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...
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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 prevailing physical types: Either they are tall, imposing, strong, even powerful and handsome (Tim Haskins is an older, more worn version of this type) or they are stocky, sturdy, ambitious, cheerful, and optimistic counterparts of the young Hamlin Garland as he described himself in A Son of the Middle Border. Will Hannan of “A Branch Road” falls into this category.
“A Branch Road”
“A Branch Road” develops another favorite theme of Garland—a romantic one in which boy meets girl; misunderstanding separates them; and then adversity reunites them. Although this plot is well-worn today, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the reading public still liked it, and Garland occasionally catered to the larger reading public. “A Branch Road” is long enough for the author to develop character, setting, and plot in a more leisurely, less personal manner than in some of his other stories on the same theme, such as “A Day of Grace,” “A Sociable at Dudleys,” and “William Bacon’s Man.” In “A Branch Road,” young Will Hannan and Agnes Dingman have fallen in love. Will is ecstatic when he goes to the Dingman farm to help with the threshing, secure in his belief that she cares as much for him as he for her.
Once at the farm, however, listening to the other men, both young and older, making casual, joking comments about Agnes’s prettiness and her attraction to most of the young swains in the county, Will becomes apprehensive that they will notice her obvious preference for him and make light of his deep private feelings. To prevent this, he repays her smiling attentions to him with curt words and an aloof manner. Agnes is hurt and confused by this, not understanding his masculine pride and sensitivity to ridicule. She responds by keeping up a light-hearted demeanor by smiling and talking to the other men, who are delighted, a response that makes Will rage inwardly. The day is a disaster for Will, but because he is to take Agnes to the fair in a few days, he is confident that he will be able then to set things right.
On the morning of the day of the fair, however, the hopeful lover sets out early, but promptly loses a wheel from his buggy, requiring several hours of delay for repair. By the time he gets to Agnes’s house, she has gone to the fair with Will’s rival, Ed Kinney. Will is so enraged by this turn of events that he cannot think. Dominated by his pride and jealous passion, blaming her and considering no alternatives, he leaves the county, heading West, without a word of farewell or explanation to Agnes.
Seven years later he returns to find Agnes married to Ed Kinney, mother of a baby, daughter-in-law to two pestering old people, and distressingly old before her time. Will manages to speak privately to her and learns how he and she had misunderstood each other’s actions on that day long ago. He finds she had indeed loved him. He accepts that it is his fault her life is now so unhappy, that she is so abused and worn. In defiance of custom and morality, he persuades her to leave her husband and go away with him. They flee, taking her baby with them.
In outline, this is the familiar melodrama of the villain triumphing over the fair maiden while the hero is away; then, just in time, the hero returns to rescue the heroine from the villain’s clutches. Actually, however, Garland avoids melodrama and even refrains from haranguing against farm drudgery. He avoids the weak denouement and chooses instead a rather radical solution to the problem: The abduction of a wife and baby by another man was a daring ending to an American 1890’s plot. Yet Garland makes the justice of the action acceptable.
Will Hannan, a very sensitive young man living among people who seem coarse and crude, is propelled through the story by strong, understandable emotions: love, pride, anger, fear of humiliation, remorse, pity, and guilt. Love causes the anger that creates the confusion in his relationship with Agnes. Pride and fear of humiliation drive him away from her. Remorse pursues him all the time he is away and is largely responsible for his return. Pity and guilt make him steal Agnes away from the life to which he feels he has condemned her. Many of Garland’s other stories do not have the emotional motivation of characters that “A Branch Road” has (in all fairness, most are not as long); nor are Garland’s characters generally as complex. He seems less concerned with probing a personality’s reaction to a situation than with describing the consequences of an act.
The theme of the return of the native to his Middle Border home is used in several stories, among them “Up the Coolly,” “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip,” and “Among the Corn Rows.”
“The Return of a Private”
Less pessimistic and tragic and more sentimental than these is “The Return of a Private,” an elaboration of Garland’s father’s return from the Civil War as told in the first chapter of A Son of the Middle Border. The story describes the sadness which old war comrades feel as they go their separate ways home. It describes the stirring emotions which the returning soldier feels as he nears his home and sees familiar landmarks; when he first catches sight of the homestead; when he sees his nearly disbelieving wife and the children who hardly remember him. They are tender scenes, but Garland the artist cannot contain Garland the reformer, who reminds the reader of the futility facing the soldier, handicapped physically from war-connected fever and ague and handicapped financially by the heavy mortgage on his farm. The soldier’s homecoming is shown as one tiny, bright moment in what has been and will continue to be an endless cycle of dullness and hardship. Garland obviously empathizes with the character and shows the homecoming as a sweet, loving time, but, as with so many of his stories, “The Return of a Private” is overcast with gloom.
Garland’s stories show the ugly and the beautiful, the tragic with the humorous, the just with the unjust. He tries always to show the true, reporting the speech and dress of the people accurately, describing their homes and their work honestly. Truth, however, is not all that he seeks; he wants significance as well. To this end, his stories show the effects of farm drudgery on the men and women, of the ignorant practices of evangelists, of the thwarted ambitions of the youth because of circumstances beyond their control. Garland does not always suppress his reformer’s instincts, and so in some stories he offers solutions. In his best stories, however, he simply shows the injustice and moves the reader, by his skillful handling of details, to wish to take action. Although his stories are often bitter and depressing, there is a hopefulness and optimism in Garland that compels him to bring them to a comparatively happy ending. In his best stories, he does for the Middle Border what Mary E. Wilkins Freeman does for New England, brings the common people into rich relation with the reader and shows movingly the plights of the less fortunate among them, especially women.