Modernism in My Ántonia

A novel is just a glimpse, a framed and sometimes fragmented exploration into the depths of memory, psychology, time and place.

“Graves of Travellers, Fort Kearny, Nebraska” by Worthington Whittredge (1866)

Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (pronounced “an-ton-ee-yuh” as in the name Anthony) is one of the seminal works of the great American pastoral tradition, similar in style to O Pioneers! It is told as an imagined reflection by Cather’s childhood friend, Jim Burden. Appropriately, the novel begins with an epigraph citing Virgil’s Georgics – Optima dies…prima fugit (“the best days are the first to disappear”). Like Virgil’s Georgics or Hesiod’s Works and Days, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia celebrates nostalgia for the rustic, Arcadian life.

The book was published in 1918, and was Cather’s great masterpiece. It is sometimes grouped together as the “Prairie Trilogy” which includes: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918).

The novel is uniquely modernist, as it contains no significant plot arc, aside from being a bildungsroman of sorts. What is at stake in My Ántonia? The story is framed and told through the perspective of Jim Burden, an old friend who is now a successful East Coast attorney. He mentions that he is trapped in a loveless marriage. Cather and Burden decide to embark on a competition to write a novel reflecting on their jovial childhood friend, Ántonia. At the start of the book, Willa Cather claims to simply reiterate Burden’s story of Ántonia. The novel is told in five parts through Mr. Burden’s lens:

Book I: “The Shimerdas” – Book I introduces our characters: Jim Burden is an orphan traveling to live with his grandparents in Nebraska, when meets Ántonia, later nicknamed “Tony,” while they ride the train together. She is a young child with her Bohemian immigrant family hoping to make a new life as Nebraska homesteaders. Tony’s father, however, soon finds life on the prairie listless and hopeless. As the long winter arrives, Tony’s father kills himself causing much grief to the community. As time passes, Tony grows into a beautiful and vivacious young girl. We are also given a story of Peter and Pavel, two men from Russia who are hiding from a secret crime: in confessing their dark secret, they remember a happy wedding back in Russia that in tragedy. While all the carriages were traveling home from the wedding, their carriage was attacked by wolves so they cast the bride and groom overboard to flee the scene. They saved their own lives but left the bride and groom to be mauled by wolves. Not long after this confession is introduced, Pavel dies and Peter leaves town, never to be heard from again. This is one example of the unique blend of styles and genres introduced in the novel: the dark secret of Pavel and Peter is a parody of Gothic folklore.

Book II: “The Hired Girls” -Book II tells the story of Jim and his grandparents as they rent out their farm and move into town. Jim starts attending courses at the University of Nebraska. Meanwhile, some of the young country girls come to work in “service” for wealthy elder families. Tony is one of those young girls. The girls also start going to dances in the evenings, despite the dissatisfaction from their elders. This section of the novel ends shortly after Tony starts work at a new house, the Cutters. One day, they leave Tony to watch over the house, and Jim spends the night at the house to cover for Tony. However, he is attacked when a surprise visit from Mr. Cutter causes alarm for them both.

Book III: “Lena Lingard” -throughout reading this novel we find ourselves asking: will Tony and Jim finally strike up a romance? Alas, they never do, despite significant tension between the two character. In this way, the novel is not a romance or a melodrama. However, Jim appears to have a fling with another young mischievous girl in Book III. Her name is Lena. He takes her out to shows in the evenings while Jim attends school. Jim’s beloved teacher suddenly moves to Boston so Jim decides to follow him to continue his learning, so he promptly ends the relationship with Lena, who does not wish to get married or settle down. They part ways on a somewhat somber note, but the plot continues to roll along and Lena seems to give little care.

Book IV: “The Pioneer Woman’s Story” -this section tells a sad tale of when Jim Burden returns to Nebraska to learn that Tony was set to be married bu shet was abandoned just as she discovered she was pregnant. Now she has a child. Through it all, Tony remains positive and works hard on her farm. She is living in with her mother. In this moment, Jim and Tony go walking in what could have been a romantic moment, but it is not. For a brief moment they return to their childhood together, and then they part like old friends. Jim returns to his busy world of culture and education, while Tony remains alone on her farm, standing in a wheat field as Jim leaves.

Book V: “Cuzak’s Boys” -the brief but final section of the novel recounts Jim’s regrets at not returning to Nebraska for decades. One day, he returns on business and he decides to pay a visit to Tony. She is now married with a large brood of children living on her homestead with a ‘good-enough’ husband. Tony remains chipper and active. Jim is welcomed but he has little room for connection with Tony because her husband and children are her main focus. Jim spends time talking to Tony’s husband but he largely unimpressed. Jim’s life is busy now, but when he returns to his roots nothing has changed. Nebraska remains the same. Life continues on the prairie as if there were no world outside.

As indicated by the title, the novel is possessive. That is, the narrator feels a certain ownership over the poor but lively bohemian immigrant-girl, Ántonia. However, he is not explicitly in love with her, though he wishes he was (despite having romantic dreams of Lena). He is jealous when Ántonia finds other men more courageous than he, except when he bashes the head of a rattlesnake for her. Like America, Jim is young. As in the old country of the bohemians, he is bound by the politics of circumstance, and as a scholar, he never seems to find true love. Like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the novel is circular, beginning as Jim and Ántonia ride the train to a dirt road in Nebraska, and it ends with Jim departing from that same dirt road. Jim never seems to find love in the novel, but he gets closest with his memories of Ántonia.

Here are a few notable selected passages from My Ántonia:

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the green prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there is so much motion in it; the whole country it seemed, somehow, to be running” (page 16).

“The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep” (page 18). –This passage is unique in that Cather had a portion of it imprinted on her gravestone: “…that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

“In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there” (page 208) -Jim Burden reflecting on returning to visit Tony in Nebraska after learning of her illegitimate child.

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. New York, Dover Publications, February 13, 2012.

The Harsh But Forgiving Prairie in O Pioneers!

I recently detoured from reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels to venture into the harsh but pleasantly forgiving fields of Willa Cather’s prairie pioneers.

“Wasatch Mountains and Great Plains in distance, Nebraska” by Albert Bierstadt in 1877

When Willa Cather was thirty-nine years old she wrote her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, which was published as a serial collection in McClure’s Magazine in 1912. It was a tragic story about a bridge failing in Canada, while a group of oblivious oligarchs drank tea and engaged in various affairs with one another. The novel was ultimately a dud, and Cather knew it from the moment it was published. Like other writers of the day, she had tried to copy the style of Henry James or Edith Wharton by writing about refined people in London and New York, while her heart remained on the Nebraska prairie. After the book was published, she went on a trip through the American desert to gather herself. Shortly thereafter she took heed of the great maxim: “write about about what you know” and she quickly produced her second, and far superior novel: O Pioneers!

The novel is an extraordinarily beautiful, yet heart-wrenchingly tragic romance of a lone woman and her family as they make their livelihood on the remote Nebraska prairie. Many of the characters are based on Willa Cather’s friends and neighbors from her time growing up in Nebraska. Cather’s poetry of the golden rolling fields has no analog in the pantheon of great American literature, and the novel reads like a series of memories from Willa Cather’s personal life. It is told in five parts: Part I: “The Wild Land” Part II: “Neighboring Fields” Part III: “Winter Memories” Part IV: “The White Mulberry Tree” and Part V: “Alexandra”.

The novel opens with a young but confident Alexandra Bergson, and her crying little brother Emil, who go to town in Hanover, Nebraska (a fictional town). They are Swedish immigrants (“Bohemians”) making a westward living for themselves under the Homestead Act. While in town, Emil’s cat crawls away, and gets stuck up a telegraph pole, only to be rescued by Alexandra’s paramour, Carl Linstrum (foreshadowing future events in the novel). Meanwhile, Emil plays with Marie Tovesky in the general store. The Bergson father, the family patriarch, is at home dying in bed. He has bequeathed management of their family farm to Alexandra, and he has asked his two other sons, Lou and Oscar, to work the fields, steward of their land, and honor Alexandra’s business-minded leadership .

We are introduced to Ivar, a quirky but devout man who lives on his own acreage. He is an outsider who lives in harmony with his land. He never wears shoes, he sleeps in a hammock, and he does not believe in harming any living creature whatsoever. As a harsh winter comes and John Bergson dies, many neighbors begin selling off their Nebraska farms, including the Linstrums, and thus Carl leaves. Alexandra decides to keep her family’s farm while buying up the adjacent properties, against her brothers’s wishes. Ivar comes to live with Alexandra as his farm goes under.

Then, in Part II, it is sixteen years later. Emil comes home from college to find the farm prospering but his young love interest has been married in a hurry to a foreigner, Frank Shabata. She is now Marie Shabata. Also Carl Linstrum unexpectedly arrives after being away for thirteen years and stays with the Bergsons. This causes a rift between Alexandra’s brothers who worry that Carl is trying to steal the heart of their sister, and therefore their property and their childrens’ inheritance, as well. Carl sees the political reality and he leaves for a new business venture in Alaska. Alexandra’s brothers also leave and they never speak to her again. Then Emil, deeply troubled by Marie’s marriage, also leaves for Mexico. Alexandra is left alone and sorrowful on the prairie again. She befriends Marie Shabata, runs her farm, and goes to church, while drawing inward, hoping for a savior but unwilling to leave her farm.

Finally, Emil returns from Mexico with wild stories, and all the women of the church are fascinated with Emil. The church kids play a game where they turn out the lights and kiss in the dark, Emil kisses Marie for the first time. They awkwardly confess their love but Marie says it can never happen because of her loveless marriage to the drunkard, Frank Shabata. Emil then decides to leave for Michigan for law school, but one of his friends dies and the town holds a funeral. Emil goes to Marie one last time and finds her in the Shabata orchard alone. He crawls up to her and they embrace until Frank Shabata, drunk, comes home to find Emil’s horse at his house. He goes out to the orchard and before he can realize what he has done, he kills both Emil and his wife Marie in a rage. He then flees to Omaha before he can be caught and tried in court.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the masterful way in which Willa Cather explains this scene and its palpable tension:

“When Frank Shabata got home that night, he found Emil’s mare in his stable…Since noon he had been drinking too much, and he was in a bad temper…He went into his bedroom and took his murderous 405 Winchester from the closet. When Frank took up his gun and walked out of the house, he had not the faintest purpose of doing anything with it… Frank went slowly to the orchard gate… In the warm breathless night air he heard a murmuring sound, perfectly inarticulate, as low as the sound of water coming from a spring, where there is no fall, and where there are no stones to fret it… Resting the butt of his gun on the ground, he parted mulberry leaves softly with his fingers and peered through the hedge at the dark figures on the grass, in the shadow of the mulberry tree… He began to act, just as a man who falls into the fire begins to act. The gun sprang to his shoulder, he sighted mechanically and fired three times without stopping, stopped without knowing why…He peered again through the hedge, at the two dark figures under the tree. They had fallen a little apart from each other, and were perfectly still – No, not quite; in a white patch of light, where the moon shone through the branches, a man’s hand was plucking spasmodically at the grass. Suddenly the woman stirred and uttered a cry, then another, and another…She was dragging herself toward the hedge! Frank dropped his gun and ran back along the path, shaking, stumbling, gasping. He had never imagined such a horror” (Part IV: “The White Mulberry Tree”, Chapter VII, pp.144-145).

Distraught, Alexandra travels to Omaha to visit Frank, now imprisoned, with the hope of reconciliation. She quietly returns to her family farm without her lover, her son, or her brothers. Far away, Carl gets word and he returns to Nebraska one final time for Alexandra. When he arrives, Carl and Alexandra embrace. They decide to get married and remain together on the Bergson farm in Nebraska.

Thoughts on the Novel
Part of the national myth of the United States is the celebration of the rugged pioneer, the westward cowboy, the rural “self-reliant” individual. In O Pioneers! Willa Cather continues this due celebration, with a nuanced exploration of the Bohemian prairie. Remotely, out on the harsh but beckoning “Divide,” no one can escape the demands of the civilized world. Concerns of inheritance, education, stability, and family still remain as they would in the city. On Willa Cather’s prairie, she accepts Aristotle’s claim that ‘man is a political animal’ as in the case of Alexandra and her complicated web of alliances, balancing her resentful brothers with her own love for Carl Linstrum; or also in the case of Emil who is torn between his love for Marie and the political reality of her marriage to Frank Shabata. Though people come and go from Hanover, Nebraska, some never vanish. Some remain anchored to the land.

In the novel, the land plays an important character, informing the decisions of the characters who dwell upon it. The climate and the hills of Nebraska are personified -the harsh winters bring death and loneliness for Alexandra, while the golden summers bring fond memories of love and friendship. The seasons are important to the pioneers. They are a complex group of adventurers and traditional farmers.

Today, O Pioneers! is considered the first book in Willa Cather’s “Great Plains” trilogy, followed by the Song of the Lark (1915), which takes place largely away from the great plains, and My Ántonia (1918), which is her most celebrated novel of the heartland.

Here are some of my favorite passages from the novel -a series of impressions of life on the prairie:

“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away…The dwelling houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them” (Opening lines of the novel).

“‘Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years'” (Part II: “Neighboring Fields”, Chapter IV, pp.67 -Carl speaking to Alexandra after he has returned to the Bergson farm).

“Winter has settled down over the Divide again; the season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring. The birds have gone. The teeming life that goes on down in the long grass is exterminated. The prairie-dog keeps his hole. The rabbits run shivering from one frozen garden patch to another and are hard put to it to find frost-bitten cabbage stalks. At night the coyotes roam the wintry waste, howling for food. The variegated fields are all one color now; the pastures, the stubble, the roads, the sky are the same leaden gray. The hedgegrows and trees are scarcely perceptible against the bare earth, whose slaty hue they have not taken on. The ground is frozen so hard that it bruises the foot to walk in the road or in the plowed fields. It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in the dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever” (Part III: “Winter Memories” – opening lines, Chapter I, pp. 103).

“There were certain days in her life, outwardly uneventful, which Alexandra remembered as peculiarly happy; days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body joyous germination in the soil… There had been such a day when they were down on the river in the dry year, looking over the land… The river was clear there, and shallow, since there had been no rain, and it rain in ripples over the sparkling sand. Under the overhanging willows of the opposite bank there was an inlet where the water was deeper and flowed so slowly that it seemed to sleep in the sun. In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and peening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade. They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that duck” (Part III: “Winter Memories”, Chapter II, pp. 111-112 -a memory Alexandra and her brother Emil frequently return to).

O Pioneers! O Pioneers! By Walt Whitman
The title of O Pioneers! is in reference to to the title and chorus of a Walt Whitman poem, Pioneers! O Pioneers! written in 1865 in Leaves of Grass and transcribed below. It is an ode to celebrate America’s courageous pioneers during the westward expansion of the nation.

Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the continental blood intervein’d,
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O resistless restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult, I am rapt with love for all,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry mistress, (bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang’d and warlike mistress, stern, impassive, weapon’d mistress,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d.
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat,
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Life’s involv’d and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work,
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with their slaves,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Lo, the darting bowling orb!
Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands, you may rest, you have done your work,)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Not for delectations sweet,
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious,
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock’d and bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the ground,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged nodding on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you in your tracks to pause oblivious,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the daybreak call—hark! how loud and clear I hear it wind,
Swift! to the head of the army!–swift! spring to your places,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! New York, Vintage Books a division of Random House, 1992 (reissue edition).

1923 Pulitzer Prize Review: One of Ours by Willa Cather

One of Ours is a surprisingly deep and powerful novel. In truth, it is two stories told in five parts: Book I “On Lovely Creek,” Book II “Enid,” Book III “Sunrise on the Prairie,” Book IV “The Voyage of the Anchises,” Book V “Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On.” The title of Book V is taken from a Vachel Lindsay poem (the poem is also featured at the outset of the novel). Vachel Lindsay was the self-described “singing poet” of Chicago, Illinois.


At any rate, the first half of One of Ours focuses on the slow-pace of life in rural Franklin, Nebraska (Southern Nebraska) in the early 20th century. It tells the story of a restless young man, Claude Wheeler, whose father is a successful Nebraska farmer, and a member of the early empire-building pioneers of the region. His mother is a devoutly pious Christian woman. However, his father’s success has left Claude feeling purposeless. Claude is sent to college at a Christian school, Temple College, only to transfer to the State University in Lincoln, where he thoroughly enjoys his studies but he still feels out of place. He is forced to return home when his father launches a new ranching venture in Colorado. Claude takes over management of the Wheeler Ranch in Nebraska. Claude strikes up a romance with a local girl named Enid Royce when she cares for him while he recovers from an illness, and they are eventually married, though they quickly become emotionally distant from one another. Enid grows enamored with the temperance movement, women’s issues, and international Christian missionary work. She decides to leave Nebraska to care for her ill-ridden sister, a missionary in China. From this point on, Enid disappears from Claude’s life entirely and again he feels lost.

The second half of the book changes the whole tone of the novel. Claude and his mother listen intently as news reaches their small rural community of the outbreak of World War I. After Germany invades France, Claude enlists and he is sent across the ocean in a ship entitled the Anchises. Many men die from diseases on the voyage to Europe, and Claude befriends a doctor. Upon arrival, Claude is utterly amazed at the culture and architecture of Europe, though he does not partake in the sexual escapades of his compatriots with French women. Willa Cather beautifully describes European towns as the soldiers march through, making it the adventure of a lifetime for a restless Nebraska boy. The novel gets more and more intense as Claude’s unit closes in on “the Hun” or “Fritz” as they call the Germans -his unit moves through town after town encountering various ambushes, and losing men along the way. There is a memorably intense scene in which they take the town of Beaufort, while German soldiers are in hiding. Eventually Claude’s unit reaches the front and, as readers, we experience the stench and mutilations of bodies piled up -the hideous monstrosities of trench warfare. Claude is tasked with holding the line, and he and his compatriots are all unceremoniously shot to pieces. Claude dies in battle, but curiously Willa Cather almost praises Claude’s death as the cure to his restlessness. In the closing chapter of the novel, we are returned to Franklin, Nebraska where life continues unmolested by the troubles of the world. Claude’s mother gets a call that her son has been killed in battle and she privately grieves.

One Of Ours forces us to ask: Where does the pioneering spirit go when the frontier vanishes? Where does a man go when his life is entirely provided for him? Willa Cather bids us to answer: the “eagles of the west fly on” and find new frontiers, new conquering territories. The story of Claude Wheeler is like a tragedy, as the American dream is not enough for him -the farm, the family, and the marriage -are all insufficient for Claude. The full extension of his life is only realized when he faces his death on the frontline in battle against the Germans.

Apparently, Willa Cather based the character of Claude Wheeler on a mixture of herself and her cousin, who lived on a neighboring farm in Nebraska. He was killed in Cantigny, France in 1918.

About The 1923 Pulitzer Prize Decision
One Of Ours was published in 1922 and was the Pulitzer Prize Winner in 1923. The novel was heavily criticized by other writers for its romantic portrayal of war –Sinclair Lewis, obviously no fan of the Pulitzer Prize, praised the early portions of One of Ours which take place in Nebraska but he critiqued the second half for its war scenes. H.L. Mencken also savagely attacked the novel. Hemingway, a man whose novels often portray the bleak and demoralizing character of men affected by modern warfare, also found the novel to be an untrue account of war. One Of Ours has frequently been compared to John Dos Passos Three Soldiers, which paints a more brutally honest picture of the war.

One Of Ours won the Pulitzer over Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (read my review of Babbitt here), even after Lewis had lost so controversially to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in 1921 (read my review of The Age of Innocence here). The Pulitzer Advisory Board only begrudgingly awarded the prize to Willa Cather, as the announcement explicitly came without “enthusiasm” and acknowledged that the novel is “imperfect” though the Pulitzer Advisory Board felt obligated to issue an award. The three Novel Jury members in 1923 were: Jefferson B. Fletcher, Chair (Literature Professor at Columbia University), Samuel Crothers, and Bliss Perry (an early American literary critic).

  • Jefferson Butler Fletcher (1865-1946) was born in Chicago, served in the American Field Ambulance Services during World War I, and educated at Harvard and Bowdoin College. He was a long-serving professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University (from 1904-1939). He was considered a foremost expert on the Italian Renaissance and Dante, and in his obituary in The New York Times, it was noted that he served on the Pulitzer Novel Jury for “several years.” Sadly, his son died in an automobile accident in 1926, Fletcher also had a daughter.
  • To the best of my knowledge, Samuel M. Crothers (1857-1927) was a Unitarian minister. He resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Bliss Perry (1860-1954) was born into a well-connected Massachusetts family (his brother was the headmaster at Phillips Exeter Academy) and he was educated at Williams College before teaching at Princeton and Harvard for many years. He taught at the University of Paris and served as editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He was a prominent literary critic and wrote extensively on American poetry, including a notable biography of Walt Whitman. He died in 1954 at the age of 93, he was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, and Woodrow Wilson, among other notable leaders.


Who Is Willa Cather?
Willa Cather (1873-1947) was born in Virginia in 1873 as Wilella Cather, but at age 10 her family moved to the Nebraska prairie, eventually landing in Red Cloud, Nebraska, where most of her celebrated novels take place. She later went by the name “Willa.” She graduated from the University of Nebraska and worked in newspapers and as a teacher. When she was young she went through a period of dressing in masculine garb. She cut her hair short for a time, preferring the name “William,” but she eventually regained her sense of self as she got older. This has led to a flurry of anachronistic scholars ‘searching’ for her lesbian identity, though this is mostly a desperate effort on behalf of a small group of modern scholars. It is true, however, that most of her close friends were women: such as Sarah Orne Jewett, a regional American novelist and short story writer. She first published poetry and short stories, but after the publication of her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge in 1912, she became entirely devoted to writing, with O Pioneers! in 1913, The Song of the Lark in 1915, My Antonia in 1918, and Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1927. She died in 1947. She burned most of her personal correspondences throughout her lifetime, and upon her death Cather’s will expressly forbid any quotation or reprinting of her personal writings. However after the deaths of her last literary executors in 2013, a series of Willa Cather’s letters were published. Despite anticipation, they revealed very little about her life. Today, a prairie in Webster County, Nebraska is named after Willa Cather.

Here are some of my favorite passages from One Of Ours:

“Claude Wheeler opened his eyes before the sun was up and vigorously shook his younger brother, who lay in the other half of the same bed” -opening lines.

“The sun popped up over the edge of the prairie like a broad, smiling face; the light poured across the close-cropped August pastures and the hilly, timbered windings of Lovely Creek, -a clear little stream with a sand bottom, that curled and twisted playfully about through the south section of the big Wheeler Ranch” (Book I, Chapter I, pp.4).

“As for him, perhaps he would never go home at all. Perhaps, when this great affair was over, he would buy a little farm and stay here for the rest of his life. That was a project he liked to play with. There was no chance for the kind of life he wanted at home, where people were always buying and selling, building and pulling down. He had begun to believe that the Americans were a people of shallow emotions” (Book V, Chapter XIII, pp. 327-328).

“When the survivors of Company B are old men, and are telling over their good days, they will say to each other, “Oh that week we spent at Beaufort!” They will close their eyes and see a little village on a low ridge, lost in the forest, overgrown with oak chestnut and black walnut…buried in autumn colour, the streets drifted deep in autumn leaves, great branches interlacing over the roofs of the houses, wells of cool water that tastes of moss and tree roots. Up and down those streets they will see figures passing; themselves, young and brown and clean-limbed; and comrades, long dead, but still alive in that far-away village. How they will wish they could tramp again, nights on days in the mud and rain, to drag sore feet into their old billets at Beaufort! To sink into those wide feather beds and sleep the round the clock while the old women washed and dried their clothes for them; to eat rabbit stew and pommes frites in the garden, -rabbit stew made with red wine and chestnuts. Oh, the days that are no more!” (Book V Chapter XVII pp. 349-350).

Cather, Willa. One Of Ours. Vintage Classics, November 5, 1991.

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