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...
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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 inA 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 says of another, “he’s a Jew, but he’s not too much of a Jew.”) A Little Norsk thus documents both the harsh physical realities and the purely human harshness and prejudice of prairie life.
Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly
Garland’s most sustained novel is Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly. At the time of its publication in 1895, it was a most daring book, primarily because it treats rather openly the sexual misdemeanors of adolescents. To a modern reader, however, Garland’s treatment of this subject will appear markedly restrained and even genteel, hardly in keeping with his resolve to tell the truth without evasion or prettification.
Rose, a motherless child, spends her infancy and early childhood with her father on their farm. She grows up hearing and seeing things that many children are never confronted with: the “mysterious processes of generation and birth” with a “terrifying power to stir and develop passions prematurely”; obscene words among the farm hands; “vulgar cackling of old women”; courtship, birth, and death. She goes to her father with all her questions and he, with sometimes blundering answers, manages to keep her from becoming too curious too soon. When the time comes in her teenage years when she can no longer hold her feelings in check, she, like other youngsters, experiments with sex. She tells her father, and he, by appealing to her love for him and his wish that she be a good girl, staves off further episodes.
Rose is interested in reading and writing, and Doctor Thatcher, who visits her school, is so impressed by her that he promises to try to help her get into a college-preparatory school. Though her father is reluctant, she is finally allowed to go. Once there, she—now a beautiful young woman—has many suitors but is not interested in them beyond friendship. She wishes for a life of intellectual activity and creative writing. Finishing the seminary, she goes to Chicago, again with her father’s reluctant approval. There she meets and falls in love with Mason. After overcoming his disinclination to marry, Mason finally proposes to Rose.
Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly has been called Garland’s best novel. He dared to speak frankly about natural, common occurrences in a sincere, sensible way. This blunt approach was perhaps what shocked his first readers; apparently they were unprepared to face in print those things about which they hardly talked and never in mixed company. Libraries ruled out the book, calling it “unsafe reading.” Yet, even with these realistic elements, the book does not live up to its promise because Garland, as usual, romanticizes his “beautiful” heroine. Rose is nevertheless, a heroine fit to share the stage with Stephen Crane’s Maggie and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.
The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop
One of Garland’s most successful novels is a romanticized story of the Far West, The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop. Captain George Curtis, surveying the mountainous land he has come to love, sums up the novel’s plot elements when he says to his sister Jennie, “Yes, it’s all here, Jenniethe wild country, the Indian, the gallant scout, and the tender maiden.” Add the noble captain and the villainous ranchers, and the mix that makes the story is complete.
Unlike Garland’s earlier novels set in the Middle Border, The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop is realistic primarily in the sense that it deals with a genuine problem (the encroachment on Native American lands and rights by avaricious Caucasians). Intentionally or not, it also reveals the whites’ attitude of superiority in regard to the American Indian. Curtis is a good and honorable man, yet he can say, having learned of a barbaric execution of an Indian, “It’s a little difficult to eliminate violence from an inferior race when such cruelty is manifested in those we call their teachers.” Earlier he remarks of the Indians that “these people have no inner resources. They lop down when their accustomed props are removed. They come from defective stock.”
This “superiority” is reflected elsewhere throughout the novel: in the unintentionally ironic comment describing “a range of hills which separate the white man’s country from the Tetong reservation,” and in comments such as “A Mexican can’t cook no more’n an Injun.” Yet Garland has Captain Curtis, unaware of his own prejudice, remark about another character who is blatantly anti-Native American that she is “well-schooled in race hatred.” Written in the stilted style more reminiscent of the genteel tradition than of the veritism Garland espoused in his earlier years, The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop truthfully depicts relations between American Indians and Caucasians in the nineteenth century. Interestingly enough, all the white characters, even those who, like Curtis, want to help the Indians and thwart their persecutors, seem to believe that the Indians are at best very low on the social scale.
The significance of this novel today may well lie not in the story of one white man’s attempt to secure justice for the oppressed Indians but rather in its revelation of the bigoted attitudes of whites toward nonwhites. In its time, the book sold very well, going into several editions. It ultimately sold nearly 100,000 copies, Garland’s largest sale. (Thirty years after publication it was still selling.) It received better reviews than Garland had hoped for, even from critics who had condemned his earlier books.
Apparently it was the success of this book (which had been considered during the height of its popularity for a motion-picture production) that convinced Garland that his earlier Middle Border stories would never bring him financial success. It is not difficult to understand why the remainder of his novels were like The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop, though less successful.
Garland’s subsequent literary output offers little that is memorable. His reputation in American literature rests primarily on his work as a short-story writer and autobiographer. An early realist, he also had a naturalistic bent. His earlier works, up to and including Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, show that individuals are controlled by the “outer constraints of environment and circumstance” as well as by the “inner constraints of instinct and passion.” Garland uses local color not to caricature or make fun of his characters but to make his work more realistic and true to nature. The social elements he includes help to provide the significance he felt all literature must have to survive. The impressionistic tendencies seen in certain very subjective descriptions indicate a concern for “individualism as the coloring element of a literature.” His minor lapses into romantic sentimentality and genteel restraint (typified by his habit of referring to “legs” as “limbs”) are in themselves evidence of this same individualism; his restraint demonstrates his personal reluctance to be unnecessarily graphic in describing certain aspects of life. Still he was forthright in delineating most of his subjects. Garland’s early novels are, for the most part, fine examples of his veritistic theory.
American literature is indebted to Garland for the stronger realism and the wealth of social history he contributed. It is not difficult to applaud Garland’s early novels. He set out to show truth in time, place, people, and incident. He sought to bring social significance to his work. He succeeded in several novels before succumbing to commercialism and the desire or need to be not only a good writer but also a financially successful one.