- Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War
Steven Trout has written an arresting book, which demonstrates thoroughly and eloquently the degree to which Cather was "as a writer not in retreat from her age but deeply, if ambivalently, connected to its ideological preoccupations and material culture." Trout accomplishes the thesis through a study of the overt presence of the First World War and its aftermath in One of Ours (1922) and the covert or haunting presence of that war in The Professor's House (1925). Memorial Fictions is extensively researched and written with Cather-like grace and clarity; it should be ranked among the very best critical studies of the past decade.
In response to the troubled critical history of One of Ours, Trout offers the historical context of 1910s and 1920s war commemoration and biographical evidence of "Cather's personal need to understand the Great War by writing what amounts to a war memorial in prose." An extensive examination of American war memorials—civic projects, highway naming, exhuming and reburying American war dead (including G. P. Cather, the model for the novel's hero), written memorials, military medals and certificates, and war mothers associations—is placed beside evidence of nihilism and despair to account for the novel's "conflicting voices," which incorporate "disparate assessments of idealism and warfare." As such, One of Ours emerges as neither a glorification nor a condemnation of war, but an epic attempt to understand the development of the American phenomenon of global war as it played out domestically. What seems to have interested Cather above all was to trace "the essential trajectory of the male American war experience, presenting a progression from a locally defined identity to membership in a brave new American collective."
Trout succeeds in placing Cather's novel squarely within (but not on either side of) a postwar cultural divide between intellectual disillusion and popular, or middlebrow, nationalism. One chapter is devoted entirely to Cather's representation of combat, a close reading that shows her adept melding of the Great War's legend of the lost battalion with the frontier trope of the myth of the last stand. The final battle scene in the novel is thus "a miniaturized version of the most popular American legend of the First World War and a variation on a deeply embedded cultural myth." One of Ours, then, embodies the emergence of American ideology as a global force, bringing its compulsions and mythologies into direct conflict with European traditions and, after the war, entering into an extended period of reassessment ranging from glorification to despair. [End Page 487]
The profound extent to which the war inflected American culture is made especially apparent in Cather's 1925 novel, The Professor's House, which "examines the terrifying 'vacuum' left behind for intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic by an incomprehensible world war." In particular, Cather confronts the crisis of historiography that followed the war, when memories of "American historians [who] put away their objectivity for the duration, like recruits changing into uniform" contributed to an "atmosphere of contentiousness and self-doubt that surrounded American history departments in the 1920s." Cather's history professor is drawn into "the shattering impact of the First World War" and "the conflict's disturbing implications for scientific and technological 'progress.'" Placing the memorialization of the war casualty Tom Outland in the context of "hundreds, if not thousands of memorial halls, memorial auditoriums, and memorial stadiums," and demonstrating how the war brought Professor St. Peter's career "to a creative impasse," Trout identifies the "presence of the thing not named" in The Professor's House as the Great War and its aftermath. Not a war novel by any definition, The Professor's House is nonetheless, like the cultural moment of its origin, deeply and indelibly shaped by the memory, memorialization, and nightmare of the First World War.
Trout's book will take its place among the very best books in Cather studies. It ought not be missed by those outside the single-author field, especially...