I didn’t know Claude Wheeler, in part because he died at 25 nearly a century ago in a bloody, muddy trench along the Western Front. Also, Claude Wheeler never existed outside the pages of Willa Cather’s 1921 book, One of Ours. Still, I liked him.
Claude didn’t get mired in feelings, or even think very deeply. But his experience as a soldier gave him a transcendent understanding he could not realize on his family’s Nebraska farm: “Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together.” Cather doesn’t belabor the epiphany; she simply lets Claude die bravely, believing his life given to something greater than himself: that expansive and essential background.
Cather’s book originates in America’s heartland in the 1910s, before the first World War engulfed Europeans, and, belatedly, Americans. It was the third Pulitzer-winning novel I have recently read from the 1920s and ’30s: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a glittering satire of New York City’s effete upper class during the Gilded Age of the 1870s. Caroline Miller’s Lamb in His Bosom depicts the perpetual hardship and fleeting joys of a dirt-poor backwoods farm family in the antebellum South; it became Georgia’s first Pulitzer winner three years before Margaret Mitchell’s better-known Civil War tale of privileged southerners.
Despite their disparate plots and characters, the books are remarkable for one commonality: a striking lack of interiority. While richly descriptive of the external world, the stories proceed primarily on the surface: the characters have the ordinary lives of their times, which — excepting Wharton’s wealthy New Yorkers — involve a lot of work and hardship, too many children and fleeting happiness. The thoughts and feelings of the protagonists are rarely explicated and then, only briefly; mostly, we are left to infer the quality of their character from their actions.
This lack of emotional exegesis is curiously disorienting; as modern readers, we expect authors to excavate the minds and hearts of their characters, so that we may understand and assess them, for good or ill. But it’s also curiously relieving to experience people — albeit fictitious people — who lived day-to-day lives unweighted by self-absorption and also by any notion that their suffering was special.
I felt this acutely while reading a modern memoir before starting Cather’s book. The autobiography was a tour de force of self-absorption, the author trying vainly to present her commonplace experience of romance-gone-bad and ordinary alcoholism as something meaningful, rather than what it was: a tedious fixation with the drama of her own emotion, mediated conveniently by a man and a substance.
I stuck with it — I am trying hard to win a prize in my local library district’s Winter Adult Reading Program — but it made me tetchy. Not just because I wanted the author to quit romanticizing her neuroses or at least grow out of them, but because I felt a little indicted. I have an uncomfortable feeling that I may have sometimes behaved just like this author, though — to my credit — I have not enshrined My Suffering in a book. But still: Embarrassing.
I could attribute my occasional perseverating to a sensitive, inward-looking nature, but I think I’ll blame it on therapy. It’s no accident that my trio of emotionally uncomplicated Pulitzer-winners predate mainstream acceptance of psychotherapy in the United States, which occurred around the time of World War II, when 12 percent of draftees were rejected for “neuropsychiatric reasons” and a generation of soldiers came home with wounds that scarred not only their bodies, but their minds.
This attention to the human psyche was, obviously, both overdue and appropriate; people who aren’t self-aware inevitably brutalize others and — in the United States — get elected President. But it’s always possible to have too much of a good thing, and too much navel-gazing leads to a loss of both humor and perspective.
Despite the seriousness with which we take ourselves, our individual narratives — our joys, our suffering — are neither particularly important nor original. As Cather astutely notes: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
How refreshing then, to encounter men and women of action, people who do less cogitating and emoting and more getting on with the business of being alive. I aspire to be one; perhaps you do, too.
To that end, inspiration: a list of Pulitzer Prize winners from before “I” mattered; they comprise the “novel” category, which existed from 1917 to 1947. If you can’t find these old books at your local library, try interlibrary loan, a free and invaluable service offered by many districts that opens the world’s libraries to its patrons.