Sunday 28 February 2021

'Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere...'

 Willa Cather's 'war novel' One of Ours (1922) sold well, won a Pulitzer Prize, was much admired by the reading public, and roundly attacked by many male critics, including Hemingway, who charmingly accused Cather of plagiarising Birth of a Nation ('Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere'), and H.L. Mencken ('There is a lyrical nonsensicality in it that often glows half pathetic; it is precious near the war of the standard model of lady novelist...'). Such attacks are, of course, unfair, but, more to the point, they overlook the fact that this is no standard war novel: the hero, Claude Wheeler, a thwarted and unhappy young idealist, doesn't even set sail for France until nearly two thirds of the way through the novel, and the book is three quarters over before he finally reaches the front. There is very little 'action' in the military sense, but what there is I found as vivid and shocking as any I've read in more conventional war novels; Cather certainly doesn't hold back or display anything like a conventional 'lady novelist's' dainty sensibility. Her view of the American soldiers' patriotic motivation might be idealistic – and therefore, in 1922, unfashionable – but surely there is some truth in that view as well as in the 'futility of war' angle that came to prevail.
   Like others of Willa Cather's novels (e.g. The Professor's House), One of Ours has been described as 'broken-backed' – as if a novel must be one thing, set in one place, proceeding along one straight narrative line. It does not, to me at least, read like two separate novels under one cover, though the first two-thirds of the book, set in rural Nebraska, could no doubt have been rounded off to make a satisfactory novel in itself. But then comes France... One of Ours is rich in glorious descriptive passages and heartfelt scenes, in Nebraska and provincial France alike, scenes suffused with Cather's love of the domestic pastoral. Claude Wheeler is an interesting central character, and there are others equally well drawn. Claude's unhappy marriage, and how he gets drawn into it, are sadly convincing. Parts of the novel read as well as anything Cather wrote, but, taken as a whole, it feels like an uneasy, awkward, ambivalent work, one that mostly lacks the easy flow of the 'prairie' novels. It feels raw and painful, as if something hasn't quite jelled. And it is desperately sad. 
   And now, dammit, I've read all of Willa Cather's novels. I'll have to start again...

1 comment:

  1. Looking at the Telegraph's list of 100 Best Novels of All Time, I see there's not a single Willa Cather title. Considering some of the novels that do make the cut, this seems seriously unjust.