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M A R I L Y N A R N O L D Brigham Young University One of Ours: Willa Cather’s Losing Battle Although Willa Cather sometimes stubbornly defended One of Ours as one of her favorite works, most readers tend to feel dissatisfied with it. Several reasons have been offered for its “failure,” among them the complaint that it has no definable point of view,1or that Cather was so close to Claude Wheeler that she could not achieve appropriate authorial distance.2 I believe that these are justifiable criticisms, but for me they do not strike at the heart of what is wrong with the book. In One of Ours Cather makes a technical decision that puts a weak character at the center of her novel, thus precluding a strong affirmation of values in her usual mode. This seems to force her into a rather desperate assertion that any value, even a false one, is better than no value at all. The two components of most Cather novels are (1) a clear statement of values, usually in the form of an ideal which is pursued and affirmed with vigor, and (2) a strong character who is the human embodiment of that ideal. 1Gilbert Seldes’ review in Dial, 73 (October, 1922), 438, makes a rather typical comment about point of view. 2James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), intimates that Cather did better when she wrote about things that her memory had worked on for years. He also suggests that Cather was out of step in romanticizing the war when others were beginning to see it for what it was. Stanley Cooperman, World War 1 and the American Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), calls the novel “a study of erotic frustration and virility through violence” and says that since Cather had no firsthand war experience, she had no business attempting to justify the violence of war. 260 Western American Literature One of Ours, lacking the second, is helplessly floundering with the first. Seeming to realize her problem, Cather tries unsuccessfully to redeem the novel by glorifying war, making it a value symbol for her frustrated protagonist Claude Wheeler. Beginning with O Pioneers! (1913), the book which establishes Cather as a novelist, through The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918), Cather develops the pattern which has in some sense become her trademark: a strong character, usually female, at the hub of a book with an admiring but weaker character, usually male, revolv­ ing around her.3 For this male character, the woman he admires is the ideal in human form. Typically, he remains on the sidelines to instruct us regarding her worth, and she becomes the core of value in the book. But in One of Ours Cather tries to make the weak, idolizing male go it alone. As Josephine Jessup says, and John H. Randall III heartily concurs, Claude simply does not have the stature of an Alexandra Bergson, Thea Kronborg, or an Antonia Shimerda.4 In fact, Claude spends his life looking for an Antonia who can show him what he believes. Always a misfit in Nebraska, Claude is also a misfit in the Cather canon. Like his counterparts in other Cather novels, he is more naturally a supporting actor than a principal, and he is inept in the role of hero. Claude is essentially Carl Linstrum or even Emil Bergson without Alexandra, Doctor Archie without Thea, Jim Burden without Antonia, Neil Herbert without Marian Forrester, Professor St. Peter without Tom Outland, Nellie Birdseye without Myra Henshaw, Harry Gordon without Lucy Gayheart, and, in a lesser sense, Euclid Auclair without Cécile, or Henry Colbert without Sapphira. Even Bishop Latour, strong but contemplative, looks almost enviously to Joseph Vaillant as the doer, the actor, the living spirit behind religious formali­ ties. Cather unconsciously defines the weakness in One of Ours when she says of Claude, “He has no friends or instructors whom he can regard with admiration, though the need to admire is just now upper­ 3Two notable exceptions to the strong female/weak male scheme are The Pro­ fessor’s House, where the symbolic ideal...


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pp. 259-266
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