Willa Cather and the ‘Antique Virtues’
Wartime idealism and the search for meaning in her Pulitzer-winning novel ‘One of Ours.’
CALL TO MIND GREAT AMERICAN AUTHORS of the early twentieth century and you will probably think of names like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, all of whom made the reading list for my 11th-grade American literature class many years ago. Ponder a bit longer and you might eventually recall a name that I did not encounter on that list: Willa Cather. Cather surely deserves to be considered alongside the others, but somehow she always seems to remain in their shadow—a literary afterthought.
Indeed, few people seemed to notice that last year marked the 150th anniversary of her birth in 1873. Unlike the centenary of Joyce’s Ulysses in 2022, which produced a wave of new Joyce publications, the Cather anniversary produced almost none. One exception was Benjamin Taylor’s biography, Chasing Bright Medusas, a concise introduction to Cather’s life and work—and, at under 200 pages, just right for readers who lack time for the 800-page tomes that seem to dominate the genre. In his prologue, Taylor suggests a possible reason for Cather’s relative neglect: her “antagonism to the times in which she lived.” He writes, “She alone among the moderns wrote with unguarded admiration about the antique virtues: valor, loyalty, fulfillment of some high destiny.” Admiration for the antique virtues—in some circles, at least, that can indeed make one a literary afterthought.
And now I have done it to her again, despite my best intentions. The year 2023 was actually a double Cather anniversary: It marked not only 150 years since her birth, but also the 100th anniversary of her winning the Pulitzer Prize for the novel One of Ours. All year long, I kept planning to read the novel; all year long, I kept putting it off. Only after Christmas did I finally get around to it. A literary afterthought once again. Forgive me, Willa.
Even though it was the book for which she won the Pulitzer, One of Ours is not generally ranked among Cather’s best novels. Taylor quotes sharply negative assessments from such critics as H.L. Mencken, Heywood Broun, and Edmund Wilson. Those reactions notwithstanding—and they were balanced by plenty of positive reviews—One of Ours is well worth revisiting. Touched by a mood that Taylor aptly characterizes as “elegiac grief,” the novel explores conservative themes that were central to Cather’s fiction. It also proves unexpectedly relevant today, at a time of renewed warfare in Europe and conflict in the Middle East.
ONE OF OURS IS A WORLD WAR I NOVEL—or, better, a novel about the quest for manhood, to which World War I forms the backdrop. It tells the story of Claude Wheeler, a young man growing up on a farm in small-town Frankfort, Nebraska, at the turn of the twentieth century. Claude is torn between commitment to home and family and a vague longing for something loftier. He fears that real life is passing him by. When Claude returns home after a brief stint at university, which has given him a taste of the wider world, Cather nicely describes his mixed feelings: “When he came up the hill like this, toward the tall house with its lighted windows, something always clutched at his heart. He both loved and hated to come home. He was always disappointed, and yet he always felt the rightness of returning to his own place.” Later he experiences “the pleasant feeling of being at home” and wonders why it is “so gratifying to be able to say ‘our hill,’ and ‘our creek down yonder.’”
After having to quit his studies in order to run the family farm, Claude feels increasingly out of place. His sense of isolation intensifies when his new wife, Enid—who has a deep sense of religious duty but feels none of the romantic affection for which Claude yearns, and who, it appears, never physically consummates their marriage—departs for China in order to care for her sick missionary sister. (It is the last we hear of Enid. If the novel has a weakness, it is an excess of loose ends: Too many characters, even important ones like Enid, enter Claude’s life and then depart, leaving the reader to wonder about their fates.) When war breaks out in Europe, it seems to offer Claude a chance, finally, to do something meaningful with his life. He enlists.
As a soldier, Claude discovers a sense of purpose in his commitment to a noble cause along with his comrades in arms. On the journey across the ocean, a deadly influenza epidemic tears through Claude’s ship. Helping the ship’s doctor, he sees constant misery and death. But he also feels a “tingling sense of ever-widening freedom” and even considers it a “miracle” that a Nebraska farmer boy has been swept up into the course of History. Such feelings recur after his arrival in France, a country that impresses him as almost a living being, an incarnate ideal stretching across generations and endowing individual men and women with nobility and significance. Claude compares life back home in America, “where people were always buying and selling, building and pulling down,” unfavorably with what he finds in France: “Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured.” He intuits the Burkean description of society as a partnership “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Many young solders die, but “the name that stood was La France.”
The clash between Claude’s ideals and the ugliness of war appears most memorably in an exchange he has with his friend and fellow soldier David, a gifted violinist who has abandoned his art to join the army. As the two men hear guns pounding in the distance, David asserts that art and music no longer have any meaning in the brutal world that war has revealed; the war “has killed everything else.” Claude disagrees. “I never knew there was anything worth living for, till this war came on,” he says. And as he lies in bed that evening, listening to the same guns pounding away, he feels “confidence and safety” because of what the fusillade signified to him:
that men could still die for an idea; and would burn all they had made to keep their dreams. . . . Ideals were not archaic things, beautiful and impotent; they were the real sources of power among men.
No doubt Cather’s willingness to let Claude endorse the antique virtues of patriotism, loyalty, and self-sacrifice is what irritated some of her critics, for whom the war had exposed the hollowness of such values. But Cather’s perspective is arguably a richer one. For one thing, it is always possible to dismiss qualities like justice and patriotism as nothing more than revenge and tribalism, always possible to take what C.S. Lewis called, in his essay “Transposition,” the view from below. “The brutal man never can by analysis find anything but lust in love,” writes Lewis; “the Flatlander never can find anything but flat shapes in a picture.” That a cynical perspective may come easily or naturally to us does not make it true; we might instead conclude, with Lewis, that such a view is merely impoverished.
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In any case, Cather’s own attitude is not as simple as Claude’s. Consider that line I quoted a moment ago: “men could still die for an idea; and would burn all they had made to keep their dreams.” Is that really a good thing—burning all they had made? The delicate ambivalence, even irony, of that comment is Cather’s, not Claude’s. Claude does not return from the war. Few of the young men we meet in the story do. Claude himself, at the novel’s climax, dies in a kind of apotheosis, believing that he has finally achieved the “mastery” and “fateful purpose” for which he had longed. He and his men “were mortal, but they were unconquerable.” Cather, however, admits in the book’s final pages that those who did make it home were less enraptured; “one by one,” she writes, “they quietly die by their own hand.” Cather cares enough about the antique virtues to let us feel their beauty and their worth, but she knows well their fragility, and has no illusions of their inevitable success. Taylor quotes a letter she wrote, complaining that her critics insisted on regarding Claude “as a sentimental glorification of War, when he’s so clearly a farmer boy, neither very old nor very wise.”
AS I PONDERED ONE OF OURS, I was simultaneously reading Sky Above Kharkiv, by Serhiy Zhadan, a Ukrainian novelist, poet, and playwright. When the Russians invaded his country in 2022, he began posting regularly on Facebook about events and his reactions to them. His book collects these posts from the first four months of Russia’s assault on Kharkiv. They embody the same idealism that Cather depicts in Claude’s reaction to war. Zhadan insists that the Ukrainians are a generous, brave, and united people who will fight off Russian aggression, however long it takes to achieve victory. “The Ukrainian flag is still fluttering above the city,” he frequently reminds readers. Kharkiv may be a “fortified city,” but it is also a “very pretty, sunny, springtime city.” And like La France, it will endure: “This place will continue to be the city of poets and universities, you’ll see.”
Too often, our noblest ideals are dashed. But if we ceased to believe in them, their defeat would be certain. Somehow, we need to believe that the flag will continue to flutter, even though we know it may not. Cather captures this beautifully at the novel’s end. Mrs. Wheeler, Claude’s mother, continues to receive his final letters, which arrive after the news that he has died. In them, she senses Claude’s enthusiasm, and she is grateful that he died happy, without suffering that “last, desolating disappointment” that so many soldiers felt after the war’s end. “He 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.”
Maybe that “pleasing illusion” (to borrow again from Burke) is necessary in order to dignify human existence and to avoid slipping into the view from below. Reflecting on all those young men who had died, Mrs. Wheeler thinks that “in order to do what they did,” they “had to hope extravagantly, and to believe passionately.” Many of those who survived the war, she thinks, discovered that “they had hoped and believed too much,” a fate from which her son was spared. Nevertheless, those hopes and beliefs allowed La France to endure and today keep the Ukrainian flag fluttering above Kharkiv. In the memories of his mother and those who knew him, “by the banks of Lovely Creek, where it began, Claude Wheeler’s story still goes on.” And one hundred years later, he remains “one of ours.”