Hamlin Garland Garland, Hamlin - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

*Main-Travelled Roads 1891

Prairie Folks 1893

Wayside Courtships 1897

Other Main-Travelled Roads 1910

They of the High Trails 1916

The Book of the American Indian 1923

*Various enlarged editions of Main-Travelled Roads were published in 1899, 1922, and 1930.


Jason Edwards, An Average Man 1892

A Little Norsk 1892

A Member of the Third House 1892

A Spoil of Office: A Story of the Modern West 1892

Rose of Dutcher's Coolly 1895

The Spirit of Sweetwater 1898

Boy Life on the Prairie 1899

The Eagle's Heart 1900

Her Mountain Lover 1901

The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop 1902

Hesper 1903

The Light of the Star 1904

The Tyranny of the Dark 1905

Money Magic 1907

The Shadow World 1908

Cavanagh, Forest Ranger: A Romance of the Mountain West 1910

Victor Ollnee's Discipline 1911

The Forester's Daughter 1914


A Son of the Middle Border 1917

A Daughter of the Middle Border 1921

Trail-Makers of the Middle Border 1926

Back-Trailers from the Middle Border 1928

Roadside Meetings 1930

Companions on the Trail 1931

My Friendly Contemporaries 1932

Afternoon Neighbors 1934

Hamlin Garland's Diaries 1968

Other Major Works

Under the Wheels: A Modern Play in Six Scenes (play) 1890

Prairie Songs: Being Chants Rhymed and Unrhymed of the Level Lands of the Great West (poetry) 1893

Crumbling Idols: Twelve Essays on Art, Dealing Chiefly with Literature, Painting and the Drama (essays) 1894

Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Character (biography) 1898

The Trail of the Goldseekers (nonfiction) 1899

Forty Years of Psychic Research (nonfiction) 1936

The Mystery of the Buried Cross (nonfiction) 1939

Hamlin Garland's Observations on the American Indian, 1895-1905 (nonfiction) 1976

William Dean Howells (essay date 1891)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Editor's Study," in Critical Essays on Hamlin Garland, edited by James Nagel, G. K. Hall & Co., 1982, pp. 35-6.

[A prominent figure in nineteenth-century American literature, Howells was one of the leading advocates and practitioners of literary realism in the United States. He offered early encouragement for Garland's writing, and in the following excerpt, he declares Main-Travelled Roads to be an accurate depiction of the Midwestern farmer's plight as well as "a work of art."]

.. . At present we have only too much to talk about in a book so robust and terribly serious as Mr. Hamlin Garland's volume called Main-Travelled Roads. That...

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The Atlantic Monthly (essay date 1892)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Main-Travelled Roads, in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. LXIX, No. CCCCXII, February, 1892, p. 266.

[In the following excerpt, the anonymous critic comments on Garland's "earnest" depiction of rural toil in Main-Travelled Roads and cautions that the unremitting despair of the stories borders on dullness.]

Whoever fares with Mr. Garland along his Main-Travelled Roads is still no farther from the South than the Mississippi Valley, but the environment is unmistakably the West. The color, the light, the life, the movement, the readiness to turn from melancholy feeling to humorous perception,—all these are gone, together with the...

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Brander Matthews (essay date 1892)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "American Fiction Again," in Cosmopolitan, Vol. XII, No. 5, March, 1892, pp. 636-40.

[Matthews was an influential American critic and educator of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In the following excerpt, he praises the insight and originality of Main-Travelled Roads, while noting several flaws in the collection.]

Mr. Garland paints his pictures boldly; or rather should I call his work etching, vigorously done, with many a firm stroke, well bitten in the bath. These are rugged figures that he draws and the shadows they cast are grim and hard. The trouble with most of us men of letters is that we go on writing stories about ladies and...

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Carl Van Doren (essay date 1922)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hamlin Garland," in Critical Essays on Hamlin Garland, edited by James Nagel, G. K. Hall & Co., 1982, pp. 147-51.

[Van Doren was an American educator, editor, and author. In the following essay, he recognizes Garland as the literary predecessor to later writers, such as Sinclair Lewis, whose fiction painted a bleak picture of rural America. Van Doren also argues that most of Garland's novels do not equal the achievement of his short stories and autobiographical volumes because his long fiction often ignores the author's authentic experiences.]

The pedigree of the most energetic and important fiction now being written in the United States goes unmistakably...

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Peter Phillip (essay date 1923)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Plain Tales from the Plains: Hamlin Garland on the Red Man," in The New York Times Book Review, October 14, 1923, p. 5.

[In the following review of The Book of the American Indian, Phillip praises Garland's stories about Native Americans as a valuable addition to the literature of the United States.]

[The Book of the American Indian] is a joint tribute to the Saga of the American Indian by two artists who knew him intimately and loved him. A great deal of mawkish sentiment has obscured our fictional studies: the romantic evil of Fenimore Cooper continues to haunt us in fiction and the drama. A utilitarian school has viciously rationalized for...

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Dorothy Anne Dondore (essay date 1926)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Realism of the Mississippi Valley," in The Prairie and the Making of Middle America: Four Centuries of Description, The Torch Press, 1926, pp. 328-44.

[In the excerpt below, Dondore discusses the grim portrayals of rural life in Garland's short stories, recognizing them as truthful depictions drawn from the author's own experiences.]

[Hamlin Garland] wrote some of the most widely discussed of western short stories; he created the most complete and artistic portrayal of the epic lure that in three centuries drew the line of migration from the Atlantic to the Pacific; he flung down the gauntlet to Eastern critics in his [1894] volume of essays...

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Granville Hicks (essay date 1935)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Struggle and Fight," in The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature Since the Civil War, revised edition, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1935, pp. 142-48.

[Hicks was an American literary critic whose famous study The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature Since the Civil War (1933) established him as the foremost advocate of Marxist critical thought in Depression-era America. In the following excerpt from that book, he offers a brief assessment of Garland's career and maintains that the power of the author's best work, his short stories, stems from his identification with Midwestern farmers and the agrarian reform movement of the 1880s and...

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Walter Fuller Taylor (essay date 1942)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hamlin Garland," in The Economic Novel in America, 1942. Reprint by Octagon Books, 1964, pp. 148-83. Originally published by the University of North Carolina Press.

[Taylor was an American critic and educator whose books include A Literary History of the United States (1948). In the following excerpt, Taylor traces the economic and social influences that shaped Garland's fiction. The critic also offers an explanation for why Garland stopped including reform topics in his writing, arguing that by the mid-1890s, "the cultural foundation on which [Garland] had hitherto stood was dissolving. "]

More systematic than the scattered deliverances of Mark Twain,...

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Grant C. Knight (essay date 1951)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Search for Reality," in The Critical Period in American Literature, The University of North Carolina Press, 1951, pp. 43-67.

[In this excerpt, Knight details the events that inspired Garland's fiction and analyzes the stories in Main-Travelled Roads, Prairie Folks, and Wayside Courtships.]

[William Dean] Howells had no more admiring and articulate defender than Hamlin Garland, who had somehow picked up the title of Professor. Lecturing on Howells at Avon-by-the-Sea, Garland quoted his friend's definition of realism as "the truthful treatment of material" and rightly appraised it as a revolutionary step in the history of the American novel; he went...

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Bernard I. Duffey (essay date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hamlin Garland's 'Decline' from Realism," in American Literature, Vol. XXV, No. 1, March, 1953, pp. 69-74.

[Duffey is an American educator and critic whose books include Modern American Literature (1951). Below, he asserts that for Garland "reform and realism were never in themselves primary literary or intellectual pursuits, " and that he largely made use of these ideas in his writing so that he could further his literary success. For a response to Duffey's argument, see the 1954 essay by James D. Koerner.]

The place of Hamlin Garland in the history of American writing is by this time a familiar and even a conventionalized one. He is pictured as the...

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Thomas A. Bledsoe (essay date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Main-Travelled Roads by Hamlin Garland, edited by Thomas A. Bledsoe, Rinehart & Co., 1954, pp. ix-xl.

[Bledsoe is an American author, editor, and educator. In this excerpt, he comments on Garland's genesis as a fiction writer and his ultimate deterioration, but the critic upholds the artistic achievement of Main-Travelled Roads, maintaining that Garland "produced a handful of minor masterpieces" in his career.]


It would be easy to see in Hamlin Garland one of the minor tragedies of American literature. In the contrast between the bitter realism of Main-Travelled Roads and the complacent...

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James D. Koerner (essay date 1954)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Comment on 'Hamlin Garland's "Decline" from Realism'," in American Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, November, 1954, pp. 427-32.

[Koerner is an American critic and educator. Here, he presents a rebuttal to Bernard Duffey's 1953 argument regarding Garland's sincerity as realist and a writer of protest fiction. Koerner maintains that Garland's social consciousness was evident prior to the beginning of his publishing career and that the author's "honestness of purpose" was affirmed by many of his contemporaries.]

Bernard I. Duffey's paper, "Hamlin Garland's 'Decline' from Realism," in the March, 1953, issue of American Literature seems to me unreasonable in...

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Donald Pizer (essay date 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Local Colorisi as Social Reformer (1888-1890)," in Hamlin Garland's Early Work and Career, University of California Press, 1960, pp. 59-78.

[Pizer is an American critic and educator and a prominent authority on Garland's life and works, having served as editor for the author's Diaries (1968) and the novel Rose of Dutcher's Coolly (1970). In the following excerpt, the critic analyzes Main-Travelled Roads and Prairie Folks, asserting that the high quality of the two collections results from Garland's emphasis on issues of social life and social injustice.]

Most of the stories Garland wrote during 1888-1890 were collected in...

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James K. Folsom (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Vanishing American," in The American Western Novel, College University Press, 1966, pp. 141-76.

[In the following excerpt, Folsom examines Garland's treatment of Native American assimilation into Euro American society. The critic finds that most of the stories in The Book of the American Indian promote the idea that "the Indian must change, " but that "The Story of Howling Wolf" illustrates the difficulty of this process.]

In many ways Hamlin Garland's Indian studies are a transition between traditional and modern literary treatments of the Indian. Both "The Silent Eaters"—a fictionalized biography of Sitting Bull—and the short stories which...

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Lewis O. Saum (essay date 1972-73)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hamlin Garland and Reform," in The South Dakota Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, Winter, 1972-73, pp. 36-62.

[In the following excerpt, Saum reviews the various reform movements that Garland promoted in his short stories and asserts that, despite his consideration of society's ills in his early works, Garland was initially optimistic regarding human potential. The critic also proposes that Garland's eventual rejection of fictional protest resulted from a waning of his optimism and the growing opposition to literary realism at the turn of the century.]

Hamlin Garland's writing of the 1890's foreshadowed various of the twentieth century reform activities and persuasions....

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Jack L. Davis (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hamlin Garland's Indians and the Quality of Civilized Life," in The Critical Reception of Hamlin Garland: 1891-1978, Charles L. P. Silet, Robert E. Welch, and Richard Boudreau, eds., The Whitston Publishing Company, 1985, pp. 426-39.

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Leland Krauth (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hamlin Garland: Realist of Old Age," in Mid-America, Vol. IX, 1982, pp. 23-37.

[In the following excerpt, Krauth examines Garland's depiction of the elderly in Main-Travelled Roads and Prairie Folks, maintaining that the author gave "serious, extended, and successful treatment to a subject that is more often skirted in American literatureold age. "]

When he is remembered at all, Hamlin Garland is recalled in literary history as a writer who took the right trail in the beginning, as the realist of Main-Travelled Roads, only to wander astray into the thin atmosphere of rocky mountain romance in the end. Garland has been praised for...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Bryer, Jackson R., and Harding, Eugene. Hamlin Garland and the Critics: An Annotated Bibliography. Troy, N.Y.: The Whitston Publishing Co., 1973, 282 p.

A list of writings on Garland that distinguishes between reviews of his works, periodical articles about the author, and criticism published in books.

Silet, Charles L. P. Henry Blake Fuller and Hamlin Garland: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977, 148 p.

Bibliography of works related to Garland.


Holloway, Jean. Hamlin Garland: A Biography. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1956.


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