Hamlin Garland Long Fiction Analysis
Hamlin Garland’s theory of literature, detailed in his book Crumbling Idols: Twelve Essays on Art (1894), grew out of two concepts formulated early in his writing career: “that truth has a higher quality than beauty, and that to spread the reign of justice should everywhere be the design and intent of the artist.” This theory of veritism obligated him to write stories early in his career that he said were “not always pleasant, but[were] generally true, and always provoke thought.”
Garland wrote about “truth” that, for the most part, he had himself experienced. The “justice” he sought to perpetuate was simplified by a reformer’s zeal. As a result, he produced a series of didactic early novels that often retell his life experiences in thin disguise. Later on, when he began to view writing as a business, churning out books and shorter pieces that were intentionally commercial, he wrote a series of safely inoffensive novels that were more romantic than realistic and that are consequently of little importance today.
A Spoil of Office
In his first novel, A Spoil of Office, Garland set out to write propaganda, or social protest. In it, he achieved greater continuity of plot than in many subsequent books, he included fewer digressions, and he realized his indisputable though not lofty aim. A Spoil of Office is one of his better novels.
It is the story of a hired man, Bradley Talcott, who, inspired by political activist Ida Wilbur, decides to make something of himself, to become more than he is. He goes back to school, then on to law school, and becomes in succession a lawyer, an Iowa state legislator, and ultimately a Congressman in Washington, D.C. He falls in love with and marries Ida, and together they work in the crusade for equal rights for everyone.
Garland showed in A Spoil of Office that corruption and inequality prevail in the legislative process. Prejudiced against the moneyed classes, Garland laid much of the injustice against the poor and average folk at the door of the well-to-do: Brad implies that the financially poorer legislators are the more honorable ones; that while living in a hovel is no more a guarantee of honesty than living in a brownstone is a “sure sign of a robber,” it is a “tolerably safe inference.”
Garland’s own experiences and interests are reflected in Brad’s fondness for oratory and Ida’s alliances with various reform movements and organizations (the Grange, women’s rights, the Farmers Alliance). In his youth, Garland had entertained the notion of an oratorical career; his reform activities under the influence of Benjamin O. Flowers, editor of the radical magazine The Arena, are well documented.
A Little Norsk
The “truth” of prairie living, its harshness and its prejudices, is seen in Garland’s short novel of realistic incident, A Little Norsk. The story is about a Norwegian girl, Flaxen, adopted and reared by two bachelors. She grows up, well-loved by her adopted “father” and “uncle.” When the two men find their paternal feelings changing to more romantic love, they wisely send her off to school. Flaxen, called so because of her blond hair, meets and marries an irresponsible young man and they soon have a child. The young man, hounded by gambling debts, flees them and his family; a drowning accident removes him permanently from Flaxen’s life. She moves back with the older, fatherly bachelor, taking her baby daughter with her. The novel ends with the strong implication that she will marry the younger bachelor.
In spite of a contrived plot, the novel is a realistic portrayal of the harshness of life on the prairie. Garland describes the blizzard that kills Flaxen’s parents, conveying the terror that uncontrollable natural phenomena brought to the hapless prairie settlers. Although often romanticized for the benefit of those who had never experienced it, a blizzard on the isolated prairie was the harbinger of possible death. When a death occurs, as it does in A Little Norsk, there is the gruesome prospect of the dead bodies being attacked by hungry mice and even wolves—a prospect that Garland does not fail to dramatize.
Garland shows how Scandinavian women were treated by “native-born” American men when Flaxen occasionally encounters the village men who wink at her and pinch her. The two bachelors are aware that “the treatment that the Scandinavians’ women git from the Yankees” is not nearly as respectful as that which Yankee women can expect. Ironically, Garland himself was probably guilty of such prejudices, because many of his fictional and autobiographical works reveal a condescending, patronizing attitude toward blacks, a disregard for hired hands (unless they are main characters, such as Brad Talcott), and an apparent dislike for immigrants such as Germans, Scandinavians, and Jews. (In Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, a character...
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