, "Thyssen's revelations show that Germany's business men definitely entered upon this war to loot the world for their own enrichment," (13) an assessment that similarly could be made of Bayliss Wheeler. Another pamphlet urging an American boycott of German products quotes Thyssen and then goes on to declare "In other words, . . . these infernal scoundrels, the leading business men of Germany, on the confession of one of them, agreed to help their Government to destroy Governments, steal lands, rob banks and individuals, murder unoffending people by wholesale, and when the whole nameless job was done to (in thieves parlance) 'divide up the swag'!" (Remember). Minus the murdering, the values attributed to these German manufacturers parallel the policy of acquisition Bayliss Wheeler advocates.
Bayliss's desire to acquire and control is evident from the beginning of the novel. Mary R. Ryder suggests that Bayliss is "insensitive to non-material needs and entertains only the hard facts of interest, debits, and expenditures in running his implement dealership" (156). But his material needs extend to the nonmaterial because they involve so deeply his need to control. When Claude sees Bayliss on the day of the circus, Bayliss has a black eye. Claude does not inquire about it, but later in the day as Leonard Dawson, the Wheelers' neighbor, is driving Claude home, Leonard admits to having hit Bayliss. Leonard explains that he hit Bayliss because Bayliss has made derogatory remarks against Susie Gray, soon to become Susie Dawson. Susie and her friend had cajoled the front man for the circus into buying tickets to the firemen's dinner, and Bayliss doesn't approve of Susie's manner. Bayliss sees himself here as the arbiter of correct behavior and, as such, does not care whose reputation he tarnishes. In a town as small as Frankfort, where gossip is a force, Bayliss and his talk can ruin Susie, but Bayliss does not care as long as he is in control. His presence every day in his farm implement store, where he sees everything, facilitates Bayliss's control; the store becomes the center of the panopticon, and Bayliss, although he remains highly visible, functions as the inspector, the enforcer, the eyes that see all. He makes of Frankfort, in Foucault's words, "a cruel ingenious cage" (205).
Beyond his desire to control, Bayliss has no interest in Susie Gray. But his pursuit of Gladys Farmer reflects both a desire to control and a desire to acquire. Like Claude, Gladys is a free spirit, and in fact, Claude misses an opportunity for happiness when he chooses Enid over Gladys. A talented musician, Gladys loves the finer things in life: clothes, shoes, and trips to Omaha to the opera. While Bayliss acquiesces to some of these desires—Gladys's fur coat, which Enid tells Claude she "suspect[s]" Bayliss of, for example—he does so to establish ownership, a ploy not lost on Claude. The fur also puts Gladys in jeopardy because the coat arouses gossip. Gladys's mother is always behind on her property taxes, and Gladys's clothes garner disapproval. Enid, who is almost a Doppelganger of Bayliss, laughs about the gossip, but for a single woman who must earn her own living teaching school, public disapproval is a real danger. Enid tells Claude, "All the old ladies are so terribly puzzled about [the furs]; they can't find out whether your brother really gave them to her for Christmas or not. If they were sure she bought them for herself, I believe they'd hold a public meeting" (88). This public scrutiny later forces Gladys to abandon her trip to the opera in Omaha because "such an extravagance would have aroused a corrective spirit in all her friends, and in the school-board as well; they would probably have decided not to give her the little increase in salary she counted upon having next year" (129). The desire here on the part of the old ladies and the school board is to squelch any perceived independence on Gladys's part. As long as she is connected to Bayliss, she, perhaps grudgingly, earns Frankfort's approval, but she loses something of herself in the process. Like the destructive force of Kultur, Bayliss makes life bleak, perfunctory, utilitarian.
Even his own mother falls prey to Bayliss's vigilance. At the Wheeler farm for Christmas dinner, Bayliss chides his mother for drinking a second cup of coffee after her meal. In what Cather describes as a "gentle grieved tone," a suggestion of Bayliss's smug self-righteousness, Bayliss tells Evangeline, "I'm sorry to see you taking two [cups], Mother" (76). In response to her assertion that coffee does her no harm, Bayliss replies, "Of course it does; it's a stimulant" (76). To her credit, Mrs. Wheeler ignores Bayliss and has the second cup of coffee. But Gladys understands that her relationship with Bayliss is most likely the source of her doom; she also knows that Claude will "become one of those dead people that moved about the streets of Frankfort" if he marries Enid (128). Correctly assessing the power of the inquisitive eye, Gladys "believe[s] that all things which might make the world beautiful—love and kindness, leisure and art—were shut up in prison, and that successful men like Bayliss Wheeler held the keys" (129). When Gladys finds out that Bayliss has bought the Trevor place, the two couples have embarked on a sleigh ride in newly fallen snow, a moment that should be full of romance. But the moment is far from pleasant for any of the four. Claude is angry because Gladys allows Bayliss to court her, and Gladys is furious with Bayliss for buying a landmark she has for so long wanted. She knows Bayliss will never remodel the house—he resents the whiskey bottles in the cellar—and so she concedes that the house is "spoiled" for her. When Claude angrily asserts that he wants to see the world before he builds a house, Gladys, "in a tone of sudden weariness," asks him to take her with him. Enid, who knows Gladys's true feelings about Bayliss, believes that Bayliss "must have captured Gladys' hand under the buffalo robe" (93). The use of the word capture here underscores Bayliss's goal and Gladys's sense of defeat at his accomplishment of it.
In addition to being Prohibitionists, Bayliss and Enid are both vegetarians; their prescriptive religion and their dietary habits overlap. All of their pursuits take on an evangelical quality. Here again, Bayliss and also Enid reflect an American fixation, not only with materialism and mechanical objects but with food. Just as Henry Ford changed American life with the mass production of the Model-T, John Harvey Kellogg changed American diets with Corn Flakes. The end of the nineteenth century, in fact, saw a number of food fads, among them the revolution in Battle Creek and the evolution of the domestic science movement, a movement designed to apply scientific scrutiny to homemaking, including the art of cooking. Both "movements" appear in One of Ours. Cather herself disapproved of the domestic science movement because it encouraged the use of commercially canned and otherwise prepackaged foods at the expense of quality, and it interfered with the idea of immigrant vitality that Cather valued so highly. In a speech to the Fine Art Society in Omaha, Cather raised the issue of standardization, the subject of her address, and said, among other things, "The Americanization committee worker who persuades an old Bohemian housewife that it is better for her to feed her family out of tin cans instead of cooking them a steaming goose for dinner is committing a crime against art" (qtd. in Woodress, Literary Life 320). According to Woodress, the Omaha ladies, who undoubtedly used canned foods themselves or had their servants use them, laughed at this assertion. But Cather was correct in her notion that cooking was becoming standardized, and the domestic science movement was the culprit.
Domestic science also promoted the use of labor-saving devices, a notion reflected in Ralph Wheeler's desire to see his mother and Mahailey use the separator he has bought for them to separate milk from cream. Of course, the machine is not practical— it takes much longer to disassemble and scald than hand skimming— but Ralph insists they use it because it is "up-to-date" (17). Claude defends his mother's resistance to the machine and offers to scald it on a Sunday morning so she can get to church on time. But the machine becomes part of the materialistic culture Claude's brothers endorse. Bayliss, of course, sells machinery and thus becomes a source of this standardization at the same time his eating habits promote it. We might also note here that the evangelical zeal of the domestic science movement fed into the war effort in U.S. Food Administration propaganda that encouraged food conservation. Susie Dawson alludes to Enid's practice of domestic science when she tells Leonard that Claude's meals are most likely better when Brother Weldon, the hypocritical minister Claude detests, is visiting than when Enid and Claude are alone. Perplexed at Enid's habits, Susie declares, "Preachers won't be fed on calories, or whatever it is Enid calls 'em, . . . Claude's wife keeps a wonderful kitchen; but so could I, if I never cooked any more than she does" (168). Calories had just become part of new information the modern cook must master, and Enid's knowledge of them makes her as up-to-date as the cream separator.
Enid also uses books on raising chickens, an idea that infuriates Leonard, who rightfully connects her chickens and her religion. After hearing Claude's explanation that their only rooster is cooped because Enid believes unfertilized eggs keep better, Leonard goes home virtually speechless. He tells Susie, "in an awful temper," that Enid "ain't content with practicing prohibition on humankind; she's begun now on the hens" (167). In addition to the chickens, what has put Leonard in a dither is walking in on Claude's supper, which Enid has left for him before heading into town on Prohibition business. The meal most definitely reflects both domestic science and the efforts of food conservation that later came into force under the auspices of the U.S. Food Administration. More suitable for a ladies' tea luncheon, the dinner consists of "a dish of canned salmon with a white sauce; hardboiled eggs, peeled and lying in a nest of lettuce leaves; a bowl of ripe tomatoes, a bit of cold rice pudding; cream and butter" (165). To this feast, Claude adds bread and a newspaper for the war news. We might acknowledge that the new prepared foods present an opportunity for women to get out of the kitchen. But here, Cather is examining what Enid is doing with her free time, not the fact that she has it. In a sentiment similar to the one Gladys expresses, Claude admits that he "suffer[s] . . . in his ideals, in his vague sense of what was beautiful. Enid could make his life hideous to him without ever knowing it. At such times he hated himself for accepting at all her grudging hospitality. He was wronging something in himself" (173).
Ironically, Enid and Bayliss are perfect for each other. Like Ford and Kellogg, the two reformers are intent on promoting what is for them a utopian way of life. Bayliss visits often, and Claude observes that "Enid's vegetarian suppers suited him and . . . they always had [Prohibition] business to discuss" (173). Cather juxtaposes religion, Prohibition, and vegetarianism here, as well as the desire to control, to enforce behavior—in this case on humans, not chickens. Like the coffee his mother drinks after Christmas dinner, alcohol becomes for Bayliss a thing to fear. Claude believes that "Bayliss had a social as well as a hygienic prejudice against alcohol, and he hated it less for the harm it did than for the pleasure it gave" (173). Since Bayliss is a destroyer of pleasure in everyone he touches, with the exception of Enid, Claude is correct to fear and reject his world. While Claude fights on foreign soil, he is indeed fighting an enemy closer to home. After thinking how lost the world would be if men like Bayliss controlled it, Claude concludes in a rare moment of optimism that "until the war broke out, he had supposed they did control it; his boyhood had been clouded and enervated by that belief. The Prussians had believed it, too, apparently. But the event had shown that there were a great many people left who cared about something else" (339). Once again, Claude links Bayliss with Kultur but believes he can defeat them both. His optimism allows him to overlook the reality that Enid is in China doing missionary work, and Bayliss is still entrenched in his hardware store as the eyes of Frankfort, still waiting for the end of war when he can scavenge the ruins of civilization.
By 1922, the year she completed One of Ours, Cather had observed four years of postwar cynicism, which color the end of the novel in the response of Claude's sincerely religious mother, who believes Claude is better dead in battle than faced with the disillusionment that caused so many veterans to commit suicide. After she received the news of Claude's death, Evangeline Wheeler continues to receive Claude's letters and the consoling letters of his comrades and commanding officers. This is a time for Mrs. Wheeler when "human nature looked to her uglier than it had ever done before" (369). Cather's narrative suggests that Mrs. Wheeler no longer accepts those "beautiful beliefs" Claude died with, that she "would have dreaded [his] awakening" (370). Describing the despair and suicide of returning veterans, Mrs. Wheeler understands the need for idealism as a motivation for self-sacrifice, but she also understands the illusory nature of that idealism. Soldiers like Claude had "hoped and believed too much" (370), and their return to civilian life had dashed those hopes. Mrs. Wheeler and Mahailey may believe they feel Claude's presence on the farm, but they do not glory in his death as propaganda demanded of the mothers of fallen heroes.
Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Cather's friend for many years, was one of the few of her friends who did not speak favorably of One of Ours. Sergeant spent a large part of the war in Paris and was wounded as she toured a battlefield that had not yet been cleared of explosives, an experience she writes of in Shadow-Shapes: The Journal of a Wounded Woman. As might be expected, Sergeant viewed the war as a combatant and resists the cleaned up version of war Cather depicts at the end of the novel. But even Sergeant admits that the novel "suffers no disillusion, till [its] last pages" (Willa Cather 181). To compare One of Ours to Eliot's The Waste Land is to miss the irony of its conclusion. In contrast to all the religious hypocrites in the novel, Evangeline Wheeler's religion is personal and unobtrusive. For her to be the one character who understands the force of postwar despair is telling. The Waste Land concludes with the speaker declaring, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins" (line 431). One of Ours concludes with Mrs. Wheeler's faith intact, and yet in contrast to the more primitive Mahailey's belief, God is perhaps light years away. The synthesis we might wish for eludes us. Claude has died for an illusion, and the "careful planners" (339) are still conducting business as usual.