- "What was it . . . ?":The Secret of Family Accord in One of Ours
One of ours has always troubled Willa Cather's critics, who have either dismissed the novel, disparaged it, or discussed its "deficiencies" within a generic framework that allowed them to formulate a "positive interpretation" (Rosowski, Murphy). Described variously as a war novel (Cooperman 129-137), a naturalistic novel (Murphy), a social satire (Stouck 82-96 and passim), or an Arthurian legend (Rosowski 95-113), it is either extraordinarily complex, conflating and transcending literary genres, or else inchoate—a troubled text seeking a form for its completion. Whether it deserved the scorn it received in its own time from Edmund Wilson and H. L. Mencken—and, notoriously, from Ernest Hemingway (quoted in Wilson 118)—may now be as difficult to determine as whether it deserved its acclaim (which undoubtedly had exacerbated the scorn). As we know, the novel won Cather a Pulitzer Prize; it also brought her public recognition and money, thus marking a "turning point" in her career (Woodress 334). Although by now critics have discerned involuted sexual themes and gender crossings within its apparently straightforward story (Cooperman, Butler, Rosowski), as well as delicate ironies and allusions (Stouck, [End Page 61] Rosowski), they have not refuted a standing claim that it is one of Cather's least interesting novels (Randall 160). Contemporary readers might find the claim tenuous as their interest is engaged by unexpected aesthetic lapses in One of Ours that localize its aporias and ambiguities rather than its failures. Interest need not produce a "positive" interpretation of One of Ours, but a plausible one that recontextualizes its still troubling "deficiencies"—its theatrically staged scenes; bemused characterizations; uncertain, even indefensible, moral tone; and its inert language, inexplicable in a writer renowned for her style.
For all its deficiencies, I read One of Ours with disquieting fascination. To me it seems a novel in crisis—not because it portrays a historically cataclysmic event but because it cannot reconcile itself to its own representations of ruin and waste. In showing that war—rather than peace, prosperity, and family life—realized the highest ideals of humanity, it attributed a value to violence that it was also impelled to deny, for war led its hero to death, although he believed it was giving him his life. In the novel Claude Wheeler dies young, happy, and deluded. Because he dies before he can be undeceived about the lies in which he has been enmeshed, he is spared disillusionment. The reader, however, is not spared, nor are the novel's survivors, those who fought in the war and those, like Claude's mother, who prayed at home. Trying to balance the truth of ideals against the lies necessary to sustain them, Cather created a suspenseful tension in her text, which holds in almost breathless arrest the moment of crisis when desire for life—for its beauty and passion—turns into a demand for death. Claude must die or relinquish his ideals; but life devoid of ideals does not seem to him worth living. Nevertheless the rationalizations for his untimely death seem, at least to me, unconscionable. Perhaps they seemed so to Cather, grieving over the nephew killed in the battlefields of France, whose life she recapitulated in One of Ours and whose death she may have been trying to redeem.
One of Ours creates a continuum between personal desire and public life that is markedly uncharacteristic of Cather's fiction, which usually ignores or satirizes historic events shaping the world of its characters. Although social crises woven into a novel's plots might influence a character's destiny, they usually remained peripheral. In A Lost Lady, for example, bad times and bank failures affected but did not determine Marion Forrester's fate, just as earlier in O Pioneers! a changing economic climate, like the vagarious weather, had been only peripheral to Alexander Bergson's life. In One of Ours the catastrophic war that sweeps through the Western world is central to the plot; it is a crucial determining event that concentrates, although it does not resolve, the novel's disparate and elusive themes. Irresolution, at once disconcerting and interesting...