The Pulitzer Project: One of Ours, Willa Cather (1923)

the pulitzer project

I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! The 1923 Pulitzer was awarded to Willa Cather’s One of Ours, which was chosen over Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 work, Babbitt. Poor Lewis, losing out to two books that the Pulitzer Jury were less than enthusiastic about! (You may remember that Lewis’ 1920 Main Street lost to Wharton’s Age of Innocence in 1921 as well. And the Jury didn’t even recommend Wharton’s book as the winner that year!) In 1923, Cather’s One of Ours was only begrudgingly awarded, as the Jury felt the Trustees would prefer a flawed winner over no winner at all. The Committee Report said:

I might perhaps add that this recommendation is made without enthusiasm. The Committee, as I understand its feeling, assumes that the Trustees of the Fund desire that award should be made each year. In that case, we are of the opinion that Miss Cather’s novel, imperfect as we think it in many respects, is yet the most worth while of any in the field.

one of oursA Brief Summary*: One of Ours is tells the story of the life of Claude Wheeler, a Nebraska native around the turn of the 20th century. The son of a successful farmer and an intensely pious mother, he is guaranteed a comfortable livelihood. Nevertheless, Wheeler views himself as a victim of his father’s success and his own inexplicable malaise. Claude is unlucky at school, unlucky in love, and finally tries his luck overseas by joining the Army during World War I.

Fun Fact: The character of Claude is partially based on Cather’s cousin, Grosvenor Cather – what a name!

Setting: Nebraska and France

Time Period: Approximately 1900 – 1915

Review: This book is basically divided into two halves, Claude’s “disappointing” life in Nebraska and his life as a soldier in France during WWI. The first half was beautiful and you could just tell that Cather was writing something that she really knew and loved. It wasn’t a surprise to find that out that she drew from personal experiences, living on a farm in Nebraska when World War I broke out. Claude is a dis-satisfied dreamer, who thinks that there must be more to life out there than what he knows and what is expected of him. His head is in the clouds, and he has such sweet, big hopes for his life. The second half of the book was another creature altogether. I had a hard time reconciling the Claude in the first half with the Claude in the second, although there were some brief moments when he shone through.

“He is convinced that the people who might mean something to him will always misjudge him and pass him by. He is not so much afraid of loneliness as he is of accepting cheap substitutes; of making excuses to himself for a teacher who flatters him, of waking up some morning to find himself admiring a girl merely because she is accessible. He has a dread of easy compromises, and he is terribly afraid of being fooled.”

The problem with the second half, to me, is that I didn’t know how to read the book. I don’t think it’s by any means a “war story” in the way that Hemingway writes “war stories”. Cather tries to show how the war energized and inspired just one person, Claude. We see his first time on a boat, seeing the ocean, in a cathedral, drinking champagne. However, Claude sees really brutal and terrible things, and it doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest. I didn’t think this was true to the character of Claude, and I thought that using war as an enlightening, exhilarating experience was a little naive and, honestly, a little unkind. I would have been interested in Claude and his life without some sort of catalyst like this. I understand why the Pulitzer jury called this novel imperfect, and yet, I really enjoyed this book. I would definitely read more by Cather, but maybe would prefer to read stories that take place in America, instead of during WWI in Paris.

***

I’d recommend this book to people who loved reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child and wanted to read more about life on the prairies, people who often feel like they are still waiting for their lives to begin, or, this might be a nice companion while traveling in Europe for the first time (preferably by boat and train).

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20 thoughts on “The Pulitzer Project: One of Ours, Willa Cather (1923)

  1. I’ve read My Ántonia by Cather, which I really enjoyed. I’m never quite sure what else to read by her. It’s always disappointing when a book’s second half doesn’t live up to the first!

  2. I have mixed feelings about Cather (and none at all about Babbit, which I loved!)
    I adored ‘My Ántonia’ (which also had an Ingalls Wilder feel about it), but then had a harder time with ‘Oh Pioneers’. Maybe I’ll consider only reading half of ‘On of Ours’…

  3. I hear good things about Wharton and Cather, although I am as yet ignorant of their books, this ones sounds good, I am always interested in the seismic changes of lives and how authors write about things way outside their comfort zones. This is an epic task you have set yourself by the way.

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