“Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together.”
It’s a very rare feat for the last few pages of a novel to make you wish you had never read the book in the first place, but with her 1923 Pulitzer-winning novel One of Ours, Willa Cather makes it look easy.
One of Ours is the story of Claude Wheeler, a Midwestern farmer in the early 20th century who feels woefully lost and out of place. Being in his late teens or early twenties, it’s the classic tale of young adult disillusionment, displacement, and dejection.
He doesn’t belong on the farm, he doesn’t belong in seminary, he doesn’t belong in the secular state university, and he can’t find any meaning in love. So, the young man enlists in the military, and goes off to war to spread democracy during World War I and, ultimately, dies for his country.
I really connected with this novel on a personal level; I connected with Claude Wheeler. I may be nearly thirty years old, but I still very much feel that teenage displacement. I feel lost, like I’m not contributing anything to society, those around me, the world, whatever, like I’m just going in circles on the same patch of ground over and over again. When Claude utters things like this, it makes me stop reading and start reflecting:
“It’s having so much time to think that makes me blue. You see…I’ve never yet done anything that gave me any satisfaction. I must be good for something. When I lie still and think, I wonder whether my life has been happening to me or to somebody else. It doesn’t seem to have much connection with me. I haven’t made much of a start.” – Claude Wheeler
This book had all the makings of a precursor to Catcher in the Rye; Claude Wheeler is the Holden Caulfield of the 1910’s. That really makes this book ahead of its time for American literature; its only real contemporary in that day and age might have been Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I mean, can you imagine—a middle-aged woman in early 20th century Middle America writing about a young man who spits in the face of social norms and openly confesses his disillusionment and anger towards love, family, and religion? It was practically unheard of in those days!
Then, in the last two pages, it allllll made sense…
“When she can see nothing that has come of it all but evil, she reads Claude’s letters over again and reassures herself; for him the call was clear, the cause was glorious. Never a doubt stained his bright faith…He died believing his own country better than it is, and France better than any country can ever be. And those were beautiful beliefs to die with.”
I should have seen it coming. I should have expected it. But I was so wrapped up in this book being really good, something I really identified with; when Will Cather started shoving all of that nationalist, hyper-patriotism nonsense in my face, though, the entire book was ruined for me.
This novel could have very well done without the last couple pages; why couldn’t it just be a well-written account of a young man’s loneliness and waywardness? Why couldn’t Claude Wheeler just die a meaningless death on the fields of France and really solidify the notion that sometimes there are no answers? That every story doesn’t need to be wrapped up with a pretty moral? That Claude Wheeler was in no way a martyr or a savior or a messiah—he was just a kid looking for answers, for meaning, and who unfortunately died a meaningless death at an early age.
To be honest, it almost seems like that was the story Cather initially wrote. It had to be, right? Even while he was in the war, Wheeler was battling feelings of emptiness and purposelessness. Then he died, rushing across the battlefield to save men who, unbeknownst to him, were already dead. The utter futility of it all!
Then Cather writes all of that nationalism bugaboo—Old Glory is a beautiful thing to die nobly for and blah blah blah. It feels like a publisher’s decision; a disingenuous tag at the end of the book that does not match the context of the story at all.
Or maybe Cather wrote it intentionally just to show how out of touch with reality Claude’s mother is; how little she understands Claude’s sense of despair.
It’s such a bizarre and perplexing and infuriating conclusion, and I’d really like to know what Cather was thinking.