|J.P. Cather sits directly behind the (source, Cather Archives)|
One of Ours has been my favorite Cather novel for some time now. I feel an affinity with Claude and admire how compassionately Cather details his feelings of discontentment, how she takes her time to show what it’s like to feel like you don’t fit in one’s community, family, or even in one’s own skin.
I don’t know of another novel that so painstakingly and patiently presents the pain of a young person’s struggle to find a place where he belongs and a sense of purpose. I was thinking that usually such characters end up becoming rebels without a cause. But Claude is certainly no rebel. He isn’t strong enough or knowledgeable enough to break free of his family or community until the US enters the war. The war is raging for three years by the time the US enters and by then Claude has the familial and social backing to leave. He finds freedom in the military, as many young people still do today. Had Claude stayed in Frankfort, it’s pretty clear he would have ended up one of the walking dead that Gladys describes. Or, perhaps he would have eventually committed suicide like his mother fears he would have had he come home from the war. He was already becoming disillusioned and had he not joined the military it’s clear that life in Frankfort would have crushed his soul.
This is the first time I’ve read the novel since I started reading more about World War I. Several years ago a friend and I had our own WWI study group that grew out of our mutual appreciation for All Quiet on the Western Front. The first time I read One of Ours I had no reference point for the Claude’s war experience other than having felt that sense of general excitement and sense of purpose that my own military service had given me back in the 80s. From talking with combat veterans, current service members, and reading military fiction and nonfiction, I know the excitement and sense of purpose is even more profound during a time of war. The reading I’ve done about WWI had made One of Ours seem even more realistic and “true” what the experience may have been like for some. But this is the only novel that I know of that details why the war could be so exciting and liberating.
|Wrist watch at Cantigny|
I recently visited Cantigny Park, the estate of Robert McCormick, in Wheaton, IL. My family used to visit the park, mainly for the gardens, but we always visited the First Division Museum, too. Back then (60s/70s) they had a small walk-through trench to give people a sense of what trench warfare was like (McCormick served in WWI). The museum and its WWI exhibit has grown tremendously since then, and it was a somber experience to walk through it with Claude on my mind. The WWI exhibit features the town of Cantingy, which makes it an even more poignant experience as Cather’s cousin, J.P. Cather, upon whom Claude is loosely based, died in the Battle of Cantigny.
There are numerous artifacts on display throughout the exhibit. The one that most captivated me was a wrist watch. The placard (see below) accompanying the wrist watch affirms, in part, what Claude thought about his own use of wrist watch:
“He began to see that the wrist watch, which he had hitherto despised as effeminate and had carried in his pocket, might be a very useful article.”
Claude realizes this on the troop ship as its headed to France and he’s caring for men sick with influenza, particularly for Fanning as he’s charged with feeding him a raw egg in orange juice every two hours. The wrist watch is mentioned again later in the novel, during Claude’s final battle, just moments before he’s hit:
“The Colonel’s twenty minutes must be almost up, he thought. He couldn’t take his eyes from the front line long enough to look at his wrist watch.”
The placard at the museum reads:
Prior to WWI, men kept their watches in vest or trouser pockets. Wristwatches were considered a woman’s accessory. During the war, however, the wristwatch gained favor with soldiers when the ability to read time with a quick glance became critical in battle. At a time when combat employed new rapid-fire weapons at a speed and ferocity unprecedented in human history, for men in the trenches the wristwatch replaced the pocket watch as the symbol of competence and efficiency.
As Claude’s experience shows, combat is sometimes too fast and furious for even a glance at one’s wrist watch.
|Wrist watch at the First Division Museum Cantigny.|
Questions & Things I’ve Been Pondering
- I felt a strong connection between Claude and Paul from Cather’s 1905 short story, “Paul’s Case” during this reading. I’m also thinking of Claude’s case as the exact opposite of Thea Kronborg’s story.
- Thinking of Thea makes me realize how important mentors are and how different Claude’s life could have been had he found one earlier. Claude mentions that back in his days at Lincoln he was “hunting for some one whom he could admire without reservations; some one he could envy, emulate, wish to be. Now he believed that even then he must have had some faint image of a man like Gerhardt in his mind.” I found myself wanting to whisper into young Claude’s ear that it gets better!
- With the It Gets Better Project’s slogan ringing in my ears, I’m wondering now if part of Claude’s feeling like he never fit in anywhere was because he’s gay. In prior readings that thought never crossed my mind, but it seems to make so much sense. I’m aware that there’s a vibrant body of Queer scholarship on Cather’s writing. Perhaps it’s time to check out books like Marilee Lindemann’s Willa Cather: Queering America. Does anyone have recommendations on where to begin with this line of inquiry?
- When I started this reading challenge I told myself the point was not to get all academic and/or researchy, but to simply enjoy reading Cather’s novels. I am sorely tempted, however, to delve into some of the scholarship out there on One of Ours. Two books in particular are calling to me: Steven Trout’s Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War and a collection of essays edited by Trout, Cather Studies, Volume 6: History, Memory, and War.
- As other readers have noted, trees are often important to the characters in Cather’s stories. I couldn’t help noticing how in this novel they are symbols of safety and also represent the destructive forces of war and the obsession with outward symbols of prosperity that repel Claude. Important conversations and scenes of feeling often happen under trees. There are scenes with Ernest, Mr. Royce, and Gerhardt, to name a few. Here are just several of the many quotes that I marked:
–While married to Enid: “The timber claim was his refuge. In the open, grassy spots, shut in by the bushy walls of yellowing ash trees, he felt unmarried and free; free to smoke as much as he liked, and to read and dream.”
–The first line of Book 5: “AT noon that day Claude found himself in a street of little shops, hot and perspiring, utterly confused and turned about. Truck drivers and boys on bell-less bicycles shouted at him indignantly, furiously. He got under the shade of a young plane tree and stood close to the trunk, as if it might protect him.”
–As Company B marches through France: “Pear trees, trained like vines against the wall, did not astonish them half so much as the sight of the familiar cottonwood, growing everywhere. Claude thought he had never before realized how beautiful this tree could be. In verdant little valleys, along the clear rivers, the cottonwoods waved and rustled; and on the little islands, of which there were so many in these rivers, they stood in pointed masses, seemed to grip deep into the soil and to rest easy, as if they had been there for ever and would be there for ever more. At home, all about Frankfort, the farmers were cutting down their cottonwoods because they were “common,” planting maples and ash trees to struggle along in their stead. Never mind; the cottonwoods were good enough for France, and they were good enough for him! He felt they were a real bond between him and this people.”
–Mademoiselle de Courcy says to Claude: “It is our trees that are worst,” she went on sadly. “You have seen our poor trees? It makes one ashamed for this beautiful part of France. Our people are more sorry for them than to lose their cattle and horses.”
–About Louis, Claude thinks: “How much it must mean to a man to love his country like this . . . to love its trees and flowers; to nurse it when it was sick, and tend its hurts with one arm.”
–During leave, after his first battle Claude thinks: “Perfect bliss, Claude reflected, as the chill of the sheets grew warm around his body, and he sniffed in the pillow the old smell of lavender. To be so warm, so dry, so clean, so beloved! The journey down, reviewed from here, seemed beautiful. As soon as they had got out of the region of martyred trees, they found the land of France turning gold. All along the river valleys the poplars and cottonwoods had changed from green to yellow,—evenly coloured, looking like candle-flames in the mist and rain. Across the fields, along the horizon they ran, like torches passed from hand to hand, and all the willows by the little streams had become silver. The vineyards were green still, thickly spotted with curly, blood-red branches. It all flashed back beside his pillow in the dark: this beautiful land, this beautiful people, this beautiful omelette; gold poplars, blue-green vineyards, wet, scarlet vine-leaves, rain dripping into the court, fragrant darkness . . . sleep, stronger than all.”
–Even the memory’s of veterans will include trees: “WHEN the survivors of Company B are old men, and are telling over their good days, they will say to each other, “Oh, that week we spent at Beaufort!” They will close their eyes and see a little village on a low ridge, lost in the forest, overgrown with oak and chestnut and black walnut . . . buried in autumn colour, the streets drifted deep in autumn leaves, great branches interlacing over the roofs of the houses, wells of cool water that tastes of moss and tree roots.”
What do you think of One of Ours? Were you obsessed with any one thing about the book? Did you prefer the Nebraska sections to the France sections or vice versa? Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about One of Ours, even if it’s just a sentence.
Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.
Categories: Willa Cather