The following is a brief portion of Richard Harris's plenary essay on One of Ours. Richard Harris is Professor and Director of the Humanities Program at Webb Institute, Long Island, New York. He is the volume editor for the forthcoming Scholarly Edition of Cather's One of Ours.
Many readers of Willa Cather's One of Ours have long been familiar with certain facts about the life of Cather's cousin G. P. Cather, the prototype for Claude Wheeler, among them his service in the U. S. Navy in 1908-1909 and his marriage to Myrtle Bartlett in June of 1910. However, correspondence that has recently become available through Dr. Mary Weddle's gift of hundreds of documents and photos (which now form the George Cather Ray Collection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) provides a fascinating body of new information about Cather's principal prototypes for Claude Wheeler and Enid Royce Wheeler. In particular, scores of letters in the collection (many of which Willa Cather read in late 1918) indicate why G. P. joined the Navy and document the interesting circumstances behind his relationship with Myrtle.
On 3 January 1908, G. P. asked Myrtle to marry him. Myrtle, a long-time friend and the daughter of a well-to-do Bladen, Nebraska, farmer, rejected the proposal, telling G. P. that her poor health and the need to care for her physically frail mother would make his life difficult and would become a source of misery for both of them. G. P.'s response was to take off, literally, in the night, to Denver to enlist in the United States Navy. After finally learning of his whereabouts some weeks later, his frantic parents attempted to rescue him. They wrote their congressional representative and the Secretary of the Navy; G. P.'s mother, Franc Cather, even wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt in an attempt to bring her son home. There being no grounds for a medical discharge (though the Cathers evidently proposed that G. P. had been temporarily insane when he enlisted), they immediately began to seek a "discharge by purchase."
This episode-impulsively joining the Navy-was only one of many "misfortunes" (G. P.'s term for his mistakes) that were to mark G. P. Cather's life. The Claude Wheeler we see in the first parts of One of Ours is very similar to the figure revealed in G. P. Cather's letters. A restless young man of "strong impulses" (56), Claude finds it impossible to settle down. He hasn't "made much of a start" in life (143) and has never done anything that has given him satisfaction. He is disappointed in himself, and he admits, "he had troubled his mother and disappointed his father" (145). "Everything he touched went wrong under his hand" (220). Although he has "always found life hard to live" (68) and the world "too rough a place to get about in" (154), he is convinced "there was something splendid about life, if he could but find it" (103).
Like his fictional counterpart, G. P. must have hoped that marriage would be "the beginning of usefulness and content," that it would "restore his soul" (One of Ours 146). By the time Willa Cather talked at length with G. P. in the late summer of 1914, however, such feelings must have been rare. By this time G. P. was disappointed not only in his own lack of accomplishment but also in his marriage. While there is no record of Willa Cather's actually having met Myrtle, she would have learned much about her directly from G. P., no doubt from his mother, and perhaps from local gossip. Myrtle's fictional counterpart, Enid, is certainly the least liked character in One of Ours. Hermione Lee has described her as "a dismal embodiment of sanctimonious mid-Western nonconformism" (175). Cather declared in a letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher about six months before the novel's publication that her depiction of Myrtle had, in fact, been rather generous; Myrtle was even colder and even less likable than her fictional counterpart ([13 March 1922], UVM). The correspondence in the George Cather Ray Collection, however, sheds new light on the prototype for Enid and on Cather's depiction of her and the relationship between Enid and Claude.
By 1904 or 1905 G. P. and Myrtle had become very good friends. While G. P. was away at Grand Island Baptist College and then at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Myrtle became a friendly adviser and trusted confidante, urging him repeatedly to mind his actions lest he ruin his reputation. She also wrote several letters to G. P.'s mother about his rumored activities. After G. P.'s disappearance in January of 1908, both Myrtle and her mother, Addie Bartlett, carried on a regular correspondence with Franc Cather, repeatedly expressing Myrtle's grief over the incident and their concern for him.
Myrtle's return from a two-year stay in Texas (reported in the Bladen Enterprise , 20 May 1910), and the marriage to G. P. three weeks later has long puzzled Cather scholars. Rebecca Faber, for example, notes in her valuable dissertation on the background for One of Ours that "the long and intense courtship that Cather describes in the novel could not have taken place" [Diss. UNL-1995), 36]. What the materials in the Ray Collection reveal, however, is that such a courtship, in fact, did take place. While G. P. served out the minimum required term in the Navy in 1908-1909, Myrtle wrote to him often. Her letters consistently end with the phrases, "As ever, lovingly," "Your Sweetheart," and "As ever, your loving Sweetheart." While some might see these phrases as a mere concession to the custom of the day, there is no doubt that Myrtle cared for G. P. Despite her earlier reservations about her "pathetic" physical condition, she promises they will marry when he returns to Nebraska and mentions in a letter dated 18 December 1908, her father's promise to build them a house when they do. In other letters she encourages him to begin to think about finding work after they are married, noting that he might become involved in the local lumber business.
G. P. was discharged from the Navy on 26 May 1909. He seems to have been in no hurry to return to Bladen, however. He made his way home slowly, pausing to take in the sights between Bremerton, Washington, and Bladen (he was particularly taken with Los Angeles), and several times writing to his father to request more money. He made several trips to visit Myrtle in Texas between the summer of 1909 and their wedding in June 1910.
Although G. P. had lost a "Kinkaid" in western Nebraska that his father had purchased for him before he joined the Navy and had no "regular job," the couple seems to have been happy together initially. [G. P. had claimed earlier that he couldn't "take any occupation" because of Myrtle's health (GPC to FC, 15 May 1909)]. Letters from the first year or so of their marriage suggest that Myrtle, at least, was quite content. For example, she wrote Franc Cather on 11 September 1911 from Corpus Christi, Texas, that she and G. P. were "getting along just splendidly." And her relationship with Franc Cather seems to have been very good. However, G. P.'s old habits, particularly his fiscal irresponsibility and his lack of direction, combined with Myrtle's fragile health and her long absences as she and her mother sought healthier climates in the Southwest, began to have a detrimental effect on the relationship. Throughout the early years of their marriage, G. P. was still asking his parents for money, and Myrtle was also receiving money from her father. "Misfortune" struck G. P. again in early 1911when he was severely injured in a garage fire. The 12 May 1911 Bladen Enterprise reported that G. P. was burned from head to foot. His recovery took several months, but when his injuries had healed sufficiently, he was ready to take off again.
Typically, although the couple was having both personal and financial problems, G. P. took a prolonged and very expensive, albeit successful, hunting trip to Colorado. In order to save money for G. P.'s venture, Myrtle had moved in with her mother. As she wrote to George and Franc Cather, she knew G. P. had wanted to do this for a long time, and she wanted him to be able to have the experience (19 Oct. 1911). When G. P. returned from the trip, he flirted with the notion of becoming a taxidermist, spending a significant amount of money on equipment. The outcome of the venture, however, was only a collection of mounted hunting trophies that hung in the parlor of his parents' home. As time went on, both Myrtle and her mother spent increasing amounts of time in Texas, especially during the fall and winter. G. P. visited her there and, at her urging, worked on his father's farm.
If Myrtle had become a less loving and sympathetic wife by harvest time in 1914, when Willa Cather visited Nebraska and talked at length with G. P., it is no wonder. G. P. evidently had done little to become a breadwinner for himself and his wife. Her father, as well as his, had subsidized, if not supported them for quite some time. G. P. had become more discouraged with his lot and continued to take off whenever he felt he needed a break. He no doubt continued to blame Fate, if not Myrtle, for his less than fulfilling life.
By May 1915 G. P. was enrolled in a stenography course at Boyles College in Omaha. He apparently found college no easier the third time around than he had the first two. To supplement the money he was receiving from his parents (he was now 32 years old), he was waiting tables at several local restaurants and at the YMCA cafeteria. On 12 March he wrote to his mother that he was having trouble finding a decent room to live in, but that he was sure that if necessary he could "still work for Uncle Sam where things are clean and sanitary." Within a few months he was with Pershing on the Mexican border. After the National Guard was called up when the United States entered the First World War, G. P. was sent to training camp in Minnesota. In the late summer of 1917 Myrtle accompanied him to Chicago and then to New York where he boarded a troop ship in September, bound to win glory and immortality in France.
As Myrtle's subsequent correspondence with Franc Cather indicates, their relationship rapidly deteriorated. Myrtle became increasingly angry that she (and her family) had been left with bills that G. P. had incurred and that the Cathers had done little or nothing to help pay them. In one letter, written shortly before G. P. sailed for France, she declared she could not "bleed" her father for any more money (MB to GC and FC, 16 Aug. 1917), and in another, clearly exasperated, she sent a bill to G. P.'s mother with the instruction, "Will you folks please look after this, as you told me you would" (3 June 1918). The last chapter in the strained relationship between Myrtle and the Cathers came after G. P.'s death. Like many other parents of fallen American soldiers, G. P.'s mother and father wanted France to be their son's final resting place. Myrtle felt otherwise. In a letter to one of G. P.'s former comrades, Franc Cather wrote that she would like to say exactly how she felt about the matter but thought it best to hold her tongue (FC to E. H. Prettyman, 27 Dec. 1919). It was at Myrtle's insistence that G. P's body was brought home for reburial in Bladen in early May of 1921.
Finally, then, there was much about Myrtle Bartlett Cather that Willa Cather didn't like. Myrtle's dedication to various religious activities, especially the cause of missions to China, her response to her "health problems," what Cather may have seen as her less than loving treatment of G. P., as well as Cather's artistic intentions in the novel-all certainly figured into the portrait of Enid. The correspondence in the Ray Collection reveals, however, that while Myrtle may not have been the warmest of people, we should not, despite Cather's damning assertion that she was more "Enid-y" than Enid, accept Cather's portrayal of Enid as an entirely accurate portrait of Myrtle Bartlett.