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Spring/Summer 2004

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"Poisonous Reticence": Modernist Experience and Expression in One of Ours

In the story of Claude Wheeler, the unfulfilled farm boy whose search for expression is at the center of One of Ours, Willa Cather introduces the quintessential Modernist dilemma. Faced with futility and waste — specifically, the regimented, capital-driven, morally closed pieties of his post-Victorian family — Claude rejects a rigorous and falsely ordered world, instead seeking something amorphous that he can only label loosely as "splendid." In a 1925 interview, Cather described G. P. Cather, the cousin who inspired her to create Claude's character, as an inarticulate young man butting his way through the world" (Bohlke 78). This inability to articulate meaning, or to translate experience into the reflected meaning of language, becomes not just a personality feature of Claude Wheeler, but a controlling focus of the novel.

At three key points in the Nebraska chapters of One of Ours, characters who are in sympathy with Claude Wheeler — Mr. Royce, Gladys Farmer, and Mrs. Wheeler — forecast his future. Each prophet acknowledges the hardships of life (One speaks of "heart-breaking disappointments"; the second wonders if life is worth "the chagrin it holds"; the third addresses loneliness and discontent) and insists that experience alone, living and choosing, will shape a destiny. Each, significantly, also makes the distinction between experience and expression, suggesting that meaning might be forever dammed up and incommunicable. This paper will examine the gap between raw experience and mediated experience as a phenomenon of the Modernist sensibility and look at Cather's focus on regional and national varieties of having the experience and missing the meaning.

The first words of One of Ours — "Claude Wheeler opened his eyes" (3) — are the first of the novels many paradoxes, tilting us to expect an enlightenment that never comes. It is soon clear that the dominant message of Claude's Midwestern culture is that he should shut his eyes again and bite his tongue in the bargain. From the opening pages of the novel, this linguistic blockage, so prominent despite a deep need to express and to be understood, launches a pattern of stammerings and verbal withholdings. Claude, we are told, looks "like someone with a bridle-bit in his mouth" (46)—a description that spotlights his thwarted and stoppered voice, while also inviting us to notice that he is being driven by the rein-holder. So, we have to ask, who holds Claude's reins? Who shuts him up? What would he say if he could?

Bayliss Wheeler, Claude's older brother and an easy punching bag for readers, becomes the emblem in the novel for all that is stifling in smalltown Midwestern America. Bayliss is a "narrow-guage fellow" (8). He is himself "thin and dyspeptic, and a virulent Prohibitionist; he would have liked to regulate everybodys diet by his own feeble constitution" (9). The description is Bayliss Wheeler in nutshell: a regulator, a prohibitor, and one who would like to manage the world on the basis of his own frailties. He is a machine-made man, stockpiling things but discounting experiences that can't be materially justified. In the opening pages, Cather sets up the tight control exerted by the Baylisses of the world on Claude, who is "a different breed of cats" (15), as Leonard Dawson says. Curbed by Bayliss's mean, insinuating glance and the knowledge that he would disapprove, Claude doesn't ask his friend Ernst Havel to have dinner at the hotel, all the while castigating himself for his cowardice and envying Ernst's "mental liberty" (11). A small enough defection from honesty, but it is in piling up such little concessions that Claude hands the reins of his life over to Bayliss and his ilk. He speculates that, having ceded authority, "the things and people he most disliked were the ones that were to shape his destiny" (27).

In his banner essay, Towards a Definition of American Modernism, Daniel Joseph Singal links the Modernist sensibility to a reaction against the "bedrock assumptions" of Victorian society: "belief in a predictable universe presided over by a benevolent God [...][and] a corresponding conviction that humankind was capable of arriving at a unified and fixed set of truths about all aspects of life" (9). On one side of a sharp dividing line, Singal notes, the Victorians gathered all the good, civilizing virtues that promote rectitude and progress, including education, refinement, manners, the arts, religion, and such domesticated virtues as loyalty and family love (9). On the other side, they stationed the savage threats that led to disorder and waywardness; an offshoot of this moral dichotomy was a tendency to view the world in terms of polarities — good vs. evil, black vs. white, etc. (9). A mighty Victorian energy went into maintaining these separated spheres and suppressing the savage half. What Singal brilliantly shows is that the Modernists, far from connecting "nothing with nothing," aim to re-connect all that the Victorian dichotomy tore asunder" (12). The Wheelers are model Victorians, with their faith in progress, capital, and virtue. Claude is ill at ease within his family, and he chafes against their repressions and restrictions; but Cather does not imagine in him a person of Modernist sensibility who overrides a lifetime's oppressive, dichotomizing habits. Claude does not himself unite contrarities to become a whole, articulating being. Instead, he carries his imprisoned sensibility with him to a new environment — France — and fools himself into believing that relocation has cured his feelings of dislocation.

From the start, Claude experiences his clamped-down and censored Nebraska life as a prison. Writing of her cousin G. P., Cather imagined his life and identity as just such a prison, from which the only escape had been combat: "He never could escape the misery of being himself, except in action, and whatever he put his hand to turned out ugly or ridiculous" (qtd. in Woodress 304). The misery of being Claude has its own special flavor and language. His life, we are told in image after image in One of Ours, is muffled, blanketed, buried, powerless, and speechless. It is a daily exercise in disillusionment — a daily waking to the hope that an event will occur, and a daily capitulation at bedtime to the dismal reality that "nothing has happened" (45). Railing to himself about a routine that marches on meaninglessly to death, Claude thinks, "When he thought of the millions of lonely creatures rotting away under ground, life seemed nothing but a trap that caught people for the one horrible end" (43). His mother concurs, envisioning him as being enveloped in a net. Yet she is among those who encourages silence in the face of life's fixed certainties: "According to her conception of education, one should learn, not think, and above all, one should not inquire. The history of the human race, as it lay behind one, was already explained; and so was its destiny, which lay before" (23). For a moment in the novel, Cather steps out of the minds of her characters and allows a stranger to scrutinize Claude Wheeler as he stands on the steps of the state house in Denver. What the stranger sees is a picture of immobility and frustration, a tense figure" whose fists are "clenched in an attitude of arrested action" (100). For all his battlefield epiphanies, this is the true forecast of Claude's future; he is to be stuck, forever unfinished and unfulfilled. He will never complete the circuit from experience to meaning.

Understanding is in short supply in One of Ours. Claude feels out of place and unrelated to the world, but no one else fares any better. He is disabled in the Modernist way, speaking a language that no longer reflects the truth or, more often, not speaking at all. Among the chatty Erlich family, Claude is aware of his familys "poisonous reticence" (36). Bayliss recognizes his brother as guarded and reticent (86). Three sympathetic characters — Mr. Royce, Gladys Farmer, and Claude's mother — acknowledge Claude's suffering and captivity, while conceding that such things go unexpressed in the world. Cather writes a wonderful, comic scene of miscommunication when Claude asks Mr. Royce for Enid's hand in marriage. Mr. Royce speaks through his body language (he sits "slumping in his seat") and through his abstraction (he is "more gloomy and grizzled than usual"), but he can't come out and say straightforwardly why Enid is not right for Claude (123). The best he can do is to announce, euphemistically, that his daughter lacks passion: "Enid is a vegetarian, you know" (123). Sitting under a cottonwood tree that is "agitated" by swarms of butterflies, Mr. Royce faces his own inability to communicate: He found himself absolutely unable to touch on the vast body of experience he wished to communicate to Claude. It lay in his chest like a physical misery, and the desire to speak struggled there. But he had no words, no way to make himself understood. He had no argument to present. What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him without explanation of certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young. The only way that Claude could come to share his secret was to live. (125)

Immediately after this appointment, Claude meets Gladys Farmer. Here again is someone who knows but won't tell. Her forecast for Claude is the most fatalistic. Looking out her bedroom window at the stars, Gladys predicts that Claude will "become one of those dead people that moved about the streets of Frankfort; everything that was Claude would perish, and the shell of him would come and go and eat and sleep for fifty years" (128-29)— one more "big machine with the springs broken inside" (129). She despairs that "all things that might make the world beautiful —love and kindness, leisure and art—[are] shut up in prison, and people like Bayliss Wheeler [hold] the keys" (129). Finally, Mrs. Wheeler too identifies her son as mute and imprisoned, in need of learning but doomed to suffer in the process. His disappointments, she says, will remain "locked in his own breast" (174).

Cather imagines no human auditors for the dissident desires locked in her Nebraska hearts. Claude thinks of himself as one of the "children of the moon" (171), an imprisoned spirit whose "unappeased longings and futile dreams" (171) set him apart from the fallible world. In My Ántonia, another dark novel full of struggle and unfulfilled longing, the battles are often waged in the open. By the time she writes One of Ours, Cather has driven the struggle underground. The moon, famously inconstant, is the best she can provide her characters for a confidante and witness. Claude's Nebraska is a place of surrogates and sublimation. Nothing is called by its real name. A brute is a practical joker. A celibate is a "vegetarian" (123). All the tragedy of a marital mismatch is carried by a too-tight pair of patent leather shoes, "smooth and glistening and resolutely pointed" (156). Tender boys choose aesthetic prox[ies]" (94), girls who stand as surrogates for their softer desires. Many critics note that Claude is trapped within a narrowly defined gender role. Susan Rosowski argues that Claude is most himself when he is most domestic, assuming traditionally feminine tasks. In war, she points out, Claude is "ironically free of gender expectations because men play all the roles" (111). North believes that, in One of Ours, Cather set out to delineate "a general crisis in masculinity" (182). Rather than being, as Hemingway charged, a story of womans battle envy, North proposes that it is the story of mans envy of muslin dresses and pretty flowers" (186). Skaggs suggests that Claude's story plays out a female plot: "a passionate protagonist — hitherto repressed, depressed, or at least unhappy — finds something essentially forbidden to love and thereafter heroically and admirably advances toward self-destruction by a total and wholehearted commitment to it" (40). A tender young man can lavish attention on floors and wainscoting that he can't lavish on his betrothed.[1]

Furthermore, nature participates in the general confusion of messages, a chaos of signals. Cather gives us the plucky little image of a lark singing for all the silent plowed lands and dumb beasts (including the human), but we have to ask if this is the authentic voice of the place and time. Clearly, if everything silent burst out with its withheld meaning, the sound would not be a chirp. In the scene with Mr. Royce, the alfalfa field is a bright handkerchief, and butterflies (perhaps harbingers of change) shake up the air. Nature seems in accord with Claude's marriage. Only Mr. Royce suspects its unnatural coldness, and he won't speak. As he is talking to Gladys in the next scene, a stream bubbles, telling the truth, were told — but which truth, we have to ask? Whose? At a low point in his Nebraska life, Claude feels that nature not only smile[s] but broadly laugh[s]" at him (173). In other Cather novels, human recalcitrance can sometimes be played off against the romance of a yielding landscape. Here, the land participates in Claude's entrapment. Property ownership is slavery, he thinks. The boundless land is now fenced and dangerous. A couple of mules can drag a man into marriage. The sky closes like a lid shut down over the world" and there is no West...anymore" (100). Claude enlists in the Great War and leaves Nebraska behind believing he will never come back. While home, he wished to go to sleep like the fields" (184). Once gone, he thinks of himself as something that had been snared by the land: Two years ago, he had seemed like a fellow for whom life was over; driven into the ground like a post, or like those Chinese criminals who are planted upright in the earth, with only their heads left out for birds to peck at and insects to sting" (230). His new life is, by extension, the opposite: awakened, free, and released from criminality into innocence. In the Nebraska chapters, Claude resents the repressive grip of his family, but he nevertheless classifies and divides the world in his familys polarizing way. Claude's polarities tend to fall along us" and them" lines: he and the children of the moon" stand against a world of Bayliss Wheelers. When he goes over, Claude does not become a Modernist, uniting all the dichotomies that Singal identifies. He simply reconfigures the polarities, setting his meaningless, passive, and mute Nebraska life against a French life that takes on radically opposite qualities. A predictable string of antitheses ensues: asleep / awake, guilty / innocent, old / new, weak / strong, wasteful / worthy, trapped / free, mute / communicative.

It is Cather who integrates these worlds, she who through juxtaposition, layering of voices, and parallelism shows us fracture and writes to repair it. The full-throated lark accrues meaning, for instance, by its relationship to the trapped bird in the Wheeler bridal nest and by its positioning in the novel. We see the free, vocal bird just after we have seen Claude, arrested in action with his fists clenched and just before he has a conversation about freedom with Enid. She scolds him, "I dont see why you should be discontented; youre so free" (105). In the books last chapters, Claude's rapturous gushes about redneck miracles, "golden chance[s]" and "happy youth" dont carry the full weight of meaning (253, 331). Instead, Cather splices them against the sober reflections of others and against darker visions of war. For instance, as Claude congratulates himself on his "golden chance," Dr. Trueman sounds the right note (253; my emphasis). On such a death ship, he tells Claude, "even the wicked get worse than they deserve" (257). Again and again, Claude misreads or mis-speaks.[2] He romanticizes the Englishman's (who is actually an Iowan) linguist and musician" girlfriend, failing to grasp that she is actually a prostitute who has passed on a venereal disease to Victor. He has a revelation in Rouen Cathedral, only to find he is in a subordinate church instead. On one page, Cather gives us an objective description of No Man's Land and follows it with Claude's view. Here, as in Nebraska, birds sing, "clear and flute-like," but the air is "heavy," misted over with banks of vapor" (293). In the silence, the birds become "more agitated" (293). On the distant hills, farmhouses are ruined and the trees are broken: "It was dead, nerveless countryside, sunk in quiet and dejection" (294). Yet Claude misses the message and is just glad to have arrived, thinking "now that he was here he would enjoy the scenery a bit" (294).

In a rare authorial interjection, Cather steps in to say that Claude and the other boys who set sail with him have been tricked by language: "But the scene was ageless; youths were sailing away to die for an idea, a sentiment, for the mere sound of a phrase" (222- 23). Thinking he is free, Claude has merely transported his limitations with him to the big show. When Albert Usher asks Claude, "Can you parlez-vous?," Claude must reply, "No. I know a few words, but I can't put them together" (229). Here, Cather takes on as subject and theme what she also addresses in technique — the modernist search for form and meaning. Claude's search for a coherent narrative, one that he can speak (in the French way, without mumbling) fails. But there is a halcyon interlude in One of Ours — the visit to Olive de Courcy — when Claude speaks eloquently and is "completely understood" (316). For once, he is "no longer a stranger" (316). As he experiences perfect communication, the guns boom at intervals, reminding us that what is given will be taken away. The next scene underlines the fleeting nature of everything and promotes a vision of ultimate incommunicability. Claude and his friend Hicks sit smoking in a cemetery before the grave of an unknown soldier. "Most of the boys who fell in this war were unknown, even to themselves," Claude thinks. "They died and took their secret with them" (318). In the novel's final pages, the dead do speak, grotesquely. Rumbling and squirting sounds begin to come from a heap of battlefield corpses: "They seemed to be complaining to one another; glup, glup, glup" (360).

If the gaseous exhalation of a heap of rotting bodies offers one posthumous message, a dark hand jutting out of the ground, its fingers forever reaching toward nothing, posits another. There is grim comedy in these final thrusts at meaning, just as there is a delicious irony in Claude's final attempt to "put the words together." When he dies (deluded, of course), this mute boy leaves a cache of letters to be circulated and misunderstood. In Nebraska, Claude wondered if he would ever finish anything. At novels end, he is forever unfinished, his secrets eternally dammed up, his delusions eternally unfaced. Reading the letters, his mother can say, "He died believing his own country better than it is and France better than any country can ever be" (370). The story trails off, with Mrs. Wheeler's limp resolve that Claude is better off dead than disappointed. Claude dies as he lives, still the moon's child, unable to coordinate the world's beauty and its pain.

End Notes

 1. See Coopermans argument that, for Claude, war itself is displaced eroticism, passim. (Go back.)
 2. See, for instance, Rosowski, Urgo, Stout, and Trout on the variety of ways in which Claude is fooled. Rosowski reads Claude as a "romantic caught in a nightmarish world of realism," someone who becomes the "dupe of appearance" (97, 100). Urgo sees Claude as having a delusional self-image: "He is a small man with big plans, a limited, conventional mind with delusions of greatness" (144). Stout, pointing out that Claude is "fooled, again and again," delineates pages of convincing examples (175). Trout stresses the difference between the Claude of the novels American chapters, outcast and malcontent, and the Claude of its European chapters, whose idealistic war activities put him in line with his country and his generation. If Claude is fooled, he suggests, his delusions conform to the dominant "cultural myths" of the time (63). Like Stout, Trout also spotlights the shifting point of view in One of Ours. The narrative strategy creates what he calls a modernist turbulence," with other perspectives sometimes confirming, sometimes overturning Claude's idealistic conclusions (64-5). (Go back.)

Works Cited

Bohlke, L. Brent, ed. Willa Cather in Person:Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Cooperman, Stanley. World War I and the American Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1967.
North, Michael. Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
Rosowski, Susan. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Singal, Daniel Joseph. "Towards a Definintion of Modernism." American Quarterly. 39.1 Spring 1987:7-26.
Skaggs. Merrill. After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1990.
Stout, Janis. Willa Cather: the Writer Her World. Cahrlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2000.
Trout, Steven. Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather And the First World War. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
Urgo, Joseph R. Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.