Hannibal Hamlin Garland was born on a farm near West Salem, in Wisconsin. When he was eight years old his family moved to the Iowa prairie, where he grew up in the hard rural life he described in his books. In 1881, after graduating from Cedar Valley Seminary in Osage, Iowa, he taught school for a year in Illinois before moving to Boston, where, penniless and unknown, he spent a winter reading in the public library. Here he first became acquainted with the writings of Henry George and Herbert Spencer, who gave him the ethical and social inspiration to accept the realities of the agricultural life.
A trip back to his father’s Dakota farm in 1887 confirmed Garland in his desire to write about the life of the plains. With the encouragement of the writer Joseph Kirkland he began his first stories, which were printed in Century, Harper’s Weekly, and Arena. After his writing had made him famous, Garland, in 1893, moved to Chicago, where he remained until 1916. He counted among his friends and acquaintances some of the prominent literary figures of the time, including William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and Rudyard Kipling. In 1916 he moved to New York and in 1930 to Los Angeles, where he died ten years later.
Main-Travelled Roads, Garland’s first collection of stories, belongs to the more important documents of American literary history. It is a conscientious record of the midwestern farmer’s plight during the rapid growth of industrialization, presented in stories that are harsh and objective, aware of a vanishing pioneer dream and hopeless of the future. Prairie Folks, published in 1893, continued this theme of the “blight as well as the bloom of the frontier.” In the essays collected in Crumbling Idols Garland moved from social to cultural awareness of the changes in Western life, expressing regret for its backwardness and suggesting the possibilities of drama in the development of towns and cities. He followed Whitman in advising the artist to tell the truth of the life he saw about him. Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, which many critics regard as his best novel, puts this idea into practice in the story of a talented girl who found poetry in savage Chicago. A Son of the Middle Border, the last of Garland’s notable writings, is his autobiographical summation of the agrarian illusion he had seen dispelled. Many critics regard the sequels to this book, among them A Daughter of the Middle Border and Trail-Makers of the Middle Border, as lesser achievements than the earlier vision. Later in life Garland tried writing plays and wrote articles on psychic phenomena, as well as novels about cowboys and Indians, which were commercially successful but critically disregarded.