1923: One of Ours by Willa Cather

From the back cover:

Claude Wheeler, the sensitive, aspiring protagonist of this beautifully modulated novel, resembles the youngest son of a peculiarly American fairy tale. His fortune is ready-made for him, but he refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his crass father and pious mother, all but rejected by a wife who reserves her ardor for missionary work, and dissatisfied with farming, Claude is an idealist without an ideal to cling to. It is only when his country enters the First World War that Claude finds what he has been searching for all his life.

In One of Ours Willa Cather explores the destiny of a grandchild of the pioneers, a yound Nebraskan whose yearnings impel him toward a frontier bloodier and more distant than the one that vanished before his birth. In doing so, she creates a canny and extraordinarily vital portrait of an American psyche at once skeptical and romantic, restless and heroic.

My thoughts:

My first introduction to Willa Cather was reading The Professor’s House in college, and the middle act of the book, set in the American southwest in a place evocative of Mesa Verde, entranced me, because she was writing a landscape I had grown up in and around, and so deftly it felt like I was back there. I immediately picked up Death Comes for the Archbishop, and sometime after read her prairie trilogy, but never made it around to One of Ours until I began this project.

The first half of the novel is much akin to many of her prairie novels: it follows the protagonist, Claude Wheeler, as he struggles against a sort of oppression from his father and brothers, and later, his wife. Interested in his studies and the friends that he is making at college, that joyous time of his life is cut short when his father purchases land in Colorado and places Claude in charge of the Nebraska farm, forcing him out of college and away from his new friends. Trying to make the best of it, and falling in love, Claude finds himself married to a woman he soon realizes is cold and emotionless to him, more interested in expending her passions in the work of prohibition and Christian missions.

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The 1923 Novel Decision

Stuart P. Sherman, the man who had first questioned the difference between “whole” and “wholesome” in the wording of the Pulitzer Prize for Novel, was replaced on the 1923 jury. Though Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt was published that year, and presumably submitted for the award, there is no mention of Lewis or his novel in the jury report for that year, which some have speculated is due to the controversy with Main Street two years earlier. The only novel mentioned, the novel recommended and approved by the Pulitzer Prize Committee, was Willa Cather’s One of Ours.

However, this recommendation is followed by the addendum, “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.”

Though the report was not made public for some time, there seems to be little to no outcry, on the part of the public, or on the part of Willa Cather for the wording of the jury statement. Although, according to John Hohenburg, a journalist, secretary of the Pulitzer Board for several decades, and author of several books about the history of the Pulitzer Prizes, Sinclair Lewis said about not winning the Pulitzer for Babbitt that he didn’t “care a hang.”

Currently reading: The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson