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From Cather Studies Volume 10

Echoes of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage in Willa Cather's One of Ours

Willa Cather scholars who think of her in conjunction with Stephen Crane are apt to remember Bernice Slote's apparent criticism of Cather's article "When I Knew Stephen Crane" (1900) and to dismiss as unlikely any important connection between the two writers. Slote declares that "Cather's article needs to be approached with some caution . . . for most of the circumstantial facts are wrong and many of the comments on Crane may be borrowed. It is largely a fictionized account, a dramatization of observations about Crane" (3). However, Slote admits that there is "a residue worth sifting out" and "implications . . . that may be more important than the specific details" (3). Moreover, Slote identifies the many references to Crane that Cather makes in her early journalism and recognizes numerous qualities that the two writers had in common—most obviously the fact that "[b]oth had to be journalists before they could be artists" (8).

These connections invite further exploration. Amy Ahearn has effectively demonstrated that Cather admired and was influenced in varying degrees by other journalists of her time—such as Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Stephen Crane—who developed the "full-blooded" naturalistic school of letters (14345). Elsewhere I have argued that Cather drew from Crane's Maggie for a street scene in The Song of the Lark (Moseley, "Willa Cather's Transitional Novel" 229), but deeper analysis of the work of the two authors suggests that Crane's The Red Badge of Courage may well have been an influence—conscious or subconscious—on One of Ours. No critic, however, has made a close study of the connections between these two books. Cather herself gives a not-so-subtle nod to Crane's masterpiece in book 5, chapter 3, of her novel, when she follows a particularly horrible description of wounded men in a Paris hospital with these words: "These were the first wounded men Claude had seen. To shed bright blood, to wear the red badge of courage—that was one thing; but to be reduced to this was quite another. Surely, the sooner these boys died, the better" (440-41; my emphasis). Cather's emphasis here, like that of the journalist and naturalist Crane, is on the bitter realism of the circumstances. But whereas Crane presents the grotesque wounds of war ironically, Cather's comment here is direct and modernistic.

Numerous parallels exist between the composition processes that produced these two war novels. Although Cather took about four years to write One of Ours and Crane reputedly wrote his novel in less than two weeks, both authors researched their subjects as journalists would and drew upon an array of sources rather than direct experience for their war scenes. Crane's sources included reminiscences of Civil War veterans, information from his brother William (who was a specialist of the battle of Chancellorsville), ideas from Zola's La Débacle, and the "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" series published in the Century (Moseley, "Willa Cather's Transitional Novel" 5). Cather's most important source was certainly the correspondence of her cousin G. P. Cather—the prototype for Claude Wheeler—to his mother, but like Crane she also learned from conversations with soldiers, specifically with World War I troops with whom she visited in her apartment and in the Polyclinic Hospital in New York. She also used information about France from her friends Elizabeth Sergeant and Dorothy Canfield Fisher; material from Dr. Frederick Sweeney's diary reporting the flu epidemic on his troopship; newspaper articles; and details from books about the war (Harris 625, 651). And like Crane she may also have been, as Steven Trout suggests, influenced by Zola's naturalistic La Débacle (118-19). Of particular interest not only to One of Ours but also to Cather's work as a whole is how clearly her assertion that the best art is created when the artist's "mind is 'teased' by [the things that haunt him]" (On Writing 51) echoes a statement that she credits to Crane: "'The detail of a thing has to filter through my blood, and then it comes out like a native product, but it takes forever,' he remarked. I distinctly remember the illustration, for it rather took hold of me," Cather concludes ("When I Knew" 235).

Significant similarities also exist in characterization, style, and theme in the two books. Both books focus on a young and inexperienced farm boy's initiation into life and, particularly, into war—and both include an Oedipal undercurrent. Indeed, John Clendennning suggests that, with his father dead, Henry Fleming's relationship with his mother is "pre-oedipal" (26-27)—a conclusion supported by the womb imagery in the novel. When we first meet the "youth"—later identified as Henry Fleming—in Crane's novel, he is crawling into the womblike "intricate hole" of his tent and nervously considering some "new thoughts" (4)—trying to "mathematically prove to himself that he would not run from battle" and admitting that "he knew nothing of himself," that he is afraid (8). As the waiting becomes more wearisome and his fear greater, Henry wishes that he were back home (14). Although Crane spends comparatively little time and space on Henry Fleming's home and family, the major figure in his life, as in Claude's, is his mother, who had felt contempt for "his war ardor" and had discouraged his enlistment but who, as a loving mother and deeply religious woman, sends him off to battle with eight pairs of freshly knitted socks and a cup of blackberry jam, advice to "never do no shirking," and her personal faith that "[t]he Lord's will be done" (5-6).

Certain scenes in One of Ours—in spite of Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant's declaration that Cather "rejected Freud" (203)—also suggest an Oedipal connection between Claude and his mother. When Claude returns home from college, he runs up the hall to meet his mother, "putting his arm about her with the almost painful tenderness he always felt, but seldom was at liberty to show," and she strokes his hair, "laughing as one does to a little boy" (71). While Claude's father and brother Ralph are in Colorado, Mrs. Wheeler tells Claude, "It's almost like being a bride, keeping house just for you" (114). Mrs. Wheeler, who—like Fleming's mother—is a religious woman and who has a special feeling for and understanding of Claude, closely follows newspaper accounts of the war with him and, although she is devastated when he leaves for training camp, shares his idealistic commitment to rescuing the Allies from the horror of the German invasion—a feeling that Cather shared until the end of the war and that pervades One of Ours until its ironic concluding chapter.

Both Claude Wheeler and Henry Fleming undergo initiations from innocence into experience. One of Ours opens with Claude's childlike anticipation of going to a circus and its parade—similar events, incidentally, to those Fleming also recalls from his boyhood while waiting for his first battle skirmish (25). When Claude's father dashes his hopes of going to town in the car and tells him to take two smelly cowhides with him in the wagon, his mother is sympathetic to him. Simply but deeply devout, Mrs. Wheeler worries about her son's salvation, recognizes his sensitivity, and enjoys quiet moments with him. Unlike Henry, Claude is initiated into life's realities, disappointments, and dangers before he leaves for war. His father's darkly comic mistreatment of Claude and the frustration he feels at his inept denominational college, however, are minor compared to the disillusionment he experiences from his wife, Enid, when she locks him out of their honeymoon berth on their wedding night and then shows only coolness in their marriage, a rigidity that ends only when she leaves to nurse her missionary sister in China back to health.

Both Henry and Claude hold romanticized and unrealistic views about the wars in which they are engaged, and yet both novels include strong elements of naturalism and impressionism. Henry has "dreamed of battles all his life—of vague and bloody conflicts that had thrilled him with their sweep and fire. He had imagined peoples secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess" (4-5). Later, when Henry takes the enemy flag from the opposing color bearer, he feels "a love, a despairing fondness for this flag which was near him. It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability. It was a goddess, radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him" (80). He had captured the flag by running and "duck[ing] his head low, like a football player" (80). On the train that takes Claude to his ship, the landscape seems "like a dream" to him (357), and Cather's description of the troop ship sailing out of New York Harbor uses images similar to Crane's: "That howling swarm of brown arms and hands and faces looked like nothing but a crowd of American boys going to a football game somewhere. But the scene was ageless; youths were sailing away to die for an idea, a sentiment, for the mere sound of a phrase . . . and on their departure they were making vows to a bronze image in the sea" (364), the Statue of Liberty.

As Frank Norris and early critic Charles Child Walcutt have asserted, there is at times a fine line between the romantic and the naturalistic point of view. Norris asserts that "naturalism is . . . but a form of romanticism" (71), and Walcutt—after arguing that naturalism and romanticism are both offshoots of transcendentalism—provides a thorough analysis of the naturalistic themes of determinism, survival, and violence and of the naturalistic styles of impressionism and documentation (vii-viii, 20-22). Although critical argument abounds on both the definition and the application of literary naturalism, many critics—including Walcutt, Donald Pizer, and John Conder—view The Red Badge of Courage as naturalistic, and John J. Murphy and Trout have argued that One of Ours includes naturalistic documentation and violence. A closer look at these two novels shows related imagery.

Complete determinism would, of course, make the life of an individual—real or fictional—mechanical and meaningless, and such is not the case in either of these novels. However, the lives and actions of both Henry and Claude are deeply affected by events beyond their control, including the accident of their being of enlistment age at the time of their respective wars. Henry chooses to enlist—even against his mother's advice, but "[t]he newspapers, the gossip of the village, his own picturings, had aroused him to an uncheckable degree" (5). Later, while marching with his fellow soldiers, he is enclosed within "iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box" (18). He feels trapped and threatened. Later, after running from his second skirmish, he rationalizes that he had acted within natural "law" when he observes a squirrel running from danger as he did (35). After returning to his regiment, Henry loudly complains that being moved about from place to place "makes a man feel like a damn kitten in a bag" (69).

From the opening scene of One of Ours, in which Claude's father forces him to drive the mules to town instead of the car, Claude has no real control of his life. Cather states that Claude "was born with a love of order, just as he was born with red hair. It was a personal attribute" (53). He was also born with a violent temper, timidity, and sensitivity—although the cruel treatment he receives from his father no doubt adds to these qualities and to his overall weakness in his youth. Because of his mother's concern for his religious life and the ill-timed visit of the self-serving Brother Weldon, Claude is sent to study under the narrow-minded instructors at Temple College instead of the university in Lincoln. Because of his father's spur-of-the-moment decision to buy a ranch in Colorado and to take Claude's brother Ralph with him to manage it, Claude's education is truncated, as he is expected to remain at home and run the Nebraska farm. And perhaps most devastating of all, because of an accident that caused him to have erysipelas, he misinterprets his neighbor Enid Royce's compassionate visits to him as love and marries her, only to find out that "everything about a man's embrace was distasteful" to her (281). Later, Claude realizes that the "two big mules that had run away with him . . . were the actual authors of his fate. If they had not bolted with him and thrown him into the wire fence that morning, Enid would not have felt sorry for him and come to see him every day, and his life might have turned out differently" (335). Claude's entrapment is beautifully symbolized by the bird that "flew in and fluttered wildly about the partitions" (238) of the unfinished house he is building for the marriage that will itself remain incomplete, unfulfilled, even unconsummated. As the wise old Mr. Royce tells him, "A man hasn't got much control over his own life" (292).

Cather expands Crane's image of the "immense and terrible machine" (38), "the awful machinery" (39) of war, to develop a powerful theme that connects the Nebraska and French sections of One of Ours. In the Wheeler household Claude, his mother, and the faithful but simple servant Mahailey struggle with the many new, and usually useless, machines that Ralph brings home, such as the milk separator that is a lot of work itself. The cellar is full of expensive mechanical gadgets that Ralph could not operate or that he had tired of—a terrible waste that Claude recognizes. And Claude's oldest brother Bayliss—who is self-centered, judgmental, and envious—owned a successful "farm implement business in Frankfort" (18). When Claude and his friend David Gerhardt are on leave between battles, Cather connects the literal killing machines—guns that they hear in the night—with the mechanical profit taking of businessmen like Claude's father—who seeks to make money from the war by timing the selling of his wheat—and Bayliss Wheeler: "To Claude, 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" (552-53).

Crane's observation that this war machine produces corpses is also developed in numerous grotesque scenes in both novels. Trout argues that Cather's "battlefield grotesquery . . . has its origins in the tradition of naturalistic war fiction launched by Emil Zola's . . . La Débacle, the first major war novel to describe candidly, even obsessively, the appearance of wounds and corpses" (118-19). Indeed, both Crane and Cather had read, and were probably influenced by, La Débacle. In The Red Badge of Courage men "drop . . . here and there like bundles" (28); a dead man sits in a chapel-like area with ants running across his face (36); "swollen forms" are underfoot (38); a wounded man with "a shoeful of blood . . . hopped like a schoolboy in a game . . . laughing hysterically" (38); and when Henry's friend Jim Conklin dies a ritelike death, his "side looked as if it had been chewed by wolves" (44). Cather's admiration for The Red Badge of Courage suggests that it may also have been a direct influence on her own grotesque images—images that often go beyond Crane's in their horror. Her macabre descriptions of war scenes include fly-covered corpses in the trenches, a bathing hole where Claude and his men unearth a German helmet and ominous gases, and a boot and "a dark hand reach[ing] out" of the main trench wall "like the swollen roots of some noxious weed" (589-90).

While critical debate has existed for decades about whether The Red Badge of Courage is naturalistic or impressionistic, a resolution is offered by Walcutt's association of impressionism with naturalism. Cather herself, in her 1926 preface to Crane's Wounds in the Rain, called Crane a post-impressionist—a term that clearly fits him as he applied impressionist techniques in the midto late 1890s. Describing one element of impressionism, James Nagel writes, "The concern for immediate impressions required an intense interest in the fluctuations of light and color, with the effect of a more accurate 'realism' in the rendering of nature as it is perceived" (Stephen Crane 11). Recognition and analysis of color imagery in The Red Badge of Courage is a staple of Crane criticism. Examples include "the red, eyelike gleam of hostile campfires" (3); "the red sun . . . pasted in the sky like a wafer" (44); the "dark smoke" rising "toward the sun . . . in the blue, enameled sky" (73); and the "black and patternlike . . . figure of the colonel on a gigantic horse" silhouetted against "a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun" (12)—surely a prefiguring of Cather's plough against the sun in My Ántonia. Crane even alludes to pictures in his novel, for Henry's "busy mind had drawn for him large pictures [of war] extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds" (5).

Conversely, Cather claimed that she tried to "cut out all the descriptive work" and "picture making" in her novel because Claude "does not see in pictures" (39). Nevertheless, many pictures remain in One of Ours. Impressionistic scenes in the Nebraska sections include "the fields and the bare tree-tops . . . swimming in light" on the Wheeler farm one autumn afternoon (77) and Claude's springing down to finish a load of corn as a breeze "ominously rattled the stiff, dry leaves" (116). In an extremely Crane-like image Claude perceives the sun "high" over the tall buildings of New York while the Anchises sails out of New York harbor, as "a red ball, streaked across with purple clouds" (360). As Murphy observes, however, "painterly" images (236) are both more frequent and more effective in the last two sections, focusing on the war. When Lieutenant Bird is buried at sea after dying of influenza, "the sea was rolling blue walls of water" (387), and "glittering walls of water kept rolling in, indigo, purple" (388).

As the sick men take refuge from the cold in the stern of the ship, "[t]he sun poured over them like flame, without any comfort in it. The strong, curling, foam-crested waves threw off the light like millions of mirrors, and their color was almost more than the eye could bear. The water seemed denser than before, heavy like melted glass, and the foam on the edges of each blue ridge looked sharp as crystals" (388). Just as the landscape seems to threaten Henry Fleming, so does the ocean in One of Ours seem ominous: "[S]uddenly . . . [coming] to life, the waves had a malignant, graceful, muscular energy, were animated by a kind of mocking cruelty" (389). Then, "[l]ate in the afternoon the wind fell, and there was a sinister sunset. Across the red west a small, ragged black cloud hurried,—then another, and another. They came up out of the sea,—wild witchlike shapes that traveled fast and met in the west as if summoned for an evil conclave. They hung there against the afterglow, distinct black shapes, drawing together, devising something" (389). In this chapter not only has Cather invested nature with human agency, as Crane does throughout The Red Badge, but she has also created a seascape worthy of the impressionist painters that both she and Crane admired and drew from. Indeed, Murphy connects her description of the burial of Corporal Tannhauser a few days later in "a lead-colored chasm at sea" (400) specifically with Crane's story "The Open Boat" (237).

Another element crucial to impressionism is perception. For Cather especially Henri Bergson's explanation of perception is relevant here. To him "our perception manages to solidify into discontinuous images the fluid continuity of . . . the essence of a thing, or of the thing itself" (302). Then "things, once constituted, show . . . the profound changes that are being accomplished within the Whole" (302). In the context of painting the viewer of an impressionist or post-impressionist picture must be able to combine the various parts of the painting, which mean very little separately, into a cohesive and meaningful whole. Nagel argues that "Henry's underlying problem . . . [is] to perceive and interpret himself and his situation with some degree of assurance. His insecurities are born of a need to understand himself" (88)—a description that also fits Claude Wheeler. Henry vacillates between insecurity and egotism, between fear and overconfidence, between feeling threatened and reassured by the landscape. Claude is deeply insecure, frequently embarrassed, and "terribly afraid of being fooled" (54); furthermore, he feels trapped by the Wheeler farm, by his denominational college, and, later, by his marriage. Perception of self and of environment, therefore, contributes greatly to each young man's ability to grow and develop. According to Sergio Perosa, "The rhythm of perception [in The Red Badge of Courage] is ceaseless and pressing, continual and almost obsessive" (89). Suggesting that Crane "identifies himself with Fleming's point of view and consciousness," Perosa further declares that "[b]y faithfully recording his sensations, Crane gives substance and shape to the dramatic scene or the evoked picture, and the gradual unfolding of the meaning coincides with the slow process of perception. The total picture is the sum of the infinite touches and sense impressions, and must be focused anew at each step or turn of the process: it is the characteristic manner of impressionistic rendering" (89).

Marching to his first engagement, Henry absorbs, but does not understand, a myriad of impressions: the disconnected conversations of his regiment, the "flag that tossed in the smoke angrily" (23), "the blurred and agitated forms of troops" (23), the swearing of the lieutenant who has been shot in the hand, and "a shell screaming like a storm banshee [that] went over the huddled heads of the reserves. It landed in the grove, and exploding redly flung the brown earth" (23). As Trout has recognized (126-27), one of the strongest images in the battle sections of One of Ours is also an image of an exploding shell. Going back to rescue some men trapped by German guns, Claude, at the rear, felt the ground rise under him, and he was swept with a mountain of earth and rock down into the ravine.

He never knew whether he lost consciousness or not. It seemed to him that he went on having continuous sensations. The first, was that of being blown to pieces; of swelling to an enormous size under intolerable pressure, and then bursting. Next he felt himself shrink and tingle, like a frostbitten body thawing out. Then he swelled again, and burst. This was repeated, he didn't know how often. He soon realized that he was lying under a great weight of earth;—his body, not his head. He felt rain falling on his face. His left hand was free, and still attached to his arm. He moved it cautiously to his face. He seemed to be bleeding from the nose and ears. Now he began to wonder where he was hurt; he felt as if he were full of shell splinters. Everything was buried but his head and left shoulder. A voice was calling from somewhere below. (525)[1]

Even with a sprained and swollen ankle Claude digs himself out and locates the wounded doctor, who has called for help but who soon dies from his abdominal wound—"a mass of dark, coagulated blood that looked like a great cow's liver" (528), a more homespun comparison than Crane's description of Conklin's wounded side looking as if it had been "chewed by wolves" (44). Feeling, like seeing, is important to perception, and Claude's developing awareness of his condition is comparable to Henry's gradual return to reality after being hit on the head with a fleeing soldier's rifle butt. After his initial fall Henry's first steps are like those of a baby; his head seems hugely swollen; and he cannot see distinctly. Just as Claude is rescued by his men, Henry gets back to camp only with the help of the cheery soldier.

Although readers disagree about the growth and rebirth of these two protagonists, both clearly have death and rebirth experiences. After Henry's friend Wilson welcomes him back to camp and tends to his wound, ironically considered to have been caused by a rifle ball and thus to be a "red badge of courage," Henry sleeps only to wake in the gray mist of morning in what appears to be "the house of the dead," filled with sleeping men colored in "corpselike hues" (60). Whatever growth Henry experiences in the novel certainly comes after this point, and it comes slowly and incompletely. He believes that he is "still a man" because, unlike Wilson—who must ask him to return his letters to his family, "he had performed his mistakes in the dark" (64). Although he runs no more, Henry initially fights like a "war devil" (72) rather than consciously and bravely. After he is given "new eyes" by hearing the officers discuss the insignificance of his regiment and their fighting, however, he takes this inner knowledge back into a battle from which he knows he may not return. In this battle Henry "saw everything. . . . His mind took a mechanical but firm impression, so that afterward everything was pictured and explained to him, save why he himself was there" (77). The question of whether or not Claude grows and changes must be considered on two levels. His thoughts while on leave at the home of David Gerhardt's friends soon after his near-death experience show him to be just as insecure about himself as he was before, thinking that he might have become a man if anyone "had taken the trouble" to help him get over being "tonguetied, foot-tied, hand-tied" (551), and just as romantic and naïve as before, believing that because "men could still die for an idea . . . the future of the world was safe" (553). However, from his early days on board the troopship, Claude's actions in critical situations have changed. The ship is appropriately named the Anchises after the father of Aeneas, the mythical founder of the Roman nation. In The Aeneid Virgil gives a detailed description of Hades, the land of the dead, where Aeneas visits his father and from which he emerges with encouragement and advice. In One of Ours the troopship is literally a death ship. Claude, however, develops into a leader when influenza breaks out and he becomes Dr. Truman's right-hand man. Onboard, Cather says, "he seemed to begin where childhood had left off" (403), and he finally develops a "feeling of purpose, of fateful purpose" (413). When he is killed, he has just bravely stepped out on the parapet above the trench to encourage his men, who are in shock from the devastating effects of a mine that has blown up under the trench.

Both The Red Badge of Courage and One of Ours conclude ambiguously. Understandably, Henry begins "to study his deeds, his failures, and his achievements" as he and his regiment march away from their last battle. He feels a specter of reproach from the "tattered soldier" whom he had deserted in the field, but perhaps he "put[s] the sin at a distance" too easily. He is still young and immature, but he knows "that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point" (95). He has gone through various stages of adjusting to battle, and he feels peaceful and changed. But is he now a real man or still a romantic, immature child? We don't know for sure, but much depends on how we read the very last sentence: "Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds" (95). If this sentence is filtered through Henry's mind, as the previous paragraphs have been, he is indeed still romantic and immature; if, however, the last sentence is told from the narrator's—Crane's—point of view, then Henry may have experienced significant growth, and the irony may be directed more toward war itself than to Henry. At any rate these final ambivalent paragraphs are similar to those in book 5 of One of Ours, for, as Trout asserts about Claude, it is impossible to interpret either character "exclusively as a dupe whose idealism blandly denies the horrors that surround him or exclusively as a hero" (118). Trout's declaration that Cather "seems more concerned with conveying the ambiguities of war and the idealism that it satisfies than with constructing a cogent celebration or parody of military valor"(118) can equally be applied to Crane's novel.

Furthermore, Trout has perceptively identified major ambiguities in the last two sections of One of Ours, emphasizing the two styles of explaining and mirroring combat (126). Certainly Cather's inconsistent point of view, sometimes presenting thoughts and actions through Claude's eyes and sometimes through the point of view of an omniscient narrator, contributes to the confusion. The fact that Cather's cousin G.P. "was in her blood so long that some of her was buried with him," as she wrote Dorothy Canfield Fisher (Woodress 304), helps to explain her inability to distinguish this inconsistency. There is, however, more to consider about the complex ending of the novel. In her last chapter, focusing on events after the war, Cather observes that the men on the transport in New York Harbor "are not the same men who went away" (600; my emphasis). To be fair, we must admit that, as Richard Harris shows, the transformed G. P. Cather who died at Cantigny on May 23, the day after being cited for bravery in battle (Woodress 303), was certainly different from the bumbling farm boy, student, and husband he was in Nebraska (Harris 626-37). Neither was the Cather who finished One of Ours the same person who began it. In her ironic last chapter Cather reveals her own changed attitude to the war through Claude's mother, certainly not the same person who had encouraged her son to Unlike Claude—but like Cather—she is no longer fooled, although "[w]hen she can see nothing that has come of it all but evil, she reads Claude's letters over again and reassures herself, for him the call was clear, the cause was glorious. . . . Perhaps it was as well to see that vision, and then to see no more" (604). In essence all Americans were fools, and only a wise fool like Mahailey can make any sense of it.

Literary history has imposed an ironic twist on the reputations of these two writers. Cather has been disparaged for having written a war novel without having experienced battle, whereas Crane has been applauded for having done the same thing. Hemingway judged The Red Badge of Courage as being "one of the finest books of our literature" (qtd. in Gibson 15) but excoriated Cather's novel, writing to Edmund Wilson on 25 November 1923 this frequently quoted comment: "Wasn't that last scene in the lines wonderful? Do you know where it came from? The battle scene in Birth of a Nation. I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere" (Baker 105).[2] The jealous Hemingway, who himself had little battle experience at the time, would have been surprised to learn that Cather got her "war experience" from legitimate secondary sources very much as his idol Stephen Crane had done for The Red Badge of Courage and that, indeed, her war scenes are much more likely to have been influenced by Crane than by Birth of a Nation.[3]

We have no reason to think that Cather ever knew about Hemingway's comment, and yet her own early admiration of the "vigorous" style of naturalists Harold Frederic (World and the Parish 2: 710) and Frank Norris (2: 749) and the following 1895 statement about female writers suggest that she herself may have struggled with ambivalent feelings about writing One of Ours. I have not much faith in women in fiction. . . . They are so few, the ones who really did anything worth while; there were the great Georges, George Eliot and George Sand, and they were anything but women, and there was Miss Bronte who kept her sentimentality under control, and there was Jane Austen who certainly had more common sense than any of them and was in some respects the greatest of them all. Women are so horribly subjective and they have such scorn for the healthy commonplace. When a woman writes a story of adventure, a stout sea tale, a manly battle yarn, . . . then I will begin to hope for something great from them, not before. (Kingdom of Art 409) However, just as her praise of the female writers named in this passage "created a small space" for women within the "masculinizing rhetoric of naturalism in the late 1890s" (Ahearn 149), her artistic growth between this youthful declaration and the composition of One of Ours taught her that the "great" works that a woman might write are not necessarily adventure tales, sea tales, or battle yarns. Rather, great literature takes the "healthy commonplace" experiences to which she refers and universalizes them into truths about life. Ultimately, both The Red Badge of Courage and One of Ours are more about the commonplace experiences of growing up, learning to face one's fears, and either idealizing or accepting the truth of one's actions than about war. Crane's ability to universalize experience may have influenced Cather even more than the specific similarities of characterization, theme, and style that are apparent between the two war novels.


 1. The following passage from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929) describing how Frederic Henry receives his wound—actually the only real battle scene in the novel—is strongly reminiscent of this scene in which the shell explodes under Claude: Through the other noise I heard a cough, then came the chuhchuh-chuh-chuh—then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back. The ground was torn up and in front of my head there was a splintered beam of wood. In the jolt of my head I heard somebody crying. I thought somebody was screaming. I tried to move but I could not move. I heard the machine-guns and rifles firing across the river and all along the river. There was a great splashing and I saw the starshells go up and burst and float whitely and rockets going up and heard the bombs, all this in a moment, and then I heard close to me some one saying "Mama Mia! Oh, mama Mia!" I pulled and twisted and got my legs loose finally and turned around and touched him. (54-55) Paul W. Miller argues that Hemingway actually learned from Cather, particularly borrowing the "principle of sustained contrast" expressed by her in the difference between Claude's personally destructive Nebraska sections and his "wartime experience in France, associated with rebirth" (104), and applying this principle to alternating scenes of war and romance in his own novel (104). I further believe that in this scene, which actually reflects his own experience of being injured by a mortar shell in both legs on 8 July 1918, Hemingway was influenced by Cather's description of Claude's survival from a shell landing so close to him that he experienced its effects and yet escaped its shrapnel. (Go back.)
 2. "The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain," Hemingway wrote in the first chapter of Green Hills of Africa. "That's not the order they're good in. There is no order for good writers" (Reader 468). (Go back.)
 3. Drawing on Henry Serrano Villard and James Nagel's Hemingway in Love and War and Michael S. Reynolds's Hemingway's First War: The Making of a Farewell to Arms, Miller points out that Hemingway himself actually had little relevant war experience when he wrote A Farewell to Arms. After spending a couple of days in Paris in June 1918, he was sent to Italy with other volunteers in the Red Cross. After two weeks of inaction north of Venice he delivered supplies to the front, where he was In January he returned to America. From this meager experience "he was able to create in A Farewell to Arms a narrative so authentic that for years Italian critics, some of whom had taken part in the October, 1917 retreat near Caporetto [described in the novel], could not believe that its author had not actually witnessed this famous retreat, which took place a year before Hemingway got to Italy, over terrain he had never seen when he wrote the novel" (103). (Go back.)


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