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Annotations From the Archive: Soldiers' Letters

Annotations From the Archive: Soldiers' Letters

Sunday, October 30, 2022

We conclude a year of reflection on Willa Cather's 1922 novel One of Ours by highlighting the letters that she received in response to her Pulitzer Prize-winning work.

After Grosvenor P. Cather’s death in France in May 1918, Willa Cather wasted little time in getting to work on telling her cousin's story. My Ántonia was set to be published in September of that year, and throughout the spring and summer of 1918, she worked on correcting proofs and placement of the illustrations. She enjoyed many wonderful reviews of My Ántonia, but by December she wrote to her editor, Ferris Greenslet, that she is at work on not one, but two books. One of those was a return to the Blue Mesa story, which had been set aside previously as Cather began My Ántonia, and the other was “the soldier story.” 

One of Ours was published on September 8, 1922. Within weeks, Cather was receiving letters, many of them from veterans of the Great War. As Cather frequently did, she kept her favorite letters and shared them with friends and family, particularly those who had offered encouragement and support as the book was created. The WCPM Manuscript Collection contains eight such letters, which likely spent at least some time filed—by Cather—in a special One of Ours envelope, which came into our collection separately.

Our holdings include the letters below, which come from the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Collection:

Charles Bayly, Jr., Bookseller

My dear Miss Cather,
It was more than kind of you to gratify my request for your signature. I should have written you at once to express my thanks but I have had an injury to my hand and am only today able to use a pen.
If the book is making enemies as well as friends you may be sure that they are few. “One of Ours” is one of those joys of a bookseller, a really splendid book which can be sold to any customer. Ours is a small shop and a “personal” one. We know most of our customers pretty well and they rely upon us to a large extent. If we should let one of the “Robin” class go out with “Cytherea” they would regard it as a personal insult. But they all like “One of Ours.” I take a great deal of pleasure in selling it, because I am so keen about it myself. So far, it is running far ahead of “Babbitt”, “This Freedom,” and “Glimpses of the Moon.”
Perhaps you will be interested to know that I was in France for over three years, first with the French Foreign Legion and later with the Americans. And I think that the last part of “One of Ours” is the most perfect picture of the war that I have read.
With many thanks and all good wishes for the success of “One of Ours,”
I am,
Very sincerely yours,
Charles Bayly, Jr.

Caroline Hornbacher, Gold Star Mother

My dear Miss Cather -
Your message came straight to my heart. The last ten pages of your book was written especially for the mothers, & as one of them I thank you. We know: — but I cannot understand how you do.
Sincerely yours,
Caroline Hornbacher, mother of John Morton Walker — whose body lies in France.

Wendell Phillips Bieser, Editor of The Grace Log

Miss Willa Cather
Dear Madam-
Your publishers a few days ago sent us a copy of “One of Ours” for review in THE GRACE LOG. In the course of a year I know that with the glut of new books that come to my desk it may take something extraordinary to rouse my enthusiasm, but I was so genuinely pleased with your book that even before I finished it I had made up my mind to write this letter. In a flood of ordinary writing “One of Ours” stands out in the sharpest contract. Your analysis of Claude Wheeler is masterly and what you say about the Yanks in France is poignantly true. As one who served in France as well as a book lover I want to thank you for your truthful account of things as they really were in France. Ever since the Three Soldiers was published I have been hoping for someone who would appear with an adequate answer to the sourness and pessimism of John Dos Passos, for Three Soldiers really is’nt true; it is only partly true. There were so many boys who never found themselves until the War came. My copy of your book is pencilled in the margins of nearly every page where a bit of particularly fine writing arrested my attention.
I hope you’ll pardon my writing you but I couldn’t help it.You have done a fine piece of work and I feel that the book will live.
Very truly yours,
Wendell Phillips Bieser, Editor
The Grace Log

Stanley Weiser

My dear Miss Cather:
Will you please allow me to try to express my appreciation of your great epic of youth, ONE OF OURS? And still, I scarcely know what I shall say!
To me, Miss Cather, it is one of the very greatest of human creations. To America, it should be the thing that she should most desire to show the world as her finest achievement.
About a year ago I read YOUTH AND THE BRIGHT MEDUSA for the first time and it made a very great impression on me. But it was not until reading later in the book that I fully realized its perfect balance between the earth and the sky. Then I had that golden opportunity of hearing you when you spoke in Omaha and it was then that I felt that great spiritual power and personality which makes ONE OF OURS a book that only Willa Cather could have written .
Since reading the book, I have been sorely grieved by Mr. Mencken and the critics. It was after reading Edmund Wilson’s review which is its own refutation that I decided that I must have one of Knopf’s special editions if there were any to be had. I forthwith went over my bank account and I am now the proud possessor of number 307.
Burton Rasco’s review is a very great thing, as is Ludwig Lewisohn’s. It seems queer, but when reading the book I felt that the second half was better than the first half if anything. Why should Enid be dragged in again? She was but an episode in Claude’s life. Then too, why drag Claude out of the war! Anything would be anticlimactic to the one great experience that unloosened his spirit from the shackles with which it was bound. Mencken’s review, too, is its own refutation for even if your war is not dos Passos’ war, you were not writing about the war, you were creating a human soul and you portrayed the war only as it acted upon Claude. But enough of this. My only criticism—it’s a dreadfully presumptuous thing, a sacrilege–but I should like to know why you wrote that last chapter.
I immediately rushed for MY ANTONIA which I hadn’t read. Isn’t it a wonderful thing? Even as great as it is it falls into the background after ONE OF OURS.
I am twenty-two myself, Miss Cather, and you have created me in Claude also. Knopf was right when he said Claude was as universal as Hamlet. He is you and me.
Believe me,
Very sincerely yours,
Stanley Weiser

Kirk Bryan

My dear Miss Cather:
I have just finished reading “One of Ours” — I cannot express the emotions which you have aroused. I have not felt them since I went through Hoboken, Newark & Elizabeth in a troop train & heard the people cheer; not since I talked with men in camp, in the transport, in the billets. My buddies & I were not great men but we had a great moment, and now what has our effort gained? That we the fighting men of a great nation should find the “Baylisses” are great & powerful. We do not envy them the power. We did not, do not want anything for ourselves, but they bunk the people & they bunk us. This seems to be the great land of bunk. Even our buddies are led astray by the ___ bunk.
So far as I know you are one of the few living persons who would understand if you heard one curse Hiram Johnson, Henry Ford, or Col. Harvey, & I curse with a depth of bitterness that I never felt toward any Fritzie.
Those who died in action are lucky, but what of us whom military fortune gave good safe jobs & who have also the bitterness of knowing that better men are buried in France? How shall we carry on in a peace that is bunk? Clemenceau has said that a nation cannot be great at one time and small antoher, but how?
Yours sincerely,
Kirk Bryan

Elmer M. Ellsworth

My dear Miss Cather,
Since the day when a friend’s ardent recommendations (I could almost say exhortations) lead me to read “The Song of the Lark” I have been an equally ardent appreciator of your books. I have found in them such an inspired breadth of revelation of life as I have not discovered in the works of any other contemporary novelist.
It was, then, with exceeding anticipation that I waited, here in this rather distant place, for a copy of “One of Ours”!
I turned its last page several hours ago, but my throat still dully aches — choked by all the things which Claude’s simple story has made me feel. One can’t express them: one’s mind is as dumb with overflooding thoughts as one’s throat with feelings. Only — as one of “Claude’s” generation — let me say that Ihave been the comrade of just such spirits as his — who never returned from Frances. Memory of them stirs the best in one to carry the struggle on. “One of Ours” seems a noble gesture pointing to that memory, making it glow again burningly into life.
Hoping that you will forgive the liberty I have taken in writing you, I am
Most respectfully yours
Elmer M. Ellsworth

Thomas Cassady

Dear Miss Cather:
Six Weeks or so ago I read “One of Ours” and since I have wanted to tell you that I enjoyed it to the n-th degree. There has been so much tawdry tish printed apropos of the war that it was refreshing to read a book which was so calm, genuine, and acurate [sic]. In fact the last part, dealing with Ernest’s life in France, was so perfect that I cannot believe that it was fiction. It seems to me that I’ve listened to the conversations and seen the very things transpire which you describe so vividly. If it had been a man who had written your story I would not be so surprised, though I would admire his ability to depict the life that he had led, but how you could have gotten the trench life with such accuracy and insight is quite beyond my gift of comprehension.
Please accept the thanks of one who was enabled to live again the days in the A.E.F.
Sincerely yours,
Thomas G. Cassady

Emily S. Coit, U.S. Naval Hospital Librarian

My dear Miss Cather,
I have just finished “One of Ours”, a book which has moved me deeply. I was with “Ours” in France, and have been with them in Army, Navy, and Veterans’ Hospitals ever since, so I feel I know them, and I can say that you have drawn a wonderful picture of their spirit and ideals.
With thanks and appreciation,
Yours sincerely,
Emily s. Coit
Librarian U.S. Naval Hospital
Portsmouth, Virginia
Feb. 9, 1923