"Why was everything so mysteriously hard?...The world was too rough a place to get about in."
"He [Mr. Royce] found himself unable to touch upon the vast body of experience he wished to communicate to Claude."
"...the preacher smelled the tang of spirits and felt slighted. He looked disconsolately into his ruddy goblet and thought about the marriage at Cana. He tried to apply his Bible literally to life and, though he didn't dare breathe it aloud in these days, he could never see why he was better than his Lord."
The other great political event is the approach of World War I:
"The German army was in Luxembourg; he didn't know where Luxembourg was, whether it was a city or a country; he seemed to have some vague idea it was a palace!"
(Of course, it is actually all three, though the Palais is in Paris.)
It will be World War I that provides the something more that Claude is yearning for.
When the novel came out, it had good sales and won Cather the Pulitzer Prize, but the reviews were fairly mixed. (I'm mostly getting this information from the Wikipedia article, though I also read Edmund Wilson's negative, but not very well-informed, review from The Shores of Light.) The general poop seemed to be that the war scenes weren't very good, and my feeling is the general poop was kind of right. (Though what do I know of war?) Sinclair Lewis' remarks seem accurate to me, "truth does guide the first part of the book," the Nebraska part, but in the second part Cather used "all the commonplaces of ordinary war novels."
Pretty true. But I would add that the Nebraska part is about 2/3rds of the novel, and is easily the equal of Cather at her best. That part shouldn't be missed. Then comes the troop ship over, which is afflicted by an early appearance of the Spanish flu, making it--unexpectedly to me at least--a pandemic novel, and was quite convincing. It's only when the novel reaches France--and is close to done--that it gets weaker.
By 1922, when this came out, American opinion had turned pretty strongly against the war. Cather acknowledges this in the person of David Gerhardt, a professional violinist turned soldier. Was this war going make the world safe for Democracy?
"You don't believe we are going to get out of this war what we went in for, do you?"
Claude asks David. David replies,
But Claude does go on believing, and he's the protagonist; that may have been a bit intolerable to elite opinion by 1922.
Cather's primary source material for the war parts were letters home written by her cousin Grosvenor Cather. I suspect this may also have colored her approach. A soldier writing home can admit fear, can admit (though maybe downplay) danger, but it's much harder to admit despair and purposelessness. Maybe he should have. But Claude doesn't.
In a fascinating letter about the book, Cather writes to her friend, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, the educator and novelist, "Yes, it will be classed as a 'war story',...and God knows I never wanted to write a war story...It's a misfortune for me and my publisher that anything so cruelly personal, so subjective, as this story, should be mixed up with journalism and public events with which the world is weary and of which I know so little." To call it a 'misfortune' is considerably overstating the case, but it is best thought of as the story of Grosvenor Cather/Claude and not a war story.
She goes on, "I tried to keep the French part vague, seen from a distance, and only what he sees."
Anyway, a very good novel, I thought, even if not Cather's best.
My spin book this month is The Song of the Lark by Cather, and this was just a warmup! 😉
This is one of the few Cather novels I haven't read. Yet. Love your review of it! :)ReplyDelete
Thanks! I'm nearing the end of her novels myself.Delete
very perceptive post... i've yet to read Ms. Cather and i have to do that. my reading is too one-sided... i've got several Edmund Wilson's books of essays and i'm sure i've read them but i sure don't recall anything he said... it's a bit difficult to say, but it's possibly more my fault than his... maybe...ReplyDelete
Willa Cather's pretty great even if I wouldn't necessarily start with this one.Delete
I must have read this review by Wilson once upon a time, but I sure didn't remember it. (Good thing the book had an index.) But I do remember some of the Wilson I read pretty well.
I've not read this one yet, either, although I remember being surprised that, by the time I learned about it, I felt like I had already gathered all her "big" books and then learned that THIS one won the Pulitzer. Ah, awards.ReplyDelete
There's no accounting for prizes...Delete
But 80% of it is easily the equal of her best.
This is the only Cather novel I've ever read. I seem to remember it was one of the few novels of the time to mention the pandemic. I think but cannot prove it got some rotten reviews because the male reviewers didn't like a female having the temerity to write about man's province, war. Oh, and people into the Nebraskan Novel should read Old Jules, Mari Sandoz's masterpiece.ReplyDelete
Wilson's Shores of Light includes a letter from Hemingway that's pretty condescending about Cather's novel. (As was Wilson himself.) Definitely underrated, but still I didn't think it was her best.Delete
I don't think I'd ever heard of Mari Sandoz--looking at Wikipedia she sounds interesting.
I was going to say I don't think I'd read any other Nebraska novels at all, but then I realized that wasn't true--I've read a couple by Ron Hansen that I thought were pretty good.