“… In old countries, where not very much can happen to us, we know that,—and we learn to make the most of little things.”
In this quotation, Ernest, Claude’s German immigrant friend, is attempting to explain why he is very content to settle down and farm, marry a nice German woman, and forget about the world of ideas. Claude, meanwhile, cannot understand why Ernest, his old study partner (who has learned Latin and read literature and is remarkably capable, academically), does not want to hear the marvelous tales of the European history class that Claude is taking at the State University (as a non-matriculated student—Claude’s still at the Bible college full-time, at this point) and various other intellectual concerns.
Cather is doing a very solid job of creating characters that are both appealing to read about and clearly imperfect. I’m very sympathetic to Claude, but not because he’s a saint—rather, I think his interests overlap with mine a lot, and frankly some of his faults match mine pretty closely, as well. Claude’s made friends in Lincoln, a German family (the Erlichs) of boys his age, ruled by the kindly and intelligent Widow Erlich, who frankly would probably marry Claude if she wasn’t two decades older than him (and she seems to harbor hopes, regardless). In Lincoln, this provincial farm-boy, Claude Wheeler, has a chance to become a man of letters and ideas, a man of the world—he researches the trial of Joan of Arc, he meets opera singers, he raises his consciousness about the sheer size and diversity of the world.
And then his father comes crashing in. Mr. Wheeler is a good man in many ways—generous, good-humored, ambitious without being greedy—but as a father he is too blind to who his sons really are. He’s acquired a cattle ranch for his younger son, Ralph, to go off and manage, having missed somehow that Ralph is interested in machinery and not livestock. While he goes to help Ralph “get started”, it will be Claude’s task to leave college and run the family farm himself. There is no disagreeing with a man as influential and successful as Claude’s father: what he wants to happen will happen, and Claude accepts his fate now with a grim determination to make a success of farm life.
It leaves me wondering, though. My sympathies (being who I am) are naturally with Claude…I want him to go back and take another European history course, not scythe the dead cornstalks for fodder and plant the northeast acreage with winter wheat. There’s an attitude in his rural American community (indeed, in Claude himself, if he pauses to examine it) that hard physical labor is more “honest” than the life of the academic mind. But is it? Would we still say so? And while I sympathize with Claude, I return to that quotation from his German friend, Ernest—there is certainly something to be said for taking joy in the small things in life. I have no idea what Cather’s position on all this is (and would be interested to hear from you all, if you have ideas to share!).
And I have to emphasize that Cather doesn’t deal in stereotypes—this is not an oversimplified family (in the style of, say, Booth Tarkington). Mrs. Wheeler may be a “simple” woman in Claude’s eyes, with little interest in the larger world inhabited by women such as Mrs. Erlich, but Claude’s mother spends her Sunday afternoons reading literature like Paradise Lost, and then entering into a conversation (however brief and limited) with Claude about the nature of evil. Mr. Wheeler may have spoiled Claude’s plans for the future, but then Claude has long made no secret of his disdain for his father’s methods: Mr. Wheeler, quite naturally, says to Claude that, as he’s always said he could make a better living out of this farm than his father has, it’s time to see what his new ideas can do. There’s no sense here that Mr. Wheeler’s setting his son up for failure—to the contrary, he wants to see Claude succeed, to see Claude prove his mettle. I share Claude’s sense of loss that he has had to turn away from college life, but it’s very hard to see Claude’s parents as anything but benevolent in attitude towards him. I imagine the success or failure of the farm will have a large impact on the course of the plot, moving forward, and I can’t honestly say I know which outcome is preferable to me as a reader.