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From Cather Studies Volume 8

Willa Cather's One of Ours, Edith Wharton's A Son at the Front, and the Literature of the Great War

Despite their status as major American novelists, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton suffered similar reactions to their major war novels, One of Ours (1922) and A Son at the Front (1923), respectively. Both novels were praised by some critics but criticized harshly by others, primarily, I will argue, for failing to adopt a sufficiently negative view of the war. Yet both novels are, within the parameters set by their authors, not only historically legitimate accounts of the war but also complex and ambivalent portrayals of the Great War. Both novelists knew and admired France; both lost younger cousins in the war—factors that led Cather and Wharton to a strong sense of the importance of writing their war novels, despite the inherent difficulties of taking on, as women writers, what is easily the most masculine of topics.

Writing about war has long been considered exclusively a masculine prerogative. During World War I, as Paul Fussell and Samuel Hynes have shown, it became the prerogative not just of men but of male combatants; increasingly, the writing of noncombatants was dismissed. In fact, Hynes has pointed out, World War I served as a kind of watershed: “The notion that only those who fought could speak the truth about war is one that old soldiers have always had, but it had never been the basis of an aesthetic until the Great War, when for the first time the soldiers who fought it were also the artists who rendered it” (158). Further, the stance that even male combatant writers could take was increasingly limited by what Fussell and Hynes have called “the Myth of the War.” At its most fundamental, Hynes notes, this myth “can be reduced to two terse propositions: the old betray the young; the past is remote and useless” (xii). Elaborated upon somewhat, the myth includes a number of elements: “the idealism betrayed; the early high-mindedness that turned in mid-war to bitterness and cynicism; the growing feeling among soldiers of alienation from the people at home for whom they were fighting; the rising resentment of politicians and profiteers and ignorant, patriotic women; . . . the bitter conviction that the men in the trenches fought for no cause, in a war that could not be stopped” (439). As this myth became, in effect, the truth about the war—a truth that emerged from such works as Wilfred Owen’s bitingly satirical poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” and novels such as Henri Barbusse’s Le feu (Under Fire, 1916) and John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers (1921)—works that exhibited different attitudes toward the war were increasingly dismissed.

Cather and Wharton were not unaware of the problems they faced as women writing novels about the war. Wharton had been dealing with these issues for some time: as a writer who had been living in France since 1907, she had a resident’s fear and anger at the German invasion of France, firsthand knowledge of what the war had done to France, and a great admiration for the French, along with enormous frustration with the United States for its almost four-year delay in joining the Allied cause (the United States did not declare war on Germany until April 1917). She was thrilled when she was able to travel to locations at or near the front on five occasions during 1915 under the auspices of the French Red Cross (see Price 40, 44) and wrote up these excursions as articles for Scribner’s Magazine; they were later collected in the volume Fighting France (1919). In these essays, as in the war-related short stories she would write, she avoided describing anything she had not seen firsthand. In particular, she avoided describing the experience of soldiers fighting; she seems to have understood and respected the unspoken rule that only combatants could describe that experience.[1]

Yet Wharton did not follow the line taken by many other women writers. Mrs. Humphry Ward, for instance, who had visited British munitions factories and traveled near the British army’s front in France, was quite willing to accept that her perspective as a woman differed from that of a man, exclaiming of her visits, “For a woman—a marvelous experience!” (9). Some other women writers penned romantic tales, wrote about the mistreatment of animals in wartime, or concentrated on life near or behind the lines.[2] In contrast, Wharton wanted to get as close to the fighting as she could, both literally and in terms of her writing. While she wrote enthusiastically of her trips to and near the front, describing one such trip as “eight days of wonderful adventures” (Letters 356) and exulting in a letter to Henry James that on one occasion she was so close to the front that she could see “white puffs & scarlet flashes . . . springing up all over the dark hillside” (Powers 324), she was also witness to the strangeness and the horrors of war, describing both in letters and in Fighting France the appalling conditions of some front-line hospitals and the eeriness of towns and landscapes grotesquely altered by war. In short, she refused the position taken by women writers who could only describe a home front that was at a safe distance from the fighting and whose understanding of the war was limited by their gender. Much like Cather, she rejected—to paraphrase George Eliot’s famous essay title—“silly lady novelists,” and wanted her work, including her writing about war, to be taken seriously on its own terms.

Cather, too, is well known for her emphatic rejection of what she saw as the lighter works done by some women writers, summarized most famously in her 1895 declaration that few women wrote anything worth reading: “Women are so horribly subjective and they have such scorn for the healthy commonplace. When a woman writes a story of adventure, a stout sea tale, a manly battle yarn, anything without wine, women, and love, then I will begin to hope for something great from them, not before” (World and Parish 1: 277). Cather, too, wanted to be read not as a “woman writer” but simply as a writer. Until she learned of the death and military decoration of her cousin G. P. Cather, however, she apparently had no intention of writing a “battle yarn” herself. She had had no experiences like Wharton’s in wartime France, nor the writing opportunities which arose from them. In fact, Cather had “spent most of the Great War writing My Ántonia” (Lee 159).[3] When she decided that she had to write a novel based on the experiences of her cousin G. P. Cather—that is, a novel that was not primarily about the war but which would include some descriptions of the war— she knew she faced a challenge. As James Woodress has shown, writing One of Ours required Cather to abandon what had become her usual practices in writing: she faced “the necessity of creating a male protagonist, the obligatory use of subject matter she could not know at first hand, and a lack of aesthetic distance between herself and the material” (305). To surmount these obstacles, she had to resort to new methods of writing, drawing heavily on published accounts, on the journal of a doctor who sailed on a transport ship (for book 4 of the novel), on conversations with returning soldiers, and, for authenticity in her descriptions of France, on the advice of her friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher (see Harris 649–53 and Stout).

Whatever the challenges it posed, writing a novel about Claude Wheeler was not a challenge Cather felt she could turn down. As soon as she read of her cousin’s citation for bravery and his death in the New York Times, she knew that “she had to write” the novel that would become One of Ours (Woodress 303). She became deeply involved in writing the novel and profoundly absorbed in the creation of “Claude”; the three years she spent writing One of Ours were among the most intense of her writing career (Woodress 304; Lee 165; Harris 618). Cather was so attached to the character she had created that, as Hermione Lee notes, “she always . . . thought of [the novel] as Claude” and had to be persuaded to change its title to something more marketable (169).

Wharton’s experience of writing A Son at the Front was somewhat different: she began it in 1917 but did not complete it until 1922, completing three other books in the interim.[4] But writing Son was nevertheless, like Cather’s composition of One of Ours, an intense experience. In her memoir she noted that A Son at the Front “was written in a white heat of emotion” (Backward Glance 369). Once she had completed it, she wrote to friends that the novel was “a sort of ‘lest we forget,’ and I’m glad I’ve done it” (qtd. in Olin-Ammentorp 115). She too had lost friends and relatives in the war: among them were her young cousin Newbold Rhinelander, an aviator who was shot down over Germany, and Ronald Simmons, a young friend who died of the Spanish flu while serving in American intelligence after the United States entered the war.

Regardless of the differences in their authors’ backgrounds as they approached the task of writing about the war, One of Ours and A Son at the Front show a number of striking similarities. Perhaps most immediately noticeable is the admiration of France and the French that both novels convey. Cather and Wharton shared the widespread view of France as “Civilization” with a capital C; both saw France as the home of art, culture, and calm, whether in literature, in gardens, in domestic order, or in excellent food and the conversations that went with it. Indeed, although France was involved in the first world war, both depict that war almost exclusively as “the war in France.”

Further, each author transferred her own love of France to the characters she created. Cather’s response to France during her first visit, in 1902, was enthusiastic; on landing in Dieppe everything seemed wonderful to her, from the town itself—“the sky, the gravel beach, the white town, were all wrapped in a pale pink mist”—to the posters in the railway station and the “smooth, clear voices” of the porters; even “the cries of the street boys were musical” (Willa Cather in Europe 95). Cather transfers her enthusiasm to Claude, who marvels at the coast when he catches his first glimpse of France. Through a porthole he sees “a great grey shoulder of land standing up in the pink light of dawn. . . . [H]e had never seen anything that looked so strong, so self-sufficient, so fixed from the first foundation, as the coast that rose before him. It was like a pillar of eternity” (421–22). Cather quickly came to love and admire France; Woodress notes that Cather, who had heard stories about France from her childhood (24), came to see France as her “second home” (324). In Claude’s immediate fascination with France and his admiration for so much that he finds there, he also seems to have found a second home— one more congenial to him than his native Nebraska.

At the same time, Cather’s first or true home was the United States. Indeed, given her strong affiliations with places as diverse as the Southwest and New York City, it might be said that more than most authors, she thought of the whole United States as her home. She saw France as a place to admire, to enjoy, to emulate, and of course to visit extensively—but she did not see it as home. This attitude is reflected in Claude, who sees France both as an escape from the dullness of life on the farm and as a revelation of what civilization can be. But he is very much not at home; he comes to France as an adult and a foreigner, as someone who speaks little of the language and is pleasantly surprised when his first attempt to speak French succeeds in communicating something. Claude, while reflecting the awkwardness of his prototype, G. P. Cather, may also have embodied Cather’s fears about how an unlearned midwesterner might have come across in France.

In creating her soldier, George Campton, as well as his father, John (the main character of A Son at the Front), Edith Wharton also reflected her deep love of France. Wharton lived in France from 1907 until her death thirty years later; her extensive involvement in organizing and fund-raising for an array of charities during the Great War (see Price) testifies to her profound love of the country. If France was Cather’s second home, it had become Wharton’s first or true home. In creating George Campton, Wharton made him a dual citizen—surely what she felt herself to be at heart.

Born in France of American parents and educated in both countries, fluent in French as well as in English, George not only admires France but feels himself as much at home in France as he does in the United States. Initially he resists the idea of war, declaring himself and his generation not so much French or American as “international” (32). But he soon finds himself galvanized—as so many were—by Germany’s invasion of Belgium. Quoting a French friend, he says, “Louis Dastrey’s right: this kind of thing has got to stop. We shall go straight back to cannibalism if it doesn’t” (91). Although his father grumbles at the unfairness of his “American” son being mobilized, George goes off without a word of complaint. In his general sophistication, his sense of being at home in France, and his sense of owing a debt to France that only service can repay, George very much reflects Wharton. Even in his choice to serve on the front lines, George reflects Wharton’s wish to get as close to the front lines as she could.

Another striking resemblance between the two novels is their portrayal of the war as having the power to transform boys into men. When Claude leaves the farm for military training, he is (although married) psychologically a boy; when he returns on leave before departing for France, he finds that others respect and admire both his uniform and his new aura of authority. His brother Ralph suddenly finds him “fascinat[ing]” (348), and even his father, who had always been so hard on this son, treats him as another adult, perhaps even to a bizarre degree, showing Claude around the farm “as if he were a stranger” (339). But to some extent he is a stranger: Claude as a soldier has an adult presence that he previously lacked. Nor is the transformation superficial. Claude is aware of his own transformation, thinking en route to France that “Two years ago he had seemed a fellow for whom life was over. . . . All his comrades had been tucked away in prairie towns. . . . Yet here they were, attended by unknown ships called from the four corners of the earth. . . . Taken one by one, they were ordinary fellows like himself. Yet here they were. And in this massing and movement of men there was nothing mean or common; he was sure of that” (376–77). The double use of “Yet here they were” in this passage suggests the unlikely, even the near-miraculous, power that the military has had to change the lives of Claude and of men like him.

The experience of Claude’s fellow lieutenant David Gerhardt also suggests the strong association of war and masculinity. Although Gerhardt is an accomplished violinist before the war and (unlike Claude) a mature, self-confident adult, he is drawn to military service. He tells Claude that his friends had “wanted . . . to make a test case of me” (536), that is, to see if he, as a musician, could get out of military service once he was drafted. But he explains, “I couldn’t stand for it. I didn’t feel I was a good enough violinist to admit that I wasn’t a man” (536), and continues, “I took a look at the other fellows who were trying to squirm [i.e., avoid military service], and chucked it. I’ve never been sorry” (537–38). When Gerhardt’s “fellow officers learned that he was a violinist by profession, that he could have had a soft job . . . , they no longer resented his reserve or his occasional superciliousness. They respected a man who could have wriggled out and didn’t” (470). The ideological tendency of all this is very clear: men take up an active role in the military. Does the war “make a man” of David Gerhardt? Readers might say that this is not the case, but his own estimate of it is the same as that of the other officers. His remark that he was not “a good enough violinist to admit [he] wasn’t a man” implies that only the best (male) violinists could make that admission and that they would still not be “men.”

In addressing the issue of whether men with unusual abilities should be exempted from military service, Cather and Wharton addressed a sensitive wartime concern. Many argued that men with special abilities should be exempted from military service. Bloomsbury’s Clive Bell articulated this view best, arguing that “the artist’s only duty to his country in wartime was to go on being an artist. Indeed, the existence of a war made that duty even more imperative, for ‘a nation that would defend the cause of civilization must remain civilized’” (Hynes 85). Cather’s portrayal of Gerhardt as heroic suggests that she would have found Bell’s argument unpersuasive. Wharton also introduced the issue of whether those with special abilities should fight, parodying Bell’s stance by having a particularly flighty woman plead that her lover, vaguely described as “a writer,” should be exempted from military service (179). Conversely, in other writings Wharton praised the French army precisely because it included “the best men from every trade . . . because to do anything well brains are necessary, and a good poet and a good plumber may conceivably make better fighters than inferior representatives of arts less remote from war” (French Ways 8). Poets and violinists, as well as plumbers and farm boys, were needed in the war.

In his willing assumption of a military position, Wharton’s George Campton is much like David Gerhardt. To George’s parents, at least, he is (like David) a special case—well educated, multilingual, and promising—and they do their best to find him a safe desk job. But George never seeks such a job, and as the novel progresses it becomes clear that he has followed the same trajectory as David: he transfers from a desk job to a combat position without telling his parents, even turning down a military honor so that they will not hear that he has been on the front lines (267). Yet in moving to the front George does what both his father and stepfather have half-consciously wanted him to do; unlike George’s mother, Julia, both John Campton and Anderson Brant, despite their profound wish for George’s safety, have come around to the view that men fight.

In A Son at the Front as in One of Ours, war confers adulthood on those who, like David Gerhardt, Claude Wheeler, and George Campton, are not afraid of risk. To some extent this happens even to women in Wharton’s novel. John and George’s friend Adele Anthony, for instance, grows from “an eternal schoolgirl . . . into a woman” (175) during the war. But the most important transformations happen to men. George’s young cousin Benny Upsher comes from Utica, New York, to France to enlist in the war; although he is an overenthusiastic boy when he arrives, he becomes “a man” who “must act like a man,” as one character observes (143). George’s good friend Boylston is transformed by his serious efforts in administering a charity for refugees: this effort turns him from “a pottering boy” into “a man, with a man’s sense of things” (217).

Although George is on the verge of adulthood when the novel begins—at twenty-five he has completed college and is about to take a position in his stepfather’s bank—he is also matured and transformed by the war. From being a detached, apolitical observer at the novel’s beginning, he becomes deeply involved in the war; he is awarded military medals and, as a more important sign of his maturation, comes to see the world in different terms. He writes to his father that “War makes a lot of things look differently,” and the woman he loved later tells John Campton that “the war has changed [George]. He says he wants only things that last—that are permanent” (343). John Campton’s own experience with his son confirms that change, although it is one he finds hard to define. After George has been to war, John sees a “mysterious look” in George’s eyes, a look “inaccessible to reason, beyond reason, belonging to other spaces, other weights and measures, over the edge, somehow, of the tangible, calculable world” (359). George has learned to see beyond the mere material world.

To some extent, both Cather and Wharton problematize the relationship between combat and masculinity. In A Son at the Front, Boylston is never physically able to take a combat position, but there is no indication that he is less a man because of this. Cather’s novel further questions the equation between war and masculinity, but does so subtly. Although Gerhardt has felt strongly pulled to fight, he nevertheless says, when he picks up a violin at the home of the Fleury family, “I am a soldier now. I have not worked at all for two years” (549)—a comment which suggests that playing the violin is, after all, his real work. Cather further problematizes the issue of manhood when Claude watches David play the Saint-Saëns violin concerto. Claude can see immediately that David is an excellent violinist, and he finds himself “torn between generous admiration, and bitter, bitter envy. What would it mean to be able to do anything as well as that . . . ? If he had been taught to do anything at all, he would not be sitting here tonight a wooden thing amongst living people. He felt that a man might have been made of him, but nobody had taken the trouble to do it” (551). Claude feels subhuman, comparing himself not only to “a wooden thing” but also to “a bear cub or a bull calf,” something that “could only paw and upset things, break and destroy” (551). If being willing to take up arms is one measure of manhood in One of Ours, the ability to do something truly well is another—the mark not only of adulthood but of having become fully human.

Nevertheless, both novels quietly endorse the ideology of the recruiting posters that urged able-bodied young men to “be a man” and enlist. Boylston would take a combat role if he were physically able to; though Gerhardt may still see playing the violin as “work,” it is clear that in wartime, his more important work is fighting. In fact, he tells Claude that once his Stradivarius was ruined, “my career seemed to go along with it” (538). With him, as with George Campton, the war has made things look different: “one violinist more or less doesn’t matter!” (330). Even Claude has come to see the world differently, reflecting that “life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together” (535). Like George, he has come to esteem permanence, the things and ideas that last.

While One of Ours and A Son at the Front have much in common, they also differ in significant ways—particularly in ways that affected the reactions of readers and critics when these novels were published and which continue to affect readers today. Among other things, formal elements—particularly perspective and the author’s choice of an end point—contribute to the effect each novel has on its readers. Both Cather and Wharton extend their novels beyond the death of their soldiers. In Wharton’s novel, this is not surprising. John Campton, her main character, outlives his son; as the novel began before his son’s arrival in Paris, so it continues beyond George’s death. As readers we see George primarily through the perspective of his father, who adores and idealizes his only child. George—based loosely on Wharton’s cousin—is portrayed as a kind of golden boy; he carries his father’s hopes and dreams with him, and any humanizing flaws he might have had are absent from the novel. Further, George’s death is in some ways symbolic. Wharton had advocated energetically for American involvement in the war and was deeply frustrated with the United States’ long wait before declaring war on Germany. In A Son at the Front, George, her dual citizen, bears the symbolic responsibility for U.S. involvement in the war. He enters the war as soon as it begins, and dies murmuring “everything all right” only after the United States has finally declared war on Germany (408). He is, in short, the French American who stands in for what Wharton felt the United States should have done. His death, though unfortunate, comes as no great blow to the reader: it is easier for a reader to lose an idealized and somewhat symbolic figure like George than the much more human Claude. Further, the reader’s primary identification in Son is with John, not George: John is alive and well, if grieving and irascible, at the novel’s end. Sad as George’s death is, it is not a wrenching one for the reader.

In contrast, the ending of One of Ours is more discouraging and disillusioning. From a formal standpoint, the main perspective in One of Ours is Claude’s; by the end of the novel the reader has “been” Claude for many hundreds of pages, and any reader reasonably sympathetic to Claude feels his death much more strongly.[5] Further, the reader senses Claude’s death as an unexpected and unfair truncation of his life. In many ways, Claude has just begun to live; he has only recently found in France what he has been looking for his entire life—ways of doing things and of seeing that life differ from those he had known in Nebraska. He, like Lucy Gayheart, is just beginning to realize his life when it is tragically cut short. Further, unlike George, Claude is full of human flaws: he is not an idealized and symbolic soldier, but an individual. As Steven Trout has noted, war memorials present those who died only as soldiers, “not as individuals” (36). In contrast, Cather presents Claude not as a generic soldier but very much as an individual. Claude is “one of ours,” with the emphasis on “one”: a particular young man with a particular history. In writing of her servant Henri’s death in the war, Wharton wrote to a friend, “Oh, this long horror! It comes home with a special pang when an obscure soldier drops out of the lines, & one happens to know what an eager spirit beat in him” (Letters 361). The same “eager spirit” moved in Claude, and the reader feels a “special pang” at his death.

Our sense of loss in Claude’s death, moreover, is increased by the particular individual that Cather creates in her novel. Although she based Claude’s story on the experience of her cousin, Cather fashioned Claude as a much more sympathetic character. As Trout notes, G.P. “bore little resemblance to the dreamy romantic whom Cather would send to France” (38–39). Far from the victimized, misunderstood character that Cather creates in her novel, G.P. (as Richard Harris notes) “experienced an almost unbroken string of disappointments and failures prior to joining the National Guard” (631). He was a mediocre high school student and a failure in college. Rather than being, like Claude, the victim of an unsympathetic and occasionally cruel father, G.P. preyed on his parents’ meager income and patience; they were still supporting him when he was thirty-three (Harris 636). His marriage was unstable at best; he seems to have been proficient only at marksmanship and hunting. At age thirty-four, a decade older than the fictional Claude (Harris 640), he seems finally to have found his place in the army. Had G.P. survived the war, he might simply have ridden roughshod through the remainder of his—and his family’s—existence.

In contrast, Claude is a much more sympathetic figure; as Harris says, “his aesthetic sensibility and restless idealism certainly make him more appealing than his actual counterpart, a rather boorish and inarticulate cousin” (640). Cather creates him as a young man who is so different from the people around him that he cannot even understand what it is he is looking for in life. If sometimes self-pitying, he is also idealistic and wants to see the world—something he himself cannot quite grasp until he has the opportunity to enlist in the service. At twenty-two, Claude is still at an age at which it is socially acceptable for young people to be “finding” themselves and their roles in life. G.P.’s death at the age of thirty-four was, of course, unfortunate, but his death did not have the tragic or near-tragic dimensions of Claude’s.

Another element in the comparative bleakness of Cather’s conclusion is her use of an epilogue. Wharton’s John Campton goes on after his son’s death; he finds a new purpose in sketching wounded soldiers in hospitals and, later, in creating the monument for his son’s grave. At the novel’s conclusion, he is still the bitter person he was at its outset, but he has also found a renewed purpose as an artist. This is not to say the novel’s conclusion is optimistic; far from it. But it balances a great deal of grief and disillusionment with a somber reassurance. If life ends, art, at least, goes on—even a saddened and somber art. In contrast, Cather’s much-debated epilogue can be seen as undermining everything Claude fought and died for in France. Partway through A Son at the Front, John Campton and a French friend reassure themselves that, disillusioning as the war has been, France is still worth fighting for—if only because it represents “an Idea . . . a luminous point about which striving visions and purposes could rally. . . . [T]o thinkers, artists, to all creators, she had always been a second country” (366)—although Campton feels little of the inspiration such words suggest even as he reminds himself of this. Still, it is something to “cling to” (366). Similarly, Claude finds that the war confirms his sense of ideals. Listening to guns booming in the distance, he realizes that he finds the sound comforting: “What they said was, that men could still die for an idea . . . . Ideals were not archaic things, beautiful and impotent; they were real sources of power among men” (553). Even David, who refuses to believe the great claims made for the war—in particular, that the war will “make the world safe for Democracy” (539)—finds some consolation in a certain mythical idealism, telling Claude that “I’ve sometimes wondered whether the young men of our time had to die to bring a new idea into the world” and further that he has “come to believe in immortality” (539).

But neither Claude nor David has the final word on ideals in One of Ours. Ironically, it is a pious noncombatant, Claude’s mother, who is the most skeptical about the war and the ideals that may have moved many to fight in it: “When she can see nothing that has come of it all but evil, she reads Claude’s letters over again and reassures herself; for him the call was clear, the cause was glorious. Never a doubt stained his bright faith.” She also sees that Claude “had died believing his own country better than it is, and France better than any country can ever be. And those were beautiful beliefs to die with” (604). The implication is clear: Claude’s beliefs were beautiful, but they were mistaken. Yet, in Mrs. Wheeler’s view, those who had survived the war only to lose those “beautiful beliefs” have suffered a far worse fate. She reassures herself with what can only be very cold comfort: many of “the heroes of that war” have returned, only to “quietly die by their own hand . . . She feels as if God had saved [Claude] from some horrible suffering, some horrible end. For as she reads, she thinks those slayers of themselves were all so like him.” Her consolation is that, in death, Claude is “safe, safe” (605).

The conclusion of A Son at the Front is bleak; that of One of Ours is bleaker yet. In their conclusions, and indeed throughout their texts, One of Ours and A Son at the Front convey the grim realities of World War I far more than has usually been acknowledged. Cather’s novel conveys Claude Wheeler’s romanticized view of the war, but that view is balanced—or even canceled—by the abundance of grotesque details Cather provides: epidemics on board transport ships, Belgian refugee children traumatized by war, French families whose youngest member is the product of the mother’s rape by a German soldier, young men mentally or physically mutilated by the war, bodies decaying in the bottom of swimming holes, dead enemy soldiers whose hands keep emerging through the mounds of earth in which they have been buried. While Claude’s war may be an idealized and even a “beautiful” war (see Schwind), Cather’s is not.

Similarly, Wharton’s novel may not preclude heroic action, but it neither portrays nor endorses such action. On the contrary, readers are, through John Campton, increasingly aware of the strange conditions war creates and, eventually, of the horrible realities of the front. Campton finds himself “pursued by visions . . . of fathomless mud, rat-haunted trenches, freezing nights under the sleety sky, men dying in the barbed wire between the lines or crawling out to save a comrade and being shattered to death on the return” (192). Campton has heard “the history of scores and scores of young men” who have been wounded; if some of these soldiers’ stories are beautiful, “others were abominable, unendurable, in their long-drawn useless horror: stories of cold and filth and hunger, of ineffectual effort, of hideous mutilation, of men perishing of thirst in a shell-hole. . . . Worst of all were the perpetually recurring reports of military blunders, medical neglect, carelessness in high places” (192). If there is disillusionment at the front, there is disillusionment on the home front as well.

Given that One of Ours and A Son at the Front conform to “the myth of the war” more than they diverge from it, why have these novels been so overlooked? Cather’s novel has recently been paid the compliment of several articles energetically debating whether its stance is proor anti-war (see Harris 666–67); Wharton’s has only recently begun to garner any attention at all. The neglect of both novels may be due largely to the fact that they present more complex views of the Great War than the myth of the war allows. That myth insists on a relentlessly negative view of the war and of everything related to it; it insists, moreover, that everyone involved in the war had the same negative view—regardless of historical reality. But the realities of the war were more complex. Scholars have shown that Cather received a great deal of mail from soldiers who reassured her that her novel was an accurate representation of what they had experienced. As Harris has said, “Particularly interesting, given reviewers’ claims that the novel lacked truthfulness, are the statements of veterans who had actually been in France” (663). One World War I veteran, for instance, wrote to Cather that “how you could have gotten the trench life with such accuracy and insight is quite beyond my gift of comprehension”; another wrote that Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers—the novel Mencken used to argue that One of Ours was obsolete—“really isn’t true; it is only partially true. There were so many boys who never found themselves until the War came” (Harris 663). Three Soldiers told one part of the truth of the war; One of Ours told another.

Wharton’s A Son at the Front told yet another. If Cather’s novel is, as Cather asserted (see Harris 664), not so much a war novel as a novel about a lost young man who happens to end up in the war and to find himself in France, Wharton’s is about a peculiar assortment of middle-aged expatriates—father, mother, stepfather—who find themselves suddenly with a son and stepson involved in a war that none of them saw coming—as, historically, very few people did. Their relationships, always strained by their unarticulated competition over which of them most “possesses” George, are tried in new and frequently cruel ways in the months and years to follow. And yet the war throws all of these ties into perspective; after George’s death, the struggle to possess George continues—but now they, and John Campton in particular, are struggling to possess only the memory of the young man against the backdrop of a devastated nation.

Certainly, for a woman writing about World War I in the early 1920s, one of the most sensitive issues was how, if at all, she would handle battle scenes; closely related was the question of how she would depict the deaths of her soldiers. The ways in which Cather and Wharton handled these matters may also have led to these novels’ omission from the canon of the Great War. Wharton chose to avoid the front lines altogether in Son, apparently having concluded that the most appropriate perspective for her to take was fundamentally her own, that of the observer on the Paris home front. John Campton does not even observe battle firsthand as Wharton herself did. As for George, he dies peacefully in a Paris hospital of wounds received in battle, and Wharton gives no details about the action in which he is wounded. The novel—like Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room or Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier—has its own integrity as a novel about the Great War without once depicting a battle scene. No doubt this contributed to the fact that, although Wharton took a fair amount of criticism for this novel, none of it had the scathing, gender-specific quality of the most vitriolic attacks on One of Ours. Yet Wharton’s very avoidance of the front may also have contributed to the neglect of her novel.

Cather made quite different choices in structuring her “war novel.” Wharton’s novel begins in Paris on the eve of World War I; Cather’s begins in the Nebraska wheatfields with the dissatisfied Claude, who becomes a soldier only halfway through the novel and only, as it were, by chance. Cather’s decision to depict Claude in battle was a particular risk—probably the single element of the novel to incur the most wrath, regardless of a given critic’s military experience (or lack thereof). Yet, given that Claude’s story was inspired by the experiences of her cousin, Cather must have felt that the manner of Claude’s death was not an element of the story she could choose, but rather a part of the plot that had been dictated by the circumstances of G.P.’s death, circumstances unknown to reviewers at the time.

It seems not to have been so much the fact that Claude dies as the manner in which he dies that irritated reviewers. Had Claude died in many of the ignominious ways that occurred in World War I, the protest might have been less. But Cather’s apparent choice to have Claude leap up on a parapet in a heroic (and successful) effort to inspire his men in battle did not pass muster with the critics. The years of the war and the publication of works like Barbusse’s Le feu and Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers had largely destroyed the idealism with which many, soldiers and civilians alike, had begun the war. Many reviewers could no longer stomach the idea that a death like Claude’s (and G.P.’s) could be noble—nor believe (regardless of the facts) that it was even plausible. In particular, Mencken’s remark that the scene “is fought out, not in France, but on a Hollywood movie-lot” denies the reality of soldiers like G. P. Cather (O’Connor 142). Trout has pointed out that Mencken himself had little military experience; given the many reliable sources Cather drew on for her book and the testimony of so many soldiers who wrote to her, we must question how accurate Mencken’s assessment is. We might also wonder what the reviews would have looked like had Cather chosen to publish One of Ours under a male pseudonym. But we can be sure that Mencken’s additional remark— that Cather’s “lyrical nonsensicality . . . is precious near the war of the standard model of lady novelists” (O’Connor 142)—must have been devastating to the writer who had once called for a woman to write “a manly battle yarn.”

In more ways than this essay has been able to detail, One of Ours and A Son at the Front adhere to the myth of the war. Returning to Hynes’s enumeration of that myth—“the idealism betrayed; the early high-mindedness that turned in mid-war to bitterness and cynicism; the growing feeling among soldiers of alienation from the people at home for whom they were fighting; the rising resentment of politicians and profiteers and ignorant, patriotic women; . . . the bitter conviction that the men in the trenches fought for no cause, in a war that could not be stopped” (439)—we see that both Cather and Wharton touch on many of these issues, though not always as bitterly as some other writers did. Nevertheless, One of Ours and A Son at the Front are fascinating complements to better-known works of the war.

As for the two central components of the myth of the war— “the old betray the young; the past is remote and useless” (Hynes xii)—Cather and Wharton may have demurred. In some passages, Wharton allows that soldiers’ lives were needlessly lost because of the mismanagement of “the old”; it is to John Campton’s credit that he mistrusts his own impulse to comment on the war. But neither Cather nor Wharton would have agreed that the past was “remote and useless.” On the contrary, the war brought both authors and their characters—particularly Claude Wheeler and George Campton—to a new appreciation of the importance of the past and to an understanding that, without the past to ground it, the present is meaningless. In the wake of the war, both Cather and Wharton turned to the past to create two of their most enduring and popular works: Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920).[6]

In his preface to A War Imagined, Samuel Hynes notes that “The Myth [of the War] is not the War entire: it is a tale that confirms a set of attitudes, an idea of what the war was and what it meant” (xi). Perhaps it is time for literary critics to reconsider these words and create a canon of Great War literature that covers a wider range of attitudes, a broader “idea of what the war was and what it meant.” Serious reconsideration of Cather’s One of Ours and Wharton’s A Son at the Front would move us a long way in that direction.


 1. The one exception is in Wharton’s 1918 novella The Marne, in which her main character, a young American ambulance driver, finds himself in combat. (Go back.)
 2. For the romance, see Bailey; for the mistreatment of animals, see Trumbell; the story of life near the front is Aldrich’s A Hilltop on the Marne (1915), which became a best-seller. Those interested in women’s writings about World War I should see Higonnet’s Lines of Fire. There is also a growing body of literary criticism on women’s writings about that war. (Go back.)
 3. Like Wharton, Cather had done some writing in support of the war effort—two essays for the Red Cross Magazine (see Harris 624). These focused not on conditions in France, however, but on life in Nebraska. (Go back.)
 4. These were In Morocco (1920), The Age of Innocence (1920), and The Glimpses of the Moon>(1922). (Go back.)
 5. Thanks to Elsa Nettels for her insight on the reader’s identification with John Campton in A Son at the Front and with Claude Wheeler in One of Ours, and the difference this makes in the perception of each novel’s ending. (Go back.)
 6. The war had a long influence on the postwar writing of Cather and Wharton. Although A Son at the Front was Wharton’s last work devoted to the Great War, the war emerges as an important reference point in later novels, such as The Mother’s Recompense, and in a host of short stories. Similarly, the war figures significantly in Cather’s novel The Professor’s House: it is the cause of the death of the Professor’s protégé, Tom Outland, and the subject of romanticization by Louie Marsellus, the Professor’s son-in-law (see Trout 189). (Go back.)


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