(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1887, Hamlin Garland traveled from Boston to South Dakota to visit his mother and father, whom he had not seen in six years. According to his own account, the trip through farming country was a revelation. Although he had been brought up on a farm, he had never realized how wretched farmers’ lives were. The farther west he traveled, the more oppressive it became for him to see the bleakness of the landscape and the poverty of its people. When he reached his parents’ farm and found his mother living in hopeless misery, Garland’s depression turned to bitterness, and in this mood he wrote Main-Travelled Roads, a series of short stories about farm life in the Midwest.

In one of these stories, “Up the Coolly,” Garland re-creates the mood of his trip under somewhat similar circumstances. Howard McLane, after years spent traveling with his own theatrical troupe, returns to the West for a surprise visit with his mother and brother. He finds them living in poverty on a small, unproductive farm, the family property having been sold to pay off a mortgage. Although his mother and his sister-in-law greet him warmly, Grant, his brother, makes it plain that he blames Howard for the loss of the farm that, had he shared his wealth, could have been saved. Howard’s attempt to win his brother’s friendship results only in alienation until Howard finally admits his selfishness and neglect and offers to buy the farm back. The brothers are reconciled, but the story ends bleakly with Grant’s refusal to accept any assistance.

Not many of Garland’s stories end on so despondent a note; most of them end hopefully and some even happily. Garland spares none of his principal characters a bitter sense of failure, but most of them manage to overcome it. Thus, in “A ’Good Fellow’s’ Wife,” Jim Sanford loses the savings of all the farmers who had invested in his bank. In “A Branch Road,” Will Hannon loses the beautiful girl he loves and only regains her when she becomes prematurely old and wasted. In “Under the Lion’s Paw,” Tim Haskins is forced to pay twice the former price of a farm whose value he himself has doubled by hard work.

Even in the stories that are lighter in tone, the characters taste the bitterness of life. In “The Creamery...

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Main-Travelled Roads Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Fiske, Horace S. Provincial Types in American Fiction. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968. Includes a detailed critical analysis of Garland’s short stories, explaining their realistic style and intent.

Foote, Stephanie. “The Region of the Repressed and the Return of the Region: Hamlin Garland and Harold Frederic.” In Regional Fictions: Culture and Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001. This chapter includes a lengthy analysis of Main-Travelled Roads, comparing it to other works of American regionalism. Foote argues that Americans’ conceptions of local identity originated with Garland and other regional fiction writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Howells, William Dean. “Editor’s Study.” In Critical Essays on Hamlin Garland, compiled by James Nagel. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Discusses style and themes in the stories “Among the Corn Rows,” “A Branch Road,” “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip,” “Up the Coolly,” and “Return of a Private.”

Knight, Grant C. American Literature and Culture. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1972. Includes a discussion of Garland’s collection of short stories as they relate to a literary portrayal of rural culture in America. Knight looks specifically at the themes and realistic style in “Up the Coolly” and “Return of a Private.”

Newlin, Keith. Hamlin Garland: A Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Newlin’s biography of Garland, the first to be published in more than forty years, is based in part on newly available letters, manuscripts, and family memoirs. Discusses Garland’s contributions to literature and places Garland’s work within the artistic context of its time. Chapter 8 focuses on Main-Travelled Roads.

Parrington, Vernon L. The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920. Vol. 3 in Main Currents in American Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1958. This authoritative classic source discusses the factual elements in Garland’s stories as well as the kinds of plots and characterizations he used. Explains some of the ways in which Garland’s stories compare with other realistic fictional portrayals of American rural life.