Willa Cather was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1923 for One of Ours. Nearly all of her twelve novels and her short stories and poetry are rooted in her experiences growing up in Red Cloud, Nebraska; One of Ours is no exception. Ultimately, the novel takes Claude Wheeler to the battlefields of France during World War I, but everything he experiences is filtered through his youth on a Nebraska farm and in a small town.
The novel is not autobiographical, but in midlife, Cather had moved to New York and also had traveled to Europe. These experiences are reflected in One of Ours with allusions, for example, to the Statue of Liberty and with a prosaic description of New York City seen through smog. Her detailed descriptions of the French countryside also come from first-hand knowledge.
On one level, One of Ours is a coming-of-age story, or bildungsroman. Claude also symbolizes a young America that was also forced to reexamine itself because of World War I. The country had to mature, become less isolated, and become more cynical. Cather complicates this genre by allowing Claude to speak or think disparagingly of himself right to the end when, after all he has accomplished, he still thinks poorly of himself. He considers himself unattractive, boring, and incapable of doing anything well.
However, others relate or demonstrate their belief in his qualities. Gladys Farmer and Julie Ehrlich both show romantic interest in him, he is made a lieutenant upon completing basic training, and he is asked to assist the ship’s doctor after thriving during the difficult voyage across the Atlantic. Admirable men, such as Victor Morse and David Gerhardt, befriend him. French families enjoy his company. He is put in charge of an entire company of soldiers and, finally, in an act partly of desperation and partly of heroism, he gives his life for his men.
Rarely does Claude criticize his Nebraska family and friends, but he is hurt by them and feels strongly that something is lacking in their lives. The elusive truth Claude seeks all his life and finds in the mud of the French trenches is that there are things worth dying for. Cather does not glorify war and does not create Claude to enjoy it either. Rather, war is the vehicle that catapults him out of the narrow confines of farm life, where life is often seen through myopic eyes. It is a life of farming, gossip, conformity, and capitalism.
The truth for Claude is not revealed in the aerial battles, trench warfare, or forced marches. The truth for him is in finding and seeing beauty and culture. He discovers these truths in the simple but elegant lives of the French families, in churches, in a worldly woman named Mademoiselle de Courcy, and in Gerhardt’s music.
While living in Nebraska, Claude had reason to despise religion and capitalism. Both inflicted much pain on him as a young man. His frigid and deceptive wife, Enid, marries him, but only after consulting with Preacher Weldon; in marriage, she is told, she could save his soul. His own mother is saddened but not opposed to his going to war, and his father remains committed to his business, even if it means forcing his son to give up any dreams of his own. The negatives of both religion and capitalism are...
(The entire section is 850 words.)