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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


After the War

One of Ours by Willa Cather

In 1922, only four years after the armistice, Willa Cather published the novel One of Ours, a character study inspired by her cousin's wartime letters home. She presents the protagonist, Claude Wheeler, as a young man too sensitive to fit in with the hardy people of his Nebraskan farming community. Frustrated with his privileged yet ordinary life, Claude longs for an existence with deeper meaning and purpose. After dutifully leaving college to run the family farm and marrying a woman who ultimately abandons him, he enlists as an officer in the army and is shipped to France.

Once there, Claude believes himself to be participating in just the kind of noble cause he has always sought. He dies on the battlefield, deeply present to the men under his command, feeling fully alive for the first time, and insensible to his own self-sacrifice.

Though the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, Ernest Hemingway sharply criticized Cather's representation of armed conflict in it, saying that because she was a woman with no firsthand experience of war, she had to draw her material from unrealistic Hollywood films. This charge negatively influenced critics' perception of the book for decades; only recently have readers come to see the "naïve romanticization" of war in the novel as Claude's, and not as Cather's. From this point of view, Claude's "heroic" death becomes symbolic of the inexplicable near-suicide of the optimistic, confident civilization out of which the war sprang. Ironically, Cather suggests, this cultural attitude produced idealists like Claude, unable to comprehend the mechanized evil unleashed in World War I.

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Photograph of Eduard Steichen, in uniform, with his mother
Photograph of Eduard Steichen, in uniform, with his mother

Eduard Steichen in his WWI uniform poses with his mother. See more on Steichen in Americans Encounter the Modern, "New Forms New Ideas".

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