Willa Cather

One Of Ours: Book #5 Intro

Cather holding the manuscript of One of Ours
THE CHALLENGE
Read all 12 of Willa Cather’s novels in chronological order, one each month, throughout 2012. For full details about the challenge click here.

THIS MONTH’S NOVEL
Our fifth novel of the challenge is One Of Ours. Read it over the next three weeks and we’ll start our conversation about it on Monday, May 21.

About One of Ours:
  • Cather started writing it in 1918.
  • Published on September 8, 1922.
  • Won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize.
  • Was Cather’s first popular success and it made her financially independent.
  • Loosely based on her cousin’s life.
  • Cather switched publishers and this was her first novel published with the new kid on the block, Knopf.

Vintage Classic Paperback Description:

Claude Wheeler, the sensitive, aspiring protagonist of this beautifully modulated novel, resembles the youngest son of a peculiarly American fairy tale. His fortune is ready-made for him, but he refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his crass father and pious mother, all but rejected by a wife who reserves her ardor for missionary work, and dissatisfied with farming, Claude is an idealist without an ideal to cling to. It is only when his country enters the First World War that Claude finds what he has been searching for all his life.

In One of Ours Willa Cather explores the destiny of a grandchild of the pioneers, a young Nebraskan whose yearnings impel him toward a frontier bloodier and more distant than the one that vanished before his birth. In doing so, she creates a canny and extraordinarily vital portrait of an American psyche at once skeptical and romantic, restless and heroic.


RESOURCES
  •   Sometimes difficult to find new, but used bookstores often have copies as do most libraries.
  •   Download a free digital edition from Project Gutenberg here.
  •   Read the Scholarly Edition online here. The Historical Apparatus section is particularly fascinating if you’re interested in learning more about the novel and Cather’s writing of it, but I recommend you read the essay after reading the novel.
  •   Support the Willa Cather Foundation and order it online here.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT
First edition
Much of this novel is based on the life of Cather’s cousin, G.P. Cather, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska and was killed in action at the Battle of Cantigny. Cather become fixated on the idea of her cousin after a friend saw his name listed in The New York Times as killed in action. A couple weeks later at her hairdresser’s someone asked if she knew the Cather in the newspaper who was cited for bravery. G.P. had been posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Cather hadn’t been particularly close with G.P., but his death hit her hard. At first she resisted writing anything based on him, but she couldn’t let it go and by later in the year (1918) she’d started writing this novel.

Cather insisted that she hadn’t written a war novel. Indeed, her working title had been Claude and she was resistant to changing the title but eventually accepted the more patriotic sounding, One of Ours. Most of the now classic World War I novels were published in the later 1920s when the disillusionment and social criticism of the Lost Generation and Modernism were firmly entrenched. (Two of the most familiar WWI novels, All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms, were both published in 1929.) John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers (1920) was an earlier novel that exemplified disillusionment with the Great War and some reviewers unflattering compared Cather’s novel against it. 
Contemporary scholars say some earlier reviewers & readers missed Cather’s ironic tone. However, there was much praise for the novel, both critical and popular. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, but I think even more important was that Cather received many letters of appreciation from war veterans saying that’s how it was for them. Of course, Cather was also slammed for being a woman writing about not only military subject matter, but combat. On the other hand, one early editorial about the novel stated that Cather is, “a sane woman who understands that there are worse things than war.”

And this brings me to a question to consider: is it ever possible to write about a person whose experience includes war without ever seeming for or against war?

MARK YOUR CALENDAR
I’ll share my thoughts on reading One of Ours in a new post on Monday, May 21st. At that time let’s start our conversation–simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone’s thoughts in once place. Please hold off on sharing your thoughts about One of Ours until the then so everyone has the time to read it without spoilers.

Happy Reading!

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