Essay

The story of the story

By August 21, 2020 One Comment

Found it. I just hadn’t read the small print.

I had turned right off the gravel road and headed to the scruffy Cather Township cemetery where a number of Cathers are buried. Not Willa–that I knew. But I was hoping for G. P., her cousin. All I got was a pair of ticks, one I found; the other found me.

Then I read the small print. G. P. is in another cemetery, just up the pike. So here is the rightfully proud gravestone of Lieut. G. P. Cather. Here lies a hero. 

He was killed in World War I. His wife wanted his remains here where he grew up, the rugged plains of southern Nebraska, a cemetery near a burg named Bladen. Oddly enough, his mother disagreed; she wanted whatever was left of his mortal coil to stay in France, where he’d been buried soon after he fell, on May 28, 1918. Or so says the stone.

His is the finest stone in his block of the cemetery and includes a bronzed portrait, as you can see.

Lieut. G. P. Cather

AUGUST 12, 1883

KILLED IN ACTION

AT THE BATTLE OF

CANTIGNY, FRANCE

MAY 28, 1918

CO.A 26 INFANT FIRST DIV

I’d come all the way out to Red Cloud, Nebraska, to see much more than a graveyard, but finding Lieut. Cather’s stone was a major motivation for all those hours of driving. I’d been reading Willa Cather’s 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, One of Ours, because I never had, and because I knew the book had been both highly prized and heavily scorned. The list of Pulitzer winners contains other yawners, I’m sure, but this war story was scorned by many. Hemingway, Mencken, and a dozen other heavyweights thought it, well, too–how should I say it?–soft. More than a little too sweet.

What all agree on is that Lieut. Cather was the prototype for cousin Willa’s Claude Wheeler, the protagonist of One of Ours; and that cousin Willa had been blessedly gifted with a story she found in a stack of wartime letters G. P. sent his mom back home just outside of Bladen. 

Which is not to say One of Ours is creative non-fiction. It is a novel that carries plot and characterization that cousin Willa wove from her imagination. She’s writing a World War I novel, having never spent a moment a trench. Before the war, she’d been to France, loved the place immensely. That love is in the novel, but the battle scenes she created from her own ample imagination.

That may be why Hemingway hated One of Ours. A war vet himself, he scorned writers who tried their hand at battle when they had no history. Knowing Hemingway, he may have pooh-poohed the novel also because Willa Cather was a woman. 

This real-life hero, Grosvenor Phillips Cather, wasn’t so much a ne’er-do -well, as he was someone who his cousin Willa decided simply hadn’t found himself or his place. Like Wheeler’s, G. P.’s marriage wasn’t peachy. What’s more, he seemed somehow to lack the dutifulness to agriculture his brothers had shown. What he had never felt, not until his death was a calling, a selfless commitment to anything. In 1916, G. P. was floundering, as was his marriage, and he wasn’t a kid. Do the math: he was 35 years old, thus commissioned as an officer when he went in to the armed service.

What Willa does with her version of G. P., her character named Claude Wheeler, is bless him with a cause. In the middle of battlefield action, she grants him something of an epiphany, a sense of calling he felt all the way down to his soul. The action that war provides, he thinks, has given him a flourishing community with blood brothers out there in the hellish life-and-death of muddy trenches. “Claude turned and went back into the loop. Well, whatever happened, he had worked with brave men,” Cather writes. “It was worth having lived in this world to have known such men” (363).

That’s hardly Damascus Road, but it’s more than Claude Wheeler has ever felt in the long run up to this moment.

Cather’s Wheeler is killed in action just a few minutes after surveying the horrors all around and realizing that in leading the men in his unit and fighting with them to the death, he’d become the somebody he’d never known or been, not because of his heroism but because he fit so well into that bunch of stubborn boys who risked everything–and often lost it–for each other.

At once, the war both made him a man and killed him.

We think of the stories of World War I as bloody awful, and they are. Their power is often created not by glorious heroism, but by evil absurdity amid useless agonies. Think of John Dos Passos or Siegfried Sassoon. 

Willa Cather’s novel is different. Claude Wheeler discovers something about himself a moment before machine gun bullets take him down.

Out there in the Bladen cemetery, on that bronze portrait of G. P., just to the right of his cheek is the line “For his country.” Of that sweet line, I’m not so sure. Lieutenant Wheeler wasn’t thinking of Old Glory painting the breeze. His epiphany appears when he finds himself never more blessed than when he is when committed to the boys of war around him.

In a paradox often strikingly true in and of all of our lives, Lieut. Wheeler discovers, as all of us should, that he was never more himself than when there was no self to be seen. Maybe that’s why his mother wanted her son’s body to stay in France, the place where he may finally have found himself, if only for a few minutes.

Despite its gallery of nay-sayers, I liked One of Ours. But when I stood right there at G. P’s Bladen grave site a week ago, I couldn’t help but love the story of Willa’s story even more. 

Funeral cortege for Lieut. G. P. Mather

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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