“Youths were sailing away to die for an idea, a sentiment, for the mere sound of a phrase . . . and on their departure they were making vows to a bronze image in the sea.”

Claude and his whole regiment, aboard the Anchises, are off to war, and as they pass the lady in New York Harbor (referred to, interestingly, as “the Bartholdi statue” by Cather, and not as “the Statue of Liberty”), they raise their voices in a leather-lunged rendition of “Over There”.  This sounds a bit over the top, as I summarize it, but honestly it feels pretty genuine—at least, it seems realistic that these men would behave this way (although a lot of it is probably an expression of the combined fear and excitement they must feel as they board a ship to brave an Atlantic teeming with U-Boats, heading for a front that has devoured and destroyed a whole generation of Europeans).

Why is Claude heading off to war?  It’s no real mystery: it’s the only legitimate escape he can find from a life and a marriage that is wearing him down.  Cather is excruciatingly good at depicting the cramped, agonizing melancholy that descends on Claude and Enid in this loveless marriage: she feels a sense of duty to him, perhaps, but she seeks every opportunity to retreat from her husband, both emotionally and physically.  Claude swings back and forth between desiring the romantic connection Enid refuses to offer him and wanting to run off into the wildest corners of their acreage and never see her again.  Both of them think they extend every reasonable kindness to the other, and neither of them are willing to confront that they are destroying each other in a thousand tiny ways.  When Enid’s sister falls ill in China, she can’t pack to leave fast enough, thrilled that there is an excuse to leave.  And Claude, in response, can’t give up his farm fast enough–the house he so lovingly built for Enid is now nothing to him, the livestock he tended so closely to provide for the family are sold without a second thought.  The town’s gossip about them is poisonous but absolutely accurate.

So, Enid leaves for China in December of 1916, not intending to return home until the following autumn at the earliest.  And when unrestricted submarine warfare is declared in the Atlantic, Claude won’t even wait for the war and the draft—he signs up for the army and trains to be an officer.  Gladys Farmer, the schoolteacher he always should have married, is finally proud of him…and he seems to have realized (now that it is far too late for a man like Claude….even Newland Archer, a man with far less scruples, couldn’t make a move in this scenario) that she was the one woman who would truly have made him happy.  He is troubled, though, by the anti-German sentiments in his old hometown.  He springs to the defense of the German-Americans (who would then have been called “Hyphenates”), even as he wears his uniform proudly in public.  He visits the family home one last time, and his parting with his mother is the most profoundly emotional passage I’ve read in my journey so far—affecting to the point of misty eyes.

So, it’s the world and the Great War for Claude, which is sure to change him.  What I don’t see is what will come of him when he returns.  Will Enid be “taken care of” by our author, in order for Claude to find happiness with Gladys?  Or will she return from China as transformed as he is, ready to love him as boldly as he will love her?  Both solutions strike me as excessively convenient.  But I don’t think that Cather’s writing all this so she can pen a concluding chapter in which Claude settles down to that hollow walking death of a life that Claude’s been living.  We shall see.

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4 comments on ““Youths were sailing away to die for an idea, a sentiment, for the mere sound of a phrase . . . and on their departure they were making vows to a bronze image in the sea.”

  1. mvilleneuve says:

    Finally Rosenzweig, something I can constructively comment upon.
    Your subject matter
    on this blog is both intimidating and difficult to penetrate. I’ve been following along but can’t find a good place to reciprocate all the attention you’ve been so generously lending to my rants on Duck’s.

    Catch me up on what this novel is about – One of Ours, correct? I’m interested in what you think this author’s view of the Great War was. “Youths were sailing away to die for an idea, a sentiment, for the mere sound of a phrase . . .” This sounds very Winfred Owen-esque, very “Dulce et decorum est pro patrica mori.” Yet you write that Claude, (the protagonist, I assume) is escaping to war, as if it’s a refuge from his unsatisfying life. Is it a lesser of two evils in Claude’s life or is this something this author believe is a worthwhile pursuit?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Villeneuve! Welcome: I’m sorry the subject matter’s intimidating…I was hoping to make it more accessible, but I’m still figuring out how to do so.

      You remember the title correctly–thus far, it’s been an account of a Nebraska farm boy who’s a little too intellectual for the life of his family (though they are reasonably well off). We’ve seen him go off to college (Bible college, to appease his mother) but find his real calling in a medieval history class he audits at university. Just as he’s made intellectual friends (German ones, it should be pointed out), though, his father insists he come home to run the family farm. He gives up his ideals, finds a nice girl (who doesn’t want to marry, but relents), builds a home and becomes a farmer. The marriage feels like a trap to them both, and shortly after his wife goes to China to care for her sister, a missionary, he signs up for officer training to head off to war. That’s our Claude.

      And I can’t tell yet if Cather thinks this is worthwhile, though she seems to describe these events positively (Claude’s signing up…not war, per se). Do you suppose, based on your WWI knowledge, that the War liberated young men from dull lives? Was it really hard to keep them down on the farm after they’d seen Paris? Or is that just wishful thinking on the part of a lot of young men who saw the world and came home to shuck corn?

  2. mvilleneuve says:

    Tosh, my knowledge of WWI? Any comprehension of the topic is mere trivia in light of your skill; you assuredly know threefold as well as I.

    I will say my great grandfather was deployed in 1917. He came after Pershing I believe. I don’t remember if he volunteered or was drafted. Neverthless, he knew how to keep out of trouble. When he arrived, he told his personnel officers that he was a machine gunner and was shipped off behind the lines as a machine gun instructor. He knew the same about machine guns as anyone who was rushed through basic. But it kept him out of the lines. Later, he swindled his way into being a courier, complete with an Indian motrocycle I’m told. On the way home amidst Spanish Flu, he slept in the empty brig away from his sick comrades.

    When I graduated, my grandfather gave me a Gillette razor that belonged to my great grandfather – attached to it was a note that said he had bought it in France in 1918.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Well, I’ve always thought your attention to military history exceeded mine, at least in a number of specific wars. But maybe I overestimated your level of interest in WWI? Anyway, my level of knowledge is incomplete on that topic (though it was the topic of a friend’s dissertation…I should really bug him to see it, or at least ask him to weigh in).

      The stories about your g-grandfather are excellent: sounds like a fascinating character (and a lot more savvy than Claude Wheeler). I’m afraid only one of my ancestors saw any duty in WWI (my father’s maternal grandfather…so, my great-grandfather as well), and as I understand it he never left the training camps here in the U.S. The razor is a very cool heirloom to possess, as well–it’s neat, even with those simple things, to envision what the day was like when he bought it, who he bought it from, etc. Was this your Villeneuve great-grandfather, returned to the home of his ancestors?

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