Hamlin Garland’s most enduring short stories are those dealing with the Middle Border (the prairie lands of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas). Collected for the most part in four books, they touch on nearly every subject of everyday life, from birth through youth, adulthood, courtship, and marriage, to death. They deal with the unromantic life of harassed generations on the farms and in the small towns of the prairie. Garland’s belief that an author must write of “what is” with an eye toward “what is to be” causes him alternately to describe, prophesy, suggest, and demand. Although often subtle in his approach, he is sometimes, when championing the cause of the farmer, more the reformer than the artist. Social protest is the single most recurrent theme in his work. “A Stopover at Tyre” and “Before the Low Green Door” show with some skill the unrelenting drudgery of the farmer’s life.
“Under the Lion’s Paw”
“Under the Lion’s Paw,” Garland’s most anthologized story, is his most powerful statement of protest. In it, one man, Tim Haskins, like thousands of struggling farmers, is exploited by another man, representative of scores of other land speculators. Haskins, through months of arduous labor, pushing his own and his wife’s energies to their limits, has managed to make the dilapidated farm he is renting a productive place of which he can be proud. He has begun to feel confident that he can buy the farm and make a success of it. The owner, however, has taken note of the many physical improvements Haskins has made and recognizes its increased value. Thus, when Haskins talks to the owner about buying the place, he is astonished to learn that the purchase price has doubled and the rent has been increased. Haskins is “under the lion’s paw,” caught in untenable circumstances that will hurt him no matter what he does. If he gives up the farm, as his angry indignation dictates, he will lose all the money and time he has invested in the farm’s improvements. If he buys, he will be under a heavy mortgage that could be foreclosed at any time. If he continues to rent at the higher fee, all his work will almost literally be for the owner’s benefit, not for himself and his family. The personally satisfying alternative of simply striking the man dead is wildly considered by Haskins momentarily until the thought of the repercussions to his family brings him to his senses, and he agrees to buy on the owner’s terms. The situation in itself is cruel. Garland clearly shows that it is even worse when one realizes that the exploitation of Haskins is only one of thousands of similar cases.
“Lucretia Burns,” another social protest story, is longer and has more action and a more complex major character than the similar “Before the Low Green Door.” Although some of its impact is diminished by its tiresome discussions on reform and by its weak denouement, Garland has created in Lucretia an unforgettable character who makes the story praiseworthy. Lucretia is a strong personality who had “never been handsome, even in her days of early childhood, and now she was middle-aged, distorted with work and childbearing, and looking faded and worn.” Her face is “a pitifully worn, almost tragic face—long, thin, sallow, hollow-eyed. The mouth had long since lost the power to shape itself into a kiss. ” She has reached a point of desperation that calls for some kind of action: confrontation (with her husband), capitulation, or a mental breakdown. She chooses to renounce her soul-killing existence and operate on a level of bare subsistence, with no more struggling to “get ahead” or do what is expected. When the spirit of rebellion overcomes her, she simply gives in to her chronic weariness and refuses to do more than feed her children and the husband for whom she no longer cares.
For a successful conclusion to this powerful indictment against the farm wife’s hopeless life, Garland had several choices. Unfortunately, he chose the ineffectual ending in which a dainty, young, idealistic schoolteacher persuades Lucretia to give life another try. The reader, having seen Lucretia’s determination to stop the drudgery in her life forever, is dissatisfied, knowing it would have taken a great deal more than a sympathetic stranger to convince Lucretia that her life was worth enduring.
“A Sociable at Dudleys”
This kind of lapse is not Garland’s only flaw. Occasionally, he leads on his readers, telling them what they should think about a character. In “A Sociable at Dudleys,” for example, he describes the county bully: “No lizard revelled in the mud more hideously than he. His tongue dropped poison.” Garland apparently abhorred the “vileness of the bully’s whole life and thought.” Moreover, in most of the stories, one can tell the heroes from the villains by the Aryan features and Scottish names of the former and the dark, alien looks of the latter. His heroes are further categorized into two...
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