Willa Cather: One of Ours
One of Ours won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. It is partially based on the letters Cather received from a relative of hers who fought in World War I. It is the story of Claude Wheeler, a sensitive young man, brought up on the Nebraska plains in a farming community. His brothers, Ralph and Bayliss, are clearly cut out for the sort of life you would expect in such a community, while Claude, just as clearly, is not. The only thing that seems to sustain him is his friendship with Ernest Havel. He is unsatisfied with his home life and unsatisfied with his education, till he moves to Lincoln, where he finally finds a professor he likes and meets some people he likes, as a result of playing well in a football game.
Claude can see that he is being forced against his will into the farming life, but does not want it. He tries to continue with his education but, when his father hands over the running of the farm to him, he sees that he has little choice. He does his best but his heart is not in it. Claude knew, and everybody else knew, seemingly, that there was something wrong with him. He had been unable to conceal his discontent. Mr. Wheeler [his father] was afraid he was one of those visionary fellows who make unnecessary difficulties for themselves and other people.
Even in love he has little success. He woos and, eventually, marries Enid but her heart has been set on being a missionary in China, since her sister had gone there. Their marriage is unhappy from the start, as Claude does not share Enid’s religious principles. As soon as Enid gets an opportunity to go out to China, she does and is almost completely forgotten by both Claude and Cather. Claude’s opportunity comes shortly afterwards. When the US joins World War I, Claude joins up at the first opportunity and is made a lieutenant. The rest of the book concerns his adventures in the war, primarily in France. He meets and befriends a fellow lieutenant, David Gerhardt, and seems to find his true calling, leading his men into battle against the Germans. The outcome is almost inevitable.
Claude is clearly a member of what came to be called the Lost Generation. He does not fit in with the farming life of Nebraska to which he was born, he does not fit in with his family, with his wife and, ultimately, with his best friend. They are all different. It is only in Europe that he finds his place, even if that involves death, which he sees all too frequently. He is at his happiest with his fellow Americans and the French people he meets there and the vision that he has found is far from his home.
First published 1922 by Alfred Knopf