One of Ours Critical Context
by Willa Cather

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Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Though less celebrated popularly than her remarkable O Pioneers! (1913) and her My Ántonia (1918), Cather’s One of Ours shows the author’s mature style at its strongest. It received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1923. Though One of Ours privileges characterization over background, this does not imply that setting is unimportant, only that scenes and detail exist to support and define the personalities of the characters.

Cather’s style is spare, and her narrative avoids the social moralizing of naturalism, thereby allowing her protagonist to pursue with utter sincerity convictions with which a reader may disagree. Cather was appalled by the materialism of America in the years following World War I, and most readers of One of Ours will share these feelings; Claude Wheeler, however, blames only himself for his situation and believes that his life finds meaning in the trenches of France.

Cather’s Nebraska background resembled that of her protagonist. She, too, discovered the world of learning at the University of Nebraska; her earliest writing appeared in the Nebraska State Journal. She knew the “muckrakers,” Ida Tarbell, Mark Sullivan, and Lincoln Steffens, and was an editor of McClure’s Magazine, which made its reputation by its exposes of American social problems at the turn of the century. She learned to write about places and events connected with her own life from her formidable mentor Sarah Orne Jewett.

Contrasts between life past and present fill many of Cather’s works, such as the short stories of Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), Obscure Destinies (1932), and The Old Beauty and Others (1948). She came to detest modern life and wished to glorify “the precious, the incommunicable past”; she aspired to what she called the “unfurnished novel,” history raised to symbol, narrative replaced by episode and tableau—in short, a prose akin to poetry.

Cather maintained a tendency to treat characters as moral entities, as did Henry James, whose works she admired, but like her closer contemporary T. S. Eliot, she saw the dangers inherent in deteriorating religious values and the corrupting influences of the modern world.