A meta-blog-post about blog posts

This curiosity may be of little interest to people not named James Rosenzweig, but I’ve been puzzling over something for months about the blog, and I thought that perhaps a few of my faithful readers/commenters (you know who you are!) might be willing to offer their thoughts?

The curiosity has to do with why some blog posts get a lot of hits and attention, and others don’t.  Every blog’s stats probably look something like mine—the home page has a ridiculously high number of hits (since that’s where most people click through to), and then each post has a small number of hits from people clicking through to it in particular.  Some types of posts are marginally more popular than others, but that’s not really my question.

My specific question has to do with this strangely popular blog post about The Age of Innocence.  It seemed simple enough when I wrote it—a few nice observations maybe, but nothing flashy.  That one blog post, written over two years ago now, remains one of my blog’s most popular posts almost every single week.  Second only to the home page in number of unique hits, its thousands of hits surpass the total hits for blog posts #3-#8 combined.  Now, I might have accepted this if it was one of my reviews—perhaps one of a famous novel, one that high schoolers would search out for book reports?  Or if maybe it was a post on a popular holiday…something that might come up frequently for casual searchers.  But instead, it’s that post—a little intermediary thing, one of a dozen or so posts about that particular novel, and somehow head-and-shoulders ahead of everything else.

By way of comparison, consider this post from early in One of Ours, and this post from later in One of Ours.  I’d call them about the same kind of work as that Age of Innocence post: reflections on characters (one even including a healthy quotation) from a novel by a well-known author.  I grant you, AoI is more popular than OoO, and Wharton more than Cather, but surely not by multiple orders of magnitude?  And yet until I linked to them here, each of those posts on Cather’s novel had garnered but one hit apiece in the 2+ years they’ve lived on my blog.

So I ask you—what is it about that odd little post on The Age of Innocence?  Did I inadvertently use a keyphrase everyone searches on Google?  (If so, what’s the phrase?)  Is it just really good reading?  Should I try to repeat the feat, or accept that I will never in my life write anything as broadly popular as this one curious little musing on Newland Archer and the Countess Olenska?  I hope someone has some thoughts, since I’ve gotten a whole lot of nowhere, thus far.

P.S. For those who say “it’s just that it’s a post on The Age of Innocence, and it’s a really well-known novel “, I give you this: a post on The Age of Innocence, as old as the wildly popular one, that up until today had a total of 3 hits.  Buridan’s ass may be able to tell the difference between them, but I’m having a heck of a time working it out.

1923: One of Ours, by Willa Cather

Literary Merit:

I’ve just finished the last page of the novel, and I feel I have to catch my breath—I saw the ending coming and it still knocked the wind out of me.  Cather is a hard author to categorize, and her style is hard to sum up.  The most distinctive thing about her is her plain-spokenness.  She does not elaborate ornate phrases or communicate in sly subtleties.  She isn’t a blunt force like Hemingway (what I’ve read of him, anyway), but she is much closer to that end of the style spectrum than she is to Wharton and Fitzgerald.

The last section of the novel, which deals with the war, serves as a good example for me of her talents and her weaknesses.  It is overflowing with characters, many of whom are detailed only to be largely forgotten.  This kind of epic cast can work for some novelists, but Cather is not quite up to the task—I am constantly mixing up the life stories of Victor Morse (the American airman, who leapt from his burning airplane to fall 1,000 feet to his death) and David Gerhardt (the American lieutenant, whose music and French make Claude envy him, and whose death is too poignant for me to describe).  I lose track of which French peasant woman is in dialogue with Claude at any given moment.  And this disconnection intersects somewhat weakly with Cather’s desire to evoke emotion–despite her unadorned style, she wants me to feel moments intensely, and often I sense that I am reading an emotional conversation or a touching moment, without quite experiencing that emotion or being truly touched.

But on the other hand, her calm voice allows her to descend into horrors that other writers could not handle so skillfully.  When a German sniper opens fire on French children, Cather’s steady voice allows me to feel at once the truth of this violence and also how numbing it becomes—a more elaborate writer would be far more likely to over-write such a passage, but Cather generally allows such scenes to speak for themselves.  And when Cather’s desire to provoke an emotional response aligns with a character and situation that matter to me, she is overwhelming.  As much as I loved Wharton’s novel, this is the first book that has truly moved me.  Claude’s death was inevitable—given his life situation, no other ending seemed remotely likely—and yet the event itself brought me close to tears.  He mattered to me in a way no character had, to this point.  I won’t forget him.

The novel, though, leaves me wondering.  I wonder why the novel is entitled “One of Ours”: what does Cather mean by it?  I wonder what came of Enid, away in distant China; I wonder what happened to her there, and what she thought when she heard that Claude was gone.  Cather sets up to write a broad epic novel, only to tie up ends rapidly once the central plot point is resolved.  I think it’s a weakness, or at least I perceived it as one.  Cather’s work, though, leaves me in no doubt that she could write, and well.  Given that this is not one of her “famous” novels (O Pioneers! and My Antonia take that title, I think), I am left very curious to read more of her work—she is a writer I can (and did) enjoy.

Historical Insight:

As a depiction of the narrow boundaries of small farm life in Nebraska in the 1910s, the novel works well, but I’ll admit it doesn’t raise many topics or concepts that startled me.  I am a little enlightened by the gap between farm and town—the contrast with Lincoln, Nebraska, which I think of as fairly “small”, was interesting, and leaves me wondering how cosmopolitan these mid-size Midwest towns really were at the turn of the century.  But the most deeply interesting ideas here related to the men at war.  World War I is not much discussed by Americans.  We don’t seem to see it as our war.  But as Cather demonstrates, the war has a major effect on the psyches of those who survive it.  I’d heard the song “How Will You Keep Them Down On The Farm, After They’ve Seen Paris?” but it had never really occurred to me that the real question was, how will you return “them” to peace after they’ve seen the trenches?  My friend, Sebastian Lukasik, even wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on this general topic: I really should read what he had to say, since I am not quite done with what it meant for Claude and his companions to leave their homes for France.  This novel brought home the impact that the Great War must have had in a new way…a way that helps me see the Twenties in a new light, as well as isolationism.  For historical purposes, a fascinating novel and one that receives very high marks.

Rating:

I give One of Ours the rating “Well worth your time, especially if you care about World War I”.  I won’t call this a must-read, since it’s certainly a little uneven, and the plot takes a little patience in the early going.  But I found it very rewarding, and anyone with an interest in World War I (both its impact on life at home, and its impact on the soldiers and the French citizenry) would get a lot out of it, I feel.  A very good book, overall.

Last Word:

I wrestled with whether or not to talk about Claude’s death…I still don’t know if I made the right call in revealing it.  I intentionally avoided the ending to The Age of Innocence (the right call there, I think), but I didn’t think I could talk about what this book meant to me without getting into Claude’s death, especially the passage I am going to leave it with.  One of the things Cather explores deeply (and which, if I had nothing but time, I would spend a lot more time delving into) is what the war meant to these men, and how it would change them in the future.  Some of these statements are a little over-the-top, stylistically—in her desire to get these ideas across, she can become a little too earnest.  And that may be true of this last passage.  But at the end of the novel, Mrs. Wheeler, Claude’s mother, reflects on his death, and I want you to consider what she has to say: it’s a controversial idea, I think, and I’m still making sense of it, myself.  And now, Willa Cather:

When she can see nothing that has come of it all but evil, she reads Claude’s letters over again and reassures herself; for him the call was clear, the cause was glorious. … He died believing his own country better than it is, and France better than any country can ever be.  And those were beautiful beliefs to die with.  Perhaps it was as well to see that vision, and then see no more.  She would have dreaded the awakening,—she sometimes even doubts whether he could have borne all that at last, desolating disappointment.  One by one the heroes of that war, the men of dazzling soldiership, leave prematurely the world they have come back to.  Airmen whose deeds were tales of wonder, officers whose names made the blood of youth beat faster, survivors of incredible dangers,—one by one they quietly die by their own hand.  Some do it in obscure lodging houses, some in their office, where they seemed to be carrying on their business like other men.  Some slip over a vessel’s side and disappear into the sea.  When Claude’s mother hears of these things, she shudders and presses her hands tight over her breast, as if she had him there.  She feels as if God had saved him from some horrible suffering, some horrible end.  For as she reads, she thinks those slayers of themselves were all so like him; they were the ones who had hoped extravagantly,—who in order to do what they did had to hope extravagantly, and to believe passionately.  And they found they had hoped and believed too much.  But one she knew, who could ill bear disillusion . . . safe, safe.

“When they retraced their steps, the wood was full of green twilight.”

Sometimes a sentence just makes me stop and marvel—something about the wood being full of green twilight was so evocative that it captured me right away.  As it happens, the “they” in this sentence is Claude Wheeler, the Nebraskan farm lad we’ve followed so far, and the enigmatic David Gerhardt, a New Yorker who’s been assigned to Claude’s unit to replace the lieutenant who died at sea.  Gerhardt mystifies and intimidates Wheeler: though they are equal in rank, Gerhardt has experience of war that Claude does not.  Gerhardt speaks French fluently and chats amiably with the locals, convincing his French landlady to take Claude in for a few days before they leave for the trenches.  Claude feels a strange sense of competitiveness at first, but their chat in the woods and their quiet walk back in this twilight cements a friendship between them.

Beyond the happiness of this small friendship, though, war is hell.  Also living in this French cottage is a Belgian girl whose mother is dead, and who refuses to learn any language but her native Walloon.  Days, she plays with kittens in the woodshed, and at night she shrieks in her sleep with the memories of terrors that no child should have had to endure.  The old French couple, themselves, mourn the death of their two sons—it is an empty world before them now, and a house full, not of their son’s laughter, but of the creak of American army boots and the wailing of a motherless girl.  Cather does not describe the loneliness they must feel when Claude and his men move out, but she hardly needs to.  On the road to the trenches, Claude meets a dying woman and her children, including a nursing infant.  The oldest child, an eleven year old girl, explains that her father died several years ago, and comments coldly that the infant is “a Boche” (a German)…Claude understands immediately the crime implied in those two words, and feels a sense of horror (I am sorry to say that his revulsion is so great that he feels a loathing for the blameless infant), which is quickly replaced by the simple activity of finding food and shelter for a family who walks out of the novel and will not, I think, be seen again.  France is full of these families now.

Even now, they’ve still seen no combat (having spent several days at the trenches), but the nearness and the banality of death is strangely clear to these new arrivals.  While bathing in a deep puddle, one of them feels a sharpness at his feet–he reaches down and pulls up a German helmet.  Suddenly foul bubbles surge up to the surface of the water—one of the officers shouts that they’ve opened the lid on a “cemetery”, and they all splash out of the puddle rapidly, and post a blackly humorous sign advising against swimming.  I don’t know what I think they ought to have done…unearth the body to give it a “proper” burial?  Is a plot dug by human hands any more proper than this graveyard carved out by violence?  I wonder what all this will do to Claude, in the end.  What can such a war do, after all, but deaden the inside of a heart?  So many stories of war make it sound thrilling, or glamorous, or inspiring.  I can’t see how it does anything but grind the human soul into dust.

Despite so many loose ends still untied, I’m very close to the end.  I think my next post will be the review, and I can’t say I’m settled on my opinion of this novel yet.  We’ll see what Cather does with endings.

Anchises

I was going to include this in the post I published today (visible just below this), but didn’t know where to put it in.  The symbolism of the boat that carried the men to France interested me, because I recognized the name “Anchises” the moment Cather identified the liner that Claude was boarding.  Anchises is the father of Aeneas, the only Trojan prince to escape the doomed city, the man who later founded the Roman Empire, according to myth.  In the Aeneid, Anchises’ most famous scene is when, as Troy falls to fire and the bronze Achaean spear, Aeneas literally carries his aged father out of the city on his back, rather than leave him to die.  It’s a classic image that has been painted and sculpted many times over the years.

What I wonder is whether Cather used that name for intentional symbolism and irony: the liner, after all, is carrying young healthy men away from the safety of the United States into a war-torn landscape that may claim their lives.  Anchises, in a sense, carries Aeneas back into the city to die.  Does that seem to you all like a real stretch, or is it possible that Cather would go for such a reference?

“The corridors of the vessel had the smell of death about them.”

It was a rough crossing for Claude and the other men aboard the Anchises, here in the late summer of 1918.  An epidemic struck (likely the influenza), and that combined with other various illnesses left the one doctor scrambling all over the boat, conscripting Claude as his assistant.  The series of chapters that detail their journey to France were really fascinating—the initial exhiliaration of departure and the ocean fading as illness descends, followed by burials at sea and the sense that they may never reach their destination.  Claude’s spirits are unsinkable, though—at one point, when the doctor asks him how much he’d give just to be safely home again, Claude pauses, and the doctor looks up at him in recognition.  He tells Claude it’s clear he’d rather be on that boat than back home, and it’s true: Claude loves the sense of purpose he derives from taking care of the sick men, and the deaths trouble him briefly, but never seem to weigh as heavily on him as they ought.  What does it say about Claude that he’d rather be aboard a floating death trap than go home to the farm?  Is he heartless?  Reckless?  Or just young and foolish?

He runs into an interesting collection of people, both on board and on arrival in France.  Perhaps the most notable is a young man from Iowa who ran off to Canada to enlist in 1915 and has seen the horrors of war…though he won’t talk much about them, but rather waxes rapturous about the love of an English divorcee who waits for him in her Chelsea flat (and about the brief loves he finds with French girls…oh, he tells Claude, his English lover understands that pilots can’t be expected to avoid such dalliances, considering how soon they are to die).  The pilot’s one moment of serious reflection comes when he remembers shooting down a German scout plane, only to find the crumpled body of a female pilot trapped in the wreckage.  She lives only a few hours, but long enough to write a letter to her family, which he personally flies across enemy lines and drops into the trenches so it will reach them.  I wonder if he’s meant to represent all American soldiers—tough, a little wild, unconcerned about death but fully aware of it—or if that’s merely his story.  I wonder if Claude will become like him.

And another scene I cannot forget is Claude negotiating for some cheese in French with a grocer, who takes Claude and his men into her larder to sell them some (even though they don’t have the right ration coupons).  The men scarf down almost all of her cheese, despite her protestations, but then show her all their French cash, telling her to take whatever the cheese was worth.  Her deliberations over what to do (in the end, she charges exactly 250% of the cheese’s original price, and not a penny more) are fascinating, as is her perspective on the Americans.  They are invaders, in her mind, barging into France (as into her pantry) to take what they like and fling money around as though that covers the multitude of sins.  She does not resent them, but she does not like them either.  They are too cheerful, too casual, and too well-fed.  Are we any different now, really?

I am anxious for Claude to get to the front, and yet, knowing the horrors of trench warfare, I wonder what it will be like for him once he is there.  He was fairly stoic about the deaths on board ship, but I know it affected him more than he’s willing to admit.  When the Anchises pulls into port at last, and he knows he has survived (as well as the lieutenant he has cared for around-the-clock for weeks), he looks out the window and a little wave of melancholy sweeps over him:

“This grey wall, unshaken, mighty, was the end of the long preparation, as it was the end of the sea.  It was the reason for everything that had happened in his life for the last fifteen months.  It was the reason why Tannhauser and the gentle Virginian, and so many others who had set out with him, were never to have any life at all, or even a soldier’s death.  They were merely waste in a great enterprise, thrown overboard like rotten ropes.  For them this kind release,— trees and a still shore and quiet water,— was never, never to be.  How long would their bodies toss, he wondered, in that inhuman kingdom of darkness and unrest?”

“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.

“Marriage reduced all women to a common denominator; changed a cool, self-satisfied girl into a loving and generous one.”

Poor misguided Claude.  Somehow, despite clear warnings from Enid’s father and Enid’s own clear statement that she doesn’t feel well-suited to marriage, he’s convinced her to marry him.  And now she’s acting strangely, more interested in the house he’s building than in him, detached from the romance he was expecting.  Well, thank goodness marriage is a magic spell that transforms each woman into the wife her husband had always wanted.

Worst of all, of course, is that Claude is just beginning to realize what I could have told him long ago: that Gladys Farmer, the schoolteacher and his childhood friend, was the woman for him.  She has always believed in his talent, and she feels it would be a grave tragedy for Claude to live out an empty life as a farmer trudging crops to the station—only with her could he ever have the life he wants.  But Claude’s older brother, Bayliss, has his sights set on Gladys, so Claude could never really step in and claim her love, even if she made it clear that she loved him, even if he was not already engaged.  There’s a heaviness to this realization—good or bad, with Newland Archer, you didn’t sense that he’d let his marriage to May be an anchor around his neck, but Claude’s innate sense of honor and duty seem to be forming a cage around him.  By the end of Book II (there are five “books” to the novel), Claude is, in fact, married to Enid, and he seems resigned to a very cold and loveless life indeed.  It’s not clear what Enid’s approach to marriage will be, but I doubt she will forgive Claude easily for convincing her into a union she never truly wanted.

In the background (but coming rapidly to the fore) is the Great War—it is the summer of 1915 by the time Claude marries Enid.  There’s something really fascinating about watching the news of the war spread: Mrs. Wheeler dragging a map of Europe out of the attic into the sitting room, where she can study it as she reads the daily papers, asking Claude to read aloud from encyclopedia articles about French towns.  Ernest Havel explaining painfully to Claude why the soldiers in the Austrian army have no real choice in the matter…that they must fight or face persecution and violence.  Cather’s uneven here.  Sometimes her characters are too knowing.  They see the war too clearly, and speak with too distant a historical eye on the proceedings.  It’s a bit reminiscent of Ernest Poole in those moments (see my notes on His Family for more).  But as often, if not more often, I think she retains her strengths: she places the war in very real Nebraska terms, and it’s complicated.  Claude and his mother have to reconcile what the papers say about Germans with their German friends—people like the Erlichs—who bear no resemblance to the “Huns” who apparently aim at devouring Europe.  War means fear and death, but also prosperity: Mr. Wheeler has never worked so hard to plant so much wheat, knowing that the prices for grain will go sky high due to the war.  And underneath everything, the war looks eerily like the manifestation of what she positions herself against—the elevation of machine over humanity, the march of industrial “progress” slowly crushing the life out of the world.  You don’t have to agree with Cather to find this a powerful theme.

And because I continue to really enjoy Cather’s clear and serious tone, I’ll include another short passage from this section, in which Claude and his mother have just discussed what it means that the government of France has fled south out of Paris:

It was curious, he reflected, lying wide awake in the dark: four days ago the seat of government had been moved to Bordeaux,—with the effect that Paris seemed suddenly to have become the capital, not of France, but of the world!  He knew he was not the only farmer boy who wished himself tonight beside the Marne. … One’s manners wouldn’t matter on the Marne tonight, the night of the eighth of September, 1914.  There was nothing on earth he would so gladly be as an atom in that wall of flesh and blood that rose and melted and rose again before the city which had meant so much through all the centuries—but had never meant so much before.  Its name had come to have the purity of an abstract idea.  In great sleepy continents, in land-locked harvest towns, in the little islands of the sea, for four days men watched that name as they might stand out at night to watch a comet, or to see a star fall.”