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From Cather Studies Volume 6

Recreation in World War I and the Practice of Play in One of Ours

Thumbing through photo pages in biographies and other books about Willa Cather, one encounters captivating images of an active author posing before natural backdrops. Photographs show Cather propelling a railroad handcar across the high plains of Wyoming and pausing momentarily in the summer woods of New Hampshire, walking staff in hand.

Among my favorite photographs of Cather is a snapshot taken at Mesa Verde, Colorado, in 1915 (see fig. 1). One gloved hand grasping a twisted pine post, Cather gazes steadily at the camera from the shade of a broad-brimmed Stetson. Her white blouse collar flares above her trail outfit as she stands in front of Cliff Palace, the epitome of robust adventuring. Cather, a lifelong practitioner of recreation, knew the benefits of remaining playful. She consistently reinvigorated her work by regulating the conditions under which she labored: by getting away from it all to Nebraska or the desert Southwest, by regularly changing her work setting throughout the calendar year from New York to Jaffrey or Grand Manan and back, and often by moving outdoors to compose and revise.

In the summer of 1919 one of Cather's concerns involved shipping a new tent to Jaffrey, New Hampshire (Stout 73-74), and pitching it in a meadow near the Shattuck Inn, allowing her to work al fresco on the manuscript that was to become her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel One of Ours (Woodress 309). The novel that emerged features a protagonist who discovers self most clearly in outdoor settings. Reclining in the Wheeler timber claim, gazing at the sea from the rolling deck of the Anchises, strolling through Cather, seen here at Cliff Palace on Mesa Verde in 1915, made several recreational excursions to the American Southwest.Fig. 1. Cather, seen here at Cliff Palace on Mesa Verde in 1915, made several recreational excursions to the American Southwest. Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries. the woods and fields of rural France, Claude Wheeler lives most completely—physically, mentally, spiritually—in these moments. Bernard Mergen, in his essay "From Play to Recreation: The Acceptance of Leisure in the United States, 1890-1930," states, "Play, and later recreation and leisure, were symbols of a whole complex of values and attitudes about opportunity, creativity, and self-fulfillment" (55). Both Cather and her protagonist embody what Mergen identifies as core beliefs of the early-twentieth-century play movement: that interaction with nature has the power to restore and that "a separate area for recreation" ought to be established in people's lives (55).

In One of Ours Cather traverses the curious intersection between American war efforts and the ideas emerging in the new field of recreation. Within the prairie setting of the first three sections of the novel, Cather weaves playful activities (the very activities promoted by the recreation movement) into the fabric of her plot: picnics, circus outings, ice skating, sleigh riding, walking, athletics, attending concerts and plays. As her characters watch their nation edge into war, however, they experience the increased burdens imposed by wartime conditions on western U.S. farm communities, a situation that not only demonstrates rural families' close connections to the prosecution of warfare in Europe but also points to the need for recreation and its restorative power. What is surprising in Cather's depiction of play, however, is the degree to which recreational activities pervade the novel's war sections. As Cather constructs Claude Wheeler's journey toward war and fashions his experience in the war zone, she continues to surround her protagonist with recreational events: playing music, playing games, reading, singing, dancing, sight-seeing. Indeed, Cather employs the mechanisms of play in showing how Claude's war experience leads the young Nebraskan to begin intellectually and spiritually to reconstruct his life. Just as one would expect a week's holiday to restore vigor to a farm or factory worker, Claude's contact with the war environment elevates his mental, physical, social, and spiritual well-being.


In 1922, the same year that One of Ours appeared, the University of Chicago Press published Clarence Rainwater's landmark study of burgeoning recreation trends titled The Play Movement in the United States. The recreation movement sought to shape leisure time, employing it for civic and national purposes as well as personal benefits. Rainwater and other authors touted recreational theories, facilities, and programs that encouraged people to spend their leisure hours playfully in physical and social activities because, in so doing, people became socially, spiritually, and physically whole, ultimately returning to their work more efficient and productive. As the United States moved toward engaging in the European conflict in 1917, recreation proponents asserted the benefits provided by recreation in the military training of soldiers.

Rainwater traces the play movement's origins to the sand gardens provided for the children of Boston in 1885 (44) and shows the emergence of recreation centers around 1905 (91). These two features were only the beginning. A growing recognition that recreation would benefit not only children but adults led to an expansion in the number of recreation facilities, their hours of availability, and a widening of the kinds of activities promoted as recreational. Lee Hanmer and Howard Knight's 1915 bibliography Sources of Information on Play and Recreation lists twenty-four categories of recreation, including athletics, dramatics, sports, entertainments and socials, motion pictures, rural recreation, and home recreation.

The recreation movement in its various forms emerged in response to, among other factors, a relatively sudden abundance of leisure time for working class persons.[1] Frederic C. Howe reiterates this central concern in a 1914 article: "Leisure for millions is a new factor in the world. It is one of the most significant facts of present-day democracy. What shall we do with this leisure? . . . for the way a people use its leisure determines its civilization almost as much as the way a people works" (415). As the number of hours in the average work day declined and as more child labor laws took effect, people of all ages acquired time for themselves—significant amounts of time. Howe indicates that typical work days shortened from ten and twelve hours in length to eight or nine hours. Howe cites "a recent report of the Department of Labor in Washington [that] shows that in seven years' time working hours have been reduced from 5 to 20 percent in certain trades" (415). To use this newly acquired leisure time profitably became the goal.

Writers extolled recreation's power to restore people to mental, spiritual, and social wholeness, reasoning that reinvigorated workers would be more productive in their jobs. In a 1913 article appearing in a civic planning magazine, The American City, H. S. Braucher refers to families whose "need for financial aid might have been avoided had the breadwinners who had worked hour after hour, day after day, year after year, in monotonous factory work, had a chance to play in their leisure hours" (369). Braucher expresses concern for the spiritual well-being of hard-pressed workers for whom "life had ceased to be vital, their spirit had been taken away, efficiency had disappeared, because there was no adequate provision for wholesome pleasure" (369, 371). Many articles of the time recommend specific activities to boost morale. A 1906 Harper's Weekly urges its readers to "keep some little side issue, where they turn from time to time, for sheer joy," suggesting stamp collecting, gardening, seeing a good play, walking, playing golf or tennis, boating, listening to music, poetry—the author stipulates "reading, not writing it" ("Relaxation" 1667).

Notice how closely this list corresponds to the recreational activities of Cather's characters in One of Ours. During her vacation time, Gladys Farmer walks "out to the mill in the cool of the morning," meeting Enid in the Royce garden, where the two stop "to smell the heliotrope" (151). David Gerhardt enjoys a game of tennis with Claire Fleury between stints in the trenches. Music infiltrates the trenches where the soldiers listen to "Meditations from Thaïs" on a phonograph (370-71). Claude and his mother read together—novels such as Bleak House (95) and Kidnapped (354) but also the poetry of Longfellow (96)—and later on they read news reports and encyclopedia articles as they attempt to understand the progress of the war. The author of the Harper's Weekly article would nod in recognition at Claude's practice of languidly isolating himself "in the deep grass" within the Wheeler timber claim (210) because he is keeping—as the article exhorts—"a little spot solely for the heart's delight . . . a spot whereinto no one enters, so that we are independent of all mischances and changes of mood other than our own" ("Relaxation"1667). Whenever Claude chooses to walk—whether to campus rather than "sit bumping in a street car" (63) or through the big woods near the Jouberts' home (352-53)—he participates in an activity that the Harper's article commends because "it is wholesome for the body, sends blood to the brain and gives it pleasant thoughts, and by reason of the wide and spacious universe we enter . . . it is a recreation replete with spiritual elevation" ("Relaxation" 1667).

Proponents believed that personal benefits resulting from recreation could also contribute to civic and national well-being. A 1916 report on an International Recreation Congress held at Grand Rapids, Michigan, calls for "an American renaissance" based on "the invigoration of American life through wholesome use of leisure hours of all the people." The conference focused on the availability of an estimated three billion leisure hours per week in the United States: "Any great advances in civilization must be developed out of this margin, this slack, this unworked mine. Recreation changes leisure hours from liabilities to assets." A congress speaker queried, "What right have we to hold a recreation congress when Europe is aflame?" One answer that emerges in the report is that recreation provides military benefits. The essentials of military training "are best developed, not by gun drill, but by games, athletics, [and] physical education, . . . [which are] the best means of building character and efficiency—whether for peace or war" ("Play Makes Men"). What appears to be zealous rhetoric became established military policy for American troops deployed in Europe, assuming especial urgency in the months of occupation following the Armistice.


By early 1919 athletics had superceded other forms of physical training for the American Expeditionary Forces in France.[2] Army bulletins issued after the Armistice give increasing attention to athletic events such as tennis tournaments (U.S. Army, Bulletins 153), golf (239), and horse shows "both as a source of recreation and entertainment and as a means of stimulating interest in the proper care and treatment of animals and their equipment" (154). A training bulletin published in February 1919 outlines plans for an American Expeditionary Forces Championships in athletic events such as boxing and wrestling, track and field, baseball, football, basketball, and tennis (162-70). Subsequent bulletins add events in soccer and swimming (250). The AEF's final bulletin, issued on June 6, 1919, contains an official baseball schedule listing dates and places for games to be played in cities throughout France and western Germany and authorizes all "travel necessary to carry out the above schedule" (267). Such promotion of athletic contests addressed a letdown in troop morale that accompanied the cessation of combat.

In his book Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-1918, Byron Farwell emphasizes the critical place of recreational activities in combating low morale after the Armistice: Morale fell to such an extent that some at [General John J.] Pershing's headquarters feared soldiers would "go Bolshevist." With the end of hostilities there was a natural relaxation of responsibility and the number of men going AWOL increased. Fifty-one additional companies of military police failed to stem the tide. A "morale conference" was called in Paris and from this sprang the American Legion. Pershing substituted sports for the hated drill, and on 24 January 1919 Liberty trucks pulled away from the YMCA Paris warehouses loaded with thirty-four tons of athletic equipment, including 10,000 baseballs, 2,000 footballs, 1,800 soccer balls, nearly 1,500 basketballs, and 600 sets of boxing gloves. (270) Pershing's pride in the army's implementation of recreational sports is revealed in his final report to Secretary of War Newton Baker: "The athletic program in the spring of 1919 culminated in the Inter-Allied games in June, held in the concrete stadium erected by our Engineers near Paris, the necessary funds being contributed by the YMCA. In number of participants and quality of entry, these games probably surpassed any of the past Olympic contests" (68). In addition to furnishing athletic facilities and equipment, the army in collaboration with the YMCA provided education and amusement to boost troop morale.

Before the Armistice the YMCA offered voluntary educational classes, while afterward the army itself instigated "a systematic organization of nonmilitary educational training," which Pershing deemed "of undoubted value, not only in improving morale, but in concrete benefit to the individual officer and soldier" (69). A pair of army bulletins issued in March 1919 describe nine courses in business education and another thirty courses dealing with mechanical and industrial trade (U.S. Army, Bulletins 213-37). Provisions for amusement, most already in place during hostilities, were stepped up after the Armistice. An AEF bulletin published in February 1919 establishes the intent to "provide, so far as possible, suitable entertainment each night in every important center occupied by American troops" (195). In order to accomplish this ambitious scheme, the army appointed entertainment officers in every unit, while the YMCA (which in August of 1917 had been officially designated to provide amusement and recreation to the AEF) supplied professional entertainers and "acted as a training and booking agency for soldier talent." Pershing reported to Secretary Baker that around "650 soldier shows were developed, which entertained hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who will remember this as one of the pleasant and unique enterprises of the American Expeditionary Forces" (68). Of course, the AEF provisions for building morale owe much to the British and French, whose practices of establishing regular leave and providing sports and entertainment for their soldiers were already firmly in place by the time the American forces began arriving in the late spring of 1917.[3] Yet, even before leaving for Europe, troops in U.S. training camps found themselves cared for solicitously.

In 1917 the U.S. government established the Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) "to link together in a comprehensive organization, under official sanction, all the agencies, private and public, which could be utilized to surround our troops with a healthy and cheerful environment" (Wilson vii). At the behest of the CTCA the YMCA, the YWCA, the Knights of Columbus, the Jewish Welfare Board, the Salvation Army, and the American Library Association (ALA) worked to supply recreational services. Headed by Raymond D. Fosdick, the "CTCA promoted the wholesome use of leisure time" (Durham, "Commission" 160), but Fosdick's vision went beyond invigorating individuals and increasing physical and mental efficiency through recreation.[4] According to Weldon B. Durham, military training was seen by President Woodrow Wilson and his advisors as an avenue to "promote progressive social ideas and sustain middle class virtues," and the Commission on Training Camp Activities was a means for achieving "progressive social reform" ("Commission" 160). In the training camps, an environment in which Claude Wheeler spent significant time as an instructor, athletic directors supervised team and individual sports activities while song leaders encouraged "recreational singing" (160). When American troops left U.S. training camps to sail for Europe, the YMCA came along too, continuing to promote CTCA activities and ideals: "In France the YMCA constructed 'Y huts,' each in charge of a 'Y secretary' charged with providing athletic, religious, educational, recreational, and social programs, including motion pictures, organized sports, talent contests, plays, recreational singing, and vaudeville shows as well as pool tables, pianos, and victrolas with records, offering hundreds of thousands of men from lower economic classes unprecedented access to middle class culture" (Farwell 137). Such provision for the well-being of soldiers serving in the AEF prompted President Wilson to remark, "I do not believe it an exaggeration to say that no army ever before assembled has had more conscientious and painstaking thought given to the protection and stimulation of its mental, moral and physical manhood" (vii).

In One of Ours Cather refers to AEF recreational opportunities ranging from an impromptu boxing match that Sergeant Hicks sets up on a rainy afternoon in training camp (352) to the availability of entertainment Claude finds at headquarters, where although the major complains, "There's not much to do here, by way of amusement," he nevertheless reveals to Claude that there is a "movie show tonight" (379). Recreational music entertains Claude and his fellow troops aboard the Anchises, where fifteen soldiers from small-town Kansas, members of "the town band, [who] had enlisted in a body, had gone into training together, and had never been separated" (276), play afternoon and evening concerts. The U.S. Army actively supported AEF bands, even providing band music in "sets of 78 selections" to "each authorized band in France" (Bulletins 239). Soldiers who had talent for music or other entertainments were valued by the army. Although Claude's fellow officer David Gerhardt "came over in the band and got transferred to infantry" (346), he "could have had a soft job . . . as an organizer of camp entertainments" (357) because of his musical abilities. After the Armistice, talented soldiers could opt "to remain in France for entertainment duty" rather than returning stateside with their regular units (U.S. Army, Bulletins 198). Singing was encouraged among the soldiers for its "distinct military value" (Allen 68). A 1918 book, Keeping Our Fighters Fit for War and After, fairly chirps, "A singing army is a cheerful one, and, other things being equal, a cheerful army is invincible" (Allen 67).[5] Cather's soldiers demonstrate their own version of cheerful invincibility. As they sail past the Statue of Liberty, "the Kansas band in the bow began playing 'Over There.' Two thousand voices took it up, booming out over the water the gay, indomitable resolution of that jaunty air" (273).

Reading as a pastime was supported by the American Library Association, which was authorized to supply "book collections directly to military units and [to loan] books directly to members of the AEF" (U.S. Army, Bulletins 137). Donated books were collected by the ALA, who sent them to be read in training camps, on troop ships, and in combat zones. A Charles Buckles Falls poster depicts a uniformed doughboy with rifle and pack slung on his back, carrying a stack of books that rises above his head. The poster's slogan reads: "Books Wanted for Our Men in Camp and 'Over There'; Take Your Gifts to the Public Library" (Kate). Later the ALA provided "a weekly magazine service to every unit whose commanding officer will ask for it" (U.S. Army, Bulletins 258). The army itself provided reading matter by initiating the publication of Stars and Stripes, "an A.E.F. newspaper, bringing its members regularly every week the news which up to now it has received at best irregularly and in an unsatisfactory manner" (Bulletins 39). Men in Claude's unit would agree that news arrives irregularly and unsatisfactorily. Instead of "a little war news" from France they must content themselves by listening to Dell Able read "a clipping from the Kansas City Star; a long account by one of the British war correspondents in Mesopotamia" (367).

Beyond the recreation found in reading and making music, the soldiers in One of Ours find their greatest renewal through going on leave. The ten-day leave given to B Company after their first combat sortie (401) is three days longer than those normally granted by the AEF. Seven-day leaves were granted every four months to provide extra respite (Pershing 68). The army recognized early on that "the need of relaxation was much greater" for those stationed overseas "because of the constant physical and mental strain . . . [and] isolation from their homes." A system of leaves would help "to protect the morale as well as the health of officers and soldiers" (U.S. Army, Reports 218). The army eventually established more than twenty-five leave areas for members of the AEF to experience rejuvenation (Farwell 146), and soldiers on leave found themselves well provided for. General Pershing reported to War Secretary Baker that "in the leave areas free board and lodging at first class hotels were provided for soldiers, and the YMCA furnished recreational and amusement facilities" (68). The army selected leave areas judiciously, preferring locales isolated from population centers, places where soldiers were less likely to contract a venereal disease.

Venereal disease threatened to erode Wilsonian notions of moral and physical manhood. The army made it clear that "sexual continence is the plain duty of members of the AEF, both for the vigorous conduct of the war and for the clean health of the American people after the war (U.S. Army, Bulletins 82). According to Farwell, General Pershing was especially vigilant in combating this disease among his troops: "As the venereal rate climbed, Pershing watched it carefully. Reducing it became almost an obsession. James Harbord, Pershing's chief of staff, later remembered: 'There was no subject on which more emphasis was laid, throughout the existence of the American Expeditionary Forces.' In his first six months in France Pershing issued three general orders on the subject. Unit commanders were held responsible for the rate in their units, and at inspections Pershing's first question always addressed the number of venereal cases" (143).[6] Pershing, labeling prostitution as "this menace to the young manhood of the army forces and the health and future well-being of our peoples," battled its presence by declaring all houses of prostitution off-limits to troops, and the army worked with French authorities to make certain that "every effort [would] be made to repress clandestine prostitution and street walkers" (U.S. Army, Bulletins 83). In taking such action, Pershing was mirroring vigorous antiprostitution campaigns already encircling army training camps back in the United States, where "women arrested for prostitution in camp zones were confined in CTCA detention houses before trial (their right of habeus corpus thereby suspended) and given medical treatment for venereal disease" (Durham, "Commission" 160). In the army's fight to reduce the incidence of venereal disease, night and weekend leaves were discouraged because they provided "a fertile source of infection, multiplying contacts and delaying prophylaxis" (U.S. Army, Bulletins 82). Prophylaxis stations were made readily available and "regular inspections of penises, known as 'short arm inspections' " were carried out (Farwell 142). Soldiers and officers who contracted a venereal disease were subject to courts-martial "sufficiently severe . . . to deter men from willful exposure" (U.S. Army, Bulletins 83). If the consequences for having a disease seem high, the treatment for preventing disease was perhaps even more disagreeable: "The procedure to be followed at the prophylaxis stations was set forth by Major Deane C. Howard of the Army Medical Corps in 1912: the external genital organs were first to be thoroughly washed with a solution of bichloride of mercury and then 4 cc. of argyrol was injected into the urethra with 'an ordinary penis syringe,' the solution to remain 'for full five minutes'; finally, the entire penis was smeared with two grams of calomel ointment and 'allowed to remain undisturbed"' (Farwell 142). Is it any wonder then that Victor Morse, Claude's cabin-mate on the Anchises tries to avoid official notice of his symptoms by treating his venereal disease on the sly?

Cather's characters in One of Ours dramatize the tussle over morals that was being played out within the American Expeditionary Forces. Victor Morse, whose inebriation and womanizing lead Claude to think of him as "a sort of debauched baby" (375), could serve as poster boy for bad behavior, while Claude more closely represents the official ideal, and one can evaluate each man's moral stance by judging his recreational habits, particularly those involving women. Though he listens to Victor's instruction on "dodging the guard, [and] getting into scrapes with women and getting out again" (289), Claude remains untainted, refusing Victor's invitation to accompany him "in quest of amorous adventure" (332). Instead, Claude prefers the chaste intimacy of visiting Mademoiselle Olive de Courcy of the French Red Cross in a convent garden: "Two people could hardly give each other more if they were together for years, he thought" (391-92). Claude is not an asexual prude. When Cather limns out her protagonist, she inscribes a balanced account of Claude's sexuality. Cather tells readers that Claude is "a boy with strong impulses," yet he retains "a sharp disgust for sensuality" (56). Claude desires females and is desired by them, and as an officer, he does not impose inordinate moral rectitude on the men in his command although he is aware of their having transgressed army demands for sexual forbearance. Army orders stated, "Commanding officers will urge continence on all men of their commands as their duty as soldiers" and, as lieutenant of his company, Claude was obligated to compel "sexual abstinence at the front" (U.S. Army, Bulletins 82). While occupying the French town of Beaufort, Claude's men encounter a willing female populace, and although Claude realizes that "a good deal was going on," he deliberately refrains from interfering beyond lecturing "his men at parade" (436). Though Cather shows the degree of vexation that his decision to turn a blind eye toward his men's amorous sprees causes Claude, his willingness to wink at his men's behavior places Claude on middle ground between the licentiousness of Victor Morse and the straightlaced moral rectitude of official army policy. At other times the author's droll tone indicates that Cather did not fully share Pershing's preoccupation with sexual probity. For instance, as Claude travels home on leave from training camp, he peruses "a French phrase-book (made up of sentences chosen for their usefulness to soldiers,—such as; 'Non, jamais je ne regarde les femmes')" (244). The laughably absolute chastity implied by the phrase suggests that Cather considered the extent of army concern over soldiers' sex lives a little silly.

In substituting wholesome activities for other, morally suspect forms of recreation, the army appropriated the practices of the recreation movement to focus on the troublesome problem of venereal disease: "Athletics and amusements [were to] be used to the fullest extent in furthering the practice of continence" in addition to instruction and drill (U.S. Army, Bulletins 82). This is not to say, however, that combating sexually transmitted diseases was the only boon that the army saw in employing recreation. Soldiers needed rest and relaxation to restore fighting vigor. The pragmatic employment of play and recreation to maintain troop efficiency contributed to military effectiveness, with life and death consequences. Army officers were urged: "Keep track of the prevalence of colds, sore throats and of depressed health or spirits of any kind among your men. Use every endeavor to prevent exhaustion in marching, drilling and labor of all kinds by judicious use of rest and amusement" (118). Such uses of recreation by the AEF align with recreation movement notions of the power of play to effect "the invigoration of American life through the wholesome use of leisure hours" ("Play Makes Men"). In turn, the whole-hearted adoption of recreational practices by the military provided two benefits to the recreation movement. First, the incorporation of recreation and amusement into the army's day-to-day operation offered a unique opportunity to verify the value of play in a wide-ranging, if unscientifically monitored, laboratory. Second, to accustom thousands of young American troops with the frequent and systematic practice of play within an officially sanctioned occupation must have gone far toward expanding the demand for recreational experiences upon their return to civilian America.

If in writing One of Ours Cather privileges private and impromptu recreational moments over officially organized activities, she may do so because her protagonist remains suspicious of army attempts to enforce morality. Cather is mostly silent about YMCA activities, but when she does name the organization in One of Ours, references to the YMCA are consistently unflattering. Victor Morse sneers at American soldiers in London who never see the city because "they sit in a Y hut and write to their Pollyannas" (288). Early in the novel while Claude is still in college, Cather virtually dismisses YMCA personnel. To soldiers, the quasi-official status of YMCA secretaries as uniformed "militarized civilians" was "a matter of considerable perplexity" in the war zone (U.S. Army, Reports 226), and the sight of these personnel must have reminded Claude of his insipid landlord in Lincoln: "Edward Chapin was a man of twenty-six, with an old, wasted face," who was "studying for the ministry" and "did secretarial work for the college and for the Young Men's Christian Association" (32). For Claude, whose dislike of the parasitic Brother Weldon and any others whose "Faith" he viewed as "a substitute for most of the manly qualities he admired" (50), the army's endorsement of YMCA "amusement and recreation by means of its usual program of social, educational, physical, and religious activities" (U.S. Army, Reports 226) must have been particularly irksome. Given his antipathy toward those in charge of conducting official recreation, it should come as no surprise that Claude Wheeler creates his own recreational moments. Instead of watching a boxing match, Claude prefers the solitary recreation of walking in "the big wood that had tempted him ever since his arrival" (352). Instead of watching a movie show, Claude seeks out intimate conversation with a French woman. Instead of joining his men at "the dance in the square" (437), Claude meanders through the night-shrouded Beaufort church yard. It is in these quiet moments of his own choosing that Claude finds renewal of mind, body, and spirit.


Wartime uses of recreation at home in the United States went beyond army training camp practices. During World War I the civilian population was mobilized across the home front to prosecute the war effort. The distance between battle front and home front was not as great as twenty-first-century readers might assume, and this proximity can be seen not only in Cather's fiction but also in periodical literature of the day, perhaps no place better than in the Reclamation Record, which was circulated throughout the American West by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to keep farmers apprised of bureau irrigation projects. While bureau water did not reach their farm on Lovely Creek, the Wheeler family almost certainly would have been aware of the Sweetwater project begun in 1905 on the North Platte River in Wyoming and western Nebraska ("North Platte Project").

Cather takes pains to show how important maps are to the Wheelers in visualizing the conflict in Europe, and, indeed, Reclamation Record readers, as early as 1914, were shown maps of the western United States with the names of European nations superimposed upon them "to illustrate the relative areas of the countries now engaged in war as compared with the size of these Western States" ("The Country of Peaceful Progress" 434). As the United States geared up in 1917 to enter the war across the Atlantic, reclamation farmers were reminded by a slogan across the top of the Reclamation Record cover page that "every 40-acre farm intensively cultivated will support a family and keep five men at the front" (8:209).[7] Soon after the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson called for large harvests, urging men and boys to "turn in hosts to the farms." Appearing on the cover of the June 1917 Reclamation Record, a message from Wilson stresses the importance of food in the war effort: "Upon the farmers of this country, in large measure, rests the fate of the war and the fates of the nations" (257). Women were also called on in significant ways to join the war effort. In 1917 U.S. Interior Secretary Franklin Lane wrote: "The women of America can do no greater work at this time than to raise their own vegetables, can their own fruit, prevent waste in their homes and give impulse and enthusiasm to the men of the land. If they do this they will be doing a good 50 percent of the work of fighting the war to a finish" (qtd. in Littlepage, "Conservation Deluxe" 222). In June 1918 Reclamation Service statistician C. J. Blanchard praised farmers in the manner of a military officer exhorting his troops: "The spring drive to lick the Kaiser is in full blast on our western front. Reclamation farmers . . . are making a supreme effort to down the unspeakable Hun by producing the biggest crop ever wrung from the desert's stubborn breast" (263). In a similarly militaristic vein, Bureau Irrigation Supervisor I.D. O'Donnell refers to weeds as German troops: June will be the time for their great drive, and, like the Huns, they will come in swarms. They will come in the open and from behind the trenches and over the trenches. . . . And when you mow them down and cut off their first advance, another horde will follow up. . . .

The weed has but one friend on earth, and that is the Kaiser. Do you want to help him? (268)

The linking of farm field to battlefront gave western farmers a new sense of purpose (in addition to anticipation of increased income). In One of Ours, Mr. Wheeler puts in six hundred acres of wheat because "on the other side of the world, they would need bread," and this burst of industry prompts his neighbors to remark that "nobody but the Kaiser had ever been able to get Nat Wheeler down to regular work" (171). Claude's joining the army assures that regular work will continue for Nat Wheeler because his son's absence leaves more chores for those who remain at home. Even Mr. Wheeler's request to hire one of his neighbor Gus Yoeder's sons will provide only temporary relief. In Yoeder's acerbic reply that "you can have any of my boys,—till the draft gets them" (242), Cather portends the labor shortfalls to come.

As more and more young men left for the war in Europe, the resulting shortages of labor created hardship for those left behind to carry on with farming. To offset this increasing burden, home front workers were cautioned to husband human resources through recreation.

The August 1917 issue of Reclamation Record (see fig. 2) features a photo of a woman on horseback in a mountain meadow; beneath, the secretary of the interior's signature endorses the following statement: "It is even more important now than in times of peace that the health and vitality of the nation's citizens be conserved. That rest and recreation must materially assist in this conservation of human tissue and energy" (353). Later in the same issue, Luella Littlepage writes: The strife of nations already has taken some of the men from these new homes . . . leaving the burden of farm and home on the women. In the meantime the Government has been making heavy demands for additional farm work . . . and all Readers of the Reclamation Record were urged to fulfill their role in the war effort by keeping healthy through recreation.Fig. 2. Readers of the Reclamation Record were urged to fulfill their role in the war effort by keeping healthy through recreation. kinds of conservation, and quietly and systematically these requests have been made.

But there is one thing which we should all hasten to conserve while the conserving is good, and that is our health, for it is the very foundation of efficiency. Get away for a few days and "let go." ("Project Women" 361)

This dictum to get away and let go is illustrated by Cather in the incongruous setting of wartorn France: Claude Wheeler's journey toward war and his immersion in it are conspicuously recreational.


Cather's descriptions of Claude's departure for Europe render the journey nearly indistinguishable from playful pastime. The train ride to Hoboken for embarkation reads like a Saturday excursion; to onlookers, the departing troop ship carries a "howling swarm of brown arms and hats and faces [that] looked like nothing but a crowd of American boys going to a football game somewhere" (274). Sailing to war is a lark. Lieutenant Fanning brings "a pair of white flannel pants," thinking that he might "be asked to a[n English] garden party!" (275-76). A band plays a three o'clock concert on deck. Cather tells us, "After long months of intensive training, the sudden drop into an idle, soothing existence was grateful to them" (278). Such scenes and their corresponding commentary work to heighten the irony that many of these eager voyagers will never return home—some will not even reach Europe—yet Cather refuses to become facilely sardonic. For Cather's protagonist, the voyage of the Anchises turns out to be decidedly recreational: in spite of the foul weather, contagion, and death that soon overtake the ship, this sea passage provides a setting in which Claude begins to reconstruct his life. Cather writes, "Here on the Anchises [Claude] seemed to begin where childhood had left off" (304). Claude has joined the army because he is searching for solace. As Claude earlier closes up his house after his wife Enid's departure for China, his accompanying soliloquy reveals a person in profound need of recreation: The débris of human life was more worthless and ugly than the dead and decaying things in nature. Rubbish . . . junk . . . his mind could not picture anything that so exposed and condemned all the dreary, weary, ever-repeated actions by which life is continued from day to day. Actions without meaning. . . . As he looked out and saw the grey landscape through the gently falling snow, he could not help thinking how much better it would be if people could go to sleep like the fields; could be blanketed down under the snow, to wake with their hurts healed and their defeats forgotten. He wondered how he was to go through the years ahead of him, unless he could get rid of this sick feeling in his soul. (223) Any proponent of the salutary effects of play would have prescribed recreational activity to revitalize this soul-sick man. In Claude's life it is his mother who shows the most solicitude for his well-being, acting as barometer to his mental and spiritual condition, intuitively sensing those infrequent moments when "all was well in his inner kingdom" (69), and it is she who provides an assessment of her son's ultimate situation.

Between shifts of taking care of his sick men aboard the Anchises, Claude savors moments of respite: "But when he had an hour to himself on deck, the tingling sense of ever-widening freedom flashed up in him again" (303-04). By describing Claude's voyage as if it involves the discovery of some hidden pleasure, Cather punctuates the incongruity of Claude's reawakening to life amidst sickness and death. When the troop doctor chides him for not missing his life back home on the farm, Claude is exposed: "It was quite true, he realized; the doctor had caught him. He was enjoying himself all the while and didn't want to be safe anywhere. . . . The discomforts and misfortunes of this voyage had not spoiled it for him. . . . Something inside him, as elastic as the grey ridges over which they were tipping, kept bounding up and saying: 'I am all here. I've left everything behind me. I am going over' " (310-11). About Claude's voyage Cather tells us, "He awoke every morning with that sense of freedom and going forward, as if the world were growing bigger each day and he were growing with it" (311), and she insists that Claude's sea voyage and the larger war itself are "miracle" and "golden chance" because they instill "the feeling of purpose, of fateful purpose" in her protagonist's breast (312). By 1922, of course, Cather could not have helped but recognize the deep levels of irony that accompany such an insistence that war achieves no less noble a purpose than revitalizing a Nebraska farm boy. It is as if the novelist herself is indulging in a guilty pleasure. And it is an indulgence in which Cather persists.[8]

With its succinctly reported combat scenes and its refusal to stay mired in the trenches, the fifth section of One of Ours is more travelogue of the French countryside than war chronicle. More significantly, Claude Wheeler's wartime experiences in the book's final chapters coalesce into a restorative tonic to which he responds in a manner that clearly shows their recreational properties at work in him. Shortly before their final battle, Claude tells David Gerhardt, "I never knew there was anything worth living for, till this war came on." Although Gerhardt reminds Claude that war is "a costly way of providing adventure for the young," Claude, transformed by his experiences in France, remains convinced that "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." Even distant artillery fire Claude finds comforting because the sounds give him "a feeling of confidence and safety. . . . What they said was, that men could still die for an idea; and would burn all they had made to keep their dreams" (419). Claude still carries this optimistic view as he smilingly dies.

Claude's death embodies a collision between irreconcilables. On one side stands an intense optimism that manifests in the recreation movement, an optimism that commends the re-creation of Claude Wheeler, that celebrates his becoming whole. On the other side lurks a sharp pessimism that decries Claude's ironically wasteful death. As Thomas Hardy says, war is a quaint and curious thing, for, at the moment of his self-actualization, the very vehicle that brings Claude fulfillment also becomes the instrument of his death. Both literally and figuratively, Claude's stance is undermined, and his playground devolves into wasteland.

Yet, Cather's novel does not conclude with Claude's death. In the final pages of One of Ours, Cather continues to depict recreational acts. Not long after Claude is killed, Sergeant Hicks wrangles two weeks' leave to travel to Venice "because he had always heard about it," and when he returns, Bert Fuller throws a wine party to welcome him (456). As the novel closes, Mrs. Wheeler sits reading in the farmhouse when the telephone brings the news of Claude's death. Later, she continues to read the newspapers, and "when she can see nothing that has come of it all but evil, she reads Claude's letters over again and reassures herself" (458). Reassures herself of what? That Claude died before experiencing disillusionment? That "never a doubt stained his bright faith"; that "the call was clear, the cause was glorious" (458) and remained so for Claude? Perhaps.

Like a conscientious army officer keeping track of the health and spirits of one of his men, Mrs. Wheeler discerns Claude's spiritual pulse by reading between the lines. "She divines so much that he did not write. She knows what to read into those short flashes of enthusiasm; how fully he must have found his life before he could let himself go so far—he, who was so afraid of being fooled!" (458). Mrs. Wheeler's concerns for Claude disregard the politics of war. What reassures her is that her son has experienced recreation, that he has found his life, that at the moment of his death, all is well in Claude Wheeler's inner kingdom.


 1. In addition to noting an increase in leisure time, Jesse Steiner lists several factors including accelerating urbanization, increases in disposable income, a shift in the stance of religious organizations from opposing amusement to promoting recreational programs, and a trend toward governmental agencies assuming responsibility for providing recreational facilities (9-11). (Go back.)
 2. Although he would not have experienced the culmination of AEF recreational activity because he was killed in 1918 a month before the Armistice, Claude Wheeler would have witnessed most forms of recreation that were encouraged by the army throughout American involvement in World War I. (Go back.)
 3. For a thorough discussion of British use of sports, concert parties, and cinema to raise morale, see Fuller, Troop Morale. (Go back.)
 4. Fosdick subscribed to Woodrow Wilson's "belief in the perfectability of a morally ordered society," a conviction acquired while he was a student at Princeton at the same time Wilson was president of that university. Fosdick worked for John D. Rockefeller Jr. as a Bureau of Social Hygiene investigator and later studied the problems of alcoholism and venereal disease among U.S. troops in Mexico for the Wilson administration before being appointed chair of the Commission on Training Camp Activities (Durham, "Fosdick" 234-35). (Go back.)
 5. Although the book was written by Edward Frank Allen, the cover bears only the name of the CTCA chairman, Raymond B. Fosdick. (Go back.)
 6. Pershing knew firsthand the discomforts of venereal disease. Farwell reports that Pershing "had himself contracted gonorrhea in his youth" (141). (Go back.)
 7. Information and quotes from unsigned or untitled materials that appear in the U.S. Reclamation Service's Reclamation Record from 1917 and 1918 are cited within the text and are not listed among the works cited. (Go back.)
 8. Cather may very well have paid dearly for her insistence on this recreational theme by losing the support of critics looking for a more pessimistic treatment of World War I. (Go back.)


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