Garland, Hamlin 1860-1940
(Born Hannibal Hamlin Garland) American short story writer, novelist, autobiographer, essayist, and critic.
The short fiction of Hamlin Garland combines the principles of literary realism with the author's concern for oppressed Midwestern farmers in the decades following the American Civil War. The result is a closely-knit group of stories that illustrate the hardships of rural labor, debunking the myth of idyllic farm life that had prevailed in the United States since the country's inception. The stories, especially in his initial collection, Main-Travelled Roads, also proved influential in their use of descriptive detail, their inclusion of Garland's populist political views, and their omission of the sentimental characters and plot devices that were common in the literature of the late 1800s. For all of these reasons, Garland is viewed as a seminal author whose impact is evident on a number of writers, including his immediate literary descendants such as Frank Norris and Stephen Crane, as well as twentieth-century authors like Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck. A later collection of his short stories, The Book of the American Indian, has also been praised for its progressive attitude toward the problems faced by Native Americans at the turn of the century. A prolific author, Garland also produced several well-respected autobiographical volumes and a series of Western adventure novels that made him a popular success but have been harshly criticized by scholars.
Born on a farm near New Salem, Wisconsin, in 1860, Garland spent his childhood in various parts of the "Middle Border"—the recently-settled regions of the Midwestern United States that stretched from the Mississippi Valley to the western edge of the Great Plains. In Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakota Territory (now South Dakota), his father and mother established a number of farms, and Garland became familiar with agricultural work at an early age. After attending school at a seminary in Osage, Iowa, he travelled through the eastern United States for a time before becoming a homestead farmer in the Dakota Territory in 1883. The next year he gave up his farm and returned to the East, hoping to further his education in Boston. Having little money and few contacts in the city, his studies consisted of long days of reading in the public library; he soon became immersed in the ideas of prominent philosophers and economists of the 1800s, especially those of Herbert Spencer and Henry George. The latter's proposal of a "Single Tax" on land values was aimed at alleviating the economic burden suffered by small farmers, and Garland soon became an avid proponent of George's ideas. Garland also became acquainted with novelist William Dean Howells at this time, and Howells's ideas on realistic and "local color" literature, as well as his influence in the world of letters, helped to guide Garland's writing career. In 1887 Garland returned briefly to South Dakota to visit his family, and his close observation of the hardships of farm life inspired the first of the short stories that would become part of Main-Travelled Roads. Following the book's publication, he campaigned for Henry George's People's Party and wrote a number of novels that were fictional arguments for George's populist movement, but his involvement with the Single Tax and other reform causes began to wane in the mid-1890s. Garland moved to Chicago in 1894, where he became involved in the city's cultural circles and began a family with his wife Zulime Taft Garland. He lived there until 1916, though he frequently travelled around the country, especially to the Far West, conducting research for his books. Garland later resided in New York City and then in California, where he died in 1940.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Garland's first book, Main-Travelled Roads, presents the literary techniques, characters, and ideas that have established his reputation as a writer. As a pioneer of realistic and local color literature, his work in the volume graphically describes the lives and surroundings of his characters. Many of the stories, including "The Return of the Private" and "Up the Coulé," concern Middle Border natives who return to their homeland and find their friends and families struggling with lives of grim labor. Women, in particular, are depicted as victims of the region's harsh conditions; in "A Branch Road," Will Hannan returns to the midwest to find his former sweetheart Agnes living in ill health on a squalid farm, married to a callous husband who cares little for her suffering. Garland's female characters sometimes flee from their dreary lives, as Agnes does in "A Branch Road," while others, including the protagonist of "Mrs. Ripley's Trip," are resigned to their rural toil. In placing blame for the suffering of farm families, Garland targeted the economic and political conditions of the time and used his stories as a means of lobbying for change. The primary evil in the author's eyes was a tax system that encouraged speculation and victimized the small land owner. "Under the Lion's Paw," from Main-Travelled Roads, is one of many Garland stories that take up this issue, arguing for the adoption of the Henry George's Single Tax system.
Garland's most prolific period as a short story writer lasted from the late 1880s to the mid-1890s. In this period he produced the stories that appeared in the various editions of Main-Travelled Roads, as well as those collected in Prairie Folks, Wayside Courtships, and Other Main-Travelled Roads. These books have much in common, featuring rural or small town locales, and are often considered companion volumes. In the latter three, Garland at times invokes a lighter, more humorous tone than in Main-Travelled Roads, while other stories continue to emphasize realistic principles and provide somber portrayals of life in the Midwest. At roughly the same time that he was composing his Midwestern stories, he was also writing novels. After producing several works of long fiction that were intended to promote various reform issues, he began to publish romantic adventure novels in the late 1890s. These books are typically set in the Rocky Mountains and feature romances between rugged Western men, such as forest rangers and calvary captains, and beautiful women who have recently arrived from the East. Such plots were a radical departure for Garland, a writer who, just a few years prior, had practiced and vocally supported realistic fiction.
The author's later short fiction is collected in two volumes. The stories in They of the High Trails feature western mountain settings, and, as their titles indicate, they attempt to delineate various characters common in the region such as "The Cow-boss" and "The Trail Tramp." The Book of the American Indian, in contrast, returns to issues of social reform, confronting the status and legacy of Native Americans in the western United States. The book depicts the cruel treatment Indians received from settlers and the difficulties tribal people face in adapting to the modern world. Despite these obstacles, stories such as "Wahiah—A Spartan Mother" and the novella "The Silent Eaters" suggest that the Native Americans must change their way of life in order to exist in the white man's world.
Main-Travelled Roads is considered an important publication in nineteenth-century American literature. Critics cite its value both as an innovative collection of realistic short fiction and as a social artifact that provides insight into rural American life and the reform movements of the time. Reviewers have, on occasion, criticized the didactic qualities of the book and its overwhelming emphasis on the grim aspects of farm life. Other scholars, however, have found that it is Garland's strident social and political concerns that make Main-Travelled Roads his most powerful work, and these qualities are also noted in many of the related stories published in other Middle Border volumes. Much criticism on Garland is devoted to the abrupt change in writing style that is reflected in his romantic works of popular fiction; the most-prevalent theories attribute the change to the author's dwindling commitment to social causes and his desire for popular and financial success. The stories in They of the High Trails are generally viewed as similar to Garland's adventure novels and therefore dismissed or ignored by critics. The Book of the American Indian, however, has received largely positive notices, especially from contemporary critics. Many have praised the author's exhaustive research and his effective use of the fictional format to address the relationship between native tribes and Euro American settlers. Though the overall quality of Garland's writing is viewed as strangely uneven, scholars largely agree that his finest fictional work is found in his short stories. As Thomas A. Bledsoe writes, "Hamlin Garland produced a handful of minor masterpieces, of which Main-Travelled Roads is the finest. For them he deserves to be remembered .. . as an artist who, for a brief time at least, knew his craft and practiced it honestly."