Review: One of Ours

One of Ours, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1991 (Originally published 1922).

Summary: The story of Claude Wheeler, raised on a Nebraska farm, longs to live his ideals and find his purpose and does so in the First World War.

This is my last read in what I might call “The Year of Willa Cather.” I discovered her fine writing this year (how did I miss her so long). This work, a later one, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1923. Yet I found it the least satisfying of the works I’ve read.

The story is in two parts. In the first, Claude grows into adulthood on a Nebraska farm. Unlike his father and older brother with minds for business, Claude is something of a romantic, his mind filled with heroic ideals from conversations with his mother, a stint at a Christian school and his association with the Erlich family, culturally refined freethinkers. Called back to help on the farm, Claude faces the death of his romantic visions, even while still cherishing something of the pastoral beauty of the land. After an accident, he is nursed by the beautiful Enid, whose aspirations are more toward missionary service than love. Claude ardently seeks her hand in marriage, hoping that in love with such a perfect soul, he’ll find purpose. Despite warnings and the attentions of the more worldly Gladys Farmer, he marries Enid, only to find her uninterested in his affections. When her sister, a missionary in China turns ill, she leaves Claude to nurse her and take her place. His hopes dashed, he closes up the house he lovingly build to return home to his parents.

And so it might have ended were it not for the war. One of the great “might have beens” is what might have happened if he would have gotten together with Gladys. Instead, the war intervenes, he enlists and becomes an officer. Cather describes the horror of a plague ship as the flu of 1918 strikes his troop transport. Heroically he assists the doctor in caring for his bunkmate, and many other soldiers, some who do not make it but are buried at sea. He experiences something of the “band of brothers” solidarity with his company of solders, including a fellow officer, Gerhardt, with whom he is billeted.

It seems he finds the fulfillment of ideals and purpose in the Allied cause, during a series of battles. But I wonder whether this is really so, or rather, does he achieve a sense of worth in acting with courage, something he has always lacked? I find myself struggling with Cather’s portrayal of war–at times startlingly real in describing the realities of trench warfare, and at other times, creating an ideal, at least in the mind of Claude, that seems to idealize a terrible war. Sergeant Hicks seems more realistic, wanting to retreat to the “logical and beautiful inwards of automobiles for the rest of his life.”

What Cather does capture is the reality of wars that usurp the lives of so many young still trying to make sense out of life, leaving them cynical and traumatized, offering brief shining moments to others, and snuffing out the lives of too many too soon. She alludes to the number who return who take their own lives, which may be one of the early instances of writing about the inner wounds of war. And she leaves us wondering about all the “might-have-beens” of the beautiful-souled character of Claude.

Review: Death Comes For The Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (first published in 1927).

Summary: The story of two missionary priests from France and their labors over forty years to establish an archdiocese in the American Southwest.

It is in the time when the United States took possession of lands in the American Southwest that were formerly part of Mexico. Two Catholic missionaries from France working in Sandusky, Ohio, Fathers Joseph Vallant and Jean Marie LaTour are assigned to establish a new diocese in New Mexico, with LaTour being named as Bishop of the new diocese. Much of this work revolves around the relationship between these two men, who were friends from boyhood, and the respective gifts of each, both necessary to the work to which they’d been assigned. Vallant, less physically attractive and refined is utterly passionate in his care for the people of the new diocese, often going on extended journeys, and on several instances, becoming ill and nearly dying, only to be retrieved and cared for by LaTour.

By contrast, LaTour is the more reserved and intellectual and astute in his perceptions, knowing when to be patient and how to exercise his authority without being authoritarian. He is the architect of the diocese, both in identifying where to expand and recruiting new priests and nuns to the work, and in fulfilling his vision of a Midi Romanesque cathedral that would fit the desert landscape in which it would be set. Eventually, to his sadness and Vallant’s joy, he sends Vallant to Colorado and the mining camps to establish a new diocese, gaining the title of archbishop but parting with his mission partner of forty years.

Cather portrays the arduous work of these men. We trace the year long journey from Ohio to Galveston aboard riverboat and ship, losing most of their baggage in a shipwreck. Then comes an overland journey across Texas to Santa Fe. We experience the dangers of this land, from getting lost in the trackless hills as occurs to LaTour at one point, to the lawless Buck Scales, from whom the priests are saved by his abused wife Magdalena, who warns them by sign that he intends to kill them as he has others. Scales is tried, hanged and Magdalena redeemed, in part through the aid of Kit Carson, with whom LaTour forges a relationship of great mutual respect.

Bishop LaTour must deal with both the Spanish history of his diocese and the native peoples within it. We see his skillful handling of Spanish priests whose practices differ and are loved by the people, sometimes waiting for them to pass, in other instances, as in Father Martinez, removing him when he refuses to repent from his position of repudiating celibacy in doctrine and practice, allowing Martinez’ schismatic movement to die with him. He unsuccessfully takes issue with his friend Carson over what was, in the end, futile removal of the Navajo people. Cather portrays a churchman who both operates within the realities of the American occupation of the land while prioritizing the spiritual mission and its care for all the people within its diocese.

As in her other works, Cather paints with words as in this passage where LaTour shows the mission-minded Vallant the hill with rock that is perfect for LaTour’s envisioned cathedral:

“The base of the hill before which they stood was already in shadow, subdued to the tone of rich yellow clay, but the top was still melted gold–a colour that throbbed in the last rays of the sun. The Bishop turned away at last with a sigh of deep content. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘that rock will do very well. And now we must be starting home. Every time I come here, I like this stone better. I could hardly have hoped that God would gratify my personal taste, my vanity, if you will, in this way. I tell you, Blanchet, I would rather have found that hill of yellow rock than have come into a fortune to spend in charity. The Cathedral is near my heart for many reasons. I hope you do not think me very worldly.’ “

The outing exposes the differences between the two men with “Father Vallant…still wondering why he had been called home from saving souls in Arizona and why a poor missionary Bishop should care so much about a building.” Yet both are necessary–Father Vallant saving souls and Bishop LaTour planting gardens and fruit orchards and establishing, in the best sense, the institutions and spiritual center of the Church in this outpost diocese, eventually to become an archdiocese through the labors of these two men.

From beginning to the end of this work when death indeed comes for the archbishop, this is a work of understated beauty, whether in capturing the partnership of these two men, their long faithfulness in to their mission, or the peoples and landscape where all this played out. In it, in contrast to works like O Pioneers! or My Antonia, one sees two strong male characters, also pioneers, but in a very different setting, showing Cather’s artistic range.

Review: My Ántonia

My Ántonia, Willa Cather (Foreword Kathleen Norris). Boston: Mariner, 1995 (Originally published in 1918, no publisher web link available).

Summary: Jim Burden’s narrative of his relationship growing up on the prairie with Ántonia Shimerda, one he would live with throughout his life.

[Review includes spoilers.]

Jim Burden was an orphaned boy who came to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Ántonia Shimerda was a young girl, four years older, of Bohemian immigrants living nearby. This story, described in the opening narrative as a manuscript describing his friendship with Ántonia, given to a friend from the same town in Nebraska months after a train ride in which they had spoken of her.

Jim is quickly enlisted to teach Ántonia English so she can help with the family’s transactions in the community. And thus begins a deep friendship between the two lasting a lifetime. Tragedy quickly shadows Ántonia’s life when her sickly and unhappy father, several weeks after a beautiful Christmas Day visit, takes his life. Ántonia and her brother Ambrosch are left to eke out a living, and they do, by Ambrosch brute force and Ántonia’s hard work, through which she becomes somehow even more vibrant. Their friendship continues in the moments she is free, including an incident in which Jim, who happens to be carrying a shovel, kills a deadly and huge rattler, becoming a hero to her and all.

Later, Jim’s grandparents move to town and Ántonia also takes up a job, working as a housekeeper with Mrs. Harling, teaching her domestic arts she has not learned on the farm. The two keep up, Jim shunning younger girls for Ántonia and her friend Lena, to whom he is attracted. Lena has different ideas, and becomes an independent dressmaker, beholden to no man and eventually living in San Francisco. Jim went off to college and eventually law school. Meanwhile, Ántonia goes off with a young man to get married. He abandons her, pregnant. She returns home and joyfully, as she does so much, raises her daughter, leaving shame to others. She and her brother work together on the farm. Jim returns once to visit, holding her hands as he prepares to return to school, saying he will return.

It is twenty years until he does. They do continue to write. In the meanwhile, Ántonia marries Anton Cuzak, with whom she has ten children and builds a prosperous farm. Jim becomes a railroad lawyer. The book concludes with his visit to the farm, where he meets the children and Anton.

As in O Pioneers, the story unfolds amid Cather’s descriptions of the glories of the Nebraska prairie. And like that story, Cather portrays a woman of strength and joy in her life. One senses she could have spent her life with Jim, who never pursues her beyond their shared friendship. And yet she not merely accepts, but joyfully embraces a life with Anton, who honors her initiative and industry. We sense that Jim comes to realize this as well. What strikes me is that each honors the commitments of the other. A modern novel would probably have written in an affair that would destroy them both, and Ántonia’s family in the bargain. They choose a different road, generous friendship that honors boundaries, and finds joy in what they have, “the precious, incommunicable past.”

Review: O Pioneers!

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather. New York: Penguin Classics, 1994 (Originally published in 1913).

Summary: The first of the Great Plains Trilogy, the story of Alexandra Bergson’s love of the Nebraska hills, the costly choices she made, and the ill-fated love of her brother Emil.

I’ve only recently discovered Willa Cather, and realized that I have missed reading one of America’s great writers. This work, the first volume in the Great Plains Trilogy centers around Alexandra Bergstrom, a strong, red-haired woman. As she helped her dying father, it became clear that she and not her two older brothers, truly understood how to make the farm succeed that he had labored so hard to establish in the hills of Nebraska. When he died, she took over its management. When her brothers wanted to sell the farm during the drought, she went to see the river land they wanted to move to, and returned to propose that they mortgage the farm to add to the lands, her faith being so strong. In one of the pivotal passages of the book, Cather writes of her:

For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman (Cather, p. 44).

Under her love, the expanded farm prospers, she buys out her brothers who acquire their own land. With old Ivar, who the brothers want to commit, and farmworkers and young girls to help, the fields, orchards, and stock flourish. But she is growing older, alone. Her one male friend from childhood, Carl Linstrum, his parents having sold the farm to Alexandra, has gone off to seek his fortune, and yet never finds it, secretly struggling to live up to Alexandra’s accomplishments, little realizing that this was not what she wanted.

Sadly, Alexandra also fails to recognize the yearnings drawing together her friend Marie, trapped in an unhappy marriage and her beloved youngest brother Emil, for whom she hoped so much. She sends Emil to help Marie in her troubles, little suspecting the attraction she is helping to fuel. One wonders if she fails to see the desires in others that she had suppressed in herself for so long.

One of the other things Cather captures is the ethnic diversity, each with their own settlements-the Norwegians, the French, the Bohemians, and the intersections between them at festivals, churches and daily life. Each has stereotypes of the others but also friendships, like that between Emil and Amedee, or Alexandra and Marie. Slowly, these different migrants are brought together but the challenges of Nebraska’s upland prairies.

I was also taken by the many descriptions of the land–the paths they walked, the pond where Emil shot the ducks with Marie by his side (a scene pregnant with foreshadowing), the rainstorm that clarified Alexandra’s grief and resolve, and the white mulberry tree. Amid all this, and dominating the whole is the strong character of Alexandra whose love of the land, shrewdness of character, generosity of friendship, and ultimately, a forgiveness that transcends grief makes her one of the great characters of American literature.

Review: The Professor’s House

The Professor’s House, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (originally published in 1925).

Summary: The move to a new home, academic success and his daughter’s marriages, and a deceased former student and son-in-law, precipitate a crisis for Professor Godfrey St. Peter.

The first sign was when the Professor paid up the rent on his old house so that he could still use his spartan old study, furnished only with a table, a sofa with Tom Outland’s old blanket, a couple seamstress’s forms left by Augusta, the family seamstress, and an unreliable heater that required leaving a window open for safety’s sake. The lavish new home had plenty of room since his daughters had married. But this was the place where he wrote the multi-volume history, Spanish Adventures in North America, that was the cornerstone of his academic success and the awards that followed that made the new house that Lillian had always wanted possible. Up until then, any niceties had come from her inherited income.

St. Peter’s older daughter Rosamond had originally married a former student, Tom Outland, who died in the war, but not before leaving her a patent that her new husband, Louie Marcellus, has commercialized, with lavish profits that he uses to lavish favor on Rosamond and her family. The younger daughter, Kathleen, less vain and more sensitive has married a journalist. There is tension between the two, particularly as the Marcelluses take their parents on trips, including a proposed trip to Paris.

St. Peter decides not to go, pottering about in his old study, revising Tom Outland’s journals. The book takes a break at this point with Tom speaking in the first person about a magical season of discovering an ancient indigenous people’s village high up on a mesa in the Southwest, cataloging his discoveries. His partner stakes him the funds (gambling winnings) to visit Washington to recruit researchers to come, to no avail. He then returns, only to find his partner sold them out, resulting in their final alienation. Tom then migrates to the college where St. Peter is professor, works with a physics professor on his invention, graduating with a patent. Part three of the book returns to the professor, and a crisis in his life with which the book concludes.

The book is fraught with the tensions that are pulling at St. Peter’s life. There is the spartan life of the scholar (and of Tom on the mesa which St. Peter had visited) in contrast with the life of luxury that both Lillian and her elder daughter Rosamond craved, that St. Peter’s success and Marcellus’ business acumen made possible. There is the tension between the elder and younger daughter and their husbands, the younger of which, St. Peter trusts, despite, or perhaps because of his modest means. There is the growing coolness between Godfrey and Lillian as neither can embrace the life of the other. St. Peter’s stubborn hold on his study and his refusal to go to Paris, which he loves, is a kind of passive resistance after acceding to the life Lillian desires. Tom seems to represent something of an ideal that St. Peter had not had the courage to pursue.

The summer of the Paris vacation was a last respite before returning to his teaching and the comfortable life Lillian wanted (or perhaps the growing awareness of their estrangement). As their return approaches, he experiences a weariness for which the doctor can find no bodily cause, setting the stage for his final crisis.

The structure of the book seems disjointed, with the second part a separate narrative in which Tom Outland is the main character. The only thing I can think is that it explains St. Peter’s fixation with Tom by setting their lives in contrast. The question remains of how or whether St. Peter will resolve the tensions in his life, tensions such as all of us live with, tensions that can fray to the breaking or result in creative resolutions.