by Willa Cather. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1922. 12 mo. viii+459 pp. $2.50.
MISS CATHER’S new story is a profound and powerful epic of the great war.
The foundation is laid in the Middle West, which Miss Cather knows so well and always depicts with such a loving touch. We see the strangely mixed and blended races, typified in vividly natural and contrasted human figures, tilling together the huge, rich, dumb, responsive earth. Life creeps onward from day to day, repeating its old, common, monotonous comedies and tragedies, poignant to those who play in them, tame to superficial observers and meaningless.
The hero of the book is a plain American, Claude Wheeler, who does his work, ploughs and harrows, earns and spends, eats, drinks, and sleeps, with the rest. Yet he differs from the more stolid souls about him in that life puzzles and perplexes him. seems to mean nothing and to lead nowhere, yet somehow suggests vast possibilities which leave his eager, restless spirit forever unsatisfied. What does it all mean? What is it all tending to? What is the eternal use, the purpose, the profit of this great, rich, sensual, industrious, middle-western America? To what end are the powers and sensibilities that he feels stirring in himself—only to die?
He asks these questions obscurely, half-consciously, while his earnest muscles go about their daily labor and the months and years slip away. He asks—and no one answers. His stalwart, prosperous, cynical father does not answer him. His mother’s remote, hidden God does not answer him. His cold, mild, persistent, unresponsive wife does not answer him.
Then the great war comes. Claude is swept into it, with a million others, is swept over the vast, strange ocean, with deaths crowding about him even there, is swept over the sunny fields of Prance, and dies, like so many others, the death of a hero, still with the puzzle in his heart, and in Miss Cather’s heart, and in the reader’s heart. But the solution suggested is in the sanctification of glory over duty done.
The sense of mystery and the sense of beauty make the charm of this latest book of Miss Cather’s, as they made the charm of the lovely April Twilights twenty years ago. But the mystery has perhaps deepened and darkened under the strain of life; and the feeling of beauty, if no less intense, is somewhat less permeating. And I like to turn back from Claude’s heroic sacrifice to the verses which have sung so long in my memory and which make so touching an epilogue to the later book:
’So blind is life, so long at last is sleep,
And none but Love to bid us laugh or weep, And none but Love,
And none but Love.’