Roll Call on the Prairies
Cather Praises the Plains
In the July 1919 issue of Red Cross Magazine, Willa Cather published an account of her wartime visit home to Red Cloud:
"In New York the war was one of many subjects people talked about; but in Omaha, Lincoln, in my own town, and the other towns along the Republican Valley, there was nothing but the war. Everywhere the Red Cross was fully organized and at work, the first Liberty Loan was over-subscribed, many of the young men I knew had not waited for the draft but were already in training camps. In the afternoons one saw white things gleaming in the sun off through the trees; boys in their shirts and trousers, drilling in the schoolhouse yard or in the Court House Square.
"...the First Division, so largely made up of Western men, made our debut at Cantigny; and when the casualty lists began to appear in the New York papers, morning after morning I saw the names of little towns I knew in Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado -- little country towns, happy and prosperous, where nothing so terrible or so wonderful had ever happened as to drag them into the New York newspapers, towns hidden away in miles of cornfields or tracts of sand and sage; and now their names came out one after another with the name of some boy who brought his home town into the light once and gloriously. It was like a long roll call, and all the little prairie towns were answering that they were there."
G. P. Cather inspires One of Ours
Willa Cather's cousin, Grosvenor Phillips Cather, served in the U.S. Army's 26th Infantry, Company A. By most accounts, G.P. Cather was a popular and well-regarded officer, despite a young adulthood filled with missteps and false starts and, according to Cather, things that "turned out either ugly or ridiculous." In a 1922 letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Cather continues:
I was staying on his father’s farm when the war broke out. We spent the first week hauling wheat to town. On those long rides on the wheat, we talked for the first time in years; and I saw some of the things that were really in the back of his mind. I went away and forgot. I no more thought of writing a story about him than of writing about my own nose; it was all too painfully familiar. It was just to escape from him and his kind that I wrote at all.
He went over in July, 1917. He was killed at Cantigny, May 27, of the next year. That anything so glorious could have happened to anyone so disinherited of hope!
Cather went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours, based on the life and death of her cousin. After G.P. Cather's death, E.H. Prettyman, one of Lt. Cather's men, began a long correspondence with Frances Cather, mother of G.P. and aunt of Willa. Prettyman wrote:
It was May 28, the night after we took Cantigny. We were in the trenches in the wood, and the shelling was awful. It was raining shells. We were loosing [sic] many men. The Lieutenant wouldn’t keep off the top of the trenches, but kept out there to look after the men. He worried more about them than about himself. I begged him not to go.
He was down at the post—it was in the afternoon, but in the excitement, I couldn’t tell just what time—and he was talking to some men there, trying to cheer them up. There were no dugouts and the tranches [sic] were 4 feet deep. We lost 19 men out of 42. He turned around to walk away from the trench—going forward—when a shell burst in front of him. He was thrown way back into the trench, on his back. A piece of shell had gone in just about his heart, killing him instantly. . . .