Friday, July 20, 2018

Roll Call on the Prairies

Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

Left: World War I poster for the U.S. School Garden Army, an initiative by the Bureau of Education (with support from Food Administrator Herbert Hoover) encouraging children to garden. Right: Red Cross poster urging household production of supplies for soldiers. Both posters are chromolithographs published by American Lithographic Co., c. 1917–19. Images from Library of Congress.
At the end of June in 1918 Willa Cather was in a Manhattan hair salon when she noticed a New York Times item listing citations for bravery awarded to soldiers fighting at the Battle of Cantigny on May 28. The first citation in the list read:
Lieutenant G. P. Cather (since killed in action.) — With splendid courage and coolness he mounted the parapet of a trench and directed a destructive flanking fire from two automatic rifle teams exposed to seven German machine guns.
She had already learned of her cousin’s death when his name appeared in the “Killed in Action” section of the Times three weeks earlier. But the news of his citation for heroism caused her to reconsider Grosvenor Phillips Cather, whom she had always regarded as a bit of a ne’er-do-well. She sent the clipping to his mother with a note. “A dozen people have telephoned me today to ask if that splendid man who headed the list of splendid men in all the papers were any kin of mine,” she wrote. “He has covered us all with a credit we do not deserve—none of us except you and Uncle George.”

G. P. (as he was known to friends) had not always been so splendid—not to Willa Cather, anyway. They both had wanted to escape farm life, but Grosvenor regarded with contempt Willa’s career as a writer. He dropped out of college; his marriage was a shambles; he was financially unsuccessful and generally aimless. “We were very much alike—and very different,” Cather later wrote to the novelist and activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher. “He never could escape from the misery of being himself except in action, and whatever he put his hand to turned out either ugly or ridiculous. There were years when we avoided each other.”

In August 1914, when war was declared in Europe, Cather was in Nebraska, staying with Grosvenor’s parents on their farm outside Red Cloud. During her visit she met up with her cousin on the road to the town, where they discussed the impending war: “I believe he always wanted to be a soldier. I can see him sitting on his wagon as plainly as if it were yesterday, in the middle of a peaceful country, with thousands of miles of land and sea between him and those far-away armies we were talking about.” That day, the cousins seemed to achieve a détente of sorts. As she recalled a decade later, “we talked for the first time in years; and I saw some of the things that were really in the back of his mind.”

The year he encountered Willa on the country road, G. P. enlisted in the Nebraska National Guard. He served under General John Pershing in the Mexican Border War, became a member of the Allied Expeditionary Force in 1917, and fought in France in the regiment commanded by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He was the first officer from Nebraska killed in the war and after Willa Cather read the Distinguished Service Cross citation in the Times, he was constantly on her mind. “It wasn’t affection, but realization so acute that I could not get away from it,” she wrote Fisher. “Some of me was buried with him in France, and some of him was left alive in me.”

When she went home to Red Cloud the summer after G. P.’s death, Cather read the letters he had sent from the front to his mother, and over the next three years she was preoccupied writing a novel featuring a war hero inspired by her cousin. That novel, One of Ours, was published in 1922 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. While she was at work on the novel, Cather also wrote “Roll Call on the Prairies” for The Red Cross Magazine, recalling her visit to Red Cloud in the summer of 1918 and offering her light-hearted yet respectful impressions of the patriotic war activities of Nebraskans, many of whom had sons and brothers fighting—and dying—in Europe.

Notes: The first sale of Liberty Bonds (referred to Cather as the first Liberty Loan) began on April 28, 1917, with an offering of $2 billion of bonds with a 3.5 percent rate of return. Bonds were sold in denominations ranging from $50 to $10,000, and the sale of “War Thrift Stamps” made it possible to purchase $50 bonds on the installment plan. There were more than four million subscribers to the loan. Herbert Hoover served as U.S. Food Administrator, 1917–19, and issued the directives regarding food distribution and conservation playfully mocked by Cather in her article. The Women’s Committee of the Council for National Defense was created in April 1917 by President Woodrow Wilson with the suffragist leader Anna Howard Shaw as its chair to help coordinate the domestic war effort.

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No one remembers now that the “fighting spirit” of the West was ever questioned; but at the time the United States entered the war, people along the Atlantic seaboard felt concern as to how the Middle West and the prairie states would respond. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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