The sense of attachment to France that Cather exhibits in her writing is strong enough to elicit comment even from the French. As Michel Gervaud has put it, “For some mysterious reason France and the French seem never to have disappointed her or hurt her feelings, whereas she was prompt to pass harsh judgments on her own country and fellow citizens. . . . The France she loved may represent a myth.” Gervaud suggests that Cather mythologized France partly because “myths . . . stimulate . . . imagination and heart and, as such, are essential to religion, art, literature. . . . France . . . fecundated and nourished her creativeness” (“Affinities” 65–66). Elsewhere he concedes that Cather’s “love” for his native country has an “intensity [that] does not necessarily depend on the intrinsic qualities of its object” (“Cather’s One” 23).
An important part of Cather’s mythic France and of French history, symbolism, and culture is the multifaced figure of Joan of Arc. Three readings of Joan are brought into play in chapter 11 of book 1 of One of Ours (1922). The first of these readings is the Joan of her Procès (trial) for heresy and witchcraft, specifically, her “testimony . . . in her nine private examinations and the trial in ordinary” (91), which Claude Wheeler’s history professor assigns him for his thesis. The second is the Joan of Claude’s imaginative vision, which remains in his mind as he completes his scholarly labors but actually dates back to his childhood. The third is Joan as presented in the biography of her by Jules Michelet, which Claude’s professor suggests he read after Claude has turned in his thesis. Michelet, as Cather scholars know, was probably her favorite historian. He was also was a major figure in nineteenth-century French historiography and a founding force in medieval studies, and his romantic biography of Joan, originally part of his massive Histoire de France, was one of the most influential texts about her in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The criticism on One of Ours typically conflates these three Joans. My purpose is to unpack and compare them, placing them in four contexts: as Cather uses them in her text; as they relate to Johannic iconography, especially around the time of World War I; as they connect Cather to several schools of historiography; and as they are linked to critical issues, including parallels between Claude and Cather and evaluations of her handling of the life and death of an American soldier in France. In doing so I operate on the assumption that One of Ours is a novel made up of many pieces drawn from a wide variety of sources that cohere unambiguously in some regards but ironically in others.
Presumably, Cather would have learned about Joan of Arc during her adolescent years in Red Cloud, where her friends Mrs. and Mrs. Charles Wiener, educated Europeans who spoke both French and German, introduced her to French literature (in translation) and “gave her the run of their large library” (Gervaud, “Affinities” 67; Woodress 49). During her preparatory year at the University of Nebraska she studied French history, and in the last two of her five years there she took four semesters of French, reading major authors such as Racine, Taine, and Balzac in the original. As a senior at the university (1894–95) she took two semesters of European history with Professor Fred Morrow Fling, a scholar of France (Ronning and Turner 15; Woodress 71). On 5 May 1895 she asserted in an article in the Lincoln Journal that “the greatest living novelists are Frenchmen” (World and Parish 1: 150), which would have included Pierre Loti (Kingdom of Art 357), who later served on the committee for the 1913 Joan of Arc exhibit in New York Joan of Arc Statue Committee). By October 1895 Cather was brashly taking Mark Twain to task in the Lincoln Courier for his ignorance of French history and literature and calling his Recollections of Joan of Arc “thoroughly stupid” (World and Parish 1: 266). During 1912, which she spent in Pittsburgh, Cather and Isabelle McClung read aloud from Michelet’s nineteen-volume history of France, published between 1833 and 1867, from which his biography of Joan is taken (vol. 5, 1841; published separately 1853), and by August she reported to Elizabeth Sergeant that they had reached volume 9 (Sergeant 95–96). At the end of 1912 Cather moved to 5 Bank Street in New York City with Edith Lewis, where she would have been aware of, even if she did not visit, the large and widely publicized Joan of Arc exhibit (including, alas, a copy of Twain’s Recollections) held during the first two months of 1913 under the auspices of the Joan of Arc Statue Committee, several French organizations, and the American Numismatic Society in the society’s building on Broadway between 155th and 156th streets (Joan of Arc Statue Committee). Similarly, Cather would have known about Anna Vaughn Hyatt’s monumental equestrian statue of Joan, which overlooks the Hudson River at Ninety-third Street and Riverside Drive and was unveiled in December 1915 as part of a deliberate wave of Johannic propaganda designed to encourage the United States to enter the war (Blaetz 47, 50–51, 52–53). And though Cather—no lover of the movies—probably did not see Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film Joan the Woman, whose widely advertised U.S. premiere took place in December 1916, she surely would have noted that its star was the opera diva Geraldine Farrar, about whom she had written, mostly approvingly, in December 1913 (Blaetz 50–53; Cather, “Three”), and may even have been aware that the film opens with a shot of an Allied soldier in the trenches in France, which then dissolves into the battlefields of the fifteenth century (Sanders 93). In short, Joan of Arc, Willa Cather, and World War I were intersecting long before 1918, when Cather began four years of labor on One of Ours.
What kind of student of Joan of Arc is Claude Wheeler? Certainly he cannot be faulted
for lack of diligence, and his work in European history inspires him. The nature of
his understanding is another matter. In chapter 6 of book 1 the narrator introduces
the reader to the only aspect of Claude’s higher education that will have any meaning
Cather studied European history with Fred Morrow Fling, and Richard Harris is undoubtedly correct in presuming that Claude’s unnamed professor is based upon Fling (690). In fact, it is likely that Fling contributed both to One of Ours and to the development of Cather’s interest in France in ways that have been overlooked. Fling completed doctoral work at Leipzig University, a bastion of rigorous empirical methodology, in 1890, and was known both locally and nationally for insisting that students confront original source material. Like that of Claude’s professor, Fling’s approach to historical fact was considered impeccable; a colleague summing up his career spoke of his “almost fanatical zeal for historical truth” (Taylor 6). Though Nebraska novelist Mari Sandoz (who followed his empirical methods in gathering background material for her own works) thought Fling “one of ‘the . . . fussiest men imaginable’” (Stauffer 50) and he struck his contemporaries as “sarcastic, harsh, and stern” (Wunder 48), both untutored students like Claude and gifted ones like Cather flocked to his lectures because he was one of the university’s “best platform performers” (Knoll 65), exhibited passion for his subject, and had extensive personal familiarity with France. Furthermore, Fling’s unusual degree of emphasis on religion, the arts, and the sciences (he thought most historians overemphasized political and military events [Carlson 485]) would have struck a responsive chord in Cather as student.
Though scholars have long known of Cather’s attachment to Michelet, how she became acquainted with his work has not been addressed. I suspect that Fling introduced her to the French historian, given that Michelet’s highly respected Histoire de la révolution française (8 vols., 1847–53) would have provided context for Fling’s scholarship on specific aspects of the Revolution. Moreover, in the general history, France, which Fling revised and edited from the work of Emile de Bonneschose, Michelet’s Histoire is cited—by Fling, not by de Bonneschose—as having been written by “a man who was trained in research and knew his sources. . . . Michelet was a partisan of the Revolution, and almost makes an epic in prose of his history. It is a brilliant piece of writing” (498).
In addition, Fling’s dramatic response to the Great War places Claude’s eagerness to sacrifice himself for France in high relief. Cather probably did not know about the extensive work Fling and other historians did to develop coursework in military history based on scholarly rather than nationalistic principles at the Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, or about his efforts to advance the status of military history in the American Historical Association, since these activities were of a highly professional nature and took place between 1913 and 1918 (Reardon), long after her university days. However, given that Cather kept up with local and state news long after her graduation, shFe must have heard about Fling’s 1917 public assertion, made before the April congressional declaration of war, “I’m no fire-eater, but there are some things worse than war. The young man who gives his life for some great heroic thing, to humanity . . . has lived a long life though he dies at 21.” This declaration, which was reported in the Daily Nebraskan on 27 March 1917 (Knoll 65), undoubtedly circulated among Nebraskans beyond the campus, given both the importance of the subject and the speaker’s fame within the state.
In fact, Fling’s wartime crusading was intense enough to get him into trouble with university authorities and the Board of Regents, first in September 1914, when he objected to President Wilson’s neutrality policy, and again during 1917–18, when he submitted “rumors and opinions” about allegedly disloyal faculty members to the Nebraska Council of Defense, information that led to the dismissal of three professors following a public hearing. Reacting against the council hearing, the regents concluded that Fling had tainted the reputation of the university by spreading rumors, though eventually they absolved him of “intentional wrongdoing” (Carlson 489–91). These events were followed closely by the Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln), which was highly critical of the council’s investigation. Fling’s passionate hatred of Germany for its wartime aggression was not shared by Cather, whose reactions to the war were more complex and divided—but this only renders more ironic the parallels between Fling’s praise for the nobility of young male sacrifice and Claude’s wartime belief that “Ideals were not archaic things, beautiful and impotent; they were the real sources of power among men” (553).
Returning to Joan of Arc, the “nine private examinations and the trial in ordinary” that the professor assigns to Claude as the basis for his thesis correspond precisely to the divisions in the first, but not in any later, editions of the first English translation of the Procès, that done by T. D. Murray and published in London in 1902. Considering the details of Cather’s wording, it is quite possible that she was familiar with Murray’s translation in this specific edition. (John March identifies Murray’s translation as Cather’s source, though without stating any reason for doing so ). It is most important, however, in order to understand the discrepancies among the novel’s three versions of Joan, to emphasize the difference between the result of Claude’s work as communicated in his paper and Joan’s personal impact upon him.
In preparing his thesis, Claude works from the translated Procès, with “the French text at his elbow” (91). He flatters himself that his paper is a model of logical and dispassionate enquiry, “a cold estimate of the girl’s motives and character as indicated by the consistency and inconsistency of her replies; and of the change wrought in her by imprisonment and by ‘the fear of the fire’” (92). Cather’s wording stresses the secular (“motives and character”), not the sacred, aspects of Joan’s life (the voices and visions she claimed to hear and see). It catches the flavor of a trial (“the consistency and inconsistency of her replies”) in a way reminiscent of Claude’s professor’s lectures, which are “condensed like a legal brief” (58). And it refers to Joan’s 23 May 1431 recantation of her claims and return to women’s clothing, which she then retracted on 28 May, when she reverted to masculine garb and explained her previous action as resulting from “the fear of the fire” (92). This retraction was the proximate cause of her death at the stake.
In the end, despite his “conscientious study” (92) and his professor’s high standards, the main thing Claude takes away from his efforts is neither what he learned from his research and writing nor his acquittal of Joan “on the evidence” (94)—the opinion that Joan’s trial was rigged has been standard since, and sometimes even before, it ended—nor an impression of the length and complexity of the proceedings (which typically run between two hundred and five hundred pages). Instead, it is a romantic image or vision originating in a childhood memory. In this respect Claude seems related both to Cather’s creative process and to Jim Burden in book 3 of My Ántonia, who, despite his admiration for the scholarship of his classics professor, Gaston Cleric, “knew that [he] should never be a scholar. [He] could never lose [himself] for long among impersonal things” (254).
In order to understand Claude’s vision, it is necessary to acknowledge the bewildering assortment of ways in which Joan of Arc has been interpreted over the centuries (Blaetz; Goy-Blanquet; Margolis, History; Raknem; Wilson-Smith). A few of these are as a wonder, a miracle, and a phenomenon, a saint and a sinner, a heretic and a mystic, a martyr and a rebel against ecclesiastical authority, a Catholic and a Protestant (Shaw), a true believer and servant of God, a model for religious practitioners, an object of veneration, a victim of both political and religious injustice, a witch or sorceress (Shakespeare), a child, an innocent maid, an Amazon, a virgin, an androgyne, a cross-dresser, a transsexual, a proto-feminist, an eminent woman, an idealist, a romantic, a simpleton, a nationalist and patriot, a soldier, a knight, a military hero “who determined the fate of her people” (Raknem 1), a regional, national, and international figure, a symbol of innocence, a wily manipulator, a representative of labor and of the poor, an illiterate peasant, an object of satire (Voltaire), an embodiment of the Middle Ages, a radical forerunner of the French Revolution, a figurehead for reactionaries, and (to quote Raknem’s description of Twain’s Joan) “a perfect heroine of romance” (161). Moreover, texts subsequent to her trial have generated their own variations on the Johannic theme; for instance, the anonymous author of the sixteenth-century document La minute française used his text to legitimate the ascendancy of Louis XII in 1498 by moving from the purity of the saint’s body, to the ancestry and legitimacy of the Dauphin, to the French territorial body (Hanawalt and Noakes). In short, Joan becomes whatever the tellers of her tale need her to be. In Marina Warner’s words, “In the transformation of [Joan’s] body, and in the different emphases of different times, we have a diviner’s cup, which reflects on the surface of the water the image that the petitioner wishes to see, its limits and extensions drawn, as in all magic operations of this kind, according to the known quantities shared between diviner and petitioner” (7).
Compare this bewildering diversity with the generality and simplicity of Claude’s image of Joan: When he had copied the last page of his manuscript and sat contemplating the pile of written sheets, he felt that after all his conscientious study he really knew very little more about the Maid of Orleans than when he first heard of her from his mother, one day when he was a little boy. He had been shut up in the house with a cold, he remembered, and he found a picture of her in armour, in an old book, and took it down to the kitchen where his mother was making apple pies. She glanced at the picture, and . . . told him the story. He had forgotten what she said,—it must have been very fragmentary,—but from that time on he knew the essential facts about Joan of Arc, and she was a living figure in his mind. She seemed to him then as clear as now, and now as miraculous as then. (92) He pictured her then very much as he did now; about her figure there gathered a luminous cloud, like dust, with soldiers in it . . . the banner with lilies . . . a great church . . . cities with walls. (93; Cather’s ellipses)
Cather repeatedly converges past and present here—“then . . . as now, and now . . . as then . . . then . . . as . . . now”—to emphasize the primacy of childhood experience in Claude’s adult mind. Here is another parallel between Claude and his creator, though with a more ambiguous result: it is one thing when memories and images from childhood “nourish” a (female) writer like Cather or a performing artist such as Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark, but in a drifting, dissatisfied young man such as Claude, these childhood memories provide fertile ground for wartime propaganda. Moreover, Claude’s remembrance of Joan runs somewhat counter to what Cather said she did when she wrote One of Ours, which was to reduce imagery: “I have cut out all descriptive work in this book—the thing I do best. I have cut out all picture making because that boy does not see pictures” (Bohlke 39). Though the “picture-making” of Joan that Claude’s memory produces is obviously vague and conventional when set beside Cather’s descriptive writing, it represents his mind at its most imagistic. Here both the parallels and the differences between the patterns of Cather’s and Claude’s imaginations emphasize the ironic ambiguity of Claude’s finding himself by losing himself in war.
In addition, the only thing that Claude does takes away from his academic reading is a series of vocal parallels or layers: “He worked from an English translation of the ‘Procès,’ but he kept the French text at his elbow, and some of her replies haunted him in the language in which they were spoken. It seemed to him that they were like the speech of her saints, of whom Jeanne said, ‘the voice is beautiful, sweet and low, and it speaks in the French tongue’” (91). Thus Joan speaks to Claude as Joan’s saints spoke to her; Joan saw visions and heard voices, and Claude does, too; voices and visions led Joan to war and ultimately to death, as they do Claude.
That Claude’s very basic image of Joan seems to predate the visual imagery of the war and the immediate postwar period only emphasizes its childhood origins. For instance, Steven Trout, in his fine cultural-studies reading of One of Ours as “more than the character study of a solitary lost Nebraskan” (59), situates the novel against the iconography of postwar remembrance in the United States. The image of Joan plays an important visual role in one of Trout’s sources, the Society of the First Division’s History of the First Division during the World War, 1917–1919, which was G. P. Cather’s division (Trout 48– 51). However, though the novel and the history can be read in relation to one another, both were published in 1922. Similarly, medieval motifs are common in American Great War propaganda posters, although allusions to the Statue of Liberty, the Pietà, and Marianne (the allegorical personification of the French Republic) are more widespread than representations of Joan of Arc (Agulhon).
Surprisingly, French images of Joan are also uncommon during the Great War, possibly because she could not serve as a national symbol as long as she was a focus of political struggles between the Action française (the royalist and anti-Semitic movement founded in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair) and the Republican and Socialist parties, all of which attempted to incorporate her into their agendas. Eventually these competing forces came together in the Union sacrée as the Right, Center, and Left joined together in order to fight against Germany (Bernard and Dubief; Sowerwine; Weber). At around the same time, Joan of Arc, who had been beatified in 1909, was sanctified (in 1920), partly because French soldiers in the trenches reported that she had appeared to them, but possibly also because the Roman Catholic Church, which had lost its status as a state religion in 1905, wished to exploit her popularity. In addition, one of France’s aims during the Great War was to regain AlsaceLorraine, near where Joan originated, and which France had lost in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In other words, during the prewar and war years Joan of Arc was much on French minds and in the French press, but the many and complex political and religious meanings attached to her may have made it difficult for her image to be simplified exclusively for nationalistic propaganda (Margolis, “Subject”).
Finally, the only U.S. war poster that depicts Joan of Arc is Haskell Coffin’s beautifully vivid image of a helmeted, longhaired Joan in armor, sword upraised in her right hand, which bears the legend “Joan of Arc Saved France. Women of America, Save Your Country. Buy War Stamps,” and was commissioned in 1918 by the U.S. Treasury (Rawls 217; see illustration 21 in the Cather Scholarly Edition of One of Ours). As a home-front poster addressed to women, it lies outside the large realm of female figures that were used to induce men to enlist—though it can serve as a suggestive reminder of the maternal origins of Claude’s visionary Joan and of the domestic contentment he experiences in France. In the end, though it is reasonable to assume that Cather was familiar with a good deal of the Johannic imagery that circulated before and during the war, she seems to have gone out of her way to keep these materials out of the mind of her protagonist and to emphasize that Claude’s remembrance of Joan is more connected to the traditions of the past as communicated to him by his mother than to the specific exigencies of the present.
What role, then, does Michelet play in One of Ours? Though nothing in the narrative indicates that Claude followed up on his instructor’s casual suggestion, “Well, now you might read what Michelet has to say about her” (94), I like to imagine Cather rather than Claude as the professor’s audience. I am not claiming that Cather literally cast Claude as a transatlantic Joan of Arc but that Michelet’s general methodology as well as hints and echoes from his biography of Joan are embedded in Cather’s text and serve as reference points for evaluating Claude’s belief in France and his sense of fulfillment in war. If this is so, then the emphatic differences between Joan and Claude, in addition to the parallels between their histories, not only deepen the ironic ambiguity of Claude’s having “hoped extravagantly” and “found his life” but also of having “died believing his own country better than it is, and France better than any country can ever be” (604–5).
Michelet presents Joan’s biography as a dramatic conflict between good and evil and situates her as a crucial figure in the development both of French nationalism and of France as the focal point of European civilization. Though his style is outdated, the three chapters on Joan in the fifth volume of his History“stood out from the very first as Michelet’s masterpiece,” according to translator Albert Guerard in the introduction to his edition of Michelet (x), and he was and still is regarded as a gifted writer even by more sober historians critical of his scholarly lapses, leaps, and omissions. A brief examination of Michelet’s influence and the shifts in his reputation can help explain Cather’s attraction to him as a historian and as a source for her handling of Claude’s response to the Great War.
Guerard, David Carroll, and John Hooper, among others, have analyzed the trajectory of Michelet’s reputation and his current status among historians. According to Hooper, as early as the 1830s Michelet’s European contemporaries recognized him as “an outstanding writer and historian” and “attempted to define the special features of [his] historical works, which created . . . powerful resonances in his contemporary reading public.” He places esteem for Michelet within the framework of “the rise of History as a source of literary subject matter,” especially in Scott’s historical novels, noting that in this period the “definition of History was flexible rather than fixed” (Hooper 284). When “Historical texts were a central part of high European culture,” Hooper continues, Michelet’s histories were acknowledged both by his French contemporaries “from Thierry to Sainte-Beuve” and by figures as diverse as Heinrich Heine and John Stuart Mill (285). Mill favorably compared Michelet’s “imagination” with Jeremy Bentham’s limited capacity to “conceive the absent as if it were present, the imaginary as if it were real, . . . the power by which one human being enters into the mind and circumstances of another” (qtd. in Hooper 286), which at that time (1838) was considered essential to good historical writing. In other words, Michelet may have had an effect on Cather similar to that engendered in her when, as a child, she listened to “a great many stories about the old country” told to her by old immigrant women “on the farms”: “I used to ride home in the most unreasonable state of excitement; I always felt as if they told me so much more than they said—as if I had actually got inside another person’s skin. If one begins that early . . . no other adventure ever carries one quite so far” (Bohlke 10–11).
By the 1850s, Mill, Sainte-Beuve, and others “began a process of differentiation of historical and literary projects and styles, which was intensified with the growing influence of positivism and the rise of professional History” (Hooper 285). Though the uniqueness and importance of Michelet’s histories continued to be recognized as “an emotional experience of the past,” this increasing positivism and its valorization of “‘scientific’ over ‘poetic’ elements in the writing of history” led to a decline in his reputation among historians (287). Moreover, a similar shift took place with regard to Michelet’s institutional and political reputation. During the 1830s and 1840s his scholarly reputation had been reinforced by the creation of “an official culture of liberal nationalism” that required “literary agents to create the new, bourgeois France, and justify its importance in world affairs” (288). However, his intellectual independence eventually led to a falling out with his university superior and chief supporter, Fran- çois Guizot. In addition, beginning in 1843 Michelet became an outspoken critic of official Catholic France and in 1851 refused to take oaths of allegiance to the empire of Emperor Napoleon. As a result, he lost his positions at the National Archive and the College de France, though he continued to write and publish in poverty. In his preface to the 1869 edition of his history of France, Michelet defended himself on the grounds that he had based his histories on close examination of thousands of pages of records, manuscripts, and documents, but, as Hooper dryly puts it, “Political and religious transgression could not be mitigated by the volume of research or the quantity of footnotes” (291). Nevertheless, Michelet’s literary skills and his democratic republicanism continued to attract both general readers and professional historians even after his death in 1874, and late during the Third Republic (1870–1940) he became politically respectable once again even as more “scientific” histories became obsolete and went out of print.
Beginning in the 1930s, Michelet was revived by Fernand Braudel as a great predecessor and influence because of his love of country and attention to factors like climate, geography, and population density as forces in history, and by other historians such as Lucien Febvre and Pierre Nora for his efforts “to write the history of those who did not have a history and . . . had not been allowed to speak in history” (Carroll 112–16). Hayden White has even called Michelet “one of the great classic writers of historiography for modern readers” (qtd. in Hooper 291). Hooper’s conclusion that “Michelet’s texts have continued to live between History and Literature up to the present, a subversive challenge to historical orthodoxies in European literary culture” (291–92), epitomizes why his writings were so important to Cather, who also lived and wrote “between History and Literature,” concerned herself with climate and geography as forces in human lives, and in One of Ours wrote the story of an ordinary young man who could not speak for himself.
Michelet empathizes, perhaps even identifies, with Joan’s cause and attempts to imagine her emotions, and although he sets Joan’s life in the distant past, he makes limited use of dates and writes with breathless urgency, as if her story were taking place in the present. He represents Joan both as a kind of Christ figure and as a focal point of national mythology glorifying self-sacrifice to save France, itself a savior among nations. But he also writes as a democratic humanist who admires Joan’s commitment to her voices and visions primarily for the confidence they gave her to stand on her convictions in the face of both ecclesiastical and secular authority. For Michelet, Joan is “a daughter of the people” whose “eminent originality was her common sense” and who “created her . . . own ideas” out of what he calls “a higher reason” (3). He talks about Joan’s purity and humility, but also emphasizes her self-confidence, shrewdness, clarity of vision, superiority as a military and even political strategist, and fearlessness as a leader who risked her own life to protect her men.
For Michelet, Joan fulfilled what she was destined to do but was also betrayed “on every side” by “this world of selfish interests and greed” (67) and thus her execution was a “deliverance” (121). His conclusions about Joan are not unlike Mrs. Wheeler’s meditations on Claude after his death: Claude’s were “beautiful beliefs to die with. Perhaps it was as well to see that vision, and then to see no more” (604).