(Young) Man's Search for Meaning
by Willa Cather
There is something about Claude Wheeler, the protagonist in Willa Cather's One of Ours that really grabbed my attention. Some of you may remember that until about a year ago I had not read any of Cather's work. Ed gave me The Song of the Lark for Christmas last year, and it was the beginning of a new writer/reader relationship. It is still my favorite, but One of Ours is a wrenching, beautiful story as well. Cather, through Claude, expresses this need for meaning in life that I believe we all have, as well as the restlessness that plagues us when we feel that our work and our lives lack direction and purpose. Even more poignantly, she describes the isolation someone feels when whatever it is that gives him/her that meaning we all seek is derided or belittled by others. The Wheelers are a farming family, and see little use for education or culture. In my opinion, farming is meaningful work that is under appreciated, but the point may be that what gives one person fulfillment does not always do the same for someone else. Claude feels bored and stifled with farming, but is trapped by the expectations of his father.
Claude Wheeler is the odd man out in his own family. His mother and the elderly housekeeper, Mahailey, respect and adore him but they do not really understand him. Even worse, his father and brothers do not get him at all. They think he yearning for some kind of intellectual life is just ridiculous. Unfortunately, the Wheeler's religious faith contributes to Claude's frustration. His mother, wife, and older brother all practice a rigid, judgemental brand of Christianity that discourages any questioning or voicing of doubts or even application (except when it comes to looking askance at the others' behavior). Because this is his exposure to faith, Claude becomes cynical and distances himself from faith altogether.
One of Ours won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, but I learned in the introduction to this edition (written by Cather scholar Angela Scala) that this book was controversial when it was released and not well received in some circles. Set in the period of World War I, some former isolationists thought that it "glorified" war. Several male literary lions, including Ernest Hemingway, disputed a woman's "right" to produce a "war novel". After all, they said, what could a woman know about combat situations? Hemingway even went so far as to accuse Cather of cribbing her battle scenes from the movie Birth of a Nation, when in fact she had spent a lot of time in France researching the war so that her descriptions would be accurate.
My thing is that even though the war is a part of the story, and a turning point for Claude, I do not see war as the primary theme of the book. It's about loneliness, the need to feel understood, and the desire that we have to believe that our being here matters. When Claude sails to France and nurses many of his comrades through a deadly outbreak of influenza, at one point in that crisis he thinks to himself that (although he would not wish illness or danger on any of his men) as he does what he can to save his friends he has never felt more alive. That is an extreme situation, but I thought Cather nailed it when she expressed that sense of fulfillment that Claude experienced. Perhaps we ARE at our most alive when we sacrifice our own comfort and safety (or even our very being) for others. Isn't that what Christ came to show us?