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NO WOMAN'S LAND: GENDER IN WILLA CATHER'S ONE OF OURS Maureen Ryan The University of Southern Mississippi Willa Cather's One of Ours is the somewhat conventional tale of a sensitive young man who escapes his provincial mid-western existence into the adventure of the First World War in France, where he finds the nobility, community, and the ineffable splendor for which he yearned throughout his youth. In this 1922 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Cather explores her familiar themes: an heroic individual's search for a self in an escape from mediocrity; a lament for a simple past lost in an increasingly commercialized society. Critics have interpreted the novel as satire, as naturalism, as an American The Waste Land, as an Arthurian romance, yet they agree, universally, that it is a flawed novel, among Cather's weakest works. Dorothy Van Ghent pronounces One of Ours the "least attractive" of Cather's books and wishes that it could be "quietly buried without remark."1 An early commentator, Josephine Jessup, finds Cather's protagonist , Claude Wheeler, to be weak and unattractive, and dismisses the novel because of the absence of Cather's usual strong women.2 John H. Randall, too, complains that Claude's weakness is a problem in the novel. "Claude," he writes, "is much too passive to be credible as the romantic hero Cather makes him out to be."3 Other critics have faulted the style of One of Ours, which Van Ghent labels "insufferably relaxed" and Stanley Cooperman calls "intrusive" and "sentimental."4 David Stouck maintains that this unusually detailed "novel of saturation" is dated, while Cather's other novels are not.5 In short, One of Ours has been subjected to the usual variety of critical adjudication. And yet, finally, the critical consensus that the novel fails is echoed in remarkable agreement as to why. Virtually every commentator locates its weakness in Cather's representation of World War I, which is to say, in the second half of the book. At its publication, contemporary critics of the novel recognized One of Ours as inferior to Cather's earlier fiction, proclaiming it, in Edmund Wilson's words, "a pretty flat failure."6 Wilson went on to note Cather's self-imposed "special handicap of having to imagine her hero in relation to the ordeal of the war," while Granville Hicks criticized her "romantic and naive conception of the war."7 Sinclair Lewis, who maintained that Cather was an underrated writer, admitted nonetheless that One of Ours was a disappointment after her earlier work. His perception of Cather's evasion of "the Enid problem" is insightful, yet he too insisted that "the whole introduction of 66Maureen Ryan the great war is doubtful."8 H. L. Mencken claimed that while the first half of One of Ours is nearly as good as My Antonia, Books Four and Five, those that present Claude's war experience, rank with "a serial in the Ladies Home Journal." Cather's characterization of the war, Mencken continued, has "a lyrical non-sensicality about it that often glows half pathetic; it is precious near the war of the standard model of lady novelist."9 Finally, it is Ernest Hemingway's appraisal of the novel that is remembered. "Look at One of Ours," he wrote to Edmund Wilson in 1923, "Prize, big sale, people taking it seriously. . . . Wasn't that last scene in the lines wonderful? Do you know where it came from? The battle scene in Birth of a Nation. I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman she has to get her war experience somewhere ."10 Later critics reiterate Cather's contemporaries' accusations. John H. Randall perceives that her portrait of war is "outrageously idealistic" and asserts that "the gap between the army Willa Cather described and that of the returned veterans is so great that Claude's victory must be accounted a bogus triumph."11 David Daiches wonders "where Miss Cather got her detailed and on the whole accurate knowledge of conditions on the Western Front," presuming that "she must have collected information carefully from veterans" and concluding that "the sensibility at work here seems doggedly masculine and more conventional than that displayed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 65-75
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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