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From Cather Studies Volume 6

On the Front and at Home

Wharton, Cather, the Jews, and the First World War

When Professor St. Peter walks home one October afternoon, at the beginning of chapter 6 of Willa Cather's The Professor's House (1925), he admires from outside the house the vivid autumn foliage his wife has brought into the drawing room. He muses over the way it is selection and placement that create art: "The hand, fastidious and bold, which selected and placed—it was that which made the difference" (75). Through the open French window, St. Peter also glimpses his wife and his Jewish son-in-law, Louie Marsellus, "a little lacquer table between them, bending, it seemed, over casket of jewels" (75). Framed by the window, the two also seem transformed into a picture, suspended in the stasis of art. And Louie's pose is a familiar one in which to find a Jew in the Western aesthetic tradition. Behind him are figures like Dickens's Fagin, pulling a box of jewels in secret from beneath the floorboards of his decrepit house, trickling gems through his fingers, and gloating that dead men tell no tales.

But as St. Peter approaches and Lillian and Louie begin to speak, the meaning of the scene deepens and changes: the two are no longer "selected and placed" (75) in a picture so easily read through anti-Semitic archetypes. It is, after all, St. Peter himself who has framed the two figures in this way. By ending the immediately preceding chapter with an account of St. Peter as an artist of living pictures, Cather emphasizes St. Peter's agency in the picture-making. As chapter 5 ends, St. Peter remembers once posing his two sons-in-law in a living picture for a historical pageant for his students. Though St. Peter believed the picture "quite fair" to Louie and Scott, Lillian's critical response to that picture implies that it was a reductive oversimplification of the two young men— and that this picture is a similarly reductive vision of her and Louie. Yet, it is also Cather herself, complicitous with St. Peter, who has, at least initially, framed Lillian and Louie in this pose over the jewel casket for the reader. Throughout the novel, Cather certainly evokes many familiar anti-Semitic resonances with the character of Louie Marsellus. But she just as certainly suggests the limitations of those stereotypes and humanizes and deepens the character who inhabits them.

Wealthy though he is, Louie is not the simple materialist the framed picture of him with Lillian suggests. As soon as St. Peter enters the room, swinging himself over the window rail, Louie begins to speak with enthusiasm about the Professor's lectures. In the world of St. Peter's state university, in which the interests of athletics, commerce, and agriculture are crowding out the liberal arts, St. Peter's own avid pursuit of historical understanding finds little appreciative audience. But Louie is not driven (as the university seems to be) only by materialistic concerns. He is hungry to hear St. Peter talk about his work: Louie immediately begins to speak of his regret at never having had the opportunity to study with St. Peter. And as the chapter ends, after Louie has left, St. Peter and his wife discuss Louie's attempt to join the "Arts and Letters." The Professor urges Lillian to persuade Louie not to let his name come up, lest he be blackballed by someone in the group. As St. Peter explains, although Louie has been allowed into the country club, "the Arts and Letters is a little group of fellows, and . . . fussy" (79). Louie is subsequently blackballed and kept out of this fussy little club, but there is surely something suggestive in Cather's story of a Jew being excluded from the Arts and Letters. If at first she frames her Jewish character in familiar anti-Semitic terms, her novel also invites the reader to meditate on the way the arts and letters have blackballed and excluded Jews, and in the process dwindled into a fussy little social club. But why this apparent contradiction? On what terms does Cather's own art, in The Professor's House, allow the Jew admittance?

The representation of Louie Marsellus has long puzzled—and sometimes disturbed—critics of The Professor's House. The two critics who most strongly make the case that Louie's is an anti- Semitic portrait are James Schroeter (in 1964) and Walter Benn Michaels (in 1995). Schroeter, noting the antithesis in the novel between Tom Outland and Louie Marsellus, comments that as Cather represents the Jew, he is "a moneymaker rather than a creator, a traditionless aggressor who invades from the outside; he threatens and destroys the past; and he symbolizes what is wrong with the present" (503). Through Louie's prosperity Cather suggests, Schroeter writes, "that America is falling into the hands of the Jews" (503). The Jews are represented in her novel as "unworthy inheritors of that tradition and wealth which they had no share in making" (504). Michaels discusses Cather as one of a number of novelists in the 1920s who was concerned with defining American identity against invasive outsiders. In marrying Rosamond, Louie is the "nativist's nightmare Jew . . . the one who wants to marry his daughter" (69).The novel's anti-Semitism, for Michaels, functions in the service of its redefinition of a pure, archetypal American identity, located in the feeling Tom has for the vanished Indians of the mesa, whom he views as his ancestors (Michaels 151N54). In order to affirm this archetype and yet suggest the way it is threatened, Cather creates in Louie Marsellus, Michaels contends, the "nightmare Jew."

But other Cather critics either counter the claim that the representation of Louie is anti-Semitic (Wasserman,Woodress, Lee) or see a duality in Cather's attitude toward him. Janis P. Stout observes that Louie "is painfully . . . stigmatized by stereotypical personal associations with moneymaking, showy spending, and . . . social climbing" but has "an attractive personal generosity" (226- 27). Ann Fisher-Wirth similarly sees the representation of Louie in the first half of the novel as characterized by a typical modernist anti-Semitism (he is, she writes, "a 'mackerel-tinted' materialist" [23]); but as the novel proceeds, "Louie gradually surpasses the categories that contain him" (23).

That this character can be interpreted in such diametrically opposing ways grows, I believe, out of contradictory impulses in the novel itself. Like Stout and Fisher-Wirth, I see this novel as deeply ambivalent in its representation of the Professor's emphatically Jewish son-in-law. The ambivalence with which Cather represents the Jewish Marsellus makes most sense, I will contend here, when The Professor's House is thought of as a postwar novel, a novel reflecting Cather's deeply troubled and conflicted reaction to the Great War. Her representation of Jews in this novel is intricately involved with her reaction to the war. During the war years, and in the early twenties, a pervasive popular discourse accused the Jews of an unpatriotic, self-interested response to the war. Edith Wharton's novel of the war, A Son at the Front (1923), published just two years before The Professor's House, represents Jews in a way very congruent with the way they were being represented in popular discourse; in Wharton's war novel the figure of the Jew serves to emphasize, by contrast, the nobility of self-sacrifice for the war. When Cather's The Professor's House is considered in the context of contemporary discourse about Jews and war, what is most striking about her representation of the Jewish Marsellus is its relative subtlety and complexity. I will contend that, like Wharton, Cather uses the Jew to represent the antithesis of noble self-sacrifice in war, but her ambivalence about what constitutes the most appropriate human response to that "great catastrophe" (236) is reflected in a more conflicted, and ultimately more sympathetic, representation of the Jew.

Widespread, angry criticism of Jews in the United States, alleging their lack of patriotism and inclination toward draft evasion, filled the summer of 1917.[1] In April 1917 the United States had entered the war, and in May Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which required all men from aged twenty-one to thirty to register for the draft on June 5. The irate rhetoric against Jews beginning in the summer of 1917 did spring in part from what can be seen as a legitimate grievance, due to peculiarities of the draft law, though it was hardly fair to hold Jews and other recent immigrants responsible for the effects of these peculiarities. Although all men ages twenty-one to thirty were obligated to register on Registration Day, June 5, 1917, immigrants who had not yet begun the official process of naturalization were, as citizens of other countries, exempt from the draft. Yet each district had to provide a certain quota of men based on its total population, a population count in which these "non-declarant aliens" were included. As a result, American citizens (as well as immigrants who had begun the process of naturalization) who lived in districts with high percentages of recent immigrants were conscripted at significantly higher rates than in other areas of the country. In one such case, 25 percent of the men who registered in one Brooklyn district were nondeclarant Russian Jewish immigrants (Chambers, To Raise an Army 226- 27; Sterba 73). Senator Henry Cabot Lodge claimed in September of 1917 that 70 percent of the registered men in one Chicago district were foreign citizens and therefore draft-exempt and that so many men in one Brooklyn district were nondeclarant aliens that "every eligible American" citizen in that district was drafted (qtd. in Chambers, To Raise an Army 227). Unsurprisingly, this situation fomented a great deal of anger against immigrants.

The public perception of this situation was not helped by the fact that many prominent Jewish socialists and liberals did oppose the war. The Jewish population in the United States numbered two million: one and a half million of them were living in New York City, and one and a half million were recent arrivals from Russia and Poland (Vital 664). These Russian and Polish Jews had come to the United States in order to escape the oppressive treatment they suffered under the Russian czar (violent pogroms, forcible relocation, overcrowding and starvation in the Pale of Settlement, as well as conscription into the most dangerous positions in the army). Before the United States entered the war, from 1914 to 1917, most Russian Jewish immigrants, fearing that the czar would come to dominate new regions in which Jews lived, hoped for a German triumph over Russia (Sterba 63; Vital 658). But in the year following the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in March of 1917, Jewish opinion in the United States largely turned in favor of the Allies and in support of the war effort (Sterba 64).

Despite their draft-exempt status, between 1917 and 1918, hundreds of thousands of undeclared immigrants voluntarily joined the armed services: by September 1918, they numbered 191,000 (Chambers, To Raise an Army 228-29). Statistics show that approximately 20 percent of United States draftees were foreign born and that 9 percent of the men who ultimately served in the U.S. armed services during World War I were not citizens of the United States (Chambers, To Raise an Army 229). Jews were a particular target of the anti-immigrant hostility. Yet, largely because of volunteerism, some 200,000 Jews became soldiers for the United States (Sterba 29). A considerably higher proportion of the Jewish than the non-Jewish population served in the United States military during World War I (Vital 650). But the perception of injustice caused by the terms of the draft law (and by the vocal opposition of some prominent Jews to the war) inflamed public anger against the Jews.

Anger against Jews was widely expressed by public speakers and in the press. In New York City, anti-Semitic soapbox orators drew large crowds. One Russell Dunne (who had also spoken at recruitment events) delivered an anti-Semitic tirade in Madison Square Garden on August 25, 1917, that got particularly ugly. He described Jews as "long-nosed greasy vermin," and he urged his audience to boycott Jewish businesses. Denouncing the Jews as "slackers," he encouraged his listeners to recreate the violence of the pogroms the Jews had fled in coming to the United States: "Teach the foreigners the lesson they were taught in Russia," he proclaimed (qtd. in Sterba 28-29). Violence erupted, although the police were called in, and Jewish merchants in Brooklyn later felt the effects of the called-for boycott (Sterba 28-29).

Discontent over the perceived inequities of the draft was so pervasive that most prominent newspapers ran editorials taking the position that immigrants who had not yet declared their intent to become citizens should be eligible for the draft (Chambers, To Raise an Army 227-28).[2] Some newspapers were more inflammatory: in August 1917 the New York World claimed that the Jews were working in league with German agents to oppose the war (Sterba 73). One draft board in Brooklyn sent a much-reprinted telegram to Woodrow Wilson in which they protested that tremendous numbers of exemption claims were being made by the Russian Jewish men in their district: "The flower of our neighborhood is being torn from home . . . to fight for these miserable specimens of humanity, who under the law may remain smugly at home" (qtd. in Sterba 73). Medical advisory boards who examined candidates for military service were informed by the Army Manual of Instruction in 1917: "The foreign born, and especially Jews, are more apt to malinger than the native born" (Wallace 105). Even Jewish attorney Louis Marshall, president of the American Jewish Committee, commented that he saw a "slacker spirit on the part of our people" (Sterba 69). The American Jewish Chronicle reported the particularly scurrilous comment made by a member of a Brooklyn draft board at a pro-war rally: "There are three epochs in the life of the Jewish boy: first, at birth, circumcision; second, at 13, confirmation; third, at 21, exemption" (qtd. in Sterba 74).

When Jews did enter the military, they experienced discrimination. In 1914 the American Jewish Committee complained about the discriminatory treatment of Jews in the armed services in a letter to the War Department. In response, the War Department internally circulated a memo that included the comment, "The Jew never was and never will be a soldier" (Wallace 105). One Jewish lieutenant, Jacob Rader Marcus, kept a diary during the First World War in which he recorded occurrences of anti-Semitic discrimination in the armed services, noting instances of Jews being unjustly kept from promotion, denied the opportunity for religious observance, and singled out for disciplinary treatment (Sterba 194-95).

Jews were accused of being slackers and malingerers and of being unpatriotic; when they were in the military, they were accused of being poor soldiers. During the war years and in the twenties, Jews were also blamed for causing or for profiting from the war (see McCall 165). These accusations may have arisen in part from the fact that some prominent Jewish figures tried to use their influence to improve the situation of Jews in Russia. Jacob Schiff, the Jewish head of Kuhn, Loeb, and Company and of other investment banks in New York, disturbed by the treatment of Jews in Russia, advocated a position of neutrality in 1915. When in the summer of 1915 J.P. Morgan asked Schiff to have his firm join in issuing a loan of $500 million to the Allies, Schiff was only willing to do so if he could be assured that none of the money would go to Russia. But his condition was not met, and Schiff withdrew from the loan (Vital 659). The American Jewish Committee, a group of prominent Jews, hoped that the governments of Britain and France would use their influence with Russia, and the president of the American Jewish Committee wrote to a Russian mediator about the willingness of Schiff and other Jewish bankers to join in offering Russia a loan if certain conditions were met by Russia: Russia must agree to abolish the Pale of Settlement and recognize the right to expatriation as well as the equality of Jews with all Russian citizens. But once again the terms were not met (Vital 660- 61). In response to such efforts, the British ambassador wrote in a letter to the Foreign Office: "German Jewish bankers are toiling in a solid phalanx to compass our destruction" (Vital 659). During the negotiations between the British and French governments and U.S. bankers, the myth that Jews formed a coherent international group, self-interested and unpatriotic, garnered strength. "I do not think it is easy to exaggerate the international power of the Jews," wrote Lord Robert Cecil (qtd. in Vital 662).

These accusations of international Jewish conspiracy, warmongering, and profiteering did not die out after the war was over. A motion was introduced in the Senate in March 1923 by Robert La Follette of Wisconsin in which World War I was blamed on international bankers and in particular the Jewish Rothschilds (Wallace 28). Henry Ford's The International Jew, a collection of anti- Semitic articles initially published in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, disseminated such accusations around the world in the early 1920s (Wallace 43-44). In 1922, Hilaire Belloc, a well-known, French-born British writer, published a popular book entitled The Jews, which promoted the belief that Jews were capable of no loyalty or patriotism to the countries they were living in.

Samuel Walker McCall, former member of the House of Representatives and then Governor of Massachusetts, was so disturbed by the rise in hostility toward the Jews during and after World War I, and in particular by what was said about Jews' lack of patriotism and nonengagement in the war, that he wrote an entire book titled Patriotism of the American Jew (1924). The book is devoted to countering the claim that Jews have no capacity for national loyalty or patriotism.[3] In it, McCall traces and celebrates the history of the participation by Jews in all American armed conflicts and points out that statistics demonstrate that Jews served in the armed services during the Great War at an exceptionally high rate. Given the percentage of the population that was Jewish, one would have expected the percentage of Jews in the military to have been 3 percent, but in fact it was one third higher, at 4 percent, because of the large numbers of Jewish volunteers (McCall 128). McCall quotes prominent Jews who spoke in favor of U.S. participation and who urged Jews to volunteer, recounts the relief work done by Jews, and narrates incidents of heroic action by Jews serving in the U.S. military during the war. That McCall felt the need in 1924 to write an entire book arguing for the Patriotism of the American Jew reveals how much his views on that topic were at odds with the prevailing sentiments of the time. What was said on the street and in popular publications during the war years and afterward was that Jews were slackers and cowards, who evaded military service out of self-interest and who had profited from and caused the war.

Both Edith Wharton's war novel A Son at the Front (1923) and Willa Cather's The Professor's House (1925) were written in this wartime and postwar climate. Wharton wrote A Son at the Front while she was living in France and doing relief work between the spring of 1918 and 1922. In this novel of World War I, Wharton uses race metaphorically, and in doing so, she invokes familiar stereotypes of the Jews. At one point in the novel, George Campton, a young American serving in the French military, whom Wharton celebrates as heroic in his wartime self-sacrifice, says in a fury of the Germans after they have invaded Belgium, "They're not fit to live with white people" (51). In Wharton's other war novel, The Marne (1918), a silly young American woman who has come to France with the ridiculous ambition of teaching the French to value home and family as Americans do, uses similar language a year later to describe her startled recognition that the French are civilized too: "I tell you, they're white!" Miss Warlick exclaims (99). Wharton's point in this passage in The Marne is to mock the young American woman for her belated recognition: for Wharton the French are the epitome of civilization, the epitome of "whiteness." Being "white," for Wharton, signifies decency, humanity, culture; it means being willing to sacrifice everything to defend France against Germany, to defend civilization against barbarism.[4] But if being white for Wharton signifies being fully attuned to the values of humanity, culture, and civilization, being Jewish signifies the opposite. Wharton uses Jews in A Son at the Front to represent an ignoble wartime failure to rise to self-sacrifice in defense of civilization.

A Son at the Front focuses on the experiences of John Campton, an American painter living in Paris, and on his relationship with his son, George. George, though an American with two American parents, was accidentally born in France (of a father also born in France) and is therefore subject to mobilization in the French army. Campton at first schemes with his former wife and her influential banker husband to keep George from being mobilized and then to keep him from being sent to the front. But as the months go by Campton comes to feel ashamed of his efforts to keep George out of active fighting. Campton comes to believe that no "civilized man could afford to stand aside from such a conflict" (102). France, he realizes, has always been not only her people but "an Idea" in "the story of civilization; a luminous point about which striving visions and purposes could rally" (192). "If France went," Campton thinks, "western civilization went with her; and then all they had believed in and been guided by would perish" (192). At the heart of this novel is Campton's delicately rendered struggle to let his one child, his deeply loved son, go to risk death at the front. His agonizing internal struggle is heart-rendingly represented in the novel.

But to depict the antithesis of the sacrifice Campton learns he must make, and allow his son to make, for the war, Wharton uses the Jews. As Campton comes to realize that he must let George go, he comes to despise those around him who advocate neutrality for the United States or who scheme to protect their loved ones from active service. Wharton makes Jewish characters the most repulsive examples of wartime selfishness, and it is by seeing the similarity between his own actions and those of these Jewish figures that Campton grows to realize that protecting his son is dishonorable. Campton is viscerally disgusted by the fat, red, international banker Jorgenstein, a figure in Wharton's novel who clearly reflects and derives from the popular wartime and postwar condemnation of Jewish bankers. Jorgenstein, with what Wharton terms his "air of bloated satisfaction" (124), thrives during the war at his "vile . . . money-making," (14) growing ever richer and fatter and achieving unearned honors from France and Britain for his putative patriotism. Léonce Black, the dealer who handles the sale of Campton's art, is a younger Semitic figure who has similarly remained fleshy and prosperous during the war, discussing with Campton the effect of the war on business while gazing at him under "plump eyelids" and stroking "his Assyrian nose as though its handsome curve followed the pure Delphic line" (89). Black, who "loung[es] in a glossy War Office uniform" (88) has also managed to secure himself a safe military post and avoid being sent into active fighting.

But what most appalls Campton, and finally causes him to reevaluate his efforts to keep George from being sent to the front, is hearing those efforts on behalf of George invoked by a woman whose lover is a Jew, Mme de Dolmetsch. Mme de Dolmetsch is the lover of Ladislas Isador, whom Campton thinks of as that "fat middle-aged philanderer with his Jewish eyes, his Slav eloquence, his Levantine gift for getting on, and for getting out from under" (97). Believing Campton to have been successful in protecting George, Mme de Dolmetsch implores Campton's aid in keeping Isador at a safe office position in Paris. Campton's "gorge r[ises] at the thought that people should associate in their minds cases as different as those of his son and Mme. de Dolmetsch's lover" (97); he feels "everything . . . dearest to him, the thought of George . . . defiled by this monstrous coupling of [his] name . . . with that of the supple middle-aged adventurer safe in his spotless uniform at the War Office" (85). After this encounter, Campton tells his former wife for the first time that there are some steps that he will not take to keep George safe: "It's no use," he says. "I can't do the sort of thing to keep my son safe that Mme. de Dolmetsch would do for her lover" (97). It is in this moment when he comes to see himself as behaving like a Jew—scheming, dishonorable, staying safe at all costs, avoiding wartime sacrifice— that Campton begins to realize that he must let George go. As was the case in the U.S. armed forces, the percentage of the Jewish population in the French army in the First World War was higher than the percentage of the non-Jewish population: 35,000 Jews, some 20 percent of France's Jewish population, fought for France (Vital 650). But Wharton uses the figure of the Jew to represent the dishonorable evasion of military service. The novel follows Campton's struggle not to be like a Jew, his agonizing internal struggle to accept George's desire for active duty and to allow his one beloved son to die in the war.

The sacrifice Campton learns to make during the war involves not only the loss of the one person he loves but almost the loss of art itself. Campton stops painting at the beginning of the war, feeling that "the world in which men lived at present was one in which the word 'art' had lost its meaning" (71).George himself has been throughout his life the subject of Campton's greatest work, so when he dies, it seems for a while as if Campton's art has come to an end. He cannot bear to look at his old sketches of his son or to touch "paint or pencil" (216). Only when he can see aspects of George in the first young American soldiers who come marching into Paris is he able to begin to draw again, as he begins sketching their faces. As the novel ends, Campton, who has angrily resisted helping to design the memorial statue to his son that his former wife and her husband want, has, with a tremendous emotional effort, pulled out his sketches and begun work on the model for the statue. By the novel's end, the war has not quite put its threatened end to art itself, but Campton's art has become a memorial for what he has lost. In the end A Son at the Front is a somber celebration of the art of losing, of accepting intolerable loss and pain, because keeping oneself from loss is ultimately more unthinkable —it is to be like a Jew.

Wharton's representation of Jews in A Son at the Front is painful. Somehow she cannot extend her probing and generous understanding of humanity to Jews but flattens them into caricatures of wartime attitudes she found repugnant. The novel contains other caricatures—of pacifists, of wealthy Americans who cannot give up amusement, who advocate the "new morality," or who espouse a shallow nonconventionality in art—but her satire of these characters, though not an artistic strength of the novel, is expressive of distaste for particular social or aesthetic views and not for an entire people. The hostility toward Jews often feels disturbingly arbitrary, unmotivated. In one passage in Fighting France (1915), Wharton's best-selling collection of nonfiction essays about her experiences visiting various parts of France's front line, Wharton, without any clear motivation or reason, suddenly associates Jews with the worst of German cruelty toward the French. In an account of her visit to Gerbérviller, known as "the martyr town," site of German atrocities carried out on a civilian population, she writes of one particularly devastated house that it was "so calcined and convulsed that, for epithets dire enough to fit it, one would have to borrow from a Hebrew prophet gloating over the fall of a city of idolaters" (93). But why suddenly evoke gloating Jews in connection with the savagery of the invading German army? It is evident that for Wharton Jews were deeply associated with the opposite of the values she felt the war was being fought to defend, the values of humanity and culture most dear to her.

To consider Cather's Louie Marsellus in the context of what was said in America and Europe about the Jews during the war and the postwar years is to see both the ways in which Cather's representation of her Jewish character is continuous with that popular discourse and the ways in which it is not. Cather's description of Louie's nose ("it grew out of his face with masterful strength" [45]) certainly derives from a tradition of anti-Semitic representation, as does her rather more original use of the term "mackerel-tinted" (44) to describe him. (The term links Louie unflatteringly with his origins, evoking Jewish fish-mongers in New York City haggling over the price of items on their pushcarts.) In discussing The Professor's House as a postwar novel, Steven Trout describes Louie as "a generous and likable character whose wartime actions can nevertheless be described as outright profiteering" (188). To represent a Jew as profiteering during the war was consistent with the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the time. In these ways Cather's portrayal of Jews during the war years derives from what was being widely said at the time about the Jews in relation to the war.

But unlike Wharton's A Son at the Front, Cather's The Professor's House does not particularly encourage the reader to ask how her Jewish character, Louie Marsellus, has managed not to serve in the military during the war—although, once the question is posed, a reader might wonder. As I note earlier, all American men from ages twenty-one to thirty were required to register on June 5, 1917. Those called to military service were then randomly selected by lottery: approximately one in four of those registrants were drafted (Chambers, "Selective Service" 541). Later, in September 1918, the range was broadened to include all men from ages eighteen to forty-five. Twenty percent of all American men aged eighteen to forty-five served in the military during the First World War (Chambers, To Raise an Army 200). Louie Marsellus, who has married Tom Outland's fiancée, seems to be about Tom's age. Tom was approximately twenty-nine when he met his death in 1915, the second year of the war, so he would have been about thirty-one in 1917.[5] Louie is apparently within a few years of Tom's age, probably younger, as Tom began college late, so he would likely have had to register for the draft in June 1917, or, if not, he definitely would have had to do so in September 1918.

Does Cather mean for us to infer that her Jewish character has pulled strings to keep himself out of the war? Possibly. Louie arrived in town just around the time of Outland's death in 1915 (133), and fairly soon afterward, Mrs. Crane suggests, was engaged to Rosamond (134). If Louie and Rosamond were engaged in 1916, they were probably married some time before Congress approved the Selective Service Act, which Wilson signed on May 18, 1917. Rosamond and Louie have evidently become engaged rather soon after Tom's death, too soon, some seem to think. Kathleen's sudden, irrevocable rejection of her sister on hearing the news of her engagement suggests that she feels that Rosamond has moved on with her life too quickly. And that the rapidity with which Rosamond has transferred her affections to Louie has become a topic of conversation between Kathleen and Scott is suggested by Scott's sotto voce joke to his wife, hinting that though Rosamond may have been, as Louie says, Tom's "virtual widow," she was not his "virtuous widow" but the "reverseous" (46). It was relatively easy for married men with dependent wives or dependent wives and children to receive an exemption from the draft, unless they had rushed to the altar in an obvious last-minute attempt to evade conscription, as many did when rumors began circulating that single men would be taken first (Chambers, To Raise an Army 189, 191, 185). It is just possible that the novel may be hinting that Louie and Rosamond have hurried into an engagement and into marriage out of a fear that the United States would soon enter the war. Louie, however, is also an electrical engineer, who comes to Hamilton in 1915 to put in the Edison power plant, so he could probably also have gotten himself a draft exemption on the grounds that he was essential to the economy, although such an exemption was harder to obtain than the exemption for married men (see Chambers, To Raise an Army 189, 191). Cather may be suggesting, to readers as conscious of the recent terms of conscription as hers were in 1925, that Louie has behaved in a vaguely dubious way in order to evade the draft.

But if the Jewish Louie has gotten himself exempted from the draft based on a "dependency hardship," so, probably, has Scott McGregor, who also, as Tom's college classmate, is most likely a few years younger than Tom and thus of draftable age even in 1917. Kathleen and Scott were engaged shortly after Rosamond and Tom were (66), and Rosamond and Tom must have been engaged before August 1914, when Tom joined the Foreign Legion. Soon after Kathleen and Scott were engaged, Scott began earning enough for the two to marry, so they were probably married by 1915, well before June 5, 1917. Although the two have been married long enough for there to be no suspicion that theirs is a hasty marriage conceived with the intent of avoiding the draft, married men were not required to claim a "dependency hardship," as it seems Scott may have done.

To think about the draft in relation to the novel is to realize how strangely untouched the populations of the university town of Hamilton and of the university itself seem to have been by conscription. Louie and Scott would have been required to register for the draft, even if they had been able to obtain exemptions, and so would many young men in the town and from the university. But there is no mention in the novel of anyone who has been in the war except Tom Outland and Sir Edgar Spilling, the fifty-year-old Englishman visiting the St. Peters who has been in the British Air Service during the war, "in the construction department" (43), and only Tom has seen active service. If Louie and Scott have managed not to be in the war, so it seems have all the male population of Hamilton and of the university, as the novel includes no mention of men with war injuries, of other people in the town mourning dead sons, or of memorials to students dead in the war. Although 20 percent of American men aged eighteen to forty-five were in the armed services during the war, nearly three-fifths of them conscripted, and although conscription meant that they were plucked randomly out of the population, the novel mentions no one but Tom lost in the war and no one mutilated or traumatized by it, no other lost or harmed sons or brothers or fiancées or husbands or fathers or neighbors or former students or friends.

Cather is representing her Jewish character, who has stayed out of the war and prospered while it was going on, in a significantly different light than is Wharton. Everyone else around Louie, with the tremendous exception of Tom Outland, has evidently done the same sort of thing he has during the war years. It seems to me that Cather is not so much representing Louie as having in a shady way evaded the draft as she is rewriting the history of the war, in this novel, as one without conscription. By omitting the fact of conscription, Cather's novel makes participation in the war voluntary, noble. Tom functions as the symbol of all young American men tragically dead in the war. But those deaths are rewritten as willing sacrifices. Rather than evoking the deaths of men in an American army, nearly three-fifths of whom were conscripts, that belatedly, in Cather's view, entered the war in 1917, Cather rewrites those deaths, through the figure of Tom Outland, as the willing sacrifices of men who rushed voluntarily into battle as soon as Germany invaded Belgium in 1914 and the war began. Cather thus simultaneously idealizes the war dead and represents the Americans left at home as more untouched by the war than the universality of conscription had in fact made them.

The Jewish Louie Marsellus, then, cheerfully continuing with his life during the war years and indeed making a tremendous amount of money during the war (by transforming Tom's gas into the Outland engine, an engine used in war planes that killed other men), is not depicted as exceptional in Cather's text. Instead, he is representative of most of the American population. His extraordinary prosperity during the war years may make him epitomize a morally obtuse American population, but it does not set him apart as an exceptional "slacker."

In Memorial Fictions, Trout tellingly observes that although The Professor's House makes very little mention of the war, the novel is haunted by the "thing not named," the First World War. One way in which we feel the haunting presence of the war, I believe, is in St. Peter's description of his students: one senses his distaste for this prosperous, postwar crop of young men. Early on in the novel St. Peter comments to Professor Langtry on the "great difference" he feels now in the students, the decline "in the all-embracing respect of quality" (55). As St. Peter later tells Rosamond that in all his years of teaching he has encountered "just one remarkable mind," that of Tom Outland (62), he cannot mean primarily that the students are less intelligent now but that they are inferior in spirit. Lillian St. Peter's description of the Professor's current students as "fat-faced boys" (70), and St. Peter's acceptance of that description, suggests that he (and, surprisingly, she too) feels disdain for the current prosperous generation, not rendered chiseled and gaunt, through loss, pain, and suffering, like the boys-turned-men who went to war.

The cheerful, highly colored, Jewish Louie Marsellus functions in the novel to represent a postwar generation oblivious to what the war has cost and blithely going on with life. The impending "advent of a young Marsellus" (273) mentioned at the end of the novel is one way in which Louie is characterized as, perhaps in a morally obtuse fashion, carrying on with life. St. Peter does not receive the news of his coming grandchild with the slightest enthusiasm. For him, as for Tom, with the war "almost Time itself" (261) has been swept away. But for Louie time has not stopped, and the fertility of this Jewish character suggests that he has been little effected by the war. In Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926, a year after The Professor's House, the inability of the hero, Jake Barnes, to consummate a sexual relationship or to procreate, due to a war wound, is evocative of a generation emotionally shattered by the war. Hemingway's novel is populated by the young and alienated, unable to form stable bonds with one another. The despicable Jewish character in the novel, Robert Cohn, is the only one of the main characters who has children, and that fact sets him apart (damningly to Hemingway) as less sensitive and therefore less damaged than the others. The actual birth rate in the United States dropped in 1919, just after the war, rose close to prewar levels in 1920 and 1921, and then declined steadily during the 1920s (Klein 156-57). This real decline in the birth rate may lie behind the use of childlessness in novels of the 1920s (consider also F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) as a representation of postwar anomie. Kathleen and Scott interestingly have had no children, though they have been married for at least six years, if the date of the events at the end of The Professor's House is 1921 (and longer if it is closer to 1925), but by ending the novel as the St. Peters and the Marselluses anticipate the upcoming birth of Louie and Rosamond's child, Cather links her Jewish character with a cheerful, oblivious, postwar continuation of life.[6]

In The Professor's House, then, Cather is associating her Jewish character with nonparticipation in the war, with personally prospering in a morally suspect way during those years, and with continuing on with life apparently untouched by the war. Louie also is characterized by a certain vulgarity of manner and appearance. And yet, as critics have noted, Louie is good-hearted, pleasingly full of joie de vivre, and, as the Professor says, "an absolutely generous chap" (128). Cather does link the Jewish Louie with attitudes toward the war for which other writers (and public speakers) denigrated the Jews, but she is at the same time, I would contend, highly ambivalent about how to respond to the attitudes toward the war she has associated with her Jewish character. She is equally ambivalent about how to respond to the antithetical attitude toward the war that she associates with Tom Outland and with the Professor, an attitude that is noble, self-sacrificing, celebratory of loss in an ideal cause—and also cold and inhuman.

The references to the Dreyfus affair in the climactic argument between Tom Outland and Roddy Blake underline the way that Cather is aligning the cold purity of idealism (Tom's) with a hostile misapprehension of Jews and aligning a spirit emphasizing human ties and warm practicality rather than disembodied ideals (Roddy's) with a defense of Jews against false, anti-Semitic charges. Condemning Roddy for selling the artifacts from the Blue Mesa, Tom tells him, "You've gone and sold your country's secrets, like Dreyfus." "That man was innocent. It was a frame-up," Roddy murmurs (242). Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was wrongly accused and convicted in 1894 of selling French military secrets to the Germans. Amidst a storm of international controversy and anti-Semitic accusations, he appealed but was again convicted in 1899. In 1898 Emile Zola wrote his famous open letter to the French president, "J'accuse," in which he castigated the French government for unjustly conspiring with the military to condemn Dreyfus. Cather evidently agreed that Dreyfus had been wrongly condemned, as in 1899 she praised "the courage of the hand that penned the 'J'accuse' letter" (World and the Parish 2:724; Lee 251). Her belief that Tom is wrong about Dreyfus makes Tom's behavior toward Roddy, once he has sold the artifacts, all the more questionable.

Tom is associated with sacrificing friendship and human bonds for an ideal, "high and blue" (252) above human life, and with self-sacrifice in war. But he is also associated with the most extreme version of the belief, widely circulating in the teens and twenties, that the Jew is unpatriotic and disloyal. Those who were immediately ready to believe Dreyfus guilty did so because they thought of Jews as traitors, capable of betraying the country in which they lived and of aiding the enemy, Germany. For Cather, this was evidently a misconstruing of the Jew. And to see Roddy as like Marsellus— generous, practical, choosing human bonds rather than an insubstantial ideal—is to see that Roddy's implicit defense of Jews is a defense also of the attitudes toward the war that Cather has embodied in her Jewish character.

But if Louie is aligned with Roddy, St. Peter is aligned with Tom Outland. Like Tom, St. Peter chooses a life of intellectual idealism over connectedness with others, living high in his study above the "warm human house," immersing himself in the blue lake, withdrawing from his family, from life and from the future, feeling that the "great catastrophe" that was the Great War has swept away "all youth and all palms, and almost Time itself" (261). Cather suggests, not unsympathetically, that St. Peter's postwar disengagement from life and Tom's wartime idealism express one possible response to the war. But the response she embodies in her Jewish character is also possible and not despicable: indeed, Louie, in his pleasure in his own prosperity, his loving connections with others, his procreativity, and his apparent obliviousness to the implications of the war, his evident sense that time has not stopped, feels warmer and more human than the Professor does as the novel draws to a close.

Cather does represent the Jewish Louie ambivalently in this novel, linking him, in a way congruent with untrue anti-Semitic accusations widely circulating at the time, with particular choices in relation to the war. But she also makes him a warm, likable, and generous character, and she even indirectly calls anti-Semitic thought into question in this novel. The ambivalence with which she represents the Jewish Louie seems to arise out of her own struggle to come to terms with the war, to decide on the most humanly acceptable response to an unthinkable catastrophe. Using the figure of the Jew, Cather represents the possibilities of behavior in relation to the war in terms very similar to those that structure Wharton's A Son at the Front and in terms very similar to those circulating in popular discourse in the war years and the twenties. But, far more ambivalent than Wharton about embracing pain and loss and idealism, Cather struggles with a problem formulated in similar terms—embrace sacrifice or behave like a Jew—but comes to a different resolution, and in doing so, she represents Jews more sympathetically. In both A Son at the Front and The Professor's House, the stereotypical figure of the Jew—disengaged from the war, prosperous, commercial—serves to highlight self-sacrifice in war. Yet while Wharton uses her Jews to represent ignoble wartime selfishness, Cather ultimately uses the figure of the Jew to suggest the obverse postwar danger—that of refusing to move beyond the ecstasy of personal pain and loss.


 1. The following account of anti-Semitic rhetoric during the war, of Jews' participation in the war, and of the process of conscription, is heavily indebted to Sterba, Chambers, and Vital. Sterba describes the anti- Semitic rhetoric but does not connect it with the problem of draft quotas in districts filled with nondeclarant immigrants; he attributes it primarily to the prominent Jewish opposition to the war and to registered Jews, draft-averse because of their recent experiences in Russia, taking advantage of available exemptions. Chambers, who discusses this problem of draft quotas and immigrants, does not link it with the particularly vehement anti-Semitic rhetoric. Neither of the two discusses McCall's book. My account of anti-Semitism and conscription during these years brings the two issues together and also adds a discussion of McCall's Patriotism of the American Jew. (Go back.)
 2. Such a policy was never enacted, as to draft citizens of other countries would have caused a diplomatic crisis. Only in May 1918 did Congress revise the draft law so that quotas were thenceforth based not on the total population of a district but on the population of men in the most eligible draft category in that district (Chambers, To Raise an Army 227-28). (Go back.)
 3. McCall's book is introduced by a foreword by Charles W. Eliot, then president emeritus of Harvard, who notes that "a wave of anti-Semitic feeling has lately passed over the American people . . . stimulated by an active propaganda through the Press" (9). Eliot supports McCall's agenda and agrees that Jews have voluntarily borne a proportionally greater burden of military service, but it is interesting to note that he also, perhaps unwittingly, expresses anti-Semitic sentiments of his own, noting that anti-Semitism is not an "unnatural feeling" in response to Jewish success in America, expressing gratification that this feeling is based not "on dislike of the Hebrew religion, but of some of the Jewish racial qualities," and expressing satisfaction that intermarriage between races "is generally condemned by medical, sanitary, and eugenic authorities" (12-13). (Go back.)
 4. Edith Wharton's war writing seems to grant temporary, honorary "white" status to various races fighting on the side of the Allies. In a brief passage in Fighting France, she writes admiringly of the Indian troops serving under the British flag: she describes regiment after regiment passing "of slim turbaned Indians, with delicate proud faces like the faces of Princes in Persian miniatures" (178). Wharton is similarly pleased to see the Algerian zouaves serving in the French army. Her description of "that throng of dusky merry faces under their red fezes" and of a "grinning" soldier just decorated for bravery contains vestiges of racial characterization. But Wharton approaches the zouaves in an inclusive spirit, posing for a photograph with the regiment, noting that though the just-decorated zouave soldier protests, when drawn into the photograph, "Me? Why my ugly mug will smash the plate!" "But it didn't—" (169). The photograph of heroic, metaphorically white soldiers fighting in the Allied cause can expand to include the zouaves without "smash[ing] the plate." But Wharton's temporarily expanded racial acceptance in her wartime writing does not extend to the Jews, despite the many French Jews who fought and died for France during the war. (Go back.)
 5. I calculate Tom to be about twenty-nine when he dies in 1915 because he guesses himself to be twenty the summer before he enters the university (113), so he graduates at about twenty-four. Two years later he travels in the summer with St. Peter to the Southwest and the Blue Mesa (now age twenty-six; 259). The next summer they go to Mexico (age twenty-seven; 260), and the next summer is 1914, and Tom joins the Foreign Legion (age twenty-eight) and dies the following year at age twenty-nine. For other slightly varying discussions of dates in the novel, see Harrell; Stich. (Go back.)
 6. I am not fully persuaded by Harrell's contention that the date of the novel's opening must be as early as 1919 or 1920 (Stich points out that it must be 1920, as Prohibition began that year) and that it ends in 1921. But it could be later (Prohibition did not end until 1933): Harrell calculates that it is early because he believes that Rosamond and Louie are recently married, as they speak of moving their wedding presents to Outland (Harrell 220). But Rosamond and Louie have been engaged since 1916 and may have been married quite a while. They have been living in a rented house, which they are now ready to give up, and they have been married long enough to choose furniture for that house carefully and to be ready (or at least, Louie is) to give it away and buy new furniture. Louie has a chiffonnier that Scott has admired for some time (164). If it is later than 1921 at the end of the novel, possibly some time between 1921 and 1925, then Kathleen and Scott have been married and childless for even longer than six years. (Go back.)


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