Analysis: One of Ours
In Willa Cather’s One of Ours, a complex picture of an idealistic young man troubled by his upbringing and quest to find his place in the world emerges through the back drop of World War I. Written in 1923, the book is just five years removed from the end of the war. Still fresh in the minds of many Americans, the book reveals how many came to see the war and the world around it. The expectations of a young man to settle down and find a profession becomes clouded as the lure of war pulls him increasingly away from his family and home life. The book starts off with the lead character Claude Wheeler moving in and out of his Nebraska life in search of something more. Still a boy and not yet a man, the thirst for knowledge inspires to seek out a cause to call his own. However, during his quest he finds that the patriotism fueled by the government propagandists and naïveté of youth reflects back upon how young men left their homes in search of cause larger than own only to find themselves the victim of war itself.
Not simply happy with the expectations of his parents and tradition, Claude Wheeler sets out to challenge himself in the hopes that would find something that would bring him satisfaction. However, he fails miserably. After spending two years at Temple University, a Christian college in his home state of Nebraska, Claude yearns for more knowledge. He viewed these two years as something of a waste and without purpose. He viewed wealth not in terms of money but in terms of knowledge. Like many young men during this short pre-World War I era, he searches for his own place in the world. He rejects the piousness of the Christian education and opts for an education from the State University—an education that he feels would fulfill his need for knowledge. His pious mother rejects his quest to move onto State. Claude finds a way to open his world through European History courses. He makes new friends and finally starts to find his place but life draws him back into the responsibility to the family business.
As the son of a successful farmer and a religious mother, Claude rebels against his family at first. He respects the life his father had built for him and his brothers and the opportunities that granted the family. His father’s purchase of a ranch in Colorado turns his world upside down. Forced to abandon his studies, Claude takes up the family business much to his chagrin. As he toils away on the family farm, he begins to question this existence. Removed from his studies, Claude began to find his outlook on life as less-promising. He had no skill and no formal training and no hope for the future. Why should he work so hard for something that did not belong to him? Claude’s experiences of working on the family highlights the struggles that many workers faced—working for someone else while earning little money to get ahead and being something of their own choosing. The advancement of technology and manufacturing in the early years of the twentieth century fostered a sense of disillusionment of workers. Working for men who valued profit more than the worker left many of them with a feeling of worthlessness.
Claude’s work on the family farm took him away from his quest for knowledge. Unable to read the newspapers, he was unaware of the world around him. However, his unawareness of world events did not go unmatched in many American lives in reality. The first part of the book references to the growing tensions in Europe is not mentioned. Cather treats it, and rightly so, was one of non-interest. This contributed to the naïveté of not just Claude, but of most Americans. A century of non-involvement in world affairs allowed for many Americans to become shocked by what the read in the newspapers about the war in Europe. The remoteness, however, of the war also allowed many Americans to become apathetic to those in suffering in the war zone. The false sense of security allowed for people in the United States to ignore the issues of the world. Since it did not directly impact them, no reason existed for Americans to interest themselves in another one of Europe’s problems. When President Woodrow Wilson stated that the United States would not take a stance, Americans applauded the decision to remain neutral.
The United States was in the war in Europe even though it had no troops on the battlefield. The neural stance of the United States provided businesses with a unique opportunity—an expansion of trade markets. Businesses stood to make a profit and farmers knowing that the war would hamper their European counterparts stood to make money off the war. The government helped fuel the market expansion through regulation and trade expansion. Claude could have come into his own through the family farm. The expansion of the U.S. markets became short-lived. The unfettered German submarine warfare sunk the profits of American businesses. Suddenly, America’s neutrality became more of a hindrance than a national security policy.
Neutrality also put the county in a precarious position. Nearly one-third of all U.S. citizens were foreign born and many formed alliances with their home countries. The neutral stance and immigrant loyalty allowed for American’s to provide economic and aid assistance to those affected by the war; in some cases, those immigrants returned home to fight alongside home troops and identified with their home country’s plight. Claude’s friend, Ernest Havel, identifies with his fellow Austrians currently on the battlefields, not because he wants to fight alongside his family but that there was no choice. Consequences would come to those who did not fight. A sense of loyalty existed for Ernest a patriotic duty that forced many European immigrants to make tough choices that would later allow the government and even their own neighbors to question their loyalty to the United States.
The outbreak of war in Europe prompted concern about the foreign born in the United States. Their loyalty and their assimilation into society became vital to the national security of the United States. Agencies sprang up all around the country that promoted the Americanization of these citizens. Federal legislation passed required German-Americans to carry identification that clarified their status. In One of Ours, Cather used a court hearing to describe the fear that many Americans had over their German-born neighbors. August Yoeder, a neighbor to the Wheeler farm, had to appeared before a judge after a witness claimed the German-born farmer made statements defamed the United States federal government. Yoeder’s statement that he hopes that the United States went to hell for joining in the war in Europe and his punishment for the making the statement reveals how war time restrictions on civil liberties affected citizens. The Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918 punished enemy activity in country and statements that cast doubt out the role of the United States in the war forced many immigrants to bury their loyalty toward the home country. The fear that Americans had over their German-American neighbors was long in the making because of the half-truths and lies that appeared across all media forms during the war years.
Newspapers and other media perpetuated the fear that many Americans had about Germans. As the German army marched through Western European with speed, newspapers in the United States started using epitaphs to describe the Germans as evil and ugly. The image in the newspapers confuses Claude. The stories and images in the papers counter his experiences with the Germans he has encountered. While Claude questions the depictions, many of those images sparks outright racism and others reflect upon their past. The Wheeler housemaid sees the images of war as a remembrance of the Civil War. This gave her the power of knowledge of war and its effect on people. However, the propaganda of the bombed villages and gas-mask wearing soldiers works because it limits the ability of citizens to fully understand the reasons for fighting and the true nature of the war in the in the twentieth century. The caricatures of Germans and German soldiers marred the ability of many Americans to fully comprehend the nature of the war. The influences of British propaganda about German atrocities—the bombing of civilians and plans of rebellion in the United States fueled resentment sparked a patriotic fever.
The fiery speeches by the Four-Minute Men from the Committee for Public Information allowed for the patriotic furor to grow. Even those Americans who felt no need to involve themselves in the war could escape the influence of propaganda. Stories of bombed villages and the death and destruction struck a chord with Americans. Suddenly it became less about Europe’s war and more about the moral reasons to get involved.
The civilian casualties of war shook many American’s about their own role in the war. The government also responds with the Selective Service Act of 1917 authorized the conscription of young men into the armed services. Some felt a moral obligation to enlist before called up by the draft board. Some Americans saw the neutrality of the United States notwithstanding the guns of war for much longer as merchant ships became the targets of the German U-Boats. Claude’s moment comes when sees the American flag flying above a school for no apparent reason. His knowledge of European history and understanding of the events forced him to reconcile that the war was coming increasingly close to home. He made the decision to enlist rather than wait. For the first time he started to feel free and the men in his unit offers him comfort and feeling of worthiness that did not exist in Nebraska.
The war in Europe provided many young men with the opportunity to travel and see a part of the world that might have otherwise been unattainable. Claude felt a feeling of purpose, his golden chance to leave his mark on the world. But not all the stories and famous battles of Europe’s old wars prepared him for the realities of modern warfare. While the newspapers and movies back home boasted of German atrocities and the heroics of the Allied soldiers, none spoke of the human toll on life. His first encounter of a soldier with an amputated arm and the hospital filled with wounded and sick soldiers reveals that boys, normally filled with life and health, was absent from their souls. Claude reconciles that death better suits these boys that the shedding of blood in combat. Americans would have to face this reality when they come home, if they came home. He questions the war and its purpose.
To Claude and many Americans hesitant about involvement in the war, were offered new opportunities. Claude found work on the family farm unfulfilling and offered little hope. The war offered adventure and purpose—a future. Being a soldier was work to him but it opened a future that Nebraska life denied him. For the first time he felt at home—not just among the other soldiers in his unit but in a country that seemed appreciative of the American’s arrival on the battlefields. But he also bought into the myth that the war was of a noble cause. Part of that acceptance came from the stories told to him as a youth but from the idea that “men could still die for an idea.” The idea of democracy could have prevented the war. The idea that protecting democracy was worth the ultimate price.
The character of Claude Wheeler shadows that of the thousands of American Expeditionary Forces that left the comforts of their farms and lives for that of war. While not all may have shared in his quest for knowledge and place, most experienced the influences of circumstance, loyalty, and patriotism that led them to war. The very misguided nature of noble causes that lead war often ended the way that most wars do—with death. Not just of body, but of soul.