Willa Cather’s novel, One of Ours, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, tells the coming-of-age story of Claude Wheeler, the son of a wealthy farmer with an easy life and a head full of ideas living in Frankfort, Nebraska. Claude lives more in his head than with his body, a temperament not conducive to a life of long days and hard work on a farm. Claude attends a Christian college but would rather attend the State University in Lincoln, as he finds his classes and professors dull. He feels contradictorily towards his home life, “both loved and hated to come home” (70). While he loves the land and his immigrant farmer neighbors, he does not get on well with his family.
Cather explores Claude’s desire to escape his rural family whom he finds uncommunicative, as they view discussing one’s opinions as pompous, something only politicians do. “It wasn’t American to explain oneself, you didn’t have to!” (68) He also finds his family, especially his mother and brother, to be too religious and lacking in passion. Claude’s lack of excitement and desire to indulge his ideals compels him to want to leave his school and hometown for a more metropolitan scene.
When Claude’s father buys a farm in Colorado, leaving Claude to manage the homestead, he feels himself trapped by his family and the responsibility of land-owning. When visiting his old friends in Lincoln he comes to feel the disparity between the city and the country. “The thing that hurt was the feeling of being out of it, of being lost in another kind of life in which ideas played but little part” (120).
Through Claude, Cather displays the positives and negatives of country life. Even though Claude desires to flee to the big city full of ideas, when he gets there he has “that feeling of loneliness which often overtakes country boys in a city; the feeling of being unrelated to anything, of not mattering to anybody” (163). The farmland of his hometown is at times a serene escape from the hardships of becoming an adult, as well as the source of many of those hardships. The only times he enjoys life are when he wanders the landscape, written in beautiful passages by Cather describing nature scenes that will be familiar to Nebraska natives. This pastoral side of the country is contrasted with industrial progress, as machines become more prominent on the open fields and in town.
Forced to run his father’s farm rather than attend University, Claude marries young and begins his life as a farmer, but soon finds his religious, teetotaling wife and rigid work to be a drain on his idealistic soul. His dissatisfaction with farm life and his hurried marriage leads him to join the army as the U.S. enters World War I in search of a place where his high ideals and passion can play out on a grand stage. Despite the tragedies and pains of war, the journey rejuvenates Claude as he takes in the idyllic French countryside and befriends a young violinist turned soldier who helps him come to see how art and ideals can be in conflict, and how the surest way out of boredom and discontent is action and experience born of hope and belief in something larger.
In One of Ours, Cather has captured feelings that are quite common for college students, especially those from the rural Midwest. The tension between simple but unfulfilling home life and the exciting city is a theme that is still played out today among students who leave their small town for the big campus and the wider world after. Like many of Cather’s characters, as well as Cather herself, Claude’s love of ideas and art create conflict in his small Nebraska town, where manual labor and simple pleasures are the norm. The theme of passionate youth is a recurring motif of Cather’s, and is displayed beautifully in One of Ours, as well as in her famous short story Paul’s Case found in the collection The Troll Garden. Paul’s Case is an excellent introduction to Willa Cather before embarking on the lengthier odyssey of One of Ours.
One of Ours and The Troll Garden are available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.
To find out about the author, Willa Cather, read my blog post, “Who is Willa Cather?”
Resource: One of Ours by Willa Cather, 2006, University of Nebraska Press