Claude knew, and everybody else knew, seemingly, that there was something wrong with him. He had been unable to conceal his discontent. Mr Wheeler was afraid he was one of those visionary fellows who make unnecessary difficulties for themselves and other people. Mrs Wheeler thought the trouble with her son was that he had not yet found his Saviour. Bayliss was convinced that his brother was a moral rebel, that behind his reticence and his guarded manner he concealed the most dangerous opinions. The neighbours liked Claude, but they laughed at him, and said it was a good thing his father was well fixed. Claude was aware that his energy, instead of accomplishing something, was spent in resisting unalterable conditions, and in unavailing efforts to subdue his own nature. … the old belief flashed up in him with an intense kind of hope, and intense kind of pain, – the conviction that there was something splendid about life, if he could but find it!
Claude Wheeler has grown up on a farm in Nebraska. His father is prosperous but unsympathetic, prone to laughing at his sensitive son’s desire to do more with his life. His mother is quiet & pious, supportive but powerless to influence her overbearing husband. Claude’s older brother Bayliss has already left home & runs a store in the town. Younger brother Ralph is indulged & full of his own importance. Mahailey, the cook & housekeeper, does her best to help Claude & his mother.
Claude’s best friend is Ernest, who has immigrated from Germany & can’t understand Claude’s desire for something different. “You Americans are always looking for something outside yourselves to warm you up , and it is no way to do. In old countries, where not very much can happen to us, we know that, – and we learn to make the most of little things“. Claude finally convinces his father to allow him to go away to college & there he meets the Erlich family, who are everything Claude wants to be. European, cultured, welcoming. They’re not a rich family but they don’t worry about their poverty as Claude worries about having the right clothes or knowing the right things.
Claude’s time at college comes to an abrupt end when his father sends Ralph off to manage a farm he’s bought & Claude must come home. He thinks he’s found his ideal in Enid Royce. He builds a beautiful home for them & has great plans but the marriage is a failure. Enid is more interested in her work for the Temperance Society & her sister’s missionary work in China, than in her husband. Another dream shatters as Enid leaves to look after her ailing sister & Claude abandons his new home & goes back to the farm.
The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 reignites his interest & his idealism. Although the United States doesn’t enter the war for several years, Claude & his mother follow the war news in the newspapers with great interest. Here, at last, Claude believes, is an ideal worth pursuing. The sinking of the Lusitania & the stories of the suffering of refugees fire him with the desire to help the Europe he learnt about in college & on his visits to the Erlichs. He’s ashamed that his country is just standing by, but as soon as the US enters the war, Claude enlists & is sent to France. He survives a horrendous voyage on a troop ship & undertakes more training when he reaches France. Eventually he is sent to the Front.
I loved this book, it will definitely be in my Top 10 of the year. Claude is a wonderful character, always dissatisfied & looking for more but never sulky or sullen. Maybe he’s over-sensitive about his shortcomings but he is always searching for a life more fulfilling than the one mapped out for him by his father. Claude is a compassionate man. He never reproaches Enid for the failure of their marriage although he should have listened to her father, who warned him from his own bitter experience how a marriage to a woman like Enid could be. After every disappointment, Claude retreats & then starts searching again.
Willa Cather writes so beautifully of the Nebraska she knew as a girl, all the descriptive writing is so vivid whether in Nebraska or France. Here, Claude has an introduction from a friend to Mlle de Courcy, a woman living in one of the newly liberated areas of France. His visit lasts only an afternoon but their talk ranges over the past & the present as he tells her about Nebraska & the farm & she describes how she has survived the years of occupation.
There was nothing to do but to take his helmet and go. At the edge of the hill, just before he plunged down the path, he stopped and glanced back at the garden lying flattened in the sun, the three stone arches, the dahlias and marigolds, the glistening boxwood wall. He had left something on the hilltop which he would never find again.
Elegiac moments like this are contrasted with the horrors of war as the young Americans are thrown into the chase after the retreating German Army.
Willa Cather wrote, in a letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, about her cousin, Grosvenor, & the influence that his life had on the creation of Claude,
We were very much alike, and very different. He could never escape from the misery of being himself, except in action, and whatever he put his hand to turned out either ugly or ridiculous…. I was staying on his father’s farm when the war broke out. We spent the first week hauling wheat to town. On those long rides on the wheat, we talked for the first time in years, and I saw some of the things that were really in the back of his mind…. I had no more thought of writing a story about him than of writing about my own nose. It was all too painfully familiar. It was just to escape from him and his kind that I wrote at all.
Cather’s own struggle to leave the prairie behind is also part of Claude. She didn’t want the book to be labelled a “war novel”, but inevitably, it was. Published in 1922, the critics were mostly unkind, praising the first half set in Nebraska because that’s what they considered she knew best, but disliking the sections dealing with the war as they thought she romanticized this conflict that sent so many young men to their deaths. However, it became a bestseller & won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
I read quite a few of Willa Cather’s novels when I was a teenager but I haven’t read any in recent years apart from The Song of the Lark. I’ve been reading Heavenali’s reviews of Cather, including One of Ours, & I’ve ordered Sapphira and the Slave Girl & Death Comes for the Archbishop. More for the tbr shelves!