“They were mortal, but they were unconquerable.” Willa Cather and the WWI Memorial in Washington
By Mark A. R. Facknitz
What does it mean that Willa Cather 's words from her novel, One of Ours, "They were mortal, but they were unconquerable,"will join Woodrow Wilson, Archibald MacLeish, and the American nurse Alta May Andrews on the future WWI Memorial in D.C.'s Pershing Park?
That two of the four whose words will be immortalized in stone are women is remarkable, representing the maturation of our sensibilities as we grasp more completely that the long-term consequences of wars transcend gender. As WWI literary specialist and historical advisor to the WWI Commission, Mark Facknitz, explains in this post, they also exceed the usual limits of class, region, and literary prejudices. Discover Willa Cather's impact on war and literature by reading “They were mortal, but they were unconquerable.” Willa Cather and the WWI Memorial in Washington at WWrite this week!
In the District of Columbia, construction is about to begin on a long-overdue memorial to the American soldiers of the First World War. A major refashioning of Pershing Park is envisioned. The words of four Americans will be cut into stone to commemorate the country’s role in the fundamentally transformative war of 1914-1918. One of those Americans, perhaps surprisingly, is Willa Cather. What does it mean that Willa Cather will join Woodrow Wilson, Archibald MacLeish, and the American nurse Alta May Andrews? That two of the four whose words will be immortalized in stone are women is remarkable, representing the maturation of our sensibilities as we grasp more completely that the long-term consequences of wars transcend gender. And they also exceed the usual limits of class, region, and literary prejudices, and so there is a particular satisfaction for Cather’s fans that she figures among the four.
In 1922 Willa Cather published One of Ours, a book so largely concerned with a male protagonist and a soldier, Claude Wheeler, that many readers understandably presumed that Cather had written a war novel. Indeed, as the book reaches its climax Lieutenant Wheeler and his unit are from moment to moment expecting to be relieved by the Missourians who are making their way up the line. Wheeler’s orders are to hold until then. The Germans, “Fritz,” detonate a mine and immediately soldiers in feldgrau begin to stream through “a smoking crater full of dead and dying men (451).” Since troops from Georgia were wiped out by the explosion, it falls to Wheeler and his Nebraskans to stop the onslaught. Claude turns to look at his men, senses briefly “that they were going soft under his eyes,” fears that if the “Hun bombers” reach them the game will be lost, and so out of instinct “he ran along the trench, pointing over the sand bags and shouting, ‘It’s up to you, it’s up to you!’” His men begin firing, but still Claude fears that they are “spongy and uncertain,” pondering the best avenue of retreat, and he decides that if they are to stick to their positions they must see the effectiveness of their resistance. And so, to better direct their fire, he leaps over the parapet and stands exposed. This gesture changes everything. Looking back at his men, he sees a “line of faces below, Hicks, Jones, Fuller, Anderson, Oscar . . .” and realizes that “with these men he could do anything (452).” At first the Germans do not notice him standing there, and then:
Bullets began popping about him; two rattled on his tin hat, one caught him in the shoulder. The blood dripped down his coat, but he felt no weakness. He felt only one thing; that he commanded wonderful men. When David came up with the support he might find them dead, but he would find them all there. They were there to stay until they were carried out to be buried. They were mortal, but they were unconquerable. (453)
Such is the context and the line that will be written in stone.
When Cather came to write this book she was well-established as an author. As she understood matters, she had overthrown her desire to imitate Henry James and “hit the home pasture” with the three ‘prairie’ novels for which she is still best known: O Pioneers!, 1913; The Song of the Lark, 1915: and, pre-eminently, My Ántonia, 1918. Prior to that, she had distinguished herself as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, where, she reported, she “began to admire, for the first time, writing for writing’s sake,” and added that “in those days, no one seemed so wonderful as Henry James; for me he was the perfect writer” (Carroll). From Lincoln, she moved through a series of teaching and editing posts in Pittsburgh and vicinity, and then, the excellence of her short stories attracting attention, she was offered a position at McClure’s Magazine, one of the principal muck-racking journals of the day. After a few short years she had become managing editor. When Cather was in her late thirties Sarah Orne Jewett encouraged her to set aside her considerable success in the magazine business to give her time and heart to writing.
The prairie novels followed. Within seven years Randolph Bourne praised her, claiming that she had “outgrown provincialism” and ought to be included “among those who are richly interpreting youth,” and H. L Mencken offered the opinion that among American women writers “there is no other . . . now in view, whose future promises so much” (qtd. in Carroll.) Cather had made her homestead in the heartland, and made it her own, richly productive through the agency of three powerfully conceived women—Alexandra Bergson, Thea Kronberg, and Ántonia Shimerda. After the war, all of that success was at stake—it could be plowed under—if she was to venture a novel with a male protagonist, and one which departs the prairies. Moreover, Cather would eschew powerful descriptive writing which she and others recognized as her forte, and she would be obliged, painfully, to confront the death of her cousin G. P. and, without forfeit of honesty, to assuage the grief of her Aunt Franc. The result was Willa Cather’s longest book, and the one that required the longest time in writing.
Though Cather would say that the novel’s main character, Claude Wheeler, had elements of herself and her brother, the principal model was Grosvenor Perry, or G. P. Cather, 1883-1918, a young man for whom hapless, feckless, clueless, spendthrift, and impulsive are uncharitable but not inaccurate descriptions. He liked football, and band, and could not learn to spell the town where he went to fail out of his second college, the University of Nebraska, writing it as “Lincolon” (Harris, “Prototype”). In 1911 he evidently set himself on fire while pumping gas and holding a lantern with an open flame (Cather, note to letter # 0194.) He was a young man who, though married and having lost his brief zeal to become a taxidermist, in his thirties found himself waiting tables, muffing a course in stenography at his third college. For him military service was a release from marriage, penury, boredom, and disgrace. In 1917 G. P. joined the AEF, was commissioned a second lieutenant, and in circumstances suggesting real valor and lack of self-concern, he was killed at Cantigny in late May 1918. He was the first Nebraska officer to die. For gallantry under fire he received posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre.
When his remains were repatriated in 1921, reportedly nearly two thousand people turned out in Bladen, Nebraska for his obsequies. At the time, the population of the county was about 10,000. (Today there are about 3,500 persons in the county and the population of Bladen is scarcely 200.) Six sailors flanked the hearse; eight nurses in starched white uniforms followed it. What was left of G. P.—inert, decaying—could do no harm, could not funk any responsibility, much less ignite his clothing, nor demonstrate any masculine mediocrity. Rather, to the crowd he proved nobility at every turn of the hearse’s wheels. It is not a stretch to say that he was transfigured in death. Or, as Richard Harris puts it in his excellent biographical sketch of G. P.’s life, “in the military G. P. finally found something he could do well” (“Prototype”). In death, he could serve a purpose as trope of the American hero, something nothing in his life before France suggested was in store for him.
That refashioning of the man into a myth only remotely resembling him happened well in advance of the publication of One of Ours. It is not Cather’s doing. Indeed, in the novel she appears to be aware of the interrelated dynamics of grief and glorification that were powerfully at work in the immediate postwar period. Likely Cather read, soon after publication, Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s Average Americans, and as an experienced editor she would have noted its tendency to assert more than could be proved, for example allowing the idea of democracy to overshadow the loss of life and the waste of valor that were overwhelming the emotional carnage of the 1914-1918 war. Major Roosevelt was, in fact, the commanding officer of G. P.’s battalion in the 26th Infantry, 1st Division. Concluding his war memoir, Roosevelt claims “democratization” as the most important effect on the men who served; the ex-president’s son was impressed by the idea of “the waiter and chauffeur as officers and the lawyer and newspaper editor as privates,” for “ability to take responsibility in the present, not previous conditions, was what they were judged by” (245).
These real examples from his own units serve his purpose, but Cather, as former editor and now novelist, might have taken the point differently. Indeed, the waiter to whom Roosevelt refers might well have been G. P. Cather, who, joining the Nebraska National Guard in 1916, gave up serving food and clearing dishes in Omaha to participate in the pursuit of Pancho Villa. That, in fact, was his second ‘military’ escape, for he once joined the Navy for a year when spurned by the woman he eventually married. A spendthrift, he had repeatedly called on rescue from his parents, which they could not always easily afford; he frittered, then abandoned a Kinkaid grant of 640 acres; rather than help his father on the farm he might follow his wife and her hypochondriac mother to Texas, or bolt for Wyoming to hunt. In an important respect, the war that killed him also saved him. In the picture below is the real man below the number 4. Major Roosevelt, is number 9.
At the same time that this still photograph was taken, motion picture footage was turned. A National Archive film (one can link at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUz7iQvKoCU) shows vignettes of the movements of the First Division, by the war’s end known as the Big Red One. Cather’s cousin—a tall man with broad checks in the back row—appears at the left side of the frame at 40 seconds and, as the camera pans right, is out of sight seven seconds later. Even in this brief posterity, there is hardly time for Major Roosevelt to dig tobacco from his teeth and tug at his drawers. Like many of men of the day, unfamiliar with being filmed, 2nd Lieut. Cather looks about, grinning and possibly laughing. He seems a little goofy, and is obviously nervous. The film was shot six or seven weeks before he died.
Exactly what wounds killed G. P. are not recorded; however, three years later when his remains were returned to Nebraska his father and several other men went to the train station to identify his body. It strains credibility that he would be recognizable. Film footage of the activities of the Graves Registration Service between 1919 and 1920 include several exhumations. Among the cadavers, only one has sufficient integument to be lifted in one piece. None seems visually identifiable. Most are skeletal with perhaps some leathery tissue still clinging. One set of remains in particular, taken from a mud-filled coffin, needs to be hosed down in a screen in order to extract some hunks of bone. In other words, that G. P. would be ‘recognizably himself’ after three years buried in France is implausible but not impossible. Yet such a degree of preservation is far from typical.
Similarly implausible was the tidiness of the wounds in Claude Wheeler’s chest. The three clean bullets, one piercing the heart, are far from probable. Some manner of cleaning up, witting or unwitting, was at work. This aspect of the novel was not lost on the professional critics. The first reviews of One of Ours were not good. H. L. Mencken, whom Cather greatly respected, found One of Ours as good as My Ántonia only until Claude leaves the prairies and boards the Anchises in Hoboken, New Jersey to head to France. After that Mencken believes the novel becomes “maudlin buncombe” and the representation of the war “built up out of any number of immutable facts and probable incidents, brightly and brilliantly ineffective” (Qtd. in Harris, “Early Reception”). Others were equally or even more scathing, some quite obviously out of misogyny and envy. Ernest Hemingway’s snarky dismissal of the lady novelist was unsurprising; yet his contention that Cather got her battle scenes from D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation might have come close to making an important point had it not been so mean-spirited. The professionals seemed not to have grasped how entirely Cather was working within the contradictory tropology of that moment in American culture.
Cather knew what she was doing. And what she was doing moved many readers. Sales were robust, far greater than any previous book, and the novel secured Cather financially. Soldiers in particular seemed to be gratified by how well she captured and represented their experiences. The Pulitzer committee, perhaps alert to the negativity and searing realism of John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers, rewarded the novel for its wholesomeness. Yet probably the Pulitzer committee in approbation, like the critics in their hesitation, failed to detect Cather’s subtle allegory, one pitched between naturalism and the war’s absurdity as in Dos Passos—and Barbusse’s Under Fire and E. E. Cummings The Enormous Room—and on the other hand purely fantastic and sentimentalized war stories of the sort that are now entirely forgotten. Missing, in other words, is awareness of Cather’s intentional framing of Claude’s sanitary and heroic end in the midst of chaos and slaughter, a world now deprived of symbolic content much less spiritual or chivalric redemption. Indeed, Cather had already grasped what the French author Gabriel Chevalier would articulate in his novel Fear eight years later: “We are well aware that death does not immortalize a human being in the memories of the living, it simply cancels him out” (239). This is a truth not all can recognize, and fewer still can abide.
In One of Ours a key character understands the war in exactly this way. He is David Gerhardt, Claude’s improbable companion, the one whom Claude expects will come forward and find him dead at the end of the battle. Gerhardt was closely based—even more closely than Claude mirrored G.P—on David Hochstein, a virtuoso violinist from Rochester, New York. Cather first encountered him at a concert in a friend’s apartment in the Wellington Hotel when Hochstein was a violinist in a performance of Schubert’s The Trout Quintet (Cather, “Fiction Recalls”). Cather found his playing “poetic” and in the “strong glow of afternoon sun” the young man “looked very handsome—very young and fresh” and he put her in mind of the kind of portraits “that used to hang in the rooms of college girls.” Hochstein in fact was on his way to a brilliant career, with contracts for performances that would have produced an extravagant annual income of twenty thousand dollars.
When the war broke out Hochstein was eligible for exemption from the draft as he was sole support for his widowed mother. But he rejected the privilege and joined the army with the explicit request to do his bit in a combat unit rather than as a musician. On 15 October 1918, less than a month before the Armistice, after leading a group bringing provisions to forward troops, David Hochstein was blown to bits, his disintegration so complete that it was impossible to collect parts one might label and bury as Hochstein, David, 2nd Lt, 60th Inf, 5th Division. His name is noted among the unburied dead on the wall at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Lorraine. It bears keeping in mind that roughly seventy percent of casualties in this war were caused by artillery. Hochstein’s and Gerhardt’s death by obliteration, even atomization, while not typical, is more nearly common than that tidy, cinematic, and poetic piercing of the heart and the edifying peroration of the man, once ordinary or worse in every respect, Claude Wheeler, at long last ennobled through his courage and sacrifice.
Shortly after Claude Wheeler is hit the Missourians begin to arrive. Sergeant Hicks and two other troops drag Claude to the side as he dies. Claude smiles. His eyes go blank. The smile subsides. He is gone. The moment is very visual, rendered with a tender clarity reminiscent of Emil and Marie’s murder in the moonlit orchard in O Pioneers! Sergeant Hicks wipes clean Lieutenant Wheeler’s face and says “Thank God I never told him” (454). He refers not just to Gerhardt’s death, but also to his violent dismemberment. Yet Cather makes clear that each man got the death he expected. Already resigned to the overwhelming force of the mindless power of the machinery of slaughter, Gerhardt had adopted an emotional position of complete neutrality. In coming to the war, he left behind mother, money, and not just his talent and his training, but above all his passion and sensibility as a musician and artist. Literally and figuratively, he cast aside his Stradivarius.
By happenstance in his and Claude’s hearing someone plays a Victrola recording of Massenet’s 1894 “Meditation from Thais,” a popular and deeply emotive set piece for which the tempo is marked andante religioso, then poco a poco appassionato. As they listen, Gerhardt is unmoved. When the recording proves to be Gerhardt’s own, Claude is impressed, but Gerhardt is neither proud nor melancholic. There is neither swagger nor regret in his reaction. Today one might record his response as “meh,” but in the context of American novels of the 1920’s, remarkably, Gerhardt’s insouciance seems very much the masculinist abnegation and self-defensive abolition of emotion for which Jake Barnes strives in The Sun Also Rises (1926) and that Frederic Henry at last achieves as he walks away from his dead lover in the rain at the end of A Farewell to Arms (1929).
To fully grasp Cather’s relevance one must understand that she saw the modern world as on a cusp between two epochs. In his essential book on the subject of Cather and the war, Steven Trout demonstrates that “the novel’s notorious ambiguity in the second half does not spring from any avoidance of culturally pervasive myths” but rather “stems from the [ . . .] modernist mixture of contradictory discourses, jarring thematic juxtapositions, and conflicting perspectives” (147). As shorthand, one can grasp this moment as the transfer point between horse and car, or beasts of burden and internal combustion. Even as late as the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, the traffic of both types moves in both directions. On the one side, this means that Claude, for all his ordinary limitations can still summon a chivalric emotional decisiveness which was alien to him in every other key moment in his life. Gerhardt, by contrast, supremely talented and positioned to ride into the future, famous and wealthy, realizes that the war has unhorsed western civilization. The power that drives human destiny, especially individual fates, cannot be personified, and hence no romance can vivify it with meaning. The “Meditation” of Thais, swarming with pathos, can only sound impertinent to him, if indeed it can be heard over the engine now driving history.
From now on the motor, the motive force depends on a machinery of destruction that renders all human desire and striving secondary. For the moment the road is clogged, but clearly gasoline will out last hay and oats. Soon enough everything will be moving in one direction. Cather seems to have been among the first to understand this. Indeed, John Dos Passos, whose Three Soldiers the author came to understand “should have been worked over so much more,” and with the USA trilogy on the horizon, looked back on his war novel when Random House is about to publish Three Soldiers in its Modern Library series. In a new 1932 introduction he wrote “Those of us who have lived through have seen [the] years strip the bunting off the great illusions of our time,” and ends with “we must deal with the raw structure of history now, we must deal with it quick, before it stamps us out” (ix).
The lady novelist from Red Cloud, Nebraska already new this. In late 1918 in the last weeks of the war, when Gerhardt and Wheeler are killed, the American army was pressing hard against the German retreat. French and British troops were, after four years of war, generally content to lumber behind the Germans as they moved toward the Rhine. Pershing, however, was anxious to score a major victory and, in spite of German exhaustion and the influenza, he engaged twenty-two divisions and well over a million troops in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the United States Army’s largest ever infantry assault and, arguably, one of its tactically least necessary. Cather preserved both Claude Wheeler and David Gerhardt until this extreme moment of human history. Here, in the farthest reach of France, in the last big battle, Claude Wheeler was able to stand straight, prove his mettle and die. David Gerhardt, dutiful though he was, disappears in a gust of blood and flesh.
Each was mortal. And each is gone entirely unless we remember him, the one for his desire for greatness, the other for the greatness of the talent he felt obliged to abandon. They were also unconquerable, one for his ineradicable idealism, the other for his impenetrable stoicism. Together they represent the dialectic of the warrior as modern hero, the paradox of the good soldier, who can become much greater than his former self in defense of country, and at same time the set aside the shape and substance of his self—indeed all private or personal values—in acquiescence to the unstoppable forward sweep of history. To this painful truth Cather bore witness. She represented it for what it was: a waste of valor and character on the threshold of an age of violence apparently beyond the control of decent and ordinary people. Hers was a stark warning. That we can still grasp it at all is cause for celebration, for we also are merely mortal. That it still calls us to action we should not ignore. Whether we too are unconquerable remains to be seen.
Carroll, Latrobe. “Willa Sibert Cather.” Bookman, 3 May 1921. Rpt. in L. Brent Bohlke, ed. Will Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1986. Web.
Cather, Willa. One of Ours. New York: Knopf, 1922.
---. “Letter to Frances Smith Cather, May 16, 1911.” #0194. Source file: cat.let0194.xml. –Cather Archive. Web.
---. “Fiction Recalls Violinist Lost in War: An Interview with Willa Cather.” Orig. New York Herald, 24 December 1922. Rpt. Cather Archive. Web.
Chevalier, Gabriel. Fear: A Novel of World War I. Trans. Malcolm Imrie. New York: New York Review Books, 2011.
Dawes, Charles G. A Journal of the Great War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1923.
Dos Passos, John. Three Soldiers. New York: Random House/Modern Library, 1932.
Fountain, Edwin, ABMC and Vice-Chair of Centennial Commission. Personal communication. 16 and 20 May 2019.
Harris, Richard, ed. “G. P. Cather as the Prototype for Claude” and “Early Reception.” In One of Ours: The Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. U Nebraska P: Lincoln, 2006. Web.
National Archives. Movement of the First Division to Rear Cantigny Sector, April 5-April 25, 1918. Film 111.H.1263. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUz7iQvKoCU.
---. Activities of Graves Registration Service, France, 1919-1920. 111.H.1208. Two reels. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVgua3PlEQQ&t=60s
Roosevelt, Theodore Jr. Average Americans. New York: Putnam’s, 1919.
Trout, Steven. Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 2002.
Mark Facknitz is Roop Distinguished Professor of English at James Madison University. The 1989 winner of the Virginia Prize for fiction, his creative work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Story Quarterly, The Iowa Review, and other journals. His essays on Raymond Carver, Anthony Powell, Henry Green, Joseph Conrad, Michel Tournier, and others have appeared in Studies in Short Fiction, CEA Critic, The Journal of Modern Literature, Twentieth-Century Literature, The Journal of Narrative Technique, and other publications. In recent years he has divided his research interests between the Great War and Willa Cather. His essay "Kitsch, Commemoration, and Mourning in the Aftermath of the Great War" appears as Chapter 16 of Jonathan Vance's The Great War: From Memory to History (Wilfred Laurier UP, 2016). He has published on Ivor Gurney's shellshock in The Journal of the Ivor Gurney Society, on war cemeteries and the margins of memory in Bridges, on Luytens and Thiepval as paradigms of commemoration in Crossings, and on pre-1914 gardens as trope for the soldier's remembered self in a/b Autobiography Studies. His not purely academic interest in the Great War depends on a German grandfather, prisoner of war in Japan 1914-1919; an American grandfather, an engineer in the AEF; and a great uncle who died for Canada. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico.