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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 is what they call the highways in the part of the West that Mr. Garland comes from and writes about; and these stories are full of the bitter and burning dust, the foul and trampled slush of the common avenues of life: the life of the men who hopelessly and cheerlessly make the wealth that enriches the alien and the idler, and impoverishes the producer. If any one is still at a loss to account for that uprising of the farmers in the West, which is the translation of the Peasants' War into modern and republican terms, let him read Main-Travelled Roads and he will begin to understand, unless, indeed, Mr. Garland is painting the exceptional rather than the average. The stories are full of those gaunt, grim, sordid, pathetic, ferocious figures, whom our satirists find so easy to caricature as Hayseeds, and whose blind groping for fairer conditions is so grotesque to the newspapers and so menacing to the politicians. They feel that something is wrong, and they know that the wrong is not theirs. The type caught in Mr. Garland's book is not pretty; it is ugly and often ridiculous; but it is heart-breaking in its rude despair. The story of a farm mortgage as it is told in the powerful sketch "Under the Lion's Paw" is a lesson in political economy, as well as a tragedy of the darkest cast. "The Return of the Private" is a satire of the keenest edge, as well as a tender and mournful idyl of the unknown soldier who comes back after the war with no blare of welcoming trumpets or flash of streaming flags, but foot-sore, heart-sore, with no stake in the country he has helped to make safe and rich but the poor man's chance to snatch an uncertain subsistence from the furrows he left for the battle-field. "Up the Coulé," however, is the story which most pitilessly of all accuses our vaunted conditions, wherein every man has the chance to rise above his brother and make himself richer than his fellows. It shows us once for all what the risen man may be, and portrays in his good-natured selfishness and indifference that favorite ideal of our system. The successful brother comes back to the old farmstead, prosperous, handsome, well dressed, and full of patronizing sentiment for his boyhood days there, and he cannot understand why his brother, whom hard work and corroding mortgages have eaten all the joy out of, gives him a grudging and surly welcome. It is a tremendous situation, and it is the allegory of the whole world's civilization: the upper dog and the under dog are everywhere, and the under dog nowhere likes it.
But the allegorical effects are not the primary intent of Mr. Garland's work: it is a work of art, first of all, and we think of fine art; though the material will strike many gentilities as coarse and common. In one of the stories, "Among the Corn Rows," there is a good deal of burly, broad-shouldered humor of a fresh and native kind; in "Mrs. Ripley's Trip" is a delicate touch, like that of Miss Wilkins; but Mr. Garland's touches are his own, here and elsewhere. He has a certain harshness and bluntness, an indifference to the more delicate charms of style; and he has still to learn that though the thistle is full of an unrecognized poetry, the rose has a poetry too, that even overpraise cannot spoil. But he has a fine courage to leave a fact with the reader, ungarnished and unvarnished, which is almost the rarest trait in an Anglo-Saxon writer, so infantile and feeble is the custom of our art; and this attains tragical sublimity in the opening sketch, "A Branch Road," where the lover who has quarrelled with his betrothed comes back to find her mismated and miserable, such a farm wife as Mr. Garland has alone dared to draw, and tempts the broken-hearted drudge away from her loveless home. It is all morally wrong, but the author leaves you to say that yourself. He knows that his business was with those two people, their passions and their probabilities. He shows them such as the newspapers know them.
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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."
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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 ameliorating negro; and in their places, produced by a massive, crude force which will have to be reckoned with in our literature, is one overwhelming impression of grinding, unremunerated toil. Mr. Garland's West is not the beckoning Occident—familiar to our imaginations, if not to our hopes—of enterprise and "push" and fortune that may be had for fighting, if not for asking. His West is on the other side of the shield. The right to vote and an American education cannot, he would have us believe, raise men and women who are really no more than beasts of burden much above the level of an oppressed peasantry, except that knowledge and rights confer on them the dignity of a sharper unhappiness. The remembrance of Mr. Garland's people, after the book is laid aside, is, strangely enough, that of a class, and not of individuals,—of a vast company, with worn, stolid faces, toiling in the fields all day without remission. Even the Angelus is denied them; and if they heard it, our fellow-countrymen would know too much to bow their heads before a superstition. They go home from work to grim cleanliness or grim squalor, as the case may be, and the dreariness of the farmer is exceeded, as ever, by the dreariness of the farmer's wife. One reads and is convinced, and then cries out that it is impossible; that this writer, so terribly in earnest, must be mistaken; that in his enthusiasm for Mr. Howells he has married Russian despair and French realism. Certain echoes, however, from the Mississippi Valley and from other tracts in the West hint that Mr. Garland may be telling the mere truth. If he is, the sum of human grief and suffering is still greater than we had supposed. Meanwhile, writing is writing, and Mr. Garland must accept and take to heart the warning that monotony is the danger of the earnest man.
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*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
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
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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 gentlemen instead of telling the lives of men and women. It is the merit of Mr. Garland that he is able to interest us in the plain people, as Lincoln called them. It is the merit of Mr. Garland that he has something to say. He has not learned yet how to say it in the easiest way and with the least friction; sometimes his style creaks and there is a sense of strain; sometimes he draws our attention to the picturesqueness of his materials, to their epic quality, not having yet found out how to let his story speak for itself. When work is as strong as this, its author's silence is more eloquent than can be any finger post of self-congratulation.
But these blemishes are trifles. There is no doubt that Mr. Garland has the root of the matter in him. He has insight into humanity; he has power to make us see and feel and think; he has sympathy. He can show us the dignity of labor and the uselessness of it. This note of pessimism, heard now and again in these virile tales, is the only thing about them which is not American. If America does not spell Hope, then our experiment here is a failure and we may as well confess it and quit. The life Mr. Garland sets before us, not without gentle pathos, is dull and barren, but it is not a loveless life; it is not a life that ought to be hopeless, though the author seems to hint that it is. Nature is beautiful enough and bountiful enough to make existence worth the struggle, though the struggle be wearisome and ceaseless. The main-travelled roads of the western country are not more lonely or more desolate than the streets of a great city here in the East. Perhaps, in trying to grasp all the facts, Mr. Garland has let this truth slip through his fingers.
I do not know which of these six stories to praise the most highly. Perhaps "The Return of the Private" has the deepest and simplest pathos, but there is one line that jars on the sense of fairness; . . . it intimates that when there came a call to arms, the rich man shirked his duty to the Union; this is a fling wholly unworthy of the writer of a tale as sober as this and as honest. In the second of the six, the one called "Up the Coulé", the reader wonders whether in ten years the returned prodigal could have forgotten the life of his boyhood so completely as to wear a fancy tennis costume with no thought of its incongruity. In the next story, "Among the Corn Rows," there is nothing misplaced and we accept this Theocritan idyl without question. The proposal is most delicately presented, and the truthfulness of the situation is beyond peradventure. The resulting runaway match is wholly without any flavor of cheap romanticism.
These Main-Travelled Roads have not before been trodden by the feet of a story teller, and Mr. Hamlin Garland is a pioneer, fortunately for him. "In a highly polished country, where so much genius is monthly employed in catering for public amusement," wrote Sir Walter Scott in the preface to Ivanhoe, the first novel in which he crossed the border and chose an English subject instead of a Scotch, "a fresh topic, such as [the author of Waverley] had the happiness to light upon is the untasted spring in the desert—
Men bless their stars aud call it luxury."
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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 back to that creative uprising of discontent in the eighties of the last century which brought into articulate consciousness the larger share of the aspects of unrest which have since continued to challenge the nation's magnificent, arrogant grand march.
The decade had Henry Adams for its bitter philosopher, despairing over current political corruption and turning away to probe the roots of American policy under Jefferson and his immediate successors; had the youthful Theodore Roosevelt for its standard-bearer of a civic conscience which was, plans went, to bring virtue into caucuses; had Henry George for its spokesman of economic change, moving across the continent from California to New York with an argument and a program for new battles against privilege; had Edward Bellamy for its Utopian romancer, setting forth a delectable picture of what human society might become were the old iniquities reasonably wiped away and cooperative order brought out of competitive chaos; had William Dean Howells for its annalist of manners, turning toward the end of the decade from his benevolent acceptance of the world as it was to stout-hearted, though soft-voiced, accusations brought in the name of Tolstoy and the Apostles against human inequality however constituted; had—to end the list of instances without going outside the literary class—Hamlin Garland for its principal spokesman of the distress and dissatisfaction then stirring along the changed frontier which so long as free land lasted had been the natural outlet for the expansive, restless race.
Heretofore the prairies and the plains had depended almost wholly upon romance—and that often of the cheapest sort—for their literary reputation; but Garland, who had tested at first hand the innumerable hardships of such a life, became articulate through his dissent from average notions about the pioneer. His earliest motives of dissent seem to have been personal and artistic. During that youth which saw him borne steadily westward, from his Wisconsin birthplace to windy Iowa and then to bleak Dakota, his own instincts clashed with those of his migratory father as the instincts of many a sensitive, unremembered youth must have clashed with the dumb, fierce urges of the leaders of migration everywhere. The younger Garland hungered on the frontier for beauty and learning and leisure; the impulse which eventually detached him from Dakota and sent him on a trepid, reverent pilgrimage to Boston was the very impulse which, on another scale, had lately detached Henry James from his native country and had sent him to the ancient home of his forefathers in the British Isles.
Mr. Garland could neither feel so free nor fly so far from home as James. He had, in the midst of his raptures and his successes in New England, still to remember the plight of the family he had left behind him on the lonely prairie; he cherished a patriotism for his province which went a long way toward restoring him to it in time. Sentimental and romantic considerations, however, did not influence him altogether in his first important work. He had been kindled by Howells in Boston to a passion for realism which carried him beyond the suave accuracy of his master to the somber veracity of Main-Travelled Roads, Prairie Folks, and Rose of Dutcher's Coolly. This veracity was more than somber; it was deliberate and polemic. Mr. Garland, ardently a radical of the school of Henry George, had enlisted in the crusade against poverty, and he desired to tell the unheeded truth about the frontier farmers and their wives in language which might do something to lift the desperate burdens of their conditions. Consequently his passions and his doctrines joined hands to fix the direction of his art; he both hated the frontier and hinted at definite remedies which he thought would make it more endurable.
It throws a strong light upon the progress of American society and literature during the past generation to point out that the service recently performed by [Sinclair Lewis's novel] Main Street was, in its fashion, performed thirty years ago by Main-Travelled Roads. Each book challenges the myth of the rural beauties and the rural virtues; but whereas Sinclair Lewis, in an intellectual and satiric age, charges that the villagers are dull, Mr. Garland, in a moral and pathetic age, charged that the farmers were oppressed. His men wrestle fearfully with sod and mud and drought and blizzard, goaded by mortgages which may at almost any moment snatch away all that labor and parsimony have stored up. His women, endowed with no matter what initial hopes or charms, are sacrificed to overwork and deprivations and drag out maturity and old age on the weariest treadmill. The pressure of life is simply too heavy to be borne except by the ruthless or the crafty. Mr. Garland, though nourished on the popular legend of the frontier, had come to feel that the "song of emigration had been, in effect, the hymn of fugitives." Illusion no less than reality had tempted Americans toward their far frontiers, and the enormous mass, once under way, had rolled stubbornly westward, crushing all its members who might desire to hesitate or to reflect.
The romancers had studied the progress of the frontier in the lives of its victors; Mr. Garland studied it in the lives of its victims: the private soldier returning drably and mutely from the war to resume his drab, mute career behind the plow; the tenant caught in a trap by his land-lord and the law and obliged to pay for the added value which his own toil has given to his farm; the brother neglected until his courage has died and proffered assistance comes too late to rouse him; and particularly the daughter whom a harsh father or the wife whom a brutal husband breaks or drives away—the most sensitive and therefore the most pitiful victims of them all. Mr. Garland told his early stories in the strong, level, ominous language of a man who had observed much but chose to write little. Not his words but the overtones vibrating through them cry out that the earth and the fruits of the earth belong to all men and yet a few of them have turned tiger or dog or jackal and snatched what is precious for themselves while their fellows starve and freeze. Insoluble as are the dilemmas he propounded and tense and unrelieved as his accusations were, he stood in his methods nearer, say, to the humane Millet than to the angry Zola. There is a clear, high splendor about his landscapes; youth and love on his desolate plains, as well as anywhere, can find glory in the most difficult existence; he might strip particular lives relentlessly bare but he no less relentlessly clung to the conviction that human life has an inalienable dignity which is deeper than any glamor goes and can survive the loss of all its trappings.
Why did Mr. Garland not equal the intellectual and artistic success of Main-Travelled Roads, Prairie Folks, and Rose of Butcher's Coolly for a quarter of a century? At the outset he had passion, knowledge, industry, doctrine, approbation, and he labored hard at enlarging the sagas of which these books were the center. Yet Jason Edwards, A Spoil of Office, A Member of the Third House are dim names and the Far Western tales which succeeded them grow too rapidly less impressive as they grow older. The rise of historical romance among the American followers of Stevenson at the end of the century and the subsequent rise of flippancy under the leadership of O. Henry have both been blamed for the partial eclipse into which Mr. Garland's reputation passed. As a matter of fact, the causes were more fundamental than the mere fickleness of literary reputation or than the demands of editors and public that he repeat himself forever. In that first brilliant cycle of stories this downright pioneer worked with the material which of all materials he knew best and over which his imagination played most eagerly. From them, however, he turned to pleas for the single tax and to exposures of legislative corruption and imbecility about which he neither knew nor cared so much as he knew and cared about the actual lives of working farmers. His imagination, whatever his zeal might do in these different surroundings, would not come to the old point of incandescence.
Instead, however, of diagnosing his case correctly Mr. Garland followed the false light of local color to the Rocky Mountains and began the series of romance narratives which further interrupted his true growth and, gradually, his true fame. He who had grimly refused to lend his voice to the chorus chanting the popular legend of the frontier in which he had grown up and who had studied the deceptive picture not as a visitor but as a native, now became himself a visiting enthusiast for the "high trails" and let himself be roused by a fervor sufficiently like that from which he had earlier dissented. In his different way he was as hungry for new lands as his father had been before him. Looking upon local color as the end—when it is more accurately the beginning—of fiction, he felt that he had exhausted his old community and must move on to fresher pastures.
Here the prime fallacy of his school misled him: he believed that if he had represented the types and scenes of his particular region once he had done all he could, when of course had he let imagination serve him he might have found in that microcosm as many passions and tragedies and joys as he or any novelist could have needed for a lifetime. Here, too, the prime penalty of his school overtook him: he came to lay so much emphasis upon outward manners that he let his plots and characters fall into routine and formula. The novels of his middle period—such as Her Mountain Lover, The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop, Hester, The Light of the Star, Cavanagh, Forest Ranger—too frequently recur to the romantic theme of a love uniting some powerful, uneducated frontiersman and some girl from a politer neighborhood. Pioneer and lady are always almost the same pair in varying costumes; the stories harp upon the praise of plains and mountains and the scorn of cities and civilization. These romances, much value as they have as documents and will long continue to have, must be said to exhibit the frontier as self-conscious, obstreperous, given to insisting upon its difference from the rest of the world. In ordinary human intercourse such insistence eventually becomes tiresome; in literature no less than in life there is a time to remember local traits and a time to forget them in concerns more universal.
What concerns of Mr. Garland's were universal became evident when he published A Son of the Middle Border. His enthusiasms might be romantic but his imagination was not; it was indissolubly married to his memory of actual events. The formulas of his mountain romances, having been the inventions of a mind not essentially inventive, had been at best no more than sectional; the realities of his autobiography, taking him back again to Main-Travelled Roads and its cycle, were personal, lyrical, and consequently universal. All along, it now appeared, he had been at his best when he was most nearly autobiographical: those vivid early stories had come from the lives of his own family or of their neighbors; Rose of Dutcher's Coolly had set forth what was practically his own experience in its account of a heroine—not hero—who leaves her native farm to go first to country college and then to Chicago to pursue a wider life, torn constantly between a passion for freedom and a loyalty to the father she must tragically desert.
In a sense A Son of the Middle Border supersedes the fictive versions of the same material; they are the original documents and the Son the final redaction and commentary. Veracious still, the son of that border appears no longer vexed as formerly. Memory, parent of art, has at once sweetened and enlarged the scene. What has been lost of pungent vividness has its compensation in a broader, a more philosophic interpretation of the old frontier, which in this record grows to epic meanings and dimensions. Its savage hardships, though never minimized, take their due place in its powerful history; the defeat which the victims underwent cannot rob the victors of their many claims to glory. If there was little contentment in this border there was still much rapture. Such things Mr. Garland reveals without saying them too plainly: the epic qualities of his book—as in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi—lie in its implications; the tale itself is a candid narrative of his own adventures through childhood, youth, and his first literary period.
This autobiographic method, applied with success in A Daughter of the Middle Border to his later life in Chicago and all the regions which he visited, brings into play his higher gifts and excludes his lower. Under slight obligation to imagine, he runs slight risk of succumbing to those conventionalisms which often stiffen his work when he trusts to his imagination. Avowedly dealing with his own opinions and experiences, he is not tempted to project them, as in the novels he does somewhat too frequently, into the careers of his heroes. Dealing chiefly with action not with thought, he does not tend so much as elsewhere to solve speculative problems with sentiment instead of with reflection. In the Son and the Daughter he has the fullest chance to be autobiographic without disguise.
Here lies his best province and here appears his best art. It is an art, as he employs it, no less subtle than humane. Warm, firm flesh covers the bones of his chronology. He imparts reality to this or that occasion, like a novelist, by reciting conversation which must come from something besides bare memory. He rounds out the characters of the persons he remembers with a fulness and grace which, lifelike as his persons are, betray the habit of creating characters. He enriches his analysis of the Middle Border with sensitive descriptions of the "large, unconscious scenery" in which it transacted its affairs. If it is difficult to overprize the documentary value of his saga of the Garlands and the McClintocks and of their son who turned back on the trail, so is it difficult to overpraise the sincerity and tenderness and beauty with which the chronicle was set down.
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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.
Study of Garland's life and times.
French, Warren. "What Shall We Do about Hamlin Garland?" American Literary Realism 1870-1910 3, No. 4 (Fall 1970): 283-89.
Opposes the positive commentary on Garland's works and asserts that the author's importance stems from his role as "an American type—the man who made it too quickly and then hung around too long."
Harrison, Stanley R. "Hamlin Garland and the Double Vision of Naturalism." Studies in Short Fiction VI, No. 5 (Fall 1969): 548-56.
Maintains that Garland uses natural forces to create both conflict and respite for his characters.
Kaye, Frances W. "Hamlin Garland's Feminism." In Women and Western American Literature, edited by Helen Winter Stauffer and Susan J. Rosowski, pp. 135-61. Troy, N.Y.: The Whitston Publishing Co., 1982.
Argues that Garland "was the only male author of literary significance who specifically endorsed in his writing woman's rights, woman suffrage, and woman's equality in marriage."
Keiser, Albert. "Travelling the White Man's Road." In his The Indian in American Literature, pp. 279-92. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933.
Analyzes Garland's depiction of Native Americans and pronounces it "one of the most systematic as well as sympathetic treatments of the American native and his problem."
Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on Hamlin Garland. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982, 372 p.
Presents a selection of essays and reviews on Garland's writings.
Pizer, Donald. "Herbert Spencer and the Genesis of Hamlin Garland's Critical System." TSE: Tulane Studies in English 7 (1957): 153-68.
Traces evolutionary philosopher Herbert Spencer's influence on Garland's life and works.
Reamer, Owen J. "Garland and the Indians." New Mexico Quarterly XXXIV, No. 3, (Autumn 1964): 257-80.
Details Garland's visits to various reservations in the 1890s and analyzes the stories in The Book of the American Indian.
Thacker, Robert. "Twisting toward insanity': Landscape and Female Intrapment in Plains Fiction." North Dakota Quarterly 52, No. 3 (Summer 1984): 181-94.
Discusses Garland's novella The Moccasin Ranch as it portrays a woman's reaction to the stark atmosphere of the Great Plains.
Silet, Charles L. P., Welch, Robert E., and Boudreau, Richard, eds. The Critical Reception of Hamlin Garland. Troy, N.Y.: The Whitston Publishing Co., 1985, 462 p.
Reprints selected criticism on Garland's writings.
Additional coverage of Garland's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 71, 78; and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 3.
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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 popular consumption the vanishing folk tales and customs of the Red Man. Mr. Garland stands between them in his endeavor to share with us his accurate knowledge of a noble subject, giving it a dignity along with its romance that makes it significant in our national story. Had these tales been written of a similar period in the expansion of France one can imagine what the French Academy would have done for them.
Like an American Kipling he has made this period of contacts between our urgent and ruthless civilization and that of a primitive society relevant to our American life. It is more than a matter of entertainment; it is a service to American literature. These plain tales from our American plains have a more valid claim upon our attention than many of the sources of cultural inspiration from Europe which have already become shadowy in our national life, and should become part of the prescribed reading for our youth. Our very phrases, our ways of living and playing are heavily indebted to the storehouse of the Red Man.
Mr. Garland has not hesitated to recall melancholy episodes along with the brave and gay. With his intimate knowledge of the setting he has given us the Red Man's point of view with consummate artistry. Mr. Garland turns our eyes eastward to meet the threatening, engulfing forces, material, economic and physical of the white intruder. These devastating forces produce various reactions from the free, primitive society they threaten with their iron horse, their superior weapons, their economic and social systems. Mr. Garland has not failed to recapitulate the impatience and ignorance of which we were guilty in these first painful contacts, to remind us that for all his primitive condition the Indian lived and fought under as fine a code as his opponent. He knows that Mr. Kipling would have us forget that he ever presumed to advise us on our "new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child."
In stories like "Wahiah" and "The Iron Khiva" we cannot fail to understand the sacrifice of tradition that involved so simple a matter as bringing Indian youth to our schools. Discipline is the basis of both the red and white systems. But Wahiah, a Spartan mother, is human. She is torn by the idea of submitting her proud boy to the stranger's discipline, fearful that the fine, free spirit of his ancestors will be broken in the stranger's hands. The nice play of instinct and intelligence under the mother's love is delicately suggested by Mr. Garland. Likewise in "The Iron Khiva," as the tribe identifies the corrugated iron schoolhouse, we get our most intransigeant type, the Quaker schoolmaster, pitting his indomitable will against the combined tribe. The codes of red and white in this case are nearly alike; both are relentless and are strangely based upon such human elements as love and duty. In addition Mr. Garland does not neglect redskin psychology, the fact that the Iron Khiva is dangerously akin to the system of pauperization and bondage that are part of their new life on the cramped reservation.
It is in stories like these of conflict between the two races that Mr. Garland is a supreme artist. Such were the themes that engaged Kipling in India. We are given many a little classic like "Storm Child" which is comparable with "The Luck of Roaring Camp," or a love idyl with its inarticulate suffering like "Nistina." Mr. Garland's "Story of Howling Wolf," "Lone Wolfs Old Guard" and "Drifting Crane" are typical of an ugly period, and remained to be written with this simplicity and poignancy if only to remind us that the Indian still requires our infinite tact and understanding. They furnish us with national texts, for lynching and mob law are still national vices, and the Indian Bureau is still capable of showing some of its old brand of cynicism in a Bursum bill. Stories like these will play an important part in strengthening our national conscience against recurrent dangers.
"The Story of Howling Wolf should become a school-room classic. The proud, sensitive chief watches his tribe embracing the White Man's ways. But he has already suffered insult and brutality, and it is hard to forget. The agent of the reservation finally wins him by compelling his respect. Howling Wolf is conscious of his ancient grudge, and is anxious to carry on his person a testimony of his change of heart; the agent draws up for him this statement: "I am Howling Wolf. Long I hated the White Man. Now my heart is good." He puts aside his tribal pride, and though a chief, gets a wagon and team like his former subjects and goes to work.
But Howling Wolf's first trip to the raw settlement involves him in disaster. He stares, like a child, at the store windows, admiring the strange wares and eager to adopt the new life. While engaged in this form of education a drunken cowboy insults him. The Indian, ignorant of the storm of abuse, extends his hand in friendship, as taught him by his beloved agent. The cowboy spits in his hand and the trouble begins. Then follows his identification by the mob, when he simply offers his letter patent. There is a wild shot by the cowboy which wounds another white man, and Howling Wolf is jailed. The agent has no power outside the reservation. The chief languishes in jail until one day the Sheriff, anxious to see a ball game, takes his prisoner along. But Howling Wolf thinks he is going to furnish a Roman holiday, and in terror attempts to escape. The rest is a familiar version of a man hunt. Howling Wolf is almost lynched, but for the priest who rescues him. Thereafter he will never forget what he suffered, despite the friendship of his agent and the priest. And such memories are plentiful "east of Suez where the best is like the worst."
The longest story, almost a novelette in this generous collection, is "The Silent Eaters." We are here given an epitome of all those ruthless forces that threatened and finally extinguished an ancient civilization. The greed for gold and land so poignantly told in "Lone Wolf's Old Guard," the distrust of a distant Government whose benignance was too often travestied by unscrupulous land agents and settlers, by cruel and ignorant agents of reservations, and against these the Red Man's respect for the soldiers, whom he alone trusted because they had fought him fairly. But in addition to these Mr. Garland has accomplished the difficult task of giving us the Indian's version of the Custer fight. Mr. Garland has painstakingly kept to fact in his fiction. It is of such material that history is often written and here it appears in its most attractive form.
This harvest of Mr. Garland's craftsmanship crowns a life spent in service to literature, and like a true son of the West he has gone back to a native theme. Those who saw a primitive civilization disintegrating are growing few; those who are still able to record what they saw are far between. Though we are condemned to botanize over the remains of what we wantonly destroyed, in pages like these the spirit of Indian life will survive to dignify the human claim we reluctantly concede to the original American. If they do no more than prick our conscience as to a national responsibility toward an ancient race which, as the Indian Bureau reminds us, is slowly increasing, then they will bring their greatest honor to a distinguished American writer.
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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  volume of essays Crumbling Idols; in his work appears not only the fullest presentation but the most satisfying explanation of the ironic paradox that has caused the Middle West, a region celebrated since its discovery in the most hyperbolic terms—"a region of enchantment," "a terrestrial Paradise," "the Garden of the World"—to be the source of our harshest literary realism.
His artistic theories he promulgated early, the keynote to them being struck in the dedication to his volume of essays already mentioned:
To the men and women of America who have the courage to be artists.
There he promulgates the code of the realist, proclaiming the local novel as the most promising and sincere of the literary attempts of the day; there he suggests the possibilities of new fields in fiction; there he cries for an interpretation of our common life in painting and sculpture; there with true midland fervor he heralds Chicago as the coming cultural centre, prophesying the original nature of the literature resulting from the great interior spaces of the South and West; there he makes impassioned appeal to the "Sayer and Doers of this broad, free inland America of ours." . . .
His longer tales such as A Little Norsk or Rose of Dutchers's Coolly have flaws in structure and a sentimentality that weaken them decidedly; too many of his later books seem purely commercialized; but the stories . . . collected for us in Main-Travelled Roads (1891), Other Main-Travelled Roads (1910), and Prairie Folks (1893), form next to the Son of the Middle Border his most significant work.
Almost all of them are unrelievedly gloomy. Shanty-like cabins, the inmates of which are crowded together much as in a New York tenement, with unplastered lofts, furnace-like bedrooms, small steaming kitchens—these are the settings. Buzzing flies swarm around almost always; crying children scuffle underfoot; outside reeks the barnyard, torrid in the sunlight, gluey with muck in a storm. In such habitations the toiling men and women sink at times almost to the level of the beasts. Warped with poverty and toil, they take on the labor mask of a Daddy Deering, the hideous outward semblance of a Lucretia Burns. But their physical ugliness is as nothing in the face of their spiritual degradation. A life of savage toil produces equally savage passions; absolute sway over one's beasts tends to produce a desire for equally absolute sway over one's fellows as is demonstrated in such tales as "William Bacon's Man" or "A Preacher's Love Story"; the lack of adequate recreation causes a petty question of property to bring about "A Division in the Coolly"; absence of the outward luxuries of life is intensified by the complete omission of its spiritual graces. The careless brutality of her husband, the nagging of her "in-laws" make Agnes Kinney's daily life a literal hell; years of unrecognized labor bring to Lucretia Burns dreadful rebellion at last. As Douglas Radbourn [one of Garland's characters in Other Main-Travelled Roads] sums up the situation,
Men who toil terribly in filthy garments day after day and year after year cannot easily keep gentle; the frost and grime, the heat and cold, will soon or late enter into their souls. The case is not all in favor of the suffering wives and against the brutal husbands. If the farmer's wife is dulled and crazed by her routine, the farmer himself is degraded and brutalized.
There are other brighter aspects of the picture, but they do not mitigate, rather they accentuate, its essential sombreness. Mr. Garland admits in his preface to Other Main-Travelled Roads that "youth and love are able to transform a bleak prairie town into a poem, and to make of a barbed-wire lane a highway of romance"; yet, watching the merrymaking at the Grove Schoolhouse, the gaiety of the racing drivers, the shy "coupling-off" in the intermissions of farm labor, we are confronted always by the question of how long the youthful love will last, how long before the rosy laughing girls will be transformed into gray and shapeless slatterns, the dashing youths, into surly brutes. The landscape, marred only by the habitations of man, loses no whit of the beauty it bore to the dreaming eyes of the prairie boy; but [as Garland wrote in A Son of the Middle Border] "how much of consolation does the worn and weary renter find in the beauty of cloud and tree or in the splendor of the sunset?—Grace of flower does not feed or clothe the body, and when the toiler is both badly clothed and badly fed, birdsong and leaf-shine cannot bring content."
The most terrible thing about all the stories is the hopelessness of their outlook; most of the characters seem come to an absolute impasse. The hero of "A Stop-Over at Tyre" is literally forced by circumstances into a marriage that strikes the death-blow to all his ambitions. In "Up the Coolly" the inequalities of opportunity and environment make the brother who went to New York rich and successful, the younger who stayed behind and took up the father's burdens poor and oppressed with a bitter sense of failure. The tales are filled with scenes that are symbolic—poor Martha in "Before the Low Green Door" who doesn't care to live but who never thought she'd die so early and unsatisfied; Simeon Burns trying to puzzle out the situation over which Democrats and Republicans, Grangers and Greenbackers disputed while hard-working, discouraged farmers in bewildered and wordless resentment toiled on; the despair of poor Haskins [in "Under the Lions Paw"] after his years of killing and fruitless labor,
He was under the lion's paw. . . . He was hid in a mist, and there was no path out.
The toilers are indeed of the Main Travelled Road—the road arid and brown with the choking dust of the summer; desolate with the dingy mud and stinging snow of the winter; the road long and wearisome, almost always ungracious to the laboring feet that traverse it.
The denunciation of the stories was immediate and bitter. "Editorials and criticisms poured into the office," says Mr. Garland, "all written to prove that my pictures of the middle border were utterly false." And, as a matter of fact, the charges of distortion and untruth persist yet today. Yet scene after scene, character after character in the much-maligned tales can be paralleled in the pages of the autobiographical volume [A Son of the Middle Border]. And after all the criticism availed little save to solidify the author's purpose; he had, he asserts, the confidence of truth behind him; and if ever he were tempted to waver he had but to think of his father and mother in the Dakotas. For on another visit he had found another dry year upon the land and the settlers deeply disheartened.
The holiday spirit of eight years before had entirely vanished. In its place was a sullen rebellion against government and against God. . . . Two of my father's neighbors had gone insane over the failure of their crops. Several had slipped away "between two days" to escape their debts, and even little Jessie, who met us at the train, brave as a meadow lark, admitted that something gray had settled down over the plain. [From A Son of the Middle Border.]
On that same withered treeless plain, with no shade save that cast by the little cabin, the weary mother gave out at last; on that plain the resolute father unable to face crop failures year after year, although he still wanted to try irrigation in Montana, was persuaded to turn his back on the West, almost convinced of the elusiveness of the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow.
After nearly a third of a century of migration, the Garlands were about to double on their trail, and their decision was deeply significant. It meant that a certain phase of American pioneering had ended, that "the woods and prairie lands" having all been taken up, nothing re-mained but the semi-arid valleys of the Rocky Mountains. "Irrigation" was a new word and a vague word in the ears of my father's generation, and had little of the charm which lay in the "flowery savannahs" of the Mississippi valley. In the years between 1865 and 1892 the nation had swiftly passed through the buoyant era of free land settlement, and now the day of reckoning had come. [From A Son of the Middle Border.]
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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 1890s.]
[From the 1860s to the 1880s, Middle Western farmers] had not shared in the prosperity of the post-war years, and yet the West felt the depression of 1873 quite as sharply as the East. In the Patrons of Husbandry and the Greenback Party they recorded their discontent, but the good crops of the early eighties led them to abandon their struggle. In 1889, however, the wheat crop was only one-third of what it had been in 1885, and money was scarce and interest rates high. Countless farmers, attracted to the West by land agents' promises of prosperity, labored from sunrise to sunset, only to deliver the fruits of their toil into the hands of bankers and railroad magnates. Though agricultural production grew, the lot of the farmer did not improve, and the proportion of tenant farmers increased. It was no wonder that organizers of the People's Party, campaigning up and down the agricultural states, met with a response that suggested the enthusiasm of the crusades. It was not a narrow nor a fantastic program they advocated: they wanted financial reform, an income tax, postal savings banks, public ownership of the means of transportation and communication, and the restriction of the possession of land to actual producers. The farmers became conscious not only of their own ills but also of the oppression of other classes, and they proposed measures that they believed would protect the downtrodden everywhere.
It would have been strange if that wave of revolt, so charged with emotion, had not had its literary effect. Its spokesman was Hamlin Garland, who, in the late eighties, returned to Minnesota after two or three years of selfeducation in Boston. He looked about him, and for the first time he really saw the middle border. He saw his family and their neighbors, defeated, downhearted, degraded. "I perceived beautiful youths becoming bowed and bent," he afterwards wrote. "Some of my playmates opened their acrid hearts to me. . . . Every house I visited had its individual message of sordid struggle and half-hidden despair. . . . All the gilding of farm life melted away. The hard and bitter realities came back upon me in a flood." And he not only saw; he felt, surging within himself, the bitter resentment that was rousing the West to action. Joseph Kirkland, who had written two painstakingly accurate novels of rural life, Zury and The McVeys, told Garland that he was the first dirt farmer in literature and should make the most of that fact. Kirkland was wiser than he knew: Garland's power sprang from his identification with the farmer's cause. Ed Howe, who had published The Story of a Country Town in 1883, knew and portrayed the harshness of life on the middle border, but he was a bitter, disappointed newspaper man, whose bitterness set him apart from instead of allying him with his neighbors. Garland came from a farming family, had worked on a farm, had farmers for friends and neighbors, and he made their cause his cause and their enemies his enemies.
In his play, Under the Wheel, Garland's sympathies were all with the Edwardses, who, escaped from the slums of Boston, have been led to the West by the extravagant promises of unprincipled speculators, to be beaten down by the harshness of nature and the greed of men. Crude as the play is, the scene laid in the boomer's office is effective propaganda, and the climax of the fourth scene, when hail comes instead of the longed-for rain, is moving drama. And though the tragedy of the Edwards family is complete, the play holds out promise to the farmer. "Courage," one character says, "you will yet live to see the outposts of the enemy carried, and Linnie will live to see a larger and grander abolition cause, carried to a bloodless Appomattox, the abolition of industrial slavery. . . . Over us the shadow still hangs, but far in the west, a faint, ever-widening crescent of light tells of clear skies beyond."
It was in this spirit that Garland wrote the stories in Main-Traveled Roads and Prairie Folks, though he made no such attempt at direct propaganda as he had made in his play. The former is dedicated "to my father and mother whose half-century pilgrimage on the main-traveled road of life has brought them only toil and deprivation." As we read of the unhappiness of the woman in "The Branch-Road," the contrast between Howard and Grant in "Up the Coolly," the reception of Ed Smith in "The Return of the Private," Haskins' defeat in "Under the Lion's Paw," we know what toil and deprivation are. Garland does not neglect the humor and kindness of the people of the middle border, but he places these pleasanter characteristics against a background of dull, monotonous, ceaseless struggle. The stories are not merely honest—and honesty was rare at the time they were written; they are stirring stories, by virtue of the power of the protest that is implicit in them. And there is some of the same power in passages of A Spoil of Office and Rose of Dutcher's Coolly.
Reading Crumbling Idols, a collection of literary essays, one sees that Garland never fully realized why he had written so surely and soundly in his short stories. His conscious aim was simply to do for the middle border what other local color writers were doing for their sections; that his alliance with the most vital force in his region had made his work superior to that of the ordinary sectionalist he never understood. He protested against slavish subservience to tradition, but he was as much in bondage to Victorian prudishness as any of his contemporaries. He praised the heroism of labor and called for the abolition of special privilege, but he also glorified the sturdy individualism of the pioneer and preached the doctrine of success. His veritism was no stronger than Howells' realism, and his acceptance of the most sentimental of the regionalists indicates the superficiality of his theories.
Perhaps it was because Garland so imperfectly understood what he had done that he abandoned so readily the high ground on which he at first established himself. After the first five or six years of literary activity his career is almost pure tragedy. Reading his many autobiographical volumes, we find that even as a boy he felt the urge of the pioneer to better his circumstances: he wanted to succeed, to raise himself and his immediate family out of the slough of poverty. In accordance with this ambition he went east to prepare himself for literature. When he returned, equipped with standards by which to measure the misery of middle border life, and armed with the revealing theories of Henry George, his sympathies reached out beyond the Garlands and the McClintocks to embrace the whole class to which they belonged. This zeal made not merely a reformer but a writer of him. He no longer fumblingly sought for subjects and methods; his life had a center, a purpose, that concentrated all his experience and imaginative power. The result was the finest stories yet written of American farm life—direct, comprehensive, moving, and savagely honest.
The fiction thus inspired laid the foundation of a literary career, and gradually Garland realized his ambition for his family. Though far from wealthy, he found himself on the road to comfort and respectability. Accepted in literary and academic circles, he became fastidious and a little contemptuous of dirt and disorder. "The reform impulse was steadily waning," he wrote, describing the middle nineties. "Looking Backward, like Progress and Poverty, was a receding, fading banner." He forsook Populism and Bryanism for more respectable causes, and good naturedly confessed that his days of controversial writing were over, that he was "in league with the capitalistic forces of society." Young writers such as Norris and Dreiser he only half-heartedly accepted; on the other hand, his own acceptance by the academicians was a constant joy.
He yielded to the temptations of the new popular magazines with their higher prices. S. S. McClure candidly advised him, "Drop your literary pose," and he did his best to obey. When he established himself in Chicago and his family on the old Wisconsin homestead, his ties with the struggling farmers were broken. "The pen," he said with pardonable pride, "had proved itself to be mightier than the plow. Going east had proved more profitable than going west." But this deracination involved the finding of new themes, and these he sought in the farther, wilder West. "I perceived," he wrote, "that almost any character I could imagine could be verified in this amazing mixture." He embarked upon a career as romantic novelist, and, as he has boasted, anticipated Zane Grey. Between 1900 and 1917 he wrote a series of highly colored tales of western adventure, with one or two experiments in the novel of psychic experience and an occasional venture in the profitable field of juvenile fiction. But during these years he was unhappy and restless. His novels achieved no spectacular success, the money that his new responsibilities and tastes demanded was not forthcoming, and his creative powers grew constantly feebler. Finally he began to write his autobiography, emphasizing the heroism of the pioneer rather than the cruel realities of agrarian oppression, and throwing over everything the charm of reminiscence. When at last A Son of the Middle Border was published, and was greeted by Howells' flattering review, the road to success was open. Garland had found a way to utilize the only vital experiences of his life while maintaining his new standards of respectability. Other autobiographical volumes followed, each one a step to greater comfort and a more impeccable standing. The rebel had vanished. "The poor are almost obsolete," he wrote in one of his autobiographies. In another he referred to "the all-conquering genius of Mussolini." And in the campaign of 1932, speaking as "a theoretical radical," he endorsed the candidacy of Herbert Hoover.
It is interesting to speculate as to what might have happened to Hamlin Garland if he had kept his loyalty to the humble, hapless farmers of his early stories, and had extended his loyalty to embrace urban as well as rural laborers. He might have avoided the whole period of unhappy experimentation in romanticism, and he might have ended, not as a complacent and garrulous chronicler of past glories, but as the great novelist he once gave promise of becoming. But the seeds of failure were there from the first. Perhaps the sources of his ultimate defeat were not far removed from the sources of his first victories. The embattled farmers were themselves individualists, each forgetting the cause of his class once his own success was achieved.
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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, and of more artistic importance than the now forgotten novels of several score journalists and reformers, is the work of Hamlin Garland. With Garland, both as man and as artist, economics and economic reform were, over a period of some ten years, a major interest. Prior to, and during, this decade, many influences converged upon Garland's maturing personality; in the course of it, he produced a unique body of work in which these forces were shaped by the creative imagination into forms more or less artistic; toward its close, he was already being diverted from this characteristic expression, and his work was beginning to reveal that indirection, that temporary frustration, even, which has so curiously baffled our American commentators.
Of the backgrounds out of which Garland's work emerged, that of his youth on the middle border in Iowa is so fundamental that it calls less for elaboration than for the merest resumé. Certain scattered, idyllic memories he retained, to be sure, of a childhood passed among the coulées of Wisconsin; but it was the life on the Iowa prairie, where he lived from his tenth through his twentieth year, that furnished the real matrix of his imagination. From this source, chiefly, came the myriad concrete images that give his descriptive writing its individual color and tone and texture—sights of low, treeless horizons and the waving of ripe wheat; sounds of turningplows thrusting through grassroots embedded in black loam; the lurch of plowhandles, the rasp of cornhusks, the bite and weight of the prairie blizzard. Here in Iowa, too, under the Spartan regime on his father's farm, he first learned that the satisfaction of work might be outweighed by its tortures: by the man's ache of fatigue, by his irritation over the threshing of fly-lanced horses or the stench of cattle stalls; still more [as he described in A Son of the Middle Border], by the woman's perpetual treadmill of "cooking, sewing, washing, churning, and nursing the sick."
The middle border society, into which he had been so early adopted as to be virtually a native, Garland took, throughout his life, curiously for granted; he never became more than vaguely aware of such a different region as the South, or of such a different class as the urban proletariat. The Garlands and most of their neighbors were native American stock—sturdy, hard-working, moderately well-to-do, religious folk. A kind of agrarian middle class, they formed an outpost of the midwestern rural democracy of Lincoln, with a vein of backwoodsy angularity and rudeness in their collective character, and more than a vein of the restlessness of the pioneer. Living among these people, the youth Garland assumed, with no serious question, the premises common in our agrarian democracy before the Civil War. Politically, he assumed a democratic tradition, heightened by memories of a heroic struggle fought ostensibly for the cause of human freedom. Socially, he took for granted the equality with which his folk mingled in sports, in the church, in neighborhood fairs, and in sociables of the Grange. Economically, he assumed the Western principle of the pre-emption and exploitation of the public lands. Indeed, at the very time when he came on the book which awakened his first serious thought on social problems, the Progress and Poverty of Henry George, he was himself engaged in homesteading in Dakota.
Yet even while he was absorbing the viewpoints of his Iowa society, Garland was, though with no clearly defined intention, preparing his escape from it into a life less physically exacting, more intellectually satisfying; and here, too, the Border society provided him with his main bearings. Through the "Seminary" at Osage, it provided him at least an introduction to culture—a sense of the value of literature and of the power of the written or spoken word. The heated discussions of the townspeople over the writings of Bob Ingersoll, especially "The Mistakes of Moses," helped crystallize his religious independence and agnosticism. The reading of Eggleston's The Hoosier Schoolmaster in Hearth and Home gave him his first taste of the romanticizing of the common regional life of the West. A sermon delivered by a young Methodist minister stimulated his awareness of the value of art and beauty—a theme which recurs like a refrain in his maturer work. To his homestead in Dakota he carried copies of Taine, of Chambers' Encyclopedia of English Literature, and of Greene's Short History of the English People. Altogether, if his coming to Boston in 1883 was that of a passionate pilgrim in search of a richer culture, it was also that of a pilgrim who knew with unusual clearness what things he was seeking.
For eight or ten years, after his removal to Boston, Garland developed with a rapidity, with an overwhelming energy, which suggests a major creative genius. Beginning in the obscurity of a cheap lodging house, reading fourteen hours a day from the shelves of the Boston public library, he presently found work as teacher in a school of oratory; formed a dozen profitable associations in literary and artistic Boston; wrote book reviews, thirty-odd short stories, two plays, three novels, and much of the material for a book of critical essays; associated himself with the reform journal, the Arena, and with its aid toured the West to observe the Populist movement at first hand; and, all this while, acquired and developed his views on philosophy, on literature, and on economics. In the growth of this threefold view of life—philosophical, aesthetic, and social—lies the key to this first period in Garland's career.
That Garland, when he came to Boston, was already inclined to a natural rather than a supernatural view of life, is indicated by his previous interest in Ingersoll and Taine. Now, in Boston, it was to the nineteenth-century scientists and their interpreters that he naturally turned—to Fiske, to Darwin, and, most of all, to Herbert Spencer. From these masters, however, Garland did not derive, for himself, a scientific method of thought. Instead, he accepted, almost without question, the main conclusions of Spencer. He came to look upon Spencer as the greatest living thinker, and he accepted the authority of the Synthetic Philosophy as that of a new and more plausible Bible which, to him, endued the universe with a rationally acceptable harmony and order.
Under such influences, the remnants of Garland's belief in Christian theology, including his belief in an after-life, sloughed quietly away; but the loss of the elder faith brought to him no such suffering as it had brought, say, to Carlyle. For within Spencer's Synthetic Philosophy had lingered much of the optimism of the Enlightenment, and in the thought of Garland, as in that of other Spencerians, the idea of the evolving of all things from the simple to the complex was fused with an assumption of indefinite progress. The belief that the evolutionary process extends to human society gave sanction to Garland's radicalism and instructed him to welcome reform. The belief that the evolutionary process extends also to the arts—he once planned to write literary histories of the evolution of English and American ideals—gave sanction to his bold disregard of many established classics and to his attempt to strike out a literary way of his own—Veritism. The loss of any faith in a future life only called for a more vigorous attempt to make the present life tolerable; the individualism of Spencer, which might have stood in the way of Garland's interest in any socialistic program of economic reform, only confirmed him in his discipleship to Henry George; and, in short, the Synthetic Philosophy furnished, with Garland, a most favorable nourishment for the growth of literary and economic radicalism.
In the forming of his scheme of aesthetics, Garland drew upon sources more complex and varied than those which had contributed to his general philosophy. Of the European critics and artists, Taine attracted him by his naturalistic interpretation of literary history, Eugene Véron by his opposition to the French Academy, and Max Nordau by his savage treatment of the "Conventional Lies" of our civilization. Garland admired, too, the great dramatists and novelists of Norway and Russia, whom he regarded as being "almost at the very summit" of modern authorship [Roadside Meetings]. Of the American authors, Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass he read in 1883, "changed the world" for him, taught him the "mystery of the near at hand," and let loose upon him "the spiritual significance of America" [A Son of the Middle Border]. Besides the poetry of Whitman, Garland read also the Specimen Days and especially the vigorous Democratic Vistas, with its caustic romantic critique of the commercialism of the Gilded Age. Whitman himself he visited in Camden, approaching the elder poet with the respect due to "one of the very greatest literary personalities of the century" [Roadside Meetings]. Of other American authors, it was chiefly Howells who taught him to look upon fiction as a fine art. Above all, however, he studied the works of the local colorists—Eggleston, Kirkland, in fact, almost every significant author of American regional fiction; and it is from this literary type that his own earliest work most immediately derives.
No less curiously instructive than these influences which Garland accepted are those which he rejected; for, if there were certain masters whom he admired, there were others against whom he was more or less consciously in revolt. The New England school he referred to as "eminent but bookish"; men like Bulwer, Scott, and Hugo he disliked because of their "aristocracy" [Crumbling Idols]. Many of the classics of the past, he felt, had by the inescapable processes of social evolution lost their validity for the present: "Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dante, Milton, are fading away into mere names—books we should read but seldom do" [Crumbling Idols]. In this complex of rejection and assimilation, it is difficult, of course, to find any very systematic set of principles; but of one main drift we may be reasonably sure: Garland accepted and assimilated chiefly those influences he thought pertinent to the shaping of a literature which should deal powerfully, truthfully, and, if possible, beautifully, with the secular life of his contemporary America; and those influences which he felt inimical to a realistic literary treatment of our democracy, he rejected.
From such materials, and from their interaction with his own personality, Garland developed his own, individual scheme of aesthetics—a fusion of insurgency, realism, and ethical earnestness. As an insurgent—that is, as a rebellious individualist—he holds first of all that the true artist must be a creator, not an imitator. Excessive bookishness hinders rather than helps the artist. He may be warped or destroyed by libraries; he is made by vital contact with life. In the task of creation, he must free himself from the dominance of literary centers; he must thrust aside all models, even living writers, and "consciously stand alone" before life and before nature. Rebellion is therefore prerequisite to creation; "the iconoclast is a necessity" [Crumbling Idols].
Moreover, only by such independence of mind can an author arrive at that entire truthfulness for which Garland preferred a stronger name than realism—Veritism. The essence of Veritism is complete sincerity in the treatment of such phases of contemporary life as are known to the author. To the apprentice writer, Garland's counsel is,
Write of the things of which you know most, and for which you care most. By so doing you will be true to yourself, true to your locality, and true to your time. [Crumbling Idols]
By this basic principle of truthfulness, Garland's emphasis on the value of local color in literature is, to his own mind at least, justified. The presence of local color in a work of fiction means that the writer "spontaneously reflects the life that goes on around him"; it gives a novel "such quality of texture and background that it could not have been written in any other place or by anyone else than a native." Because of the organic union of truthfulness and local color, the latter is "demonstrably the life of fiction," and is a factor in the greatness of many of the classics both of modern and of ancient times [Crumbling Idols].
Veritism—fidelity to the truth—was, moreover, an ethical principle with Garland as well as an aesthetic; for the truthful portraiture of the unjust and evil necessarily suggests, by contrast, the ideally just and good. By delineating the ugliness and strife of the present, the artist aims to hasten the age of beauty and peace. The Veritist
sees life in terms of what it might be, as well as in terms of what it is; but he writes of what is, and, at his best, suggests what is to be. [Crumbling Idols]
Hence the artist may adopt the aim of spreading everywhere the reign of justice and yet keep his artistic interests paramount—provided only that he convey his social message not by preaching, but by exemplifying, "not by direct expression, but by placing before the reader the facts of life as they stand related to the artist" [Crumbling Idols]. Veritist and indirect propagandist are one. Seen in this light, the social bearing of fiction need in no way interfere with its aesthetic values, which are to afford the writer "keen creative delight" and to enrich the experience of the reader by touching, lifting, and exalting him.
On the whole, Garland's aesthetics are as individualistic as his general philosophy of life; and the individualism of both is of a piece with that of his sociology. While still a homesteader, himself sharing in the disposal of the public domain, Garland, as we have seen, read Progress and Poverty and accepted George's thesis that the root of social evils is monopoly of land. Some years later, this abstract conviction was transformed into personal loyalty; George spoke in Boston, and his impressive power, his sincere altruism, and his personal charm combined to make of Garland a disciple. Garland joined the Anti-Poverty society which George's visit had called into being, and attended and addressed its meetings. Later, while living temporarily in New York, he fell into the habit of visiting "the Prophet and his delightful family," and became an observer, if not an intimate, of the circle of reformers that foregathered about George [A Son of the Middle Border].
Sensitive as he was to every appeal to humanitarian feeling, Garland could hardly, if he would, have escaped the general humanitarian temper of the times, of which the work of George was only one of many manifestations. The influences he met with in the circle of George were reinforced by numerous others. His connection with B. O. Flower and the Arena brought him into fellowship first with another Eastern group of social critics, and later with the Western leaders of Populism. The time was one in which he could awaken an enthusiastic interest in the Single Tax in his friends the Hemes, or argue against socialism in the company of Howells. It was, in short, an era of "parlor-socialists, single-taxers, militant populists, Ibsen dramas, and Tolstoyan encyclicals against greed, lust, and caste" [Roadside Meetings]. Upon Garland, the effect of this welter of reform movements was chiefly to deepen his concern for social justice. Only one phase of the reform program provided him with intellectual meat. From his all but religious discipleship to Henry George, he was not diverted.
The sociology of Garland is, then, a simpler version of the sociology of George. Equally with George, Garland is aware, sensitively aware, of the curse of poverty and the burden of human suffering; and he is capable of an equally burning hatred of social injustice. Along with George—and, indeed, with the thinkers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—he assumes that the primary causes of human suffering do not lie in the beneficent scheme of Nature, but in the imperfect and unjust laws of man. His particular concern is, of course, with that scheme of law which allows the speculator to monopolize the natural resources of the earth. He assumes, with George, that the destruction of monopoly and of speculative values in land is the crucial task of the economic reformer, the one stroke needful to insure the restoration of the buoyant prosperity that had accompanied the era of the open frontier.
The effect of the tax on land values is precisely like that of opening new land to settlement. It brings it out of the speculator's hands into the settler's hands. It passes out of the hands of the monopolist into the hands of the contractor and builder. ['The Single Tax in Actual Operation," in Arena, Vol. X, No. 57 (June 1894)]
More explicitly than George, Garland rejects all tendencies toward collectivism. The sufferings of the victims of society are not due, as the Socialists claim, to free competition, but to the lack of free competition—in short, to monopoly. Not the paternal care of the government, but opportunity merely, is the need of the average American citizen. Given a chance, the average man is industrious enough and frugal enough to be trusted with the management of his own affairs; and the interference of government with his business ought therefore, Jeffersonian fashion, to be diminished rather than increased.
Moreover, the restoration of opportunity, and the consequent abolition of poverty, are not economic aims merely; they are aesthetic as well. With William Morris, Garland believed that widespread social injustice dwarfs the growth of art. If he lacked Morris's profound understanding of the creative values of craftsmanship, he at least realized that if the arts are ever to have meaning for the populace in general, poverty must first be alleviated. The exhausted sweatshop girl or farm hand has no chance to care for beauty. Hence, "if you would raise the standard of art in America you must first raise the standard of living. . . ." "With leisure to enjoy and means to purchase to his refining taste, the common man would be no longer a common man, and art, genuine art, with free and happy intellects before it, would no longer be the poor, begging thing that it seems now" ["The Land Question and Its Relation to Art and Literature," in Arena, Vol. IX (January 1894)]. . . .
Since Garland himself has so emphasized his concern over social injustice, one is surprised to find, on examining his stories, that less than a third deal, even indirectly, with economic reform. One story, "Black Ephram," is vaguely humanitarian, but devoid of any bearing on the specific economic causes of suffering in Garland's own time. Two others, "A Day of Grace" and "The Test of Elder Pill," express Garland's opposition to the hell-fire evangelism and emotional excesses of much rural religion. Nine stories, such as "The Sociable at Dudley's," are regional narratives, concerned with local color and with the peculiar folkways of a remote rural community. The subjects of ten others, including "The Return of a Private," are general and miscellaneous; and among these at least one, "God's Ravens," deals with provincial life much in the idyllic manner from which Garland supposed he had broken away. By the most liberal interpretation, the need for economic reform and the influence of economic conditions are major themes in only nine stories: "A Branch Road," "Up the Coulée," "Among the Corn Rows," "Under the Lion's Paw," "A Day's Pleasure," "Sim Burns's Wife," "A Stop-Over at Tyre," "An Alien in the Pines," and "Before the Low Green Door."
The economic creed expressed in these nine stories is as simply conceived as it is powerfully driven home. That because of economic injustice rural life is now barren and intolerably painful; that such suffering must be relieved, and such barrenness enriched; and that these gains may be had by the one thoroughgoing act of destroying all monopolistic holdings in land—this is Garland's platform. All in all, it is the sufferings and the spiritual deformity of the victims of society that he renders most powerfully. Among these victims, there is the farmer Sim Burns:
The man thrust his dirty, naked feet into his huge boots, and, without washing his face or combing his hair, went out to the barn to do his chores.
He was a type of the average prairie farmer. . . .
No grace had come or ever could come into his life. Back of him were generations of men like himself, whose main business had been to work hard, live miserably, and beget children to take their places when they died.
And beside the portrait of the man there is that of his wife, Lucretia, who, after a day of vexations and sufferings and quarrels, wears a pitifully tired, almost tragic, face—
long, thin, sallow, hollow-eyed. The mouth had long since lost the power to shape itself into a kiss, and had a droop at the corners, which seemed to announce a breaking down at any moment into a despairing wail. The colorless neck and sharp shoulders sagged painfully.
There is power in portrayals such as these, the unforgettable power of a profound indignation which has found truthful and adequate voice. And these two are reinforced by other descriptions of equal force—that of Grant MacLane in "Up the Coulée"; those of such farm women as Mrs. Sam Markham in "A Day's Pleasure" and the dying Matilda in "Before the Low Green Door"—descriptions that say all that need be said about the futility of the lives, women's lives especially, that never escape from the imprisonment of poverty.
Besides descriptive portrayal, Garland's one other important method of economic teaching is the illustration of some economic principle or problem in a series of imagined events. In "A Stop-Over at Tyre," he suggests the economic effect of premature marriage in preventing a man from his intended career; in "A Branch Road" he suggests the problem, whether a woman should remain faithful to a marriage in which she is being wrecked by unhappiness and overwork. In "Under the Lion's Paw," the most admirably executed of all the stories, he illustrates the effect of land monopoly on the farmer Haskins, who, when he buys the place he has worked as a tenant, is compelled to pay for his own improvements and to accept terms that make of him an economic slave. The economics of "Under the Lion's Paw" is, of course, straight out of Progress and Poverty; Garland himself has spoken of the work [in Roadside Meetings] as a singletax story; and, indeed, its relation to George's main thesis is precisely that of example to theorem in mathematics. Not the least triumph of Garland's work is that he successfully translates the abstractions of George into such concrete, human, dramatic, and moving terms.
Description and exemplification, then, are the common fictional methods of Garland. Mindful of Howells's counsel to exemplify and not to preach, he was almost overcareful in avoiding the explicit statement of any economic views, particularly his own. Rarely, he has his characters discuss some industrial problem of the times; even more rarely, he employs a chorus character to inculcate his own views. Chief of these characters is the radical, Radbourn, who, in "Sim Burns's Wife," protests against the "horrible waste of life involved in it all," who wishes to "preach discontent, a noble discontent," and whose program of practical reform involves
the abolition of all indirect taxes, the State control of all privileges the private ownership of which interfered with the equal rights of all. He would utterly destroy speculative holdings of the earth. He would have land everywhere brought to its best use, by appropriating ground rents to the use of the state.
And yet, even in the stories that are definitely economic in purpose, the didactic element is not obtruded. The economic teaching is suspended, as it were, in a current of more purely fictional elements, especially of the kind common among local color stories. In characterization, for example, there is an abundance of genre paintings, like those of Mrs. Ripley and Uncle Ethan Ripley, or the Yohe boys in "The Sociable at Dudley's." In the talk of Garland's people, a Western rural idiom, which gives an impression of entire naturalness, abounds. The natural scene, the prairie background, while not insisted on as is the Tennessee mountain scenery in Miss Murfree's stories, is skillfully, often beautifully, employed.
Indeed, to one who came to Garland's stories without any preconceptions, their principal merit might seem to reside in the sheer craftsmanship of the writer. Stimulated by the artistic example of his friend Howells, situated independently, at liberty to take his time and brood over his materials until he brought them to full creation, Garland, writing and rewriting, wrought out his stories with the conscious artistry of the master craftsman. The result is a carefully wrought expansion of scene, a deliberate buildup and calculation of effect, and a plausibility dependent on the aesthetically consistent use of precisely the right detail, that are beyond praise. Often the movement of the story culminates in some dramatic or even melodramatic climax—the quietly intense talk of Grant and Howard MacLane in "Up the Coulée," or Haskins' narrowly averted murder of the speculator Butler in "Under the Lion's Paw." Richly suggestive, intensely human touches abound; the language, intentionally rugged, intensifies at times into restrained rhythmic beauty. Underneath the surface, unobtruded but continually felt, the force of the author's profound indignation urges the stories along. Above all, Garland knows when to close, and how to strengthen his conclusions by abandoning direct statement for impressive restraint and suggestion. When, in "Up the Coulée," the prosperous Howard MacLane learns the entire tragedy of his brother's defeat by the poverty he could have relieved, we are told only,
The two men stood there, face to face, hands clasped, the one fair-skinned, full-lipped, handsome in his neat suit; the other tragic, sombre in his softened mood, his large, long, rugged Scotch face bronzed with sun and scarred with wrinkles that had histories, like sabrecuts on a veteran, the record of his battles.
The reception of Main-Travelled Roads was a puzzling affair, at least to Garland. The book sold steadily, to be sure, but mostly in the East; its sale in the West remained small for many years. Certain critics, unprepared for Garland's relentless truth-telling, evinced an antagonism which the author found astonishing. But he had the cordial appreciation of Flower, Mary Wilkins, Howells, and others; and although conservatives like Edward Fuller might look at him askance, he had at least become a force.
With the completion of [his third novel of economic fiction] A Spoil of Office, we are brought to the verge of that break in Garland's career—that disintegration, so far as his social aims are concerned—which has so piqued the curiosity of our historians and critics. . . .
Interpretations of Garland's change of policy are as numerous as the historians and critics who have attacked the problem. . . . The basic, the original factor, however, appears to have been, as [Vernon Louis Parrington, in The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America,] suggests, the decline of the middle-class protest against industrialism—or, more exactly, the diversion of that protest from its agrarian and romantic expression into other forms.
Although there is some reason for believing that the middle-class drive for social justice was already losing force as early as 1892, the definite outward symptom of that decline, and one of the decisive turning-points in American history, was the defeat of William Jennings Bryan and of the Populist-Democratic fusion in 1896. Thence-forward, Populism was no longer a national power, and the force of events directed the liberal elements in the Democratic party toward other issues. The inflation for which the free-silver men had for years ineffectually struggled, followed naturally upon the discovery of new gold fields and an enormous increase in the world-supply of gold; the trough of a world-wide economic depression was passed; once more America, the middle border included, knew prosperity; and the quest for social justice lost the tragically dynamic motive power of unusual and widespread suffering. The Spanish-American and Philippine wars tended, likewise, to divert popular attention from domestic reforms; so that, when Bryan undertook his second campaign for the presidency, he found it expedient to crystallize the democratic and humanitarian sentiment of the country about the issue of imperialism instead of economic reform. The middle-class opposition to the plutocracy was carried on for a while only by isolated groups of single-taxers, nationalists, and others, and by the occasional novel of some critic or humanitarian. When, presently, that protest again received a national hearing—in the work of the muckrakers and in the progressive movement led by Theodore Roosevelt—it was under the leadership of other men, and under the influence of another time-spirit, than that which had given it focus in the Gilded Age. . . .
In brief, the middle nineties, whether considered from the viewpoint of factual history, or that of the leadership of public opinion, or that of belles-lettres, were a time when certain powerful forces, which had come to focus within the two preceding decades, were rapidly disintegrating. The culture of antebellum, agrarian America, its protagonists now grown old, its way of life fast becoming only a memory, its forces spent in the effort to transform or control the Machine Age, had lived its active life and was ready for whatever doubtful immortality might belong to an influence and a heritage.
In the middle nineties, therefore, Garland held the unenviable position of a spokesman for a disintegrating movement, of a survivor of a fast disappearing culture. The social, the cultural foundation on which he had hitherto stood was dissolving, and it behooved him either to find another stance, or to retire from literature as a vocation. Moreover, if he were to marry, to create a home, to realize himself completely in a normal human life, he must find a stance that promised economic security. His fundamental problem (although he himself never stated it in just these terms) was simply a problem of literary survival in a rapidly changing milieu. Stated in another way, his was the problem of discovering, as journalist and free lance writer, materials and methods interesting enough to the public to command an adequate income, an income by which he might realize his aims, not as a member of society but as an individual, not as a social prophet, but simply as a man. These materials he was already finding in the local color, the romance, of the Rocky Mountain West.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5293
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 on to assert that [Howells's novel] "A Modern Instance is the greatest, most rigidly artistic novel ever written by an American, and ranks with the great novels of the world." The two men had in 1891 a kind of master-and-disciple relationship, with the older one encouraging the other to go on with his composition of stories which were so realistic that only a radical magazine like The Arena would print them; in fact, "Up the Coolly" and "A Branch Road" were too strong even for that doughty periodical. Six of these stories Garland issued in a volume with the title of Main-Travelled Roads, the outstanding contribution to American realism in 1891 and one of the classic collections of American short stories. Main-Travelled Roads did not break utterly with the Genteel Tradition—Garland was never to do that—but it did inch closer to such a rupture than any other important American writing had come by that date.
In his "Editor's Study" [in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, LXXXIII, 639] Howells gladly welcomed this "robust and terribly serious" book, commending the stories for their art, their strength, their courage, and rejoicing that they would "strike many gentilities as coarse and common." With an oblique allusion to his own rationale of criticism he wrote:
If any one is still at a loss to account for that uprising of the farmers in the West which is the translation of the Peasants' War into modern and republican terms, let him read Main-Travelled Roads, and he will begin to understand, unless, indeed, Mr. Garland is painting the exceptional rather than the average. The stories are full of those gaunt, grim, sordid, pathetic, ferocious figures, whom our satirists find so easy to caricature as Hayseeds, and whose blind groping for fairer conditions is so grotesque to the newspapers and so menacing to the politicians. They feel that something is wrong, and they know that the wrong is not theirs. The type caught in Mr. Garland's book is not pretty; it is ugly and often ridiculous, but it is heart-breaking in its rude despair.
The passage displays more than Howells's gratification at finding he had a stalwart ally; it reveals, too, that he sympathized with the revolting farmer of the 1890's. The main facts of that revolt must be outlined here briefly not only because they made Garland a writer but also because they helped mightily to form the disposition, the receptive mood, for realism which was expanding over the nation. Thousands of Americans, losing during that rebellion some of their more romantic illusions about their country and inspired by a deeply-rooted puritanic culture which, as with Howells and Garland and Stephen Crane, craved the truth no matter how much it hurt, were reluctantly revising their opinions about their opportunities and at the same time becoming more ready to accept a literature which would mirror the life they knew.
By the late eighties and early nineties the farmer of the West and South, whether or not he realized that the Civil War had brought victory to industry and finance, began to see himself as an economic casualty. The bankers, the manufacturers, even the mill workers were organized and receiving favors from the government while he was left to fend for himself, and the fending was becoming less and less tolerable. He bought in a dear market and sold in a cheap one; Kansas farmers received eight or ten cents a bushel for wheat which the New York broker priced at one dollar a bushel. He had little to say about the price of the commodities he dealt in, and nothing at all about the prices of the things he bought. He reasoned that he was at the mercy of stock market manipulators, of the railroads which by virtue of their monopolies could fix discriminatory freight rates, and of the Wall Street bankers who ultimately held the farm mortgages, and he came to hate them all bitterly. Because his property was land, he could not conceal its existence or its value and so could not escape, as he thought business men often did, the burden of taxation. The tariff, he thought, was devised so as to keep him in economic peonage. He was the victim of the drought and other acts of God. Like the other westerner, the silver man, his fortune was being taken from him by the ruthless gold man of the East. Congress, the courts, the governors, and legislatures were all the creatures of an oligarchy that lived upon his sweat and blood and hunger; he produced, the others fattened and lived luxuriously upon the harvest of his toil.
The farmers had tried to organize, too, in the hope of obtaining redress for their grievances, but the Grange, the Agricultural Wheel, the Corn-growers' Association, and the Farmers' Alliance had little success. Then in May of 1891 delegates representing the embattled farmers and reformers of various sects met in a convention at Cincinnati to call for the formation of a third party to be named the People's Party of the United States of America. Meeting in St. Louis the following year, delegates of the Populists drew up a platform that has not been equalled in our history for forthright wrathful language as it described the class struggle here and abroad. Among other charges it thundered:
We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. . . . The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrated in the hands of the capitalists. The urban population are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down their wages; a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down. . . . The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented in the history of the world, while the possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty. . . . The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bondholders; silver .. . has been demonetized to add to the purchasing power of gold by decreasing values of all forms of property as well as human labor; and the supply of currency is purposely abridged to fatten usurers, bankrupt enterprise, and enslave industry. A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two conztinents and is taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once it forebodes terrible convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.
In the 1892 election the Populist candidate for president carried the states of Colorado, Kansas, Nevada, and Utah, and received over a million votes, thereby so frightening the eastern conservative press that it advertised the three Populist United States senators and eleven representatives and their friends as agents of subversion. The Populist party continued strong in the elections of 1894 but was practically absorbed by the Democratic party in 1896. By 1900 it was admittedly dead.
All this ferment of words, passions, and occasional lawlessness called loudly for interpretation by a writer of fiction who believed in Howells's definition of realism. Hamlin Garland had met many of the leaders of the revolt, studied them shrewdly, penetrated through their rhetorical fulminations to the wrongs that incited them, and written sketches of them for The Arena. His interest was not that of the mere observer or doctrinaire; it was that of a man who had from childhood been familiar with the toil, the deprivations, the poverty, and the frustrations of a farmer's life. Interest is, in truth, much too mild a word to describe his feeling, which was one of hot anger—anger not just because of the economic oppression under which the farmer fretted but even more largely because of the attendant indignities to the human spirit. He saw that unrequited toil could break the heart as well as the body; he knew from his experiences in Wisconsin and Iowa and Dakota how meager were the pleasures of the lonely farmer and his wife, how few those refinements and beauties which can make humble life tolerable. And he knew that this farming couple and its children, the grim odorous battle with nature, the heroism in the face of failure and death, the piety and the cherished culture, the pathetic ambitions for the young, had never been given a completely honest treatment in American literature. It was his aim and his achievement to give that treatment, first in essays, then in stories.
The idea of writing fiction about his native region would possibly never have occurred to Garland had he remained there all his life. To the middle westerner Boston was the hub of literary America and literature was a thing removed from ordinary life. No one had written adequately about the Middle West except Edward Eggleston, whose The Hoosier Schoolmaster Garland read in serial form in 1871 and later recognized as a milestone in his literary progress. But it was only after several years of residence in Boston that he began to acquire the perspective and the creed necessary for the successful handling of the Border in writing. First he penned a series of articles about prairie life in the different seasons. Then, with revived interest in his material and a dream of fame to be found in the field of realistic writing, he left for his former home in the summer of 1887. In May of that year he had read Kirkland's Zury, the Meanest Man in Spring County (1887), and on his way to Iowa he stopped in Chicago to see the author of that epic of stinginess. Kirkland, acquainted with some of Garland's sketches, advised him to write fiction.
As Garland drew nearer home he was more and more struck with the gracelessness of the dwellings, the lack of color and charm everywhere, the futility of life, especially of woman's life, on a farm. And when he reached Osage and was greeted by his old friends, worn out with their labors and discouraged by their prospects, he remembered the gospel of [Henry George's] Progress and Poverty, which he had read in 1883. Thus with Eggleston, Kirkland, and Henry George as stimuli, and with his "perception of the sordid monotony of farm life" to give him a new emotional relationship to the land, he began to write his first short story while with his parents. However, most of the Main-Travelled Roads stories were written in the two years following his return to Boston, where he was further inspired by hearing George lecture and by the friendship of Howells. In 1889, called home by the serious illness of his mother, he was confirmed in his impression of the drabness and sorrow of existence on the plains and resumed his writing in what he described as a mood of bitter resentment. When he dedicated the first edition of Main-Travelled Roads to his father and mother he acknowledged that their "half-century pilgrimage on the main-travelled road of life" had "brought them only toil and privation."
Of the six stories in this volume two retain some of the heat in which they were written and first read. Because it is not so much propaganda as it is the record of a clash in temperaments, a clash which grew out of the nature of life itself, "Up the Coolly" has the more lasting effect upon a sensitive reader. Though derived directly from Garland's experience, it is finely and patiently imagined. Garland's return to his old home was not marked by the harsh collision of personalities which forms the plot of "Up the Coolly," but it could have been, and the story otherwise follows loosely the details of that visit. Howard McLane, through whose eyes the unhappy situation unfolds, is a successful dramatist and actor, an item which is not autobiographical, though the fact that Garland's brother Franklin was moderately successful on the stage at the time may have suggested McLane's profession. But McLane's response to the landscape, his feelings upon seeing his mother, his attempt to help in the hay field, the changes in land ownership, the increase in foreign settlers, McLane's determination to find a comfortable home for his mother, his wish to spend Thanksgiving with her—all these things correspond with facts later set forth in A Son of the Middle Border (1917). One small detail of the story which is interestingly autobiographical is McLane's selection of silk dress material as a gift for his mother and of General Grant's Personal Memoirs for his brother. These were the gifts which Garland purchased for mother and father respectively with the first money he earned by writing.
In the light of what Garland was trying to do, and in view of the theory of fiction which he was to put into print in 1894, it is just to value his fiction in proportion to its artistic and realistic use of the prairie as he knew it. He did use it freely, sympathetically, observantly; a close reading of his stories and his Middle Border series demonstrates how consistently and faithfully he introduced into the stories himself, his family, his neighbors, and the incidents of farm life in his section. But the values of "Up the Coolly" transcend those of mere realism. Howard McLane, beaten, smouldering, scarred and weary, is not only a man envious of his brother's fortune and stung by that brother's cavalier neglect. He is also a symbol of a great and inexplicable failure of justice, a denial of the old maxims about thrift and industry and integrity, a mockery of the proclamations of the patriotic orator, a kind of modern Job, tormented not by divine but by economic determinism. A character like that allows but one solution to the complication he created, and Garland, rejecting all temptations to compromise with romanticism, proved himself a genuine realist by bringing "Up the Coolly" to an unorthodox but satisfying end.
"The Return of a Private" has probably been reprinted more often than any other of the Main-Travelled Roads stories. Although it has nothing to do with battle, it is the first memorable American story to have as its prime intent the throwing of suspicion upon the glory of a soldier's service to his country. Bierce had made war a thing of chance and carnage but he had also ascribed to many of his military men a debonair courage that veiled some of the horror of their profession. Garland's private has no shred of glory left him as he returns to his farm after being discharged—no committee meets him, no flags wave, no official makes a speech, no drums and bugles welcome the weary, sick, impoverished ex-soldier whose health has been undermined and whose farm has deteriorated during the three years he was in blue. He came back, it is true, to a loving wife and to three children, but he also came back to a mortgage, to weedy acres, to a future darkened by the fact that his machinery had been stolen by a tenant. Had Stephen Crane told the story of Private Smith he might have jeered at the penalized idealist. Garland, writing with no illusions but with a kind of sad wonderment, had his hero assume his new duties and burdens with a stout heart. "His war with the South was over, and his fight, his daily running fight with nature and against the injustice of his fellow-man, was begun again," was his concluding comment.
This story, describing the return of Garland's father after the Civil War, is completely autobiographical. Almost all of the narrative particulars, from the reading of tea leaves by the Widow Gray (Widow Green in real life) to the youngest son's fear of his stranger father, appear in the first chapter of A Son of the Middle Border. "A Branch Road" also contains autobiographical elements, although the plot was invented. Two of Garland's favorite themes are here interwined with deceptive skill: men and women separate themselves from each other by a perverse, jealous reserve, and the life of the prairie woman was frequently close to the unendurable. In this story Will Hannan saves Agnes Dingman, whom he had loved seven years before, from the nagging and bullying of her husband by eloping with her and her baby. Such an application of the principles of realism must have been somewhat embarrassing to Howells when he came to review Main-Travelled Roads; guardedly he conceded that the story was morally all wrong but that the author had left the reader to say that himself. "He knows that his business was with those two people, their passions and their probabilities," he wrote. Surely he must have realized that by this evasion he had inferentially contradicted the doctrine of the need to unite art and morality which he had preached zealously in Criticism and Fiction.
"Among the Corn-Rows," with a considerably lighter tone, belongs to local color rather than to propaganda. It has, to be sure, its serious angles in the difficulties of a young man who tries as Garland did in 1883 to live unmarried on his land claim; in the consciousness of the Norwegians that they are regarded as queer by their neighbors; and in Julia Petersen's exhausting and well-nigh hopeless drudgery. But its key is that of aspiration and young love, and all ends well in an elopement to which Garland gave a romantic lift. "Mrs. Ripley's Trip," the first of the stories Garland wrote for this collection and one grafted upon an anecdote told him by his mother, is another addition to local color literature, reminiscent, in its effective use of dialect and its understanding of concealed affection, of the narratives by Mary E. Wilkins, particularly "The Revolt of Mother." Yet even this half-playful story has its heavy undertone in the evidence of ever-present toil and near-poverty. For twenty-three years Jane Ripley had "stuck right to the stove an' churn without a day or night off; after her visit East, relates Garland, she "took up her burden again, never more thinking to lay it down." That last sentence, like several of Garland's closing sentences, admirably suits the Biblical cadence to the sober emotion.
Better known than any of the preceding stories with the exception of "The Return of a Private" is "Under the Lion's Paw," written in 1890 when Garland was a disciple of Henry George and a member of the Anti-Poverty Society. Sometimes dubbed Garland's Single Tax story, this one thrusts its truth into the conscience of the modern reader as patly as it did in the 1890's, for it explains concretely how increasing real estate values may enrich a landlord who has not done a stroke of contributing or productive labor. Though Garland wrote with creditable restraint, the fury of Timothy Haskins, the tenant farmer, is quickly and fully communicated from story to reader, who is almost ready to excuse the murderous assault which the overworked man came near to perpetrating but which Garland wisely prevented.
These six stories have many of the qualities of enduring literature. They crystalize the revolt of an important section of the American people. Their images convey the impressions of an aroused observer who intended to tell the truth about that part of humanity which he knew. And those impressions are set down with acuteness and dexterity, for without employing any of the tricks of the popular sentimentalist of his day Garland evokes compassion for his unhappy characters and compels us to await eagerly the outcome of their humble fortunes. His men and women are copied without much alteration from persons with whom he had lived and worked; they are not the rustic clowns of traditional drama and story but figures of true comic and tragic proportions; persons who laugh and shout and dance, who try to preserve their inherited cultures on a barren frontier, whose bodies and minds are cramped by undeserved want and the lack of opportunity for self-improvement, who speak with the tongues of real farmers and who love and hate and quarrel and worship like ordinary Americans of their part of the country. Garland did not, to be sure, tell the whole truth; he did not reproduce the full vigor of barnyard speech nor did he pry into the shadowed corners of small towns or of farmhouses. Yet he did not shrink from informing us that if too many of his settlers of the Middle Border lived meanly, some of them were also mean. Almost all of them are in one way or another the victims of an economic derangement, but Garland avoided the superficiality of the maladroit propagandist by refusing to make everyone heroic or even wholesome. There they are, with the movements and minds of real persons: hardworking or shiftless, sober or drunken, kind or brutal, planning a better future or plodding through their days with scarcely more than animal persistence. They are completely alive, completely convincing. They exist.
This authenticity was one reason for the lively censure with which Main-Travelled Roads was greeted in 1891. Garland, hurt, it would seem, for many years by the reception given this book, tells us in the thirty-first chapter of A Son of the Middle Border that the people he was trying to help execrated him as a bird fouling its own nest, that "statistics were employed to show that pianos and Brussels carpets adorned almost every Iowa farm-house," that editorials and reviews insisted that tilling the soil was a noble occupation quite unlike the picture he had drawn. He was accused over the country of fomenting class hatred, of associating with cranks like Henry George and Walt Whitman, of falsifying the good life in America. When the dissent was not abusive it was skeptical; The Atlantic Monthly [LXIX] voiced the feeling of the cloistered conscience by remarking that if these stories were true then "the sum of human grief and suffering is still greater than we had supposed" and by hoping that "in his enthusiasm for Mr. Howells" Garland had "married Russian despair and French realism"—an indirect criticism that was notably confused.
In these stories the incidents, and the order in which they are related, are equally persuasive. They have the unhurried rhythm which assures the reader that they have not been pressed or teased into shape but have grown naturally. The hand of the writer is almost invisible as his farm people sow and reap, cook and eat, court and marry, grow old and die. Brief as is their individual appearance upon the page, they contribute to an epic effect, to a sense of the vast heaving organism which uses soil and sun and rain to produce life but which is constantly at war with itself to bring on death. The plots are, in the best meaning of the word, serious, and because they are effortlessly constructed and utterly true they will keep Main-Travelled Roads alive as long as books are read. Garland never did better writing.
Other editions of this work, with added stories, came out in 1893 and 1899, and Garland continued his purpose partially in two other collections of short stories, Prairie Folks (1893) and Wayside Courtships (1895)—partially, because there is less bitterness and crusading in these tales and more of a rendering into fiction of the Middle Border scene apart from its economic sickness.
"Daddy Deering," with excellent accounts of threshing and hog-killing and dancing, does again emphasize the ceaseless unavailing labor of the farmer, but "The Sociable at Dudley's" and "Saturday Night on the Farm" turn to the lighter moments of rural life; the former is one of the most thoroughly autobiographical of Garland's stories. The tragic note resounds again in "Sim Burns's Wife," "A Day's Pleasure," "Before the Green Door," and "A Division in the Coolly," in all of which the author, drawing upon his memories of his mother, sister, and women friends, grieves over the rigorous conditions under which prairie women lived out their days. "Sim Burns's Wife" is also another Single Tax tract, with Garland's sentiments expressed movingly by the young lawyer, David Radbourn. "An Alien in the Pines" contains realistic descriptions of the Wisconsin lumber camps, probably based upon Garland's visit to that region and on conversations with his father, who had worked there.
In three stories Garland dealt with the type of religion found on the Border, particularly with the revival, which in "Elder Pill: the Country Preacher" and "A Day of Grace" is described as an occasion for hell-fire preaching and hysterical response but which in "A Preacher's Love Story" unites a neighborhood in friendship instead of gloom. One of the best additions is "The Creamery Man," which to an unwary reader is a comedy of courtship involving a young delivery man, a proud farmer's daughter, and a clumsy, unattractive German girl; actually it expresses, with a kind of homely poetry appropriate to the milieu, a knowledge that tears lie at the bottom of even commonplace human relationships.
In contrast with the farm stories, Garland's stories of small town life are less melancholy and at the same time less interesting and less important. Bluff Siding and Tyre are names which he used for his Middle Border towns, and while they seem to represent the typical rather than specific places they are doubtless related to Onalaska and Osage, the towns of that kind which Garland knew. "God's Ravens" is a miniature revolt against the village almost a generation before [Sinclair Lewis's] Main Street appeared. Its hero, Robert Bloom, leaves Chicago for his health and goes back to his native town in Wisconsin, only to recoil from what he finds there:
"Oh, I can't stand these people! They don't know anything. They talk every rag of gossip into shreds. Taters, fish, hops; hops, fish, and 'taters. They've saved and pinched and toiled till their souls are pinched and ground away. You're right. They are caricatures. They don't read or think about anything in which I'm interested. This life is nerve-destroying. Talk about the health of the village life! it destroys body and soul.
But he changes his mind after his neighbors nurse him through a grave illness.
Sentimental, likewise, is "A 'Good Fellow's' Wife," with adénouement that is possible but lucky. Two of Garland's social ideas get into this story: Belle Sanford doubts the Tightness of taking money for which one has not worked, and she finds that she cannot fulfill herself by being dependent upon her husband, a theme which Garland was to expand in Rose of Dutcher's Coolly (1895). "Some Village Cronies" is an affectionate recital of what happens in a small store when men foregather on a cold night, and here Garland drew again upon a familiar setting since he had seen in an uncle's store the horseplay of a village social center. The boarding-house in which the action of "A Stop-Over at Tyre" is laid resembles the one in Osage in which Garland stayed while attending the Cedar Valley Seminary; the persons of the story are also taken from real life, but the similarity ends there since actually the girl and the salesman eloped, whereas in the narrative they marry, forsake high ambitions, and settle down to a hollow life in a dull little town.
Besides using the thirty-three Main-Travelled Roads stories as vehicles for his insurgency, Garland produced in 1892 three propaganda novels. Two of them, Jason Edwards and A Spoil of Office, proclaim the injustice of land monopoly; the last, A Member of the Third House, shows the attempt of a carrier corporation to corrupt a state legislature. All three, however well-intentioned, are so amateurish in execution that they do not seem to be the work of the same man who wrote "Up the Coolly"; the first and third suffer especially in having been hurriedly converted from plays into fiction, with a result that their characters are wooden and their action predictable. In A Member of the Third House, by way of illustration, the scene between Brennan and his paramour creaks shamefully, and when in the same novel Garland wrote:
"Now I say, irrevocably, the investigation must go on, and I will testify."
Helene looked from one to the other in dismay and bewilderment. Brennan appeared on the other side of the shrubs, listening to the conversation.
we know we are reading stage directions rather than the deliberately developed narrative of a good novelist. Garland's generosity and enthusiasm simply got the better of his art.
But that enthusiasm, canalized more calmly in the earlier accounts, made him a leader in the revolution against nineteenth-century romanticism. By his brave and veracious use of western materials he had, he thought, set an example for, or at least been the forerunner of William Allen White, Albert Bigelow Paine, Stewart Edward White, Jack London, Emerson Hough, George Ade, Meredith Nicholson, Booth Tarkington, and Rex Beach, and though his opinion may be too inclusive it is easy to believe that he was also an encouragement to Willa Cather, O. E. Rölvaag, Ellen Glasgow, and Ruth Suckow. Moreover, when in 1893 he attended the Literary Congress at the World's Fair he became the most vocal spokesman for the new realism, debating (too warmly, he sometimes felt) with Eugene Field, Alice French, and Mary Hartwell Catherwood, the last of whom after writing realistically of the Northwest between 1878 and 1882 had become a mild apostate. Stories of country life, declared Garland, would be false if they mentioned sunshine and roses and strawberries without speaking of dust and mud and snow. He did not object to beauty in description—Howells had taught him the need of that kind of relief from drabness, and he wrote as he felt of the purple hills, the swell and fall of farm land, the sunsets, the tints of fruits and grains. What he was opposing was the insincere, aristocratic conception of literature which would shut its eyes to the general unhappiness of the common man living in quiet desperation.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2108
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 turn-of-century young Westerner full of an anger against the injustices of Middle-Border life bred out of a combination of a hard upbringing and an early exposure to [Henry] George's single-tax doctrine, who wrote the reformist stories contained in Main-Travelled Roads. Thereafter, for reasons never made entirely clear, he sold his Western, reformist, and realistic birthright to produce the long series of inanities which comprises his later work, redeeming himself for a brief moment only in A Son of the Middle Border. Such an account of Gerland's career does have the prima-facie evidence of his published books to recommend it, though at least one significant event therein, the appearance of the sentimentalized A Little Norsk in 1892, will not entirely square. But once this first layer of evidence is pierced, a somewhat different pattern of motives is made apparent. The specific period in question would be that falling between 1884 and 1893, the years, respectively, of Garland's arrival in Boston after breaking with his farmboy's life, and of his subsequent move to Chicago to establish himself as a leading light of the upward-aspiring Western metropolis. It was during these nine years that all of Garland's realistic fiction and drama was published, and, though his collection of critical essays, Crumbling Idols, appeared in 1894, the essays themselves were largely written between 1891 and 1893. The details of Garland's convictions and practice during his Boston years remain unexplored, however, and it is from such detail that the account of Garland's "decline" may have to be altered.
Garland told the story of his Boston years twice over, with a number of conflicting particulars, in A Son of the Middle Border (1917) and in Roadside Meetings (1930). The tale is that of a Dakota boy come East, devoted to high though somewhat vague ends—partly elocutionary, partly literary, but mostly undefined. His chief motive was that of escape from the bleak life of Dakota to the attractive New England country and the cultural life of Boston which his grandmother had eulogized frequently and which he had glimpsed briefly on an earlier visit. His great desire was that of escape, though the positive goal was little understood. Garland's departure from the Middle West was far from being that of a determined writer, prophet, or reformer. His life there had been monotonous; it held no promise and seemed to him thoroughly unsatisfactory. The impetus to his leaving came when a Methodist minister named Bashford, traveling west from his Portland, Maine, church, learned of Garland's vaguely intellectual and oratorical interests and suggested that Boston was the logical place for him to go. He gave Garland letters of introduction (which later proved valueless), and, with only their prospects, Garland sold his claim and departed for the East. He had less than $150 in his pocket.
His first few months in Boston were spent between a hall bedroom in Boylston Street and the reading room of the public library, where he read widely though without plan or particular end. After some months he met a Doctor Brown, head of the Boston School of Oratory, whom he impressed and from whom he obtained work as a teacher. This connection, through most of his Boston years, remained his chief support. From 1884 until the summer of 1887 his time was largely spent in making acquaintances, turning from one interest to another as opportunities arose. He gave a series of lectures on the art of Edwin Booth by means of which he met Charles Hurd, literary editor of the Transcript, for whom he did some reviewing. Through his Transcript connection he met Howells, who was kind to him and urged him to write on the West. He wrote a series of Western sketches in a nostalgic mood, one of which was published in the New American Magazine as early as 1886, and some short stories patterned after Hawthorne.
In the summer of 1887 he returned to the West for his first visit. In Chicago he stayed briefly with Joseph Kirkland, who, like Howells, urged him to write Western fiction, and while with his parents heard from his mother the story of "Mrs. Ripley's Trip" which he wrote up into the earliest of the Main-Travelled Roads tales. These experiences fired his embryonic hopes of becoming a storyteller of the West. Upon his return to Boston he immediately set to work writing and produced [as he wrote in Roadside Meetings] "several short stories and a novelette." It was through this fall and winter of 1887 and 1888 that Garland's emergence as a writer began. His earlier work had been without positive character, done as it was upon sudden inspiration or opportunity. It had not been particularly realistic and indeed, in his earliest reviews for the Transcript, he had attacked realism. His campaign now, however, had a definite outline. "My plan of battle was to 'aim high and keep shooting,' " he declared, "and to Gilder of the Century and Henry M. Alden of Harper's (high judges and advocates of local color in fiction) I sent the first of my almost illegible manuscripts" [Roadside Meetings]. The choice of words is important. As Garland made clear in his memoirs, neither Gilder nor Alden had much use for realism, and much less for the "preaching" of Garland's own realism, but Gilder, especially, was at this time favoring "local color" work. It seems likely that Garland made his approach to Gilder as a local colorist and not as a reformer or grim realist though the exact stories he submitted at this time cannot be ascertained. His earliest letter to Gilder contained a caution on this point ".. . I aim to be true to the life I am depicting and to deal not with abnormal phases so much as with representative phases." [In a footnote, Duffey explains that all correspondence referred to between Garland and Gilder is contained in the Richard Watson Gilder Collection of The New York Public Library.] "Mrs. Ripley's Trip" was declined by Alden of Harper's, though it was accepted by John Foord of Harper's Weekly. Gilder, declared Garland, accepted one of these early stories, and if this be "A Spring Romance," published by the Century in June of 1891, the first of Garland's stories printed by Gilder, it seems certain that Garland's commitment to a sentimentalized and quaint local color as his best literary hope was made at the outset of his career.
Before the spring of 1890, or during the two years following his return from his first Western visit, Gilder was Garland's chief literary target. Though the latter published some in Harper's Weekly, it was the "aristocratic" Century which was his great hope. His aim was that of literary success, not reform, and it was to be achieved by playing the main chance. He submitted "The Test of Elder Pill" [reprinted as "Elder Pill, Preacher," in Other Main-Travelled Roads] to Gilder and upon his advice revised the offensive speech of one of its characters. He wrote and rewrote explicitly for Gilder the saccharine "Ol' Pap's Flaxen," beginning as early as October, 1889, and altered a "maternity scene" in it which caused offense to the editor. He contemplated a series of Western poems with illustrations by Frederick Remington for Gilder's use and assured the editor of the propriety of certain aspects of "Flaxen's" plot. He accepted Gilder's rejection of "A Prairie Heroine," written just after his return to Boston from a second visit West in 1889, as being "a little too obviously preaching . . . a falling off from the artistic standpoint" and assured him on this occasion as on others that he would "submit to any reasonable change" in his work to make it acceptable for Gilder's use. In connection with "A Stop Over at Tyre," he read Gilder a lengthy sermon on the dignity and strength of colloquial language, but consented to "soften down the lingual sins of Albert." The instances could be multiplied, but the evidence as to Garland's intentions during this first stage of his career seems sufficiently clear.
His realistic and reformist writing came only upon the opening to him of another chance for literary success and one demanding that type of work. In 1889 B. O. Flower inaugurated the "radical" Arena magazine, hospitable to articles on free silver, the Farmer's Alliance, the Populist movement, and other subjects of a Western and reformist sort. It was to Flower that Garland submitted "A Prairie Heroine" after the story had been declined by Gilder because of its "preaching" tendencies, though Garland later declared that he "had no thought of sending it to either Gilder or Alden." And this pattern of submitting work to Flower only after it had been declined by Gilder was to be repeated often. "Elder Pill" appeared in the Arena despite Garland's revision of it for Gilder's taste. A Member of the Third House, in its dramatic form, was offered first to Gilder, as was "Up the Cooly," the first story in Main-Travelled Roads. On one occasion Garland tried to squeeze Gilder by informing him that a story had gone to the Arena which would have gone to the Century, "only you have two or three of my stories now." Jason Edwards, whether in its narrative or dramatic form is unclear, was sent to Gilder with a hope so fervent that Garland could describe himself as "praying like a dervish" that Gilder might give Garland "a chance to make his story suitable for your use." The drama, however, appeared in the Arena in July of 1890. Most telling, perhaps, was Garland's assurance to Gilder of his right intentions, written probably in early 1890 during the first period of his radical contributions to the Arena and perhaps therefore in reassurance: "the single-tax with me means International copyright, the Sermon on the Mount, and vacations for everybody."
So long as the Arena remained useful to him Garland continued to supply it with the kind of reform writing which Flower valued. His contributions included numerous stories, essays, and poems, and one full-length play. In 1891 and again in 1892 Garland toured the country at Flower's expense gathering material for his Arena contributions and laying the groundwork for his later career. But as his success with the old-line magazines waxed, his attachment to the Arena, reform, and realism waned, and after 1895 he had little to do with the Arena though he was careful to keep up his connections with Harper's and the Century despite his move to Chicago.
A survey of Garland's magazine publication through 1895 makes apparent the extent to which his writing was shaped by the vagaries of editorial taste. The great bulk of his work, two novels, five short stories, and eleven articles appeared in the Arena, and, with the exception of "Under the Lion's Paw," which was taken by Foord of Harper's Weekly, the Arena contributions include all of Garland's writing that may be classified as reformist or realistic beyond the limits of local color. Gilder took "A Spring Romance" and "Ol' Pap's Flaxen" for the Century. Alden published "Evangel in Cyrene" and "God's Ravens." Three stories in addition to "Under the Lion's Paw" were taken by Harper's Weekly. A scattering of articles appeared in the Forum, the Atlantic, and the New England Magazine. These sedulously avoided the reforming note, though the Forum articles were concerned with the West as a subject for fiction.
It might be too much to say that Garland's realistic work came into being entirely because of the editorial hospitality of Benjamin Flower, though such a claim would not be far wide of the mark. But one may, with justice, argue that for Hamlin Garland reform and realism were never in themselves primary literary or intellectual pursuits. They were accessory for a time to his campaign for intellectual and literary success. To the extent that they served his end, he used them; but he seemed from the beginning never to hesitate over any necessary compromises. His trade was learned at the fountainhead of the Eastern genteel tradition, and it was from that tradition, with occasional lapses in favor of Flower, Howells, Kirkland, or other sufficiently useful persons, that he drew his identity and his rewards.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7634
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 romanticizing of They of the High Trails, its later counterpart, there is a sense of a good man gone wrong that has the overtones of an American tragedy. Garland's rebellion was so intense and his conformity so ingenuous that one cannot help speculating on what might have happened had he not lost, as Howells wrote to Henry Fuller in 1904, the "simplicity of his ideal, such as it was when he had Main-Travelled Roads under his feet, and throbbed with his fine angry sympathy for 'the familiar and the low.'"
But it is idle to wonder. Garland reflects the large American tragedy of success and the deeper psychological tragedy of emotional conviction without intellectual stays; his literary defections are the inevitable result of his background and his character. He was, as H. L. Mencken once termed him, a stranger on Parnassus. A more fruitful attitude than regret for his decline is gratitude for the handful of minor masterpieces that were the by-product of his essentially nonliterary and highly moral indignation.
Hamlin Garland was born in West Salem, Wisconsin, in 1860. His father, Richard Garland, was a Maine man with an itch for the frontier that carried him to Wisconsin, to Iowa, and to Dakota, from which last outpost Hamlin, in 1884, deserted the prairie, mortgaging for two hundred dollars a homestead whose freezing nights "permanently chilled [his] enthusiasm for pioneering the plain." With this meager capital, young Garland set out for Boston, in the hope of training at Harvard for his chosen career of teaching. The Harvard lectures, however, were not open to a friendless young westerner with no further academic background than the amenities of the Osage, Iowa, Seminary, and he turned perforce to the Boston Public Library. This seemed to him a tragic deprivation: some of the most moving chapters of A Son of the Middle Border, his autobiographical account of the early years, record the loneliness and real heroism of his struggle. Friendless and half starving, he spent his days in the library and his nights "making detailed studies of the habits of the cockroaches" in his eight by ten room. Actually the desperate urgency of this winter was the best thing that could have happened to him; these bleak days were the catalyst for the brief years when he was vital and alive.
He grew steadily paler, thinner, and shabbier; but he grew also in wisdom, learning things neither Harvard nor the prairies would have taught him. From the limiting shore of an education circumscribed by the Osage Seminary and by desultory reading in Shakespeare, Milton, Taine, and Henry George, he plunged into the flood waters of contemporary intellectual controversy:
I read both day and night, grappling with Darwin, Spencer, Fiske, Helmholtz, and Haeckel—all the masters of evolution whose books I had not hitherto been able to open. . . . Among other proscribed books I read Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and without doubt that volume changed the world for me as it did for many others. . . . The spiritual significance of America was let loose on me.... Under the influence of Spencer I traced a parallel development of the Arts and found a measure of scientific peace. Under the inspiration of Whitman I pondered the significance of democracy and caught some part of its spiritual import. With Henry George as guide I discovered the main cause of poverty and suffering in the world.
It was a new world Hamlin Garland had discovered. It had no relation as yet to the prairie world he had left behind him; paradoxically, it was very much a part of the urban life of which he felt so little a part. It was the world of avant-garde radicalism, and Garland, grinding away in the gloomy reading room of the public library, became a working member of a group of whose existence he was as yet hardly aware—the radical intellectuals, the earnest young men and women with advanced views on art and society. That he himself was no intellectual, then or ever that all he read was only half-assimilated, was of no consequence. He had a fearsome positiveness, an absolute certainty of belief in all his views, no matter how recently won, no matter how soon to be lost. In the space of a winter he became an evolutionist, a Whitmanesque democrat, a single taxer, a disciple of the new realism. Alone and friendless as he still was, depending for recreation on free lectures at the Young Men's Union and rare trips to the theater where, from the peanut gallery, he watched his idol Edwin Booth, he had nonetheless arrived. It needed only circumstance—and this was soon to come—to catapult him into the center of Boston radicalism.
What he was, after the intensity of these labors, Garland himself never really understood; but it is important that we see him, emerging stooped and hungry from the threshold of the Public Library, with success in Boston at hand. Once, speculating about the warmth with which Boston intellectuals received him, Garland surmised that "perhaps they were surprised at finding so much intelligence in a man from the Plains." A good deal of his charm was precisely his anomalous acquaintance with the current intellectual patter: this gawky westerner, with his awkward manners and rusty suit, was to be the season's literary curiosity. But the urgent honesty that kept him at his chores in the library combined with his natural friendliness to delight as well as startle his sophisticated new acquaintances; both his sincerity and his ingenuousness impressed them. He lectured with almost equal success on Edwin Booth, about whom he knew a good deal, and Victor Hugo, the Modern German Novel, and The Modern American Novel, about all of which, in varying degrees, he knew considerably less. His audiences considered him a rough diamond and were entranced by his vigor.
The sum of these paradoxes, is, in embryo, the author of Main-Travelled Roads. He had not thus far even thought of being a creative writer; his literary intentions were to write essays and perhaps a history of American literature. Nor, more importantly, despite his reading of Henry George, had the fundamental catalytic urge of moral indignation at the plight of the border people as yet overwhelmed him. But this is our man—ingenuous, half-educated, fearsomely earnest, spiritually, despite his apprenticeship to Herbert Spencer, one of Kingsley's muscular Christians. As a commentator in the Literary World [No. 27 (February 22, 1896)] subsequently described him:
We may mention, as a matter of curiosity, considering what some periods of Mr. Garland's life have been, that he uses neither tobacco or liquor in any form, and has never had any taste for the sort of life that too commonly, though not always, goes with cigars and beer.
In short, a moralist. In the overwhelming moral intensity of this lonely frequenter of the Boston Public Library we shall find a key to the whole man and a necessary ingredient of his best writing. It was exactly this earnestness that gave him his start in intellectual Boston.
One night, during one of the lectures at the Young Men's Union, he was so impressed by the speaker, Dr. Moses True Brown, that he ventured to congratulate him after the program. The form of his approval—acquaintance with several quotations from Darwin's Expression of the Emotions—so impressed Brown that he gave Garland a place first as a free student and subsequently as Instructor in Literature in his Boston School of Oratory. Success followed quickly. Mrs. Payne, a literary resident of Hyde Park, sponsored a series of lectures that netted him ninety dollars and, more important, the backing of Charles Hurd, the influential literary editor of the Transcript. He wrote a sketch, "The Western Corn Husking," which "included the mud and cold of the landscape as well as its bloom and charm," and sold it to the New American Magazine. His first published story, "Ten Years Dead," which combined the influence of Hawthorne with a foreshadowing of his own midwestern realism, appeared in Every Other Saturday in 1885. When he revisited Dakota in 1887 he could pass as a successful Professor of Literature and a man who had dabbled in writing.
It is easy to let Garland speak for himself. For one who has described himself [in a letter to the author—Bledsoe] as a "modest old fellow," he has had a remarkable penchant for self-revelation: two series of autobiographies occupied him during the last twenty-five years of his life. Certainly it would be hard to find a more moving description of his 1887 trip, and of a subsequent one in 1889 when his mother suffered a stroke, than his own in A Son of the Middle Border:
All that day I had studied the land. . . . The lack of color, of charm in the lives of the people anguished me. I wondered why I had never before noticed the futility of woman's life on the farm. I asked myself, "Why have these stern facts never been put into our literature as they have been used in Russia and England? Why has this land no story tellers like those who have made Massachusetts and New England illustrious? . . .
I perceived the town from the triple viewpoint of a former resident, a man from the city, and a reformer, and every minutest detail of dress, tone, and gesture revealed new meaning for me. Fancher and Gammon were feebler certainly, and a little more querulous with age, and their faded beards and rough hands gave pathetic evidence of the hard wear of wind and toil. At the moment nothing glozed over the essential tragic futility of their existence. . . .
Obscurely forming in my mind were two great literary concepts—that truth was a higher quality than beauty, and that to spread the reign of justice should everywhere be the design of the artist. The merely beautiful in art seemed petty, and success at the cost of the happiness of others a monstrous egotism. In the spirit of these ideals I returned to my small attic room in Jamaica Plain and set to work to put my new conceptions into some sort of literary form. . . .
I began to write, composing in the glow of a flaming conviction. With a delightful (and deceptive) sense of power, I graved with a heavy hand, as if upon brazen tablets, picture after picture of the plain. . . . "Give us charming love stories," pleaded the editors. "No, we've had enough of lies," I replied. "Other writers are telling the truth about the city . . . and it appears to me that the time has come to tell the truth about the barn yard's daily grind. . . . For me the mud and the sweat and the dust exist. They still form a large part of life on the farm, and I intend that they shall go into my stories in their proper proportions. ... "
I resumed my writing in a mood of bitter resentment, with full intention of telling the truth about western farm life, irrespective of the land-boomer or the politicians.
This is the Garland of Main-Travelled Roads. The moral indignation these visits aroused galvanized him into writing, in quick succession, the stories of this volume; significantly, the first of them, "Mrs. Ripley's Trip," was begun at the homestead in Dakota and based on a story told him by his mother. Shortly after his return to Boston, his resentment was further channelized. At a meeting of the Anti-Poverty League he volunteered as a speaker; a review of his harangue by his friend Chamberlain, the Listener of the Transcript, placed him "with one leap . . . [in] the limelight of conservative Boston's disapproval." He was now both a reformer and a writer; by 1888, when "Mrs. Ripley's Trip" appeared in Harper's Weekly, he had become an active propagandist for the single tax.
As a writer and an active campaigner, Garland became the literary spokesman for the discontented farmers of the Middle Border, whose bitterness was epitomized in the Populist revolt of the nineties. He met the prophet of San Francisco, Henry George, creator of the single tax, and became his personal as well as literary disciple; he was a protégé of B. O. Flower, the radical editor of the Arena, who suggested and published Main-Travelled Roads. In 1891, on a commission from the Arena, he toured the rebellious West and completed his Populist novel, A Spoil of Office; in the fall of this year he became a campaign speaker for the Peoples' Party of Iowa. For one who in 1885 had been friendless and half starving, the range of his acquaintances half a dozen years later among the social and intellectual radicals of the day is astonishing. In his travels for the Arena he met most of the Populist leaders, including such spectacular characters as Mary Ellen ("raise more hell and less corn") Lease, on whom the character of Ida Wilbur in A Spoil of Office is partly based; there is hardly a writer of social fiction in the period whom he did not know. William Dean Howells, the most eminent of them all, became his close friend and adviser; in his efforts to convert Howells to the single tax he was the link between Howells and Henry George. Our lonely frequenter of the Boston Public Library had become a public figure, a notorious realist and radical.
It is important, however, to remember the private motivations of this public man. Of no other prominent radical of the time can it be said that his rebellion was finally of so personal a character. Garland had a large gift for translating his private emotions into public abstractions; he could not help interpreting his bitterness over his mother's illness and poverty as a concern for universal Truth and Justice. It was not that he was dishonest; he simply never understood that he was rationalizing. Inevitably, five years later, when his mother was comfortably resettled in Wisconsin, when he had become established, moderately welloff, and accustomed to comfort and respectability, he must feel that not himself but the times had changed, and that in the western romances he had begun to write he was continuing the realism and regionalism of his earlier work.
The fact is that Garland's convictions, for all their facade of public proclamation, were always personal and emotional; our comparison of his theory and practice will suggest how little he understood the things he felt. Behind the successful reformer and realist stands the young man we saw on the steps of the Library, the ingenuous, half-educated moralist. Fundamentally he has changed remarkably little. His new sophistication is more apparent than real; his dedication to writing and the earnestness with which he advanced his theories of veritism (his term for realism) and local color are only a transmutation of his earlier vague determination to be a Professor and an essayist; and his characteristic moral fervor has now found a definite channel—indignation at the plight of the farmer, at the hardships he found his family and friends enduring.
It was the focusing of his resentment that was crucial for the author of Main-Travelled Roads. This fact Garland himself bitterly denied. He was at great pains to insist that his "reform notions were subordinate to . . . [his] desire to take honors as a novelist." It is significant that this misconception was not entirely window dressing for his later conservatism; in the years of his vitality his relations with two prominent editors indicate that to a considerable degree he believed it even then.
The editor who really liked Garland's most original work was B. O. Flower, who supported and publicized him indefatigably. But it was Richard Watson Gilder, the eminent and polite editor of the Century, whose praise, then and later, Garland really valued, despite the fact that the border stories Gilder printed were second-rate, while Flower bought his best work. When, for example, Garland submitted "A Prairie Heroine" to the Arena, Flower accepted it with this stipulation:
I note that you have cut out certain paragraphs of description with the fear, no doubt, that the editor would object to them. I hope you will restore the manuscript to its original form and return it. When I ask a man to write for me, I want him to utter his mind with perfect freedom.
In contrast, "A Girl of Modern Tyre," ["A Stop-Over at Tyre"] a trite romance whose virtue in book form is a bleak ending in which an ill-considered marriage ruins a man's career, was printed by Gilder with the addition of the following paragraph:
Albert and Maud still live in the homestead in Tyre. In the five years that have elapsed since that party with Hartly he has been a hard worker as principal of the village school. His friends say he ought to be in a larger field of labor, and he has sweet dreams of doing something in the great splendid world, which he realizes at times is sweeping by him; but three little mouths have come into the world demanding bread, and three pairs of childish eyes hold him prisoner, though a willing one.
In these pathetic clichés, even in the days of his bitterest realism, his future is foreshadowed. For Garland they were the only possible result of Gilder's warning "not to leave beauty out of the picture"; when Howells, more perceptive but still misunderstanding the nature of Garland's talent, cautioned him not to forget "the rose," he was pointing the same way. Without moral indignation, banality was the only place Hamlin Garland could go.
The fact is that Garland took in not only himself but his most perceptive contemporaries; of all his intimates, only Henry Fuller, I think, really understood him. Garland's violent theories of regionalism and veritism, which so delighted Howells and horrified more conventional critics, had little to do with the real power of his best writing. His critical preachments created a sensation that, as far as his own work was concerned, was a fraud.
But the tumult was tremendous. Even after Garland's own retreat into romance, one critic replied to his "Sanity in Fiction" [in North American Review No. 176 (March 1903)], an article largely devoted to Howells, under the title "Insanity in Criticism" [James E. Rooth, Jr., in Critic No. 43 (August 1903)]. In the Atlantic Monthly [December 1895] a critic discussing Crumbling Idols, which was published in Chicago in 1894 by the enterprising new firm of Stone and Kimball, suggested that it "should have had for a cover design a dynamite bomb," instead of the peaceful wheat sheaf with which the art-minded publishers had decorated it. Edward Everett Hale, Jr., reviewing the same book [in Dial No. 17 (July 1, 1894)], remarked that Garland "is not persuasive; he is bellicose, obstreperous, blatant. Nobody could possibly agree with him, whatever he said." That this book, a turgid combination of Whitman, realism, and regionalism, should arouse such a furor (Walter Page, editor of the Forum, estimated that over a thousand editorials were written on its main thesis) is a tribute both to Garland's vigor and to the dissociation he was able to create between his theory and his practice.
When Howells, in 1910, after Garland's escape into themes which were, by his own description, "happily quite outside the controversial belt," begged him to "be true to the dream of thy youth—the dream of an absolute and unsparing veritism," he was expressing in fundamentally irrelevant terms his regret at the decay of Garland's writing. Even the dreariest of Garland's later romances have a regional and veritist purpose: "Marshall's Capture," perhaps the low point of the very low level of his later fiction, was based on a "true story," just as was "Mrs. Ripley's Trip."
The truth is that the indignant conservatives who attacked Main-Travelled Roads as a polemic were right. It is the quality of indignation that gives these stories their power. This is not to say that the stories are tracts, but that this quality is essential to Garland's curious creative process. Only when moved by violent moral indignation could Hamlin Garland discard the romantic clichés his fundamentally conventional cast of mind made natural for him. When he was indignant he suddenly became a man with an honest literary talent: he forgot formulas and plunged directly into what he had to say. It follows that his talent was for short stories and not for novels, since novels demand intellectual development as well as emotional intensity, and, for the same reason, for stories of situation rather than plot.
These assumptions exactly describe the stories of Main-Travelled Roads. They are stories of situation, inspired by moral indignation, concerned with typical situations familiar to the author. These are the invariable elements of Garland's best work; lacking them, it becomes banal. Local color, even an intense familiarity with his subject matter, is not enough; this is evidenced by the mediocre Border stories of the other collections, or by a story like "Old Sid's Christmas" (which appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1889, three months after the publication of "Under the Lion's Paw" in the same magazine), which is sentimental and nostalgic and was too bad even for Garland to reprint. These stories, none of which displays any resentment, are not only dull but artistically crude.
Conversely, in a later period, when the general level of his work had become complacent, noncontroversial, and utterly dreary, he became momentarily aroused over the plight of the American Indians and wrote about them a series of stories very nearly equal to his best work. He knew no more about the Indians than the cowboys and mountain people about whom he was then romanticizing so fatuously (he knew them all from personal experience, and fairly well), but the injustice of their treatment at the hands of the white man galvanized him momentarily into the peculiar tensions of his art. A story like "Outlaw" [later published as "The Story of Howling Wolf] would seem perfectly characteristic to a reader who knew Garland only from the six original stories of Main-Travelled Roads; "Marshall's Capture," which appeared in the same magazine eighteen months after "Outlaw," would seem the work of another man.
Likewise, a concern for the average man (only the typical provides a basis for a generalized moral) characterizes only his best work. The most obvious paradox in his later romances is his effort to imbue these unique adventures with a general and "sociologic" (one of his favorite words) significance. Nor is moral indignation alone sufficient: the querulous and ignorant Jeremiads of the later autobiographies are the dull complaints of a provincial moralist in a world he never made and wants no part of.
The first edition of Main-Travelled Roads . . . was published by the Arena Publishing Company in 1891 and contained six stories. Four of these had appeared in Harper's Weekly and the Arena; two others, "Up the Coulé" and "A Branch Road," appeared here for the first time. The foreword and dedication characterize the spirit of the book; it was indeed, as Garland later described it, a volume with a "message of acrid accusation." Time has not diminished the power of this indictment; these stories remain a minor classic of American Fiction. Their portrayal of man's struggles against the forces of nature and an unjust society is as moving today as when Main-Travelled Roads aroused a furious clamor against its brutalization of what editors liked to regard as the noblest of vocations, tilling the soil of the American prairie.
Perhaps the word which best describes the spirit which informs these stories is guilt. For Garland it was guilt of a very personal kind, guilt over the plight of his family, and especially of his mother. Like many another nineteenth-century moralist who survived to view with horror the twentieth century's concern with sex and frustration, he was beset by complexes which are the commonplaces of the psychiatrist's couch. Chief among these was the violence of his affection for his mother and the depth of the sense of guilt which leaving or neglecting her caused him. In Main-Travelled Roads this appears most directly in the most powerful and in a sense most autobiographical of the stories, "Up the Coulé." Compare Howard's feeling on first seeing the little town again with Garland's on seeing Fancher and Gammon; consider Howard's—and Garland's—emotions on seeing his mother: "This was his mother—the woman who bore him, the being who had taken her life in her hand for him; and he, in his excited and pleasurable life, had neglected her!"
It appears again, transmuted, in Will Hannan's reparation to Agnes, in "A Branch Road," where Garland's guilt over the plight of a prairie mother leads him, for one of the very few times in all his fiction, to endorse breaking the moral code, as Will carries Agnes into a materially improved but illicit future. It is evident in "The Return of a Private"—the private is Garland's father—where the mother occupies an equal share of a stage that might this once have been the father's, in Mrs. Ripley's and Mrs. Haskin's hardships, in the drudgeries which Julia Peterson not only has grown up with but is moving toward in her escape with Rob.
To be aware of this is to be reminded of the private and personal character of Garland's stories of the average man; it also helps us to identify the importance of accurate reporting in them. Garland is by no means simply a reporter, but in all his best work there is an unmistakable sense of authenticity.
The reader of these border stories who is familiar with the details of Garland's life is constantly discovering incidents and people taken directly from the author's experience, but no such biographical acquaintance is needed to validate the reality of these pictures. The home from which Will rescues Agnes in "A Branch Road," the slop and mud of the farmyard or the details of the party in "Up the Coulé," the driving weariness of the plowing in "Among the Corn-Rows": in such characteristic episodes we do not need to be convinced that Garland has told us what midwestern farm life in the eighties was really like. We know that this is how it was, and share the author's bitterness at the emptiness and drudgery of these lives.
We share, too, his sense of the beauty of the Dakota prairies, of the definite hills and abrupt coulés of Wisconsin, of the good fellowship and human decency of Stephen Council and Old Widder Gray. We share, that is, his sense of the basic paradox which animates each of these stories and around which centers the indignation which enabled him to project them: the conflict between Good—man's better nature, the simple beauties of the land—and Evil, the injustice of society, the grasping selfishness that speculation fosters, the bitterness of the struggle with nature which injustice necessitates. In all these stories the large drama between Good and Evil—both with capital letters—is played out.
This struggle is not, to be sure, without its ambivalences. In part Garland belongs to an old and honored tradition; in the long controversy over nature and society he is philosophically in the primitivists' camp. It was this traditional distrust of urban society that Henry Fuller noted in "The Downfall of Abner Joyce," a satire on Garland to which we will return: "Abner, on his return to the town, found its unpleasant precincts more crowded than ever with matters of doubtful propriety." This attitude appears frequently in Garland's own work; in the city portion of Jason Edwards, for example, where all the premises have an effluvium of evil; in a verse like this one from Boy Life on the Prairie:
With heart grown weary of the heat
And hungry for the breath
Of field and farm, with eager feet
I trod the pavement dry as death
Through city streets where crime is born
And sudden—lo, a ridge of corn!
Garland knew the rigors of farm life too well, however, to buy this romantic notion whole hog, and he is at constant pains to show that nature is a hard taskmaster. All the stories in [Main-Travelled Roads] develop this hardship at one point or another, and such treatments, along with his announced intention to give the mud and sweat and dust of farm life their due place in literature, added to the clamor Main-Travelled Roads produced and to his subsequent reputation as a realistic critic of the rigors of prairie existence. That he was the latter should not, however, blind us to the fact that nature for Garland was beneficent as well as demanding. At times in his stories her arbitrary cataclysms are the final cause of human disaster: in "Under the Lion's Paw" it is four years of grasshoppers that drive Haskins penniless out of Kansas; in Jason Edwards it is a hailstorm that leads to Jason's ruin and death. But such catastrophes are characteristically the final blows that bring down an already ruined structure. Both Haskins and Edwards are had by the land speculators—Haskins, driven on to Kansas in the first place by the high price of unoccupied land, comes back to be trapped by Butler; Edwards, having left the city for the free West, is already ruined by the speculators when a heart attack gives him release.
In all of these stories, that is, those who willingly traffic in inhumanity are the villains, and in all of them the conflict between Justice and Injustice is displayed, either on stage or in the wings. Sometimes, as in "A Branch-Road," it is at first peripheral, the outcome of an ordinary lover's quarrel; sometimes, as in "Under the Lion's Paw," the conflict is a dramatized sermon on Henry George's single tax and the evils of unearned increment; sometimes, as in "Up the Coulé," the depth of Garland's own guilt and the final hopelessness of the average western farmer unite in a bitter indictment. But always Garland reflects a romantic moralism which was much a part of his times and much at odds with the scientific realism he thought he believed in. It is also much at odds with the spirit which, in Crane, in Norris, in Dreiser, was to animate his younger contemporaries.
Because of this it is important to realize that Garland was no naturalist, nor even one of the writers of the nineties who most nearly practiced the formula of naturalism. A capsule definition of naturalism is difficult—if for no other reason than because naturalism existed as much by the violation of its precepts as the practice of them—but a basic tenet was certainly a belief in determinism, a conviction of the importance of forces rather than individuals, a certainty that individual moral responsibility was not important because in the end individuals were not important.
Hamlin Garland's people provide an interesting variant on this theme. He was well schooled in the importance of the social machine and the hopelessness of individuals caught in its meshes. But he never wrote without a sense of individual responsibility. Butler is no less responsible and no less personally evil because he profits by an iniquitous social scheme; Grant McLane's tragedy is his own moral responsibility as much as Howard's: it is not merely that he has been trapped by circumstance but that, as Laura cries out, he has accepted it. It is against the back-drop of the American Dream of the right and responsibility of every man to be free, to succeed, that Garland's tragedies display themselves. A belief in this dream, and an indignation against whatever frustrates it, informs his writing as it does not that of his naturalistic contemporaries. For all the hopelessness of some of these stories, Hamlin Garland's world, unlike Stephen Crane's, for example, remains an optimistic one. For Crane the universe was indifferent, which for practical purposes meant hostile; for Garland, in spite of the muck and sweat of the farmyard, the universe was friendly if only man would make it so. Thus Crane's Maggie goes down alone to inevitable death; Garland's Agnes Dingman is led by Will into new life.
And so Garland wrote these indignant—and nostalgic—stories of the middle border; and five years later, when his mother had been safely returned to Wisconsin and he no longer had intense personal reminders that society was still making it hard for the good and poor man, he moved further west and began to write heroic romances about the cowboy and the highlander, epic figures in the westward expansion of the American Dream.
Of all the stories in Main-Travelled Roads, "Among the Corn-Rows" perhaps most delicately illustrates the tensions of Garland's moral universe. It is significant that this story has frequently been reprinted without the first section, the account of Rob's life on the Dakota prairie that gives it its framework. Without this preface the story seems a prairie idyll, but Garland, for all his sense of the beauty and heroism of the country, could not write it simply as that. What excited his creativeness was the conflict between beauty and the social system which would inevitably warp the innocent hopes of Julia's escape into the frustrations of Mrs. Ripley's trip. This insight is adumbrated through Rob's life in Dakota, where the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of the homesteaders cannot conceal the loneliness and drudgery for which a prairie wife is destined, and through the tyranny of Julia's father, a tyranny which reflects a society in which inhumanity is justified as a means of survival. The beauty and hope are there—but in the America of the eighties, Hamlin Garland tells us, they are being frustrated by a society which denies the fulfillment which is Rob's and Julia's by right.
The question with which Garland's critics have chiefly concerned themselves is the explanation of his change from the realism of Main-Travelled Roads and Jason Edwards to the conventional romanticizing of such later novels as Hesper and The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop. Carl Van Doren, making the first serious attack on this problem in the Nation in 1921 [No. 113 (Nov. 23)], viewed this long flirtation with romance as the result of Garland's being misled by the false light of local color, and saw in A Son of the Middle Border and A Daughter of the Middle Border a return to the frontier in which "memory, parent of art, has at once sweetened and enlarged the scene." Although the querulous trend of Garland's subsequent autobiographies has since made it impossible to view this period, as Van Doren then could, as his greatest, the notion that A Son of the Middle Border is his best work has remained a popular one.
A contrast between A Son of the Middle Border and Main-Travelled Roads is fruitful. In my own view the autobiography is inferior to the stories, being both more uneven and less original, but such an evaluative comparison of works in disparate forms is of less value than the insights these separate outgrowths of the same period in the author's life can give into the qualities of his work.
A Son of the Middle Border is in a sense the reverse of the coin. Its power derives from its reconsideration of the material which gave rise to the stories and from its partial recapture of the mood in which they were created. It has the wider range of tone to be expected from a book which is the retrospect of later years: it is sometimes nostalgic ("Oh those blessed days, those entrancing nights! How fine they were then, and how mellow they are now!"); sometimes indignant ("Fling away my convictions! It were as easy to do that as to cast out my bones."); sometimes apologetic ("Alas! Each day made me more and more the dissenter." "I do not defend this mood, I merely report it.") It is weakest in the opening nostalgic account of his early childhood and the closing sentimental story of the trip that meant family reunion. In the long intervening section, which carries him from the hardships of a farm boyhood to the climax of his rebellion, it recaptures vicariously a good deal of the power of the days of his vitality; it is one of the genuinely significant American autobiographies, and an essential book for anyone who wishes to understand the time. But it never approaches the intensity of Main-Travelled Roads.
This fact has been denied. H. L. Mencken, [in Prejudices: First Series, 1919], for example, who properly pegged Garland as a Puritan and a moralist (seduced into literature under false pretenses, was Mencken's explanation), considered A Son of the Middle Border his best book because it was a significant, naive record of fact, though lacking in beauty. Main-Travelled Roads he dismissed as a tract; we call these stories art, he maintained, only because American criticism always mistakes a poignant document for art. In this opinion Mencken has had considerable, if less violent, company. The notion that Garland is only a reporter, that these stories are valuable chiefly as documents, has had wide currency.
The trouble with this explanation is, as they used to say on the middle border, that it won't wash. When Henry James received Garland pleasantly on a visit to England and spoke well of his work, James was recognizing the qualities Mencken denied: not merely beauty—and there is a good deal of beauty—but art. It is impossible to examine any of these stories carefully without coming away impressed with the very considerable literary skill that is operating in them.
Part of this, it is true, is the result of Garland's native gift for reportage. He seems, for one thing, to have had almost total recall of the most minute particulars of prairie life. In his description of the threshing and the dinner in "A Branch Road," of the party in "Up the Coulé," the sense of authentic detail is unmistakable. He also had a well nigh perfect ear for the patterns of border speech, a talent that is evidenced on every page. But these abilities, or something like them, are a part of the equipment of any writer of consequence; what matters is that Garland had the skill to select from and order these materials in an artistically effective way.
I have already noted that Garland was a master of situation rather than of plot. He had also, however, a genuine talent for ordering his situations to produce a cumulative result, and for developing each of them in a thoroughly convincing way. "The Return of a Private" is one of the simplest illustrations of this. It is divided into three major scenes: the veterans' return to La Crosse, the wife's loneliness and the dinner at Widder Gray's, and the reunion. These episodes are as sharply separated as the scenes of a play, and each of them is developed in the most careful detail. In the first the hardship and aloneness, the companionship and mutual consideration of men returning from war is sharply etched; the second is a marvelously convincing picture of a Sunday dinner in the West; the third moves surely from the uncertainty of first meeting to the fulfillment of being at last at home. But none of these scenes is static: they build cumulatively on each other and are cumulatively developed within themselves. We pick up the father as a returning fragment of a dispersed army and leave him bidding a temporary goodbye to his neighbors in his own country; we see the wife in her loneliness and desertion and follow her into a companionship which is a foretaste of her life after her husband's return: the reunion begins in the most painful strangeness and ends in ecstatic security.
This is a great deal more than reporting; it is narrative art of a rather high order, built on a careful and complex (even in one of the most simply developed of the stories) arrangement which moves steadily toward the resolution. And this order always directly serves the theme; Garland makes full use of his intimate knowledge of midwestern life, but he never lets it get the better of him. Unlike the reporter, he uses detail not merely to make what happened vivid, but to flesh out a theme—the germ which moral indignation planted—by incidents which may or may not have happened but undeniably could have. Unlike the tract writer, he is not concerned simply with the moral; he develops his idea with the most credible realistic detail, detail so rich it has a life and significance of its own. And so, in "The Return of a Private," he uses an incident from his own family history to protest the lot of the average western farmer, in a story which remains an artistically effective fiction.
The same sort of balance between inner theme and external reality is to be found in his characters. Were he either a reporter or a preacher, we could expect his people to be types. Since he is something of both, as well as something more—an artist—they are at once individual and typical. The Ripley s represent countless elderly farm couples, but at the same time they are individuals in their own right: the skill with which Garland portrays their hostility and love, their indifference and sympathy, the whole ambivalence of their long intimacy, can only be described as art. Similarly, Grant McLane is both a symbol and a memorable character; Haskins is a classic victim of the evils the single tax would remedy, and at the same time a man whom the chance sight of his daughter stays in the act of murder.
How Garland came by this skill—these, his best stories, are almost the first thing he ever wrote—remains a mystery. His exercise of it requires the presence of a deeply felt theme, always a theme of protest; somehow this intensity prompts him to enter chronology at the psychologically correct moment, to move surely through a skil fully developed sequence of themes, and to end when resolution has been achieved. He utilizes surprisingly subtle effects. Consider the frame of "Under the Lion's Paw," whose theme is the evils of unearned increment, a sermon on the single tax. The story opens with "the last of autumn and the first day of winter coming together," in a magnificent picture of late fall plowing. Haskins appears in the dark and snow and mud; he enters the warmth and light of the farm kitchen—a step into the security Council's kindness and generosity are to bring him. It ends on a well-stocked farm in the brightness of an autumn afternoon, with only the fall plowing remaining before the Haskins are to take the trip home (a ritual act for the frontiersman) they have earned. We leave Haskins, triumphant over nature which had seemed so hostile just three years before, but defeated by the evil Butler represents, "seated dumbly on the sunny pile of sheaves, his head sunk into his hands." In this identity of seasons, in the contrast of barrenness and plenty, of darkness and light, an artistry is at work which subtly reinforces the theme—that not nature but man's iniquity is the primal evil.
One other aspect of Garland's art deserves mention—his attempt to make Main-Travelled Roads a coherent and unified book, not simply a collection of related stories. To this end he utilized the dedication, the opening epigraph, and a series of epigraphs at the head of each story. He arranged the stories purposefully. "A Branch Road," which opens the book, is a story of young love; "Mrs. Ripley's Trip," which closes it, concerns the ashes of an old one. "Up the Coulé", the second story, deals with a young man who, unlike Will Hannan, returned home too late. "Among the Corn-Rows" offers relief from the grimness of the preceding story, and "The Return of a Private" renews the mood of somberness. "Under the Lion's Paw" is a commentary on the "daily running fight against the injustice of his fellow-men" with which "The Return of a Private" ends. In the whole book, in short, Garland made a conscious effort to follow the method he systematically used in the stories—to develop theme through a planned sequence of scenes. And, to a considerable extent, he succeeded. Read straight through like a novel, the book is more powerful than any of the individual stories.
Hamlin Garland's was not a major talent. His career as a writer of consequence was one of the briefest in American letters; it was also one of the most paradoxical. At the time he was doing his best and most honest work he was conducting a questionable flirtation with Richard Watson Gilder and furnishing him with second-rate and acceptable stories. With B. O. Flower, editor of the Arena, he was at once doing his finest work, stories of violent protest of the here and now, and dabbling in psychography. But these things are not the final issue. Whatever the reason, and in whatever way, Hamlin Garland produced a handful of minor masterpieces, of which Main-Travelled Roads is the finest. For them he deserves to be remembered, and I think will be, as an artist who, for a brief time at least, knew his craft and practiced it honestly.
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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 its basic inference and in its lack of solid support. Briefly stated, Duffey's position is that Garland was from the beginning the complete literary opportunist who pretended admiration for such men as Howells and Benjamin Orange Flower only so far as they were useful in getting him on as a writer, blithely rejecting them when it was expedient to do so. On the strength of a few phrases from Roadside Meetings and some extracts from the letters of Garland to Gilder of the Century, Duffey would reverse the traditional picture of the young Garland as a green and stumbling, and desperately sincere, writer of protest and reform.
But the bulk of evidence that can be marshaled from such sources as Garland's books of fiction and autobiography, his letters and notebooks, and from testimonials of his contemporaries, points not to the literary opportunist, but to a writer who, whatever his artistic shortcomings, was completely sincere in his exposure of life in the Middle Border.
Let it be admitted at once that Garland's efforts at reform suffered a precipitate decline in favor of more remunerative stuff after 1894, when he had become a fairly established writer. Garland attempted to explain this in several places, the main reason being that by 1894 he felt that he had said all that he had to say about the oppressed farmers of the Middle Border and that [as he wrote in A Daughter of the Middle Border, 1921] "to attempt to recover the spirit of my youth would not only have been a failure, but a bore." And undoubtedly it would have been.
Duffey cites for major support the Garland-Gilder correspondence. This correspondence merely proves, no more and no less, that Garland was willing to alter his stories in some respects to meet editorial requirements—a fact that Garland himself never denied. But if this makes him a fundamentally insincere writer, he at least lies with the most immortal of bedfellows.
The point is that, in the absence of a reliable biography, and of less speculative evidence that Duffey has mustered, there is no real reason to disbelieve Garland's own account of the Boston years and the genesis of Main-Travelled Roads. The outlines of the story are well known, but there are some points that Duffey seems to have overlooked.
To begin with, Garland's social conscience had been awakened long before he met B. O. Flower or Gilder. By the time he came East, he was already a confirmed Single Taxer, sharing from intimate experience the Populist grievance; and his early years in Boston where he went about proselytizing whenever he could, served to enfiarne, not to dampen, this reforming zeal. Duffey asserts that Garland's "reformist writing came only upon the opening to him of another chance for literary success," that is, his first meeting with B. O. Flower, founder and editor of the Arena. But as a matter of fact, all of the stories that comprise the volume for which Garland is most famous as a writer of protest, Main-Travelled Roads, were written before he had even met Flower. And so were many of the other stories that Garland furiously turned out after his second visit home to Dakota in 1888. Among these was the story that Duffey alludes to in support of his idea that Garland turned reformer only after meeting Flower, "A Prairie Heroine," one of the most bitter of all Garland's Middle Border tales. It was ultimately published by Flower as "Lucretia Burns" but was written before the two men were acquainted.
Flower undoubtedly gave Garland an easier publishing outlet than he was accustomed to, and financed the writing of much of Garland's weaker stuff, but Duffey has reversed the significance of the original connection between the two men. Flower, being "constitutionally predisposed," as David H. Dickason has observed [in American Literature, XIV (May 1942)], "toward any literary work inspiring amelioration of society's evils and injustices," was immediately attracted to Garland upon seeing "A Prairie Heroine," and wrote to him explaining the sociological purpose of the Arena. Flower records the delight he felt when, upon meeting Garland for the first time in 1890, he discovered that Garland was already a devoted reformer and Single Taxer; and adds that he listened to Garland's story of how Progress and Poverty had "opened a new world to him, a world of hope and inspiration, when all life seemed hopeless and chaotic" [in Progressive Men, Women, and Movements of the Last Twenty-Five Years, 1914]. Whatever might have been the subsequent influence of Flower, Garland certainly did not opportunistically turn reformer after meeting him; he had been actively on the reform trail under his own power since 1887.
Even more important for Garland than the connection with Flower was his friendship with Howells, his first important literary acquaintance in Boston. Duffey refers to Howells, along with Flower and Kirkland, as being for Garland another of the "sufficiently useful persons" to warrant cultivating. This is an extremely misleading assertion. There is not an iota of evidence to suggest that Garland sought out Howells because he could be "sufficiently useful" to a struggling young writer. They met through the efforts of Charles Hurd of the Boston Transcript, for whom Garland, having acquired before he came East an immense regard for Howells's writing, favorably reviewed The Minister's Charge. Although their first interview was rather in the nature of peasant visiting king, a thirty years' friendship was begun that was always warm and frequently intimate, and that went far beyond the bounds of Howells's usefulness. Looking back on Howells's death in 1920, Garland refers to it, at a time when there was simply no need for a hypocritical statement, as putting an end "to the longest and most important friendship of my life" [My Friendly Contemporaries, 1932].
Far from following Howell's lead in social criticism, or seeking his approval, Garland found himself on occasion recommending to Howells a little more preaching in his books. In one of his first letters to Garland, Howells wrote, in answer to Garland's query as to why the case for justice was not made more explicit in Annie Kilburn, that the book was "from first to last a cry for justice, not alms. . . . Read Mr. Peck's sermon. It could hardly have been expected that he should preach the single tax, but short of that, what more would you have?" [from a letter dated Nov. 6, 1888, Life in Letters of William Dean Howells, ed. Mildred Howells, 1928]. And, again, in January of the same year, we find Howells writing to Garland, in apologetic vein, explaining his inability to share in the reform sentiment as fully as Garland. Howells remembers Garland at this time—that is, the years 1887-1890, before Garland's connection with Flower and the Arena—as being "a realist to the point of idealism," and goes on to describe a Garland sharply at variance with Duffey's conception: ". . . he was such an ardent believer in Henry George's plan for abolishing poverty that with his heart and hopes fixed on a glorious morrow for all men he took no thought of his own narrow day. He seems at that time to have gone about preaching Georgism equally with Veritism in the same generous self-forgetfulness" [from "Mr. Garland's Books," North American Review, CXCVI, 523-24 (Oct. 1912)]. It seems clear, then, that this friendship was not due to any opportunistic vein in Garland's makeup, but to the real affection and respect that each man carried for the other.
Nor did the critics and reviewers of his early work, many of whom knew Garland personally, find anything in his character or writings to suggest insincerity. Indeed, sincerity is the virtue for which he was most frequently cited—sometimes the only one. Joseph E. Chamberlain, for example, remarks that Garland "has no earthly motive than the exact portrayal of truth. . . . Nothing could induce him to seek success by factitious work or meretricious means. .. . He would sacrifice the personal opportunity to the idea if it were the very last opportunity he had" ["Hamlin Garland's Work," Writer, V, October, 1891]. The reviewer [in "New Figures in Literature and Art," Atlantic Monthy, LXXVI, December, 1895] finds much to quarrel with in Main-Travelled Roads, but adds: "These faults would have worked sad havoc" had they appeared in the work of "a less obviously sincere writer." By no means were all the reviewers and critics of the time enthusiastic about Garland, but any disapproval they had of him was invariably on artistic grounds. However else Garland may have impressed his contemporaries, his integrity and honestness of purpose, which Duffey has called sharply into doubt, were never questioned.
Is there, then, a reasonable explanation for Garland's sudden desertion of the reform spirit? Undoubtedly he saw in the early months of 1893 the possibility of greater success in the kind of popular literature that editors like Gilder were seeking. Moreover, he had at no time proposed to dedicate his life to reform; and by 1893 he felt, especially in view of the poor reception of his three novels of protest written under the aegis of Flower and the Arena, that he had little more to add to his work already done in this area. And with his growing attachment to local color, he abandoned the enthusiasms of his youth.
Approving Garland's motives, and merely understanding them, involves a distinction that ought to be respected. The fact that Garland, after becoming an established writer, moved away from reform writing in favor of something that paid better does not prove, ipso facto, that he was simply an opportunist; and assuming even that he was opportunistic under the pressures of family, depleted material, and editorial requirements like those of Gilder, does it mean that he wrote nothing of integrity and was not serious in his earlier, and better, books? It means merely that he was opportunistic in a certain way for a certain time. But the weight of evidence, literary and biographical, supports the idea of Garland as one of our pioneer writers of protest and exposure, distinguished in his early work by one quality above all others: sincerity.
Walt Whitman was remarkably prophetic, though wrong in his conclusion, when, after meeting Garland at Camden in January of 1889, he said to Traubel [quoted in Walt Whitman in Camden, 1914]:
Garland looks like a man who is bound to last—to go on from very good to very much better; but you can never tell: there are so many dangers—so many ways for the innocent to be betrayed: in the clutter, clatter, crack of metropolitan ambitions, jealousies, bribes, so many ways for a man, unless he is a giant, unless he is possessed of brutal strength and independence—so many ways for him to go to the devil. I look for Garland to save himself from this fate.
Garland of course did not save himself, as he himself recognized, and never fulfilled the promise of the early work; but that work still remains an important and completely honest contribution to the American literature of protest.
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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 Main-Travelled Roads and Prairie Folks. Since he later made additions to both of these volumes, it should be clear that in referring to them I mean the 1891 edition of Main-Travelled Roads, which contained six stories, and the 1893 Prairie Folks, containing nine stories. Though Prairie Folks followed Main-Travelled Roads by two years, its stories were written contemporaneously with those ofMain-Travelled Roads. Indeed, Garland thought of the second collection as a "companion volume" to the first [as stated in a letter to Herbert S. Stone, Dec. 19, 1893], and was planning its publication within a year of the appearance of Main-Travelled Roads. The latter has become, for several reasons, Garland's best-known work of fiction, whereas Prairie Folks has gone out of print and is rarely discussed. But the two are clearly related and should be examined together.
Main-Travelled Roads and Prairie Folks are remarkably coherent books, considering that they are composed of short stories written for individual publication over a period of several years. For one thing, they have a consistent and reappearing geography and cast. The middle border, to Garland, was not a place out west, but a geographical reality, populated by people he knew who belonged in a specific locality with specific characteristics.
There are three "matters" in Garland's middle-border fiction. Rock River and Cedarville are neighboring towns in northeastern Iowa, and in the stories set there farmers Councill, Jennings, and Ridings appear again and again. Elder Wheat exhorts in several. Milton Jennings, Radbourn, Bradley Talcott, and Lily Graham are initially students at the Rock River Seminary and later professional people of the town. Lime Gilman marries his Marietta and settles down; Mr. and Mrs. Ripley grow older; and Judge Brown, teacher Knapp, and editor Foster go about their duties. Not so well represented in these early collections, but flourishing nevertheless, are Bluff Siding and Tyre in the coulee region of western Wisconsin, where family groups predominate. The McLanes and the McTurgs, the Grays and the McIlvaines appear in story after story. Lastly, there are the rival towns of Boomtown and Belleplain in the "Jim" River Valley of Dakota. Here Judge Sid Baiser is a perennial speculator in land, and farmers Wilson and Rodemaker, businessmen Whiting and Graham, and editor Seagraves aid in the settlement of the area. Besides being knit together by the continual reappearance of character and place, the stories are also unified by Garland's conception of them as composing a full and complex picture of Western life. In Main-Travelled Roads this idea is communicated (in the epigraph and in the lines before each story) by the metaphor of a Western road—its varying condition, countryside, and travelers symbolizing the diversity of Western life. Middle-border life was frequently tragic, Garland stated, but it was also, especially for the young, often joyous and exhilarating. Though the Western road is usually "hot and dusty" or "desolate and drear," it "does sometimes cross a rich meadow where the songs of the larks and bobolinks and blackbirds are tangled" [from the epigraph to Main-Travelled Roads], In Prairie Folks the device of a few lines of verse before each story is used to introduce the prairie type or social scene to be portrayed. In both collections Garland was conscious of his role as a Western local colorisi whose function was to depict the richness of Western life, to capture its "sentiments." He had been "true to particulars and to the provincial," to that of which he knew and cared the most, he wrote to friends in explaining his intentions in Main-Travelled Roads, and had proved his "theory" that "the mystery and significance of high heaven falls like the sun-light on the far Iowan prairie as well as upon the Rhine, the Rhone, and the Righi" [quoted from letters to Brander Matthews (Mar. 15, 1892) and Louise Chandler Moulton (June 11, 1891)].
Main-Travelled Roads is dominated by two long, previously unpublished stories which are similar in several ways. Both "A Branch-Road" and "Up the Coulé" exemplify social themes controlling much of Garland's thought and writing of this period. Both stories strikingly and poignantly reveal his sense of guilt toward those of his family he had left behind in the West. In both, the plot centers on the return of a recreant to his home and on his ineffectual attempt to right his wrong. And in both, the personal injury committed is made doubly tragic by the prevalent social injustice which heightens and accentuates it.
In "A Branch-Road," Will Hannan leaves home in a fit of jealousy, despite his love for Agnes Dingman, his youthful sweetheart. He returns some years later to find that Agnes, having been forced into marriage by economic necessity, is dominated by her coarse, bullying husband. Moreover, the hard lot of a farm wife has destroyed her beauty and crushed her spirit. Will rescues her from both farm and husband, but it is clear that he saves only the shell of the girl he knew and loved.
As Howells remarked in his review of Main-Travelled Roads [Harpers Monthly, LXXXIII. (Sept. 1891)], the conclusion of the story, in which Will and Agnes run off together, was by conventional standards "morally wrong." But to Garland, who had been influenced by the Spencerian doctrine of woman's right to individuality, by the contemporary struggle (stoutly supported by the Arena) for woman's rights, and by Ibsen, the conclusion had a morality of its own. Like Spencer, Garland believed that the political and social subjection of woman was a survival of an older stage of social evolution and was increasingly unjustified in an era of growing devotion to individual freedom and personality. Garland wrote in [in the Standard, Oct. 8, 1890]:
I believe in individual liberty. I believe the progress of the ages has been toward a fuller expansion of average individual souls, toward altruism and high average personality. In my far-off ideal world the liberty of man and woman is bounded only by the equal rights of others. Woman stands there as independent of man as man is independent of woman. Both individuals with no must or shall, save the great law of nature which will at last, under a free sky and upon a free earth, produce indeed the survival of the best.
When Will offers Agnes a true "partnership" in marriage, promising her understanding and the opportunity and the leisure to pursue her own interests, Agnes can accept his offer without sacrificing her moral integrity. There is no immorality, but rather a more advanced morality, one more in step with the evolutionary emergence of individual rights and personality.
If Agnes is ground down by farm life and by the social convention that permits a husband to tyrannize his wife, Grant McLane, in "Up the Coulé," is defeated by the lack of opportunity which is the fate of the farmer under monopolistic land practices. Howard McLane, his comparatively prosperous brother, had neglected his obligation to those he had left behind on the coulee farm, and farm life has embittered and coarsened them. Now, despite the aid that Howard offers, life is over for Grant, as it is for Agnes.
Garland made clear that Grant McLane's defeat is not merely the result of his brother's neglect. Grant himself points out the overpowering evils of contemporary farm conditions:
"The worst of it is .. . a man can't get out of it [hard work and poverty] during his lifetime, and I don't know that he'll have any chance in the next—the speculator'll be there ahead of us."
The rest laughed, but Grant went on grimly:
"Ten years ago Wess, here, could have got land in Dakota pretty easy, but now it's about all a feller's life's worth to try it. I tell you things seem shuttin' down on us fellers."
"Plenty o' land to rent," suggested some one.
"Yes, in terms that skin a man alive. More than that, farmin' ain't so free a life as it used to be. This cattleraisin' and butter-makin' makes a nigger of a man. Binds him right down to the grindstone and he gets nothin' out of it—that's what rubs it in. He simply wallers around in the manure for somebody else. I'd like to know what a man's life is worth who lives as we do? How much higher is it than the lives the niggers used to live?"
In both stories someone who has escaped from the farm returns and tries to aid the one whom he has left to face farm life unassisted. In each instance, however, farm life has taken its toll and crushed the one remaining behind. Only pity and material comfort can be offered—gone is the chance for a full life, for self-development and selfrealization. This loss is the true tragedy of Agnes and Grant. Life will be made easier for both, but for neither will it be possible to undo the terrible deprivation of individual opportunity wreaked by farm conditions.
"A Branch-Road" and "Up the Coulé" are two of Garland's most powerful stories. They derive much of their strength from their integration of his sense of guilt—had he not left his parents and sister on the prairie?—with his indignation toward prevalent social conditions. He was seldom again to achieve such a high level of personal involvement and emotional intensity, even though these were the qualities necessary to raise his fiction above the commonplace.
Garland's purpose, in many of his stories, had been to "debunk" idyllic pictures of farm life, and he gave this theme explicit expression several times. Radbourn, in "Sim Burns's Wife," tells the town-bred Lily Graham: "'Writers and orators have lied so long about "the idyllic" in farm life, and said so much about the "independent American farmer," that he himself has remained blind to the fact that he's one of the hardest-working and poorest-paid men in America."' In "Old Daddy Deering," Garland himself, in describing a threshing, made a clear-cut distinction between the "picturesque" and "familiar" views:
A spectator riding along the road would have remarked upon the lovely setting for this picturesque scene—the low swells of prairie, shrouded with faint, misty light from the unclouded sky, the flaming colors of the trees, the faint sound of cow-bells, and the cheery sound of the machine. But to be a tourist and to be a toiler in a scene like this are quite different things.
Generally, however, Garland's exposition of the anti-idyllic was implicit in his depiction of farm life. "Among the Corn-Rows," for example, is an obvious antidote to conventional portraits of bucolic courtship. Julie Peterson, sweating and straining behind a plow in the July heat, and Rob Rodemaker, giving himself ten days to find a wife—someone to cook for him and to dispel the loneliness of his Dakota shanty—are as far from conventional rustic lovers as is possible.
The same debunking tendency pervades one of Garland's best-known stories, "The Return of a Private." Again the personal note—"Private Smith" is Garland's father—vitalizes the story. But also, as in "Up the Coulé," in which the countryside looks rich and sleek to Howard McLane until he views his brother's farmyard, Garland brings the reader up close and reveals the truth beneath the gloss of the soldier's life. Private Smith returns from war against the South without fanfare, worn and ill, but only to take up again his "daily running fight with nature and against the injustice of his fellowmen."
In several of the stories Garland stated single-tax ideas directly. Grant McLane complains of speculation and of the unreasonable demands made upon the farmer because of high rent and low prices. Rob Rodemaker has gone to Dakota to escape the high price of land in the East, and Hank Wilson wonders why the Indian must constantly be driven west when "There's land enough for us all, or ought to be.'" "Under the Lion's Paw" is a classic exemplification of single-tax doctrine. The Haskins family, forced to settle in western Kansas by the high price of land farther east, are eaten out by grasshoppers. Aided by a kindly farmer, they rent a farm in Iowa from Jim Butler, a landlord who "believed in land speculation as the surest way of getting rich." After three years of "ferocious labor," Haskins is ready to buy. Butler, however, realizing the increased value of the farm, doubles the original price. The story closes with Haskins crushed and helpless under the lion's paw of land-lordism. In Prairie Folks, "Sim Burns's Wife" is Garland's only overt single-tax story. Here Radbourn explains that the hardship and the bleakness of the Burnses' life are a result of the land system and that those striving for a better life for all must preach the "noble discontent" of land reform.
These instances of explicit single-tax propaganda are exceptional, for Garland usually followed Howells and "exemplified" rather than "preached." Most of the stories that are the product of his reaction to Western conditions picture these conditions in single-tax terms rather than advocate the single tax. So he constantly emphasized such interlocking themes as the contrast between a narrowminded, poverty-stricken farmer and a rich and beautiful countryside; the intellectual and cultural barrenness of Western life; and the prevalence of solitude in the West, for Garland believed that all these were caused by current land policy.
The stories of Prairie Folks are particularly indicative of the range of Garland's depiction of Western life. "Sim Burns's Wife," "The Test of Elder Pill," and "Drifting Crane" are in varying degrees polemical. The first is one of Garland's strongest indictments of farm conditions. The second dramatizes a Spencerian distrust of the "barbarism" of evangelism and calls for an "earnest morality" to replace "antiquated terrorism." "Drifting Crane," the only story in the collection not set in Iowa, is a plea for understanding of the Indian displacement problem. The rest of the stories are in Garland's other vein of Western fiction, retelling yarns familiar enough to be folk tales and chronicling the older life now gone by. The best of these stories are less "stories" than artistic renderings of the anecdotal store of American country people. There is scarcely any plot and little depth of character. Rather, the material is that which is common to experience everywhere: of the clever salesman and the gullible old man and his slightly shrewish wife; of youthful love and rivalry at a church sociable; of the hired hand winning the farmer's daughter; of the return to one's birthplace, after a long absence, when one is old. This is the common stuff of humanity, not the extravagance and picturesqueness often equated with local color.
When Garland ventured outside this "plotless" subject matter, which he did increasingly as his middle-border material ran thin, he was unsuccessfully forced to contrive plot and character. In his Rocky Mountain novels and stories, for example, he was apt to exploit local-color details within a conventional pattern of plot and character, and his fiction declined in quality. This tendency is already evident in "Saturday Night on the Farm," the last published of the stories in Prairie Folks. Lime Gilman, a strong, blond, chivalrous, abstemious giant, is forced to fight Steve Nagle, a drunkard and braggart, to protect a boy. Lime wins, and virtue and right are triumphant. For it was only when man was pitted against social evil that Garland could conceive of tragedy, of the fall of a worthy man. His strong and conventional moral view of life refused to accept this defeat, and he indignantly pictured it as tragedy. But it is this same cast of mind which could not frame a tragic relationship between individuals, which lapsed into stereotypes of character and plot when evil and good moved out of the readily grasped social world into the subtler one of human relations.
In Main-Travelled Roads and Prairie Folks, however, Garland's incapacity to go beyond the conventional in human relations seldom appears. His themes and subject matter were primarily social—the depiction of Western social life and the dramatization of oppression of the individual by social injustice. The stories of the two collections, by embodying both his response to and his conception of the West, represent the best work he was ever to do in fiction.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3002
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 together make up The Book of the American Indian (1923) are written out of a feeling of indignation over unjust treatment of the Indian; and both as well have a very definite social reference which, in the weakest of the stories, deteriorates into a thinly disguised program of social action. Yet this program is significantly different from earlier fictional discussions of the Indian problem; for, as Garland sees, the problem itself has changed. No longer is it conceived in terms of how best to defeat the Indians; rather it has become the question of how best to rehabilitate a defeated enemy. "The Silent Eaters" and the stories in The Book of the American Indian are rather specifically concerned with providing answers to this problem, and the method of explication Garland uses is closely related to the idea of Indian conversion [to the white man's way of life]. Garland, however, sees that the question of whether the old ways are "good" or "bad" must be approached differently in order for it to have any relevance to the actual world. As a result, the standard plot of escape fiction, the story of the reactionary old chief who is replaced by the modern progressive young Indian is put in a different perspective. Where the escapist plot concerns itself primarily with the events leading to the subjugation of the Indian, after which he is converted, Garland focuses primarily upon the Indian's condition after his subjugation, and hence emphasizes the absolute necessity for his conversion; and where the escapist plot concerns itself primarily with the description of unmotivated event, Garland's primary concern is with the nature of the process of conversion.
This is most clearly seen in "The Silent Eaters," which in format most closely resembles the escapist plot. In this biographical account of the Sioux chief Sitting Bull, Garland presents an expanded metaphor for the decline of the Sioux nation, from its early proud self-sufficiency to its final utter dependence upon the whites. Garland tells his story with considerable skill, especially when he succeeds in generalizing the character of Sitting Bull from that of a conventional "bad" Indian into a sympathetic type of the Sioux nation in general. And just here is the focus of Garland's story; for "The Silent Eaters" universalizes the particular figure of Sitting Bull into a general statement of the nature of that historic process which has inevitably ended with the triumph of the whites and the subjugation of the Indians.
Such a focus enables Garland to establish a double point of view toward his material. While he can admire Sitting Bull's courage, resourcefulness, and so on, at the same time he may consistently condemn these qualities as out of place in the white world inevitably to come. Hence Sitting Bull can be personally admired, but at the same time the position for which he stands need not be affirmed. Garland establishes this double viewpoint by means of his narrator, a young Sioux Indian named Iapi. When Sitting Bull finally surrenders, Iapi is befriended by a Lieutenant Davies of the U.S.Army, who gives him the opportunity for education in the white man's ways, even sending him East to study. Lieutenant Davies has a great respect both for the Indians as a race and for education as a means to ameliorate their unhappy reservation conditions. "The plains Indian was a perfect adaptation of organism to environment," he once tells Iapi, who also tells us that "he looked upon each people as the product of its conditions." The moral is not far to seek, nor does it escape Iapi. Now that the environment is changed, the organism must change with it, and Iapi's role must be that of the educator of his people.
The creation of the character of Iapi is Garland's only major fictional tampering with the historic facts of the life of Sitting Bull. Such a character as Iapi, however, is admirably suited for telling Sitting Bull's story. He is first of all an Indian, and his white ways are only superimposed upon the virtues of what Lieutenant Davies calls "a wonderful race." Hence he can be sympathetic to Indian ways without appearing condescending, and at the same time need not pretend to be anything other than outraged over the excesses and outrages which various whites perpetrate upon his people. His white schooling, on the other hand, has given him another perspective on Indian history which enables him to interpret Sitting Bull not in a personal light but in a historic one. From this historic perspective Sitting Bull, however admirably he may appear as a character, is nevertheless the voice of the past. "He epitomized the epic, tragic story of my kind," Iapi sums up. "His life spanned the gulf between the days of our freedom and the death of every custom native to us. He saw the invader come and he watched the buffalo disappear. Within the half century of his conscious life he witnessed greater changes and comprehended more of my tribe's tragic history than any other red man." But this elegy for Sitting Bull and the heroic past is alloyed with optimism; for the future belongs to Iapi.
The present pessimism and future optimism which Garland notes as the process of Indian history in "The Silent Eaters" are by no means confined to this least fictional of his treatments of the Indian. The historic process of evolution described specifically (and by Lieutenant Davies, at least, in pseudo-scientific Social Darwinian terms) here is also clearly illustrated by the various stories in The Book of the American Indian.
The general philosophical burden of these various tales is that, like it or not, the Indian must change. This is emphasized by a recurrent image which is made explicit in a number of the stories, that the Indian's trail has ended, and that the white man's road is the only one left for the Indians to follow. Even when not explicit, this image is always close to the surface. For instance, "Wahiah—A Spartan Mother" tells of the necessity for Indian children to adopt the white man's ways. In this story Wahiah realizes that she must send her son Atokan to the Indian school, no matter how much the reactionary Indians may disapprove of it. When Atokan refuses to go, the schoolteacher gives him a whipping, and Wahiah, in a clearly symbolic gesture, breaks the boy's bow and arrows, his "symbols of freedom," and after saying only "Obey" leaves Atokan at the school.
The theme is most clearly stated in one of the best stories in the book, "Rising Wolf—Ghost Dancer." Rising Wolf, who tells the story of his life himself, recounts how as a young brave he had become a medicine man. He had an honorable position in the tribe before the white men came and, Garland makes clear, he was no cynical prestidigitator but one who sincerely believed in the value of his medicine. After the Indian defeat, Rising Wolf and the rest of his tribe had been sent to a reservation where all had heard of the Ghost Dance. To a medicine man and hence presumably something of an authority on the subject, the idea of the Ghost Dance seemed to make some sense, and he became a convert. The Ghost Dance, Rising Wolf and the other Indians believed, was to operate by magic. The Indians were to dance for four days, and on the fourth day the white men would disappear and the buffalo return, and all Indians, alive or dead, would be reunited on the rejuvenated earth.
The ending of the story describes, in a very sensitively handled tragicomic manner, the Dance itself. The whites, fearing that the gathering dancers represent a threat to civil order, send soldiers to watch lest the dance prove hostile in intent. Of course the Indians, confident of their "medicine," are peaceable in the extreme. For four days they dance, and when they have finished Rising Wolf retires to rest satisfied with a job well done and sure that when he wakes the following morning the whites will have vanished and the buffalo returned.
When he awakes the millennium has unaccountably been delayed; the whites are still there. Convinced by the visible proof that the Ghost Dance in particular and Indian medicine in general have both been in error, he renounces them and resolves to take up white ways. The conclusion of the story is worth examination in detail.
"When I rose, it was morning. I flung off my blanket, and looked down on the valley where the tepees of the white soldiers stood. I heard their drams and their music. I had made up my mind. The white man's trail was wide and dusty by reason of many feet passing thereon, but it was long. The trail of my people was ended.
"I said, 'I will follow the white man's trail. I will make him my friend, but I will not bend my neck to his burdens. I will be cunning as the coyote. I will ask him to help me to understand his ways, and then I will prepare the way for my children. Maybe they will outrun the white man in his own shoes. Anyhow, there are but two ways. One leads to hunger and death, the other leads where the poor white man lives. Beyond is the happy hunting ground, where the white man cannot go'"
The general similarity between the conclusion of "Rising Wolf and the more detailed interpretation of history in "The Silent Eaters" is obvious. What is perhaps not so obvious are the implications inherent in Garland's choice of Rising Wolf for his hero. In the character of Rising Wolf, Garland has combined the two points of view represented in "The Silent Eaters" by Sitting Bull and Iapi. By making Rising Wolf first a medicine man and then a believer in the Ghost Dance, Garland has made him symbolically stand for the most reactionary and unprogressive elements in the old order; his conversion to white ways, however anthropologically dubious and psychologically untenable it may seem, represents Garland's deeply held belief that the Indian can be made to accept these ways. Even the most reactionary Indian, when once he understands the hard facts of history, can adjust to the new life forced on him by its inevitable processes.
Garland's insistence upon the inevitability of change relieves him from the fictional necessity to choose sides and accept either white or red ways without qualification; he need not categorically defend or excuse either whites or Indians. Hence villains as well as heroes can be either white or red, and in fact there are many white villains in The Book of the American Indian. As a general rule, these white villains are missionaries, for whom Garland has little respect. The general tone of The Book of the American Indian is, if not exactly anti-religious, certainly anti-clerical and anti-missionary. One of the most poignant stories, "The Iron Kiva," clearly shows Garland's typical attitude; it tells of two Indian children who kill themselves rather than let the white missionary take them away to school in the East. Significantly, the children like the idea of the white man's school, but distrust and fear the missionaries.
Garland's white heroes are usually Indian agents and schoolteachers, whose tolerance and kindliness stand in none too subtle contrast to missionary bigotry. The agents and schoolteachers are sympathetic to those Indian ways which are not immediately harmful and do not stand in the way of the Indians' education. They view the process of education as basically one of training the Indians in the use of unfamiliar skills which he will need to survive in the white man's world. The missionaries, in contrast, view the educational process as one of total ruthless eradication of Indian customs. Without sympathy for or understanding of the Indians, the missionaries are helpless either to convert them or to ameliorate their lot. To rehabilitate the Indian, Garland says, it is not necessary to turn him into a white man; Indian customs need not be entirely blotted out, as the missionaries would have it. The Indian desperately needs training in the general skills of civilized life, for in order to survive he must become literate and learn how to use the white man's agricultural tools. But further than this, education should not go; it is possible to assent to the truth of mathematics without swearing undying allegiance to the Apostles' Creed.
Ultimately Garland's point is that the Indian can and should be allowed to have the best of both white and red worlds. Like Iapi and Rising Wolf, the modern Indian can keep the cultural traditions of his fathers and combine them successfully with the demands of life in a world dominated by white values. Perhaps, as Rising Wolf suggests, if he is cunning enough he can outstrip the white man on his own grounds.
This is true of all the stories in The Book of the American Indian with the exception of the best one, "The Story of Howling Wolf." In this somber tale the often complacent "long view" of history which justifies particular present hardship is subjected to serious qualification. When the story opens Howling Wolf hates white men because his brother had been killed for sport by cowboys seven years before. He has never forgiven the whites and has taken a vow to kill the men responsible for his brother's death, but the Indian agent manages to talk him out of his lust for vengeance. Howling Wolf is strongly influenced by the example of the Indian agent, with whom he makes friends, and, renouncing his savage ways, determines to turn himself into the kind of Indian white men will respect. He even gets the agent to write him a paper which, he ingenuously thinks, "will tell [all men] that my heart is made good." This paper, which he carries with him as a sort of passport, says "I am Howling Wolf. Long I hated the white man. Now my heart is good and I want to make friends with all white men. I want to work with a plow and live in a house like the white man. These are my words. [Signed] Howling Wolf."
Armed with his passport, Howling Wolf does what a sober, industrious Indian should and gets a job hauling hides. But when he transports a wagonload of hides to town the whites laugh at him and spurn his offers of friendship. A cowboy picks a fight with him and fires a wild shot which hits another white man in the knee. The outraged citizenry assume that Howling Wolf has fired the shot, and are all for lynching him until he gives them the paper which, when they read it, cools their anger, and they compromise their earlier position by throwing Howling Wolf into jail on more or less general principles. The agent's efforts to have Howling Wolf released are futile. One day Howling Wolf, who has borne up patiently throughout the whole affair, is taken from jail by the sheriff, who wants to attend a baseball game and is afraid to leave the Indian unattended. Howling Wolf thinks he is being taken to his execution, so he tries to escape; but he is apprehended by a group of cowboys who lasso him and drag him behind their horses for amusement. A Catholic priest manages to make the cowboys stop, albeit only after Howling Wolf has apparently been dragged to death. Though he finally recovers, he is "so battered, so misshapen that his own wife did not know him." Howling Wolf's attempt to civilize himself has ended disastrously; he will speak only to the priest and the agent, and when he dies no white man knows where his grave is hidden.
In many ways "The Story of Howling Wolf is an exact inversion of the other stories in The Book of the American Indian. Howling Wolf's story, like Iapi's and Rising Wolf's, is a description of education; but what he learns stands in direct opposition to the lesson the other progressive Indians have been taught. Howling Wolf's education is much like Sitting Bull's; that the whites are cruel, selfish, and not to be trusted.
The most sobering aspect of "The Story of Howling Wolf and what sets it apart from the other stories is Garland's conception of the limited possibilities for goodness in the nature of man. In the brutal and savage "civilized" world to which Howling Wolf is introduced, there is little room for the optimism which Garland elsewhere shows. Evil in this story is not a product of the conflict between different social values, a conflict which, the other stories lead us to believe, can be smoothed away when one set of social values disappears; rather evil is understood as an expression of the bestiality in man, and social values are not its causes but the ways in which it is made manifest in the world. To such a view history cannot possibly appear optimistic; for all hopes of meliorating human life depend upon the assumption that man's character can be changed for the better. In "The Story of Howling Wolf such is simply not the case. The parable of history in this story resembles that in the Leatherstocking Tales. Change is certain, but it does not represent progress; history records the frustration of hope.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5555
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. Far too commonly he has been seen as having a monistic focus on Midwestern farm life. This essay will attempt to indicate first that he gave literary treatment to a multiplicity of reform urges, among which agrarianism may not have been even the most prominent. Secondly, the essay will attempt to make more meaningful Garland's removal from the realm of protest realism by viewing it in the context of the intellectual currents of the turn of the century.
Literary critics and historians have claimed both too much and too little for the son of the middle border. On the one hand, they admiringly present him as a wrathful man heaping artistic scorn and indictment upon the prevalent cruelty of the American system. On the other hand, they impatiently dismiss him as one who fled the uninspiring Midwest kitchen because he could not stand the heat, subsequently betaking himself to the Rocky Mountain realm of comfortable romance. Of course, part of that disparity in assessment stems from the fact that Garland's writing changed around the turn of the century, not only in locale but in subject matter and import. But there is more involved than changes in a man's writing over the course of time. The tensions between romance and realism, pessimism and optimism, the ugly and the benign appear not only when we compare Main-Travelled Roads with, say, Her Mountain Lover. The ambiguity readily appears when those supposedly grim works of the 1890's are viewed by themselves.
Focusing on one side of the Garlandian coin has caused some to exaggerate the element of protest in his early works. Of course, in the autobiographical A Son of the Middle Border Garland himself raised questions about the dearth of "stern facts" in the nation's literature. Certainly there is accuracy in the view that Main-Travelled Roads represented, at least in part, "a protest against the romantic portrayal of the Middle West" [Lars Ahnebrink, The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction, 1961]. But it is far too much to say that the stories of Main-Travelled Roads have unity of theme in "the ugliness, the monotony, the bestiality, the hopelessness of life on the farm" [Lucy Lockwood Hazard, The Frontier American Literature, 1961]. On the "long and wearyful" road Garland presented futility, even desperation. But the same track, he noted, crossed "a rich meadow where the songs of the larks and the bobolinks are tangled." Thus, at the sunny conclusion of "Among the Corn Rows," "the katydids sang to the liquid contralto of the river in its shallows." As Garland mused years later [in Roadside Meetings]: "the book was less austere than it appeared to the critic."
Other Main-Travelled Roads follows the same ambivalent vein. Two of the stories in that collection convey the severest sentiments that Garland ever committed to paper. But much of the remainder seems meant to substantiate the hopeful contention at the end of the preface: "youth and love are able to transform a bleak prairie town into a poem, and to make of a barbed-wire land a highway to romance." . . .
In his introduction to the Rinehart edition of Main-Travelled Roads  Thomas A. Bledsoe emphasized the disparity between Garland's theoretical pronouncements in Crumbling Idols and the literary creations which he achieved. Bledsoe detected a dissociation of theory from practice so marked as to border upon "fraud"—a militant radicalism as goal, happy conventionalities as realization. Here, it seems to me, Bledsoe has fallen into an error which he generally avoids in that excellent essay. He focuses his attention on one part of the theory just as others have focused their attention on some one part of Garland's realized output. As in nearly any Garland work, happy, positive and optimistic sentiments pervade the credo called Crumbling Idols. For example, Garland anticipated that the literature soon to emanate from the Pacific Coast region will deal "with the wholesome love of honest men for honest women, with the heroism of labor, (and) the comradeship of men." It will pronounce the truth, he tells us. But the truth has little in it that is dangerous or cataclysmic. In an almost fatuous tone, he informs us that in the soon to be written far western literature
The lovers who wander down the aisles of orange or lemon or pepper trees will not marvel at blooms and shrubs. Their presence and perfume will be familiar and lovely, not strange. The stark lines of the fir and the broad-sword thrust of the banana-leaf will not attract their surprised look. All will be as friendly and grateful as the maple or the Lombardy poplar to the Iowa school-boy.
This is not the realism of wretchedness and protest, it is the realism of happy and unawed familiarity. "I am overwhelmed," he wrote, "by the majesty, the immensity, the infinite charm of the life that goes on around me" [Crumbling Idols: Twelve Essays on Art Dealing Chiefly with Literature, Painting and the Drama, 1894].
Hamlin Garland possessed a lively vision of a better order. He consciously eschewed the past because he considered it ugly. He criticized the present but viewed it as a beckoning doorway to a bright and wholesome future. Few essays can match Crumbling Idols in its hopefully, even ebulliently, prophetic tone. In it Garland used evolution as his philosophical point of departure. To Henry Adams [in The Education of Henry Adams, 1907] evolution offered the source of wryly sophisticated jest—a principle the unfolding of which put Ulysses S. Grant in the White House instead of a George Washington. To us, the late nineteenth century penchant for evolutionism appears often as a misanthropic law of the jungle invoked by the strong to oppress the weak, as the brutal theme of survival of the fittest and the atavistic "red in tooth and claw." To Garland, it meant something far different—human progress. "Metamorphosis," he tell us [in Crumbling Idols], "is the law of all living things," and traditional thought and training had failed to recognize its working. Thus, the conventional and traditional outlook
is essentially hopeless. It blinds the eyes of youth to the power and beauty of the life and literature around him. It worships the past, despises the present, and fears the future. Such teaching is profoundly pessimistic . . .
For Garland, pessimism bordered on anathema.
He assured his readers that he would attack the blemishes of his day—but never out of morbid fascination nor for sheer titillation. Rather, he would do so out of a thoroughly positive and constructive impulse. The central import of Crumbling Idols appears in a chapter titled, appropriately enough, "Literary Prophecy":
The realist or veritist is really an optimist, a dreamer. He sees life in terms of what it might be, as well as in terms of what it is . . . (He) sees a more beautiful and peaceful future social life ... Therefore he is encouraged to deal truthfully and at close grapple with the facts of his immediate present... He aims to hasten the age of beauty and peace by delineating the ugliness and warfare of the present... He sighs for a lovelier life. He is tired of warfare and diseased sexualism and Poverty the mother of Envy ... Because he is sustained by love and faith in the future, he can be mercilessly true. He strikes at thistles, because he knows the unrotted seed of loveliness and peace needs but sun and the air of freedom to rise to flower and fragrance.
In light of this pronouncement of purpose, I cannot accept Bledsoe's charge that Garland divorced literary theory from literary practice. And, if in some broad sense Garland erred, he did so for the least damning, the most excusable, of reasons—a too great faith in human potential. Those often contrivedly happy circumstances and denouements mentioned earlier represent more than the marks of an uncritical naif. Garland's discontent was authentic. (He called it a mood of "sad severity.") In his efforts to give "the unrotted seed of loveliness and peace" some "sun and the air of freedom," he struck at a good many "thistles."
People motivated by a reform ethos rarely maintain singleness of purpose. When they destroy one barrier to human felicity, they quickly find other related ones upon which to expend effort. Though Hamlin Garland is understandably connected with agrarian protest, he too had a breadth of vision which encompassed various evils of the late nineteenth century. Most likely, he looked upon the problems of the time not as distinct and separate phenomena but as interrelated reflections of some fundamental failure of approach. Still, if only for purposes of analysis, we can isolate and itemize the concerns which he felt for his society.
In the late nineteenth century one of the prime dimensions of reform appeared in the religious realm. The social gospel movement urged churchly functions more immediately meaningful than the purveying of spiritual balm, the holding out of hope for individual salvation and the promising of untold rewards in the hereafter as recompense for sufferings borne here. Religion, this movement insisted, must succour the needy in a direct and physical fashion. It must make the world a better place in which to live. Few could have agreed more fully than Hamlin Garland. With a frequency unreflected in Main-Travelled Roads, he accusingly presented humans whose lives had been thwarted and broken by acceptance of anachronistic and inhuman creeds.
At times, the son of the middle border indulged in gratuitous rancor, as when he introduced a divinity student for no apparent reason than to write him off as "an affected, brainless creature" [A Member of the Third House]. In more reasoned terms, he found two major faults with the religious institutions of his time. First, he felt an especial abhorrence for certain evangelistic forms. In the autobiographical Boy Life on the Prairie he recalled that for several years his neighborhood "had been darkened and made austere by the work of an 'evangelist' who came preaching the wickedness of natural man and the imminence of death." He never forgave that evangelist. "A Day of Grace" delivers his severest indictment of the primitive, orgiastic and psychopathic excesses of the revival. In the story a group of Garland's beloved youths attend a revival out of curiosity but one, a girl appropriately named Grace, nearly falls under the exhorter's morbidly hypnotic spell. But then the stolid Ben, speaking for the author, rescues the girl by challenging the revivalist in the most direct fashion: "'God damn ye. Get out o'way. I'll kill ye if you lay a hand on her'." As they ride home under the stars "heaven" seemed very near and "hell" was back at the revival:
A moment later, as the demoniacal chorus of yells, songs, incantations, shrieks, groans, and prayers swelled high, a farmer's wife on the left uttered a hoarse cry and stiffened and fell backward upon the ground. She rolled her head from side to side. Her eyes turned in; her lips wore a maniac's laugh, and her troubled brow made her look like the death mask of a tortured murderer, the hell horror frozen on it.
With equal determination and greater frequency he arraigned the less frenzied religious forms which counseled resignation in the face of worldly unjustices on the premise that all would be righted by the blessings of the hereafter. Typically, Garland used women protagonists to communicate his disgust with narcotizing preaching. Lucretia Burns of Prairie Folks, one of his truly tragic figures, lives a life of overpowering destitution and hardship. A thoughtless husband and the farm have combined to break her utterly. "I've worked like no nigger ever worked . . . I've had enough t' drive an Indian crazy . . . I'd take poison if it wa'n't f'r the young ones.'" When the salving hope of "another world" is called to her attention, she recoils angrily: "Don't talk that. I don't want that kind o' comfert. I want a decent chance here. I want 'o rest an' be happy now." Garland injects himself into the tale in the guise of a young intellectual pondering the plight of those like Lucretia Burns. The humanistic reform impulse informs his pronouncement that "'the very religion they hear is soporific. They are taught to be content here that they may be happy hereafter. Suppose there isn't any hereafter?'"
Late in life Garland recalled [in Roadside Meetings] with a tinge of guilt the unintended offense which he had given in the home of acquaintances in France. At dinner, he had allowed a glass of precious vintage wine to stand by his plate untouched so long that his hostess inferred his displeasure. He knew that he had been written off as a savage and he tried to explain by references to his early life among "simple and abstemious folk." On that occasion, his "untutored palate" caused him remorse. In his writings however he viewed abstention both as honorable and as necessary to the harmonious working of human affairs. In the 1890's this youthful and self-proclaimed enfant terrible may have been discomfitted by what amounted to restrictive posture in regard to alcohol. Still, like many reformers, he hopefully anticipated the general curtailment of its use.
Garland rarely delivered himself of sustained frontal assaults upon the traffic which exercised so many reformminded people. Rather, he portrayed alcohol as an integral facet of the settings in which human beings went astray. In Other Main-Travelled Roads the "alien in the pines" attempts to re-order a life disrupted if not ruined by drink. In the same book, the story, "A Fair Exile," conveys a diatribe against the divorce racket in Dakota and delivers a characteristically tangential blow at demon rum. The "fair exile"—a prospective divorcee—represents besmirched womanhood. But, as she points out, little could be expected of one who has a brute for a husband and "a big Chicago brewer for a father." Against such a background, her flight to a divorce colony full of men with "hot leering eyes" and "liquor-laden breath" appeared more understandable, if no less tawdry. Because he saw his own background as marked by wholesome simplicity, Garland practiced literary dissociation where liquor was concerned. He made it a trapping of an alien and distasteful milieu. Ordinarily the city was that enemy country and, when Garland depicted the urban scene, he readily detected the noxious and demoralizing fumes of strong drink. . . .
Of course, Garland's reputation rests upon his airing of the grievances and problems of rural America. After a period of self-directed training in the libraries of Boston the young man returned to the West and surveyed the scenes of misery and poverty which generated his mood of severity of the early 1890's. His best and bitterest efforts went into painting the "savage and unrelenting" [as he termed it in Roadside Meetings] pictures inspired by that visit—"Up the Coulé," "Under the Lion's Paw," "Lucretia Burns," and "Before the Low Green Door." Indeed, his disgust and outrage, conjoined with the impact of a philosophical vogue, moved Garland toward a position of naturalistic fatalism. Thus, one frequently finds the metaphorical emblems of pessimistic determinism in his writings of the period. In "Up the Coulé" farmer Grant McLane compares himself to "a fly in a pan of molasses." In the autobiographical Roadside Meetings Garland reiterated what for him was a compelling simile by referring to the nation's agrarians as held helpless like "flies in a pool of tar." Jason Edwards' daughter Alice sees life as a "relentless, horrible struggle," and Bailey of The Mocassin Ranch considers men's actions as the groupings of "animaliculae"—"battling, breeding, dying."
But, as Lars Ahnebrink has shown, the true spirit of the son of the middle border had informing principles far removed from grim determinism. Even in his darkest moments, Garland maintained his sanguine persuasion and eschewed the despair which he occasionally expressed. He insisted that the wretched farm conditions could be improved; indeed, they could be perfected.
Garland suggested two general means of correcting the deplorable situation to which he had given dramatic documentation. First, farmers must organize. Through coherent political activism they could balance the unfair fight which they waged against the town and the economic middlemen. . . .
More spectacularly, Garland called for the implementation of the Henry George single tax system. In Progress and Poverty George had pondered the grimly paradoxical fact that poverty spread in our society quite as inexorably as did progress. He reasoned that the key to the riddle inhered in our land system. Those who owned no land faced the Sisyphean task of paying ever higher rents for the property they used—property the value of which they rather than the owners worked to appreciate. While time and renters enhanced the value of property, owners gleaned the "unearned increment." By George's view, justice demanded that owners should receive only that income from their holdings which resulted from their own efforts to improve it. Appreciation in value which came as a natural result of the country's growth belonged not to the individual, because he had done nothing to earn it. It belonged to society, and society should confiscate it in the form of a tax—a single tax sufficient for all governmental needs. In Progress and Poverty Garland saw the basic cause of and cure for the depressed conditions of the farm population. . . .
As Henry Smith has noted [in Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, 1957], the son of the middle border achieved his best synthesis of reform persuasion and literary depiction in the story "Under the Lion's Paw." Here, Garland stated forcefully and artistically the cruel logic of the conditions which beset and debilitated the American farmer. He neglected only one ingredient—the solution. Victimized by natural calamity in Kansas, Tim Haskins removes to Iowa where human greed treats him no better. Like nearly all of Garland's characters, Haskins has the ability to achieve; by Herculean effort he makes that run-down farm fairly bloom. Jim Butler, the ugly embodiment of an unjust land system, undoes his accomplishments. Butler, the author informs us, "believed in land speculation as the surest way of getting rich." While he does nothing, the growth of the country aggrandizes the worth of his holdings. Haskins, having achieved a relative prosperity offers to buy the farm which he has rented and worked for the past three years. But its owner, recognizing the enhanced value of the place, quotes a price double that of the original arrangement. The painful dialogue accentuates the identities of victim and oppressor as Haskins angrily points to the fruits of his own efforts:
"But you had nothin' t'do about that. It's my work and my money."
"You bet it was; but it's my land."
"But you've done nothing . . . You hain't added a cent. I put it all there myself .. . I worked an' sweat to improve it .. . I'm kickin' about payin' you twice f'r my own things,—my own fences, my own kitchen, my own garden."
"Your improvements! The law will sing another tune .. . It's the law. The reg'lar thing. Everybody does it."
Because the law sang another tune, the farmer was helpless.
Things could have been different, however, and ultimately, by Garland's telling, they will be. Turning to the past, he has the village radical of Jason Edwards recount errors already committed:
"If we hadn't give away s'much land to the railroad an' let landsharks gobble it up, an' if we'd taxed 'em as we ought to, we wouldn't be crowded way out here where it can't rain without blowing hard enough to tear the ears off a cast-iron bulldog—"
Turning forward, Garland's young intellectual, after having viewed the torments of Sim Burns and his wife Lucretia, projects into the future and outlines "his plan of action":
The abolition of all indirect taxes; the State control of all privileges the private ownership of which interfered with the equal right of all. He would utterly destroy speculative holdings of the earth. He would have land everywhere brought to its best use, by appropriating all ground rents to the use of the State . . .
This, we assume, would assure the felicity of Sim Burns and his wife.
Garland impressed most people with his depictions of farm conditions and his appeals for betterment. However, he wove into his protest literature another, final theme which exceeds the farm in prevalence and, it seems to me, in importance. He called it "The Real Woman-question" [in A Spoil of Office], Quite likely, Garland felt a sizeable burden of disquietude, if not outright guilt, for having forsaken his parents in the bleak country setting. He dedicated Main-Travelled Roads to his father and mother "whose half-century pilgrimage on the main-travelled road of life has brought them only toil and deprivation . . ." But his emotional intensity followed a narrower channel; his mother and her numberless counterparts most centrally exercised his concern. In his recollections he went quickly from the general to the compelling particular—from the farm blight to the blight of womanhood. Like Ole Rölvaag, he operated from the assumption—sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit—that the women bore the ghastliest burdens of the pioneering process.
Indeed, almost any evil to which Garland pointed hurriedly eventuated in a cross borne by the females of the species. All other injustices had their upshot and logical finality in suffering womanhood. Who suffered under the influence of an out-dated and inhuman religion? Everyone, of course, but women were more susceptible to the hurt. Thus, it is the girl Grace who nearly succumbs to the morbid sway of the exhorter in "A Day of Grace." Religion's soporific resignation re-enforces the hopelessness of Sim Burns' wife Lucretia. And in his most acrimonious story, "Before the Low Green Door," the dying farm wife has long felt the verdict of utter futility pronounced by the spiritual values of her time. When the world drank, wives and daughters suffered for it. . . .
The "fair exile" [in the story "A Fair Exile"], driven to a Dakota divorce colony by a husband who consumes liquor and a father who produces it, now must run the gauntlet of drummers and ne'er-do-wells—"wild beasts roused by the presence of prey," eyes gleaming with "relentless lust." . . .
Though villainy as well as heroism abounds in Garland's works of the 1890's, to only one woman did he ascribe a malicious spirit. In "A Division in the Coolly" a quite undeveloped character craftily exacerbates the rift between two sisters who have quarreled over an inheritance. This general absence of feminine knavery conveys implicitly what Garland often expounded explicitly. Whatever ugly fates befell people, especially women, the blame belonged to men. In "Sim Burn's Wife" Garland has Lily the schoolteacher concede that "the case is not all in favor of the suffering wives, and against the brutal husbands." But the admission appears awkward, weighted and contrived. Lily muses in a more Garlandian vein when she recognizes women as "the crowning wonder and beauty of God's world." As they ride the train to Heron Lake and a divorce court, the young lawyer—here speaking for the author—ominously tells the "fair exile": "You're on the road to hell!" But this represents a judgment upon male society, not upon the young girl who though "naturally pure," was now reduced to being a "lamb among lustful wolves." Speaking for his sex, the lawyer informs her that "'we are responsible . . . for every tragic, incomplete woman's life.'" . . .
Garland's abandonment of reformist realism has generally been explained in one of two ways. The more charitable contention first made by his friend Henry Blake Fuller in "The Downfall of Abner Joyce" [in Under the Skylights, 1901] holds that Garland, an amiable fellow by nature, made a comfortable acquiescence in the style of life to which success exposed him. "Yes," Fuller wrote, "Abner had made his compromise with the world." According to others, Garland's realistic posture had the marks of calculation and opportunism. He had, with an eye to "the main chance," used protest realism as a means to the end of success and prominence.
The two, of course, are closely related. But an aspect of the latter has gone largely unnoticed. That is the possibility that Garland's desertion of realism and naturalism might well have been quite as opportunistic (or as intellectually justifiable, or as au courant) as his previous championing of those things. At various levels, realism and naturalism were arousing impatience, boredom and antipathy. At the popular level, newspapers of the period frequently used Howells, the exemplar of realism, as the object of caustic jibes. His opposition to the hanging of the Chicago anarchists in the wake of the Haymarket affair moved the Minneapolis Tribune [October 31, 1887] to mordant aspersion. "Those of the anarchists," according to an editorial, "who have read the novels written by Mr. Howells are said to be willing to let the law take its course." In the same context the Washington Post noted simply: "Poor Howells. Realism has driven him mad" [November 6, 1887]. In 1882 the St. Louis Spectator [November 4, 1882] noted that many were reading A Modern Instance, and all were disappointed. In describing the characters of the novel, the Spectator employed a term that would become a byword—"Commonplace." In that connection the Boston Globe uneasily reported a London journal's contention that the burgeoning dime novel was "'a beautiful, unconscious protest against Mr. Howells and realism'" [June 19, 1883].
This discontent did not confine itself to popular journals. William Marion Reedy of The Mirror judged the Chicago Chap-Book a fine publication, but "too everlastingly devoted to Mr. Hamlin Garland to be a continual delight to sane people" [quoted in The Man in the "Mirror" by Max Putzel, 1963]. In whimsical fashion Eugene Field—poet, art critic and humorist—told in 1893 of "The Battle of the Realists and Romancists." As point of departure he used the "famous intellectual wrestling-match" between Garland and Mrs. Mary Hartwell Catherwood at a writers' congress.
Garland is one of the apostles of realism. Mrs. Catherwood has chosen the better part. . . . Mr. Garland's heroes sweat and do not wear socks. . . . Mrs. Catherwood's heroes—and they are the heroes we like—are aggressive, courtly, picturesque fellows. . . . Mr. Garland's in hoc signo is a dung-fork or a butterpaddle; Mrs. Catherwood's is a lance or an embroidery needle. Give us the lance and its companion every time.
Continuing the playfulness, Field explained that "in an evil hour" Garland had fallen under the "baleful influences of William D. Howells, and—there you are." The author of "Sharps and Flats" felt that Garland was not so far gone as to be beyond redemption, "if he will only keep away from Howells. In all solemnity we declare it to be our opinion that Howells is the only bad habit Garland has"[ The Writings in Prose and Verse of Eugene Field, 1901].
At a vast remove in temperament from Field, Ambrose Bierce wrote more biting disparagement of the school that Garland and Howells represented. He dismissed the former as one who wrote "with the corn-fed enthusiasm of the prairies," as an illustration of the "Western mind which has discovered that marks can be made on paper with a pen." "Cato Howells"—law-giver of the realistic school—demanded fuller treatment. Howells and those of "the Reporter School," Bierce wrote in 1897, "hold that what is not interesting in life becomes interesting in letters—the acts, thoughts, feelings of commonplace people, the lives and loves of noodles, nobodies, ignoramuses and millionaires; of the village vulgarian, the rural maiden whose spiritual grace is not incompatible with the habit of falling over her own feet . . ." The "prodigal excess" of detail was precisely that which "bores us our whole lives through." The writer who could not see that life is "picturesque, enchanting, astonishing, terrible, is denied the gift and faculty divine, and being no poet can write no prose"[ Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, 1911
On the last day of 1899 the Portland Oregonian carried a lengthy review of George E. Woodberry's The Heart of Man. Few books, the reviewer contended, "evidenced more fully the revolt against realism (re-baptized naturalism) now sweeping over the world." In 1908 Chesterton [in Orthodoxy, 1945] reviled the realist school on grounds similar to that of Bierce. "A baby," he remarked, "is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him." A few years later James Branch Cabell compounded the indictment. Realistic literature was not only boring but psychologically insupportable[ Beyond Life, 1919]. As Garland observed in his diary in 1900 on the occasion of his fortieth birthday, "life will not bear close investigation. It yields depressing results at best. At its worst it is not a road to be retravelled"[ The Diaries of Hamlin Garland, 1968].
The desertion of realism and naturalism placed Garland in consonance with some of the best thought of the time, as well as some of the most popular. In the essay, "The Present Dilemma in Philosophy," William James in 1906 wrote of the "progress of science" which had implied "the enlargement of the material universe and the diminution of man's importance." This growth of "naturalistic or positivistic feeling" meant that "the romantic spontaneity and courage are gone, the vision is materialistic and depressing"[ Pragmatism, 1922]. Treating European thought, H. Stuart Hughes tells of the "intellectual revolution" of the 1890's—"The Revolt against Positivism" [Consciousness and Society, 1958]. Recalling his own experiences in The Romantic 90's  Richard LeGallienne wrote that the "motive philosophy" of that decade was "the will to romance," "the modern determination to escape from the deadening thraldom of materialism." James at one level, Garland at another represent that "modern determination" in America. "Do these little fellows, the so-called realists," Bierce asked in 1897, "ever think of the goodly company which they deny themselves by confining themselves to their clumsy feet and pursuing their stupid noses through the barren hitherland, while just beyond the Delectable Mountains lies in light the Valley of Dreams .. . ?" [quoted in A Daughter of the Middle Border]. Shortly, Garland crossed the Delectable Mountains to the Valley of Dreams. And, as he noted later, ".. . I found myself almost popular"[ Collected Works ].
In a variety of ways Garland has lent a heated voice to the emotional and intellectual questioning which presaged the twentieth century "age of reform." In portraying lives thwarted by outworn institutions he occasionally lapsed into a tone so deeply censorious as to border on despair. The dying farm woman in "Before the Low Green Door" finds no comfort whatever in thoughts of the hereafter because she senses that "God himself"—if there be—could never compensate for what she had suffered. Far more commonly, Garland equivocated. He skirted hopelessness by accepting the central contention of the Henry George ethos—suffering came from faults in human laws and institutions, not from the dictates of nature nor the designs of God. He pronounced his disgust at hardship and injustice about him, but always with the felicitous assumption that man could will and work a better future. As an artist he might have to depict a scene of present anguish in order to corrode a "steel chain of ideas" [as Eric Goldman stated in Rendezvous with Destiny, 1952] binding society to the past. But that necessity did not undermine his conviction that the future is filled with "magnificent promise"[ Crumbling Idols]. . . .
Thus, the man's apostasy might be viewed in yet another way. Given the fact that his protest realism was so fully predicated on optimism, one might well infer that a weakening of that optimism begot the change. In recent years historians have tended to view the turn-of-the-century period as one that witnessed the "end of innocence" and the "loss of confidence." Surely, Garland fits that pattern. Personally, there was the disturbing awareness of physical aging, and a muted bitterness over literary potential unrealized. Cultural and societal changes had an equally disquieting effect. Cities overrun by alien hordes, demagogy in politics, the literary obsession with "sensual love" and "atavistic morals" led to the conclusion that "our world is disintegrating" [as Garland termed it in his diaries]. Here, the aged Garland was in tune with the philosophic despair of Joseph Wood Krutch's The Modern Temper and Walter Lippmann's A Preface to Morals. His flight to insipid and banal romance and to the realm of the mystic and the occult seems at least understandable. Talcott, Tuttle, Rose Dutcher and other Garlandians of the 1890's often seem unsatisfyingly buoyant. But they were reform figures. As G. K. Chesterton put it [in Charles Dickens: A Critical Study, 1906], "The optimist is a better reformer than the pessimist; and the man who believes life to be excellent is the man who alters it most." Crumbling Idols expresses it well: "Because he is sustained by love and faith in the future, he can be mercilessly true." When Garland ceased to be "mercilessly true," he was no longer sustained by "love and faith in the future."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5579
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.
[In the following essay, Davis argues that the stories in The Book of the American Indian and the novel The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop reflect Garland's changing attitude toward Native American assimilation. In these works, the critic maintains, Garland attempted to "work out a concept which acknowledged the value of traditional Indian society and yet which showed the Indian could benefit by civilization. "]
Hamlin Garland's reputation today is fairly secure as a chronicler of Euro-American civilization establishing itself in the northern Midwest. In the early and latter phases of his fiction, as Donald Pizer [in American Literary Realism, 1 (Fall 1967)], Jay Martin [in Harvests of Change, 1967], and Robert Gish [in Hamlin Garland: The Far West, 1976] have noted, Garland attacked the myth of the easy, good life in the old Northwest and introduced Eastern readers to the arduous physical and social realities on the raw middle border. Main-Travelled Roads (1891) and Rose of Dutcher's Coolly (1895) are the best known examples of that early realistic fiction. Yet in his middle phase of over two decades, beginning in 1895, Garland turned his attention farther west, apparently discarding everything he had previously said about the need for literature to deal with the unpleasant as well as the pleasant aspects of life. As a consequence, most of his work during this middle period is viewed as a temporary abdication of Garland's undisputed gift for delineating the hard realities of western life.
However, Robert Gish has recently suggested that this very phase, when Garland betook himself farther west to meet ranchers, miners, Indian agents, and sundry tribes of native Americans, is the most interesting to contemporary students of western literature. It is true that most of the dozen novels and many stories of this Far West period simply invoke the romanticized vision of the West Garland strove so hard to puncture earlier. Yet the Indian material, the stories written mainly between 1895 and 1905 but later collected in The Book of the American Indian (1923) and also the novel The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop (1902) are truly landmark treatments of Indians. They suggest that Garland was not simply escaping back into the mythology of ideal life in the West, but actually was extending the trenchant criticism begun in his early work.
During his travels in the Far West, Garland found the Indian increasingly crucial to his design for critiquing the failure of American westerners to create a worthy civilization. But it took him a long time to discover precisely what Indian culture disclosed about the deficiencies of white civilization. Early in his Indian studies Garland himself thought he was dealing solely with the Indian problem—that is, how to help the Indian walk the white man's road and how to reform abuses of the reservation system. Only slowly did he realize that the Indian problem was primarily a white one.
Garland's fascination with the Indian began in a serious way with a trip to the Southwestern pueblos of Acoma, Isleta, Laguna, and Zuni in 1895. He then traveled back up to Montana and the Dakotas, then in 1900 down to Oklahoma, where he visited John Seeger to hear tales about the Indian way of life. Later that year on the Standing Rock reservation he was fortunate enough to speak, through interpreters, with warriors of the late Sitting Bull. The novella "The Silent Eaters" comes out of this last experience. In all, Garland visited over a dozen reservations; gained the confidence of several Indian agents; and learned something about the conditions and feelings of American natives around the turn of the century. That education naturally focused his attention upon the pressing problems of assimilation and reservation abuses. Thus, it is no surprise that both The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop and The Book of the American Indian are usually discussed in terms of those two issues. Indisputably, Garland was a reformer at heart; nor was he content to make his point in fiction. He also published [in North American Review, 174 (April 1902)] a closely argued policy statement which proposed explicit alternatives to governmental policies administered on reservations. And by the standards of American thinking in 1902, his proposals were penetrating and persuasive.
But as important as Garland's sleuthing of reservation ills was, it is not the sole issue in his Indian material. Rather he was on the track of a more substantive, if more subtle, question. Would civilization actually bring the defeated aborigines the good life? This problem, of course, has been with Western civilization ever since its technologically and numerically superior peoples have overrun others and imposed their standards upon them. Inevitably, the same disquieting question was working at the back of Garland's mind, and it gave a distinctively troubled cast to his Indian fiction. Its presence, indeed, creates the running dialogue that makes this work absorbing to today's reader.
Early, Garland's bottom-line belief was that the process of civilization was irreversible. He believed the imperative of social evolution dictated that the red man must henceforth walk the white man's road. But as a result of his observations on Indian reservations, Garland came to see that Indian ways had their own values; so he compromised by advocating that the Indian maintain his own identity while walking the road toward civilization. This more enlightened view, however, raised a number of paradoxes and forced Garland into a closer examination of Indian resistance. He became determined to discover "the soul of the Indian," as one of his fictive spokesmen put it. And at that point he opened himself to the seductive possibility that native life possessed a quality missing from, but perhaps necessary to, American civilization. Thus, Garland worked himself into that classic dilemma of double cultural vision which has been with our tradition ever since Sir Thomas More used Vespucci's account of the Inca empire to create a vision of an ideal society in Utopia (1517). And no less prestigious American predecessors than Cooper, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Melville had at times suggested that native culture might be a viable referent against which basic failures of American culture could be judged.
The best place to begin tracing Garland's search for the essential, and differentiating, essence of Indianness is an almost offhand remark he wrote in a travel essay, "Hitting the Trail"( McClure's Magazine, 12 [February, 1899], pp. 298-304). In a brilliant synecdoche he compares the Indian trail with the white man's road. The red man's path is "always indirect, accommodating, patient of obstruction—an adjustment, not a ravage. It alarms nothing. It woos every wild thing. It never disfigures. It sacrifices itself. It loses itself in nature." Further, "the Trail is poetry; a wagon road is prose; the railroad, arithmetic." These images may be taken simply as romantic hyperbole directed invidously against that supremely practical American temperament [Alexis] De Tocqueville desparingly noted [in Democracy in America, 1942 edition]. They are that, but more. The synecdoche is so marvelously accurate about the quality of Indian thinking that even Levi-Strauss would be hard pressed to improve on it, although he devoted an entire volume to analyzing "the savage mind." As Garland traveled deeper into Indian country he learned more of its almost intangible quality. He recorded of his experiences there that "it has given me blessed release from care and worry and the troubled thinking of our modern day. It has been a return to the primitive and peaceful. Whenever the pressures of our complex city life thin my blood and benumb my brain, I seek relief on the trail; and when I hear the coyote waking to the yellow dawn my cares fall from me—I am happy"( McClure's Magazine, p. 304). It is this elusive peace of mind, happiness, which becomes the motif of his Indian fiction. And while he was no pioneer in discovering the paradox that civilization prized material advancement often at the expense of peace of mind, he recognized here a central objection of Indians to walking the white man's road.
Though Garland never quite resolved this paradox, a good share of his Indian fiction works in that direction. The key term, which eluded him, is what a more recent writer has called "quality." Robert Persig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , has argued that quality is what our form of civilization conspicuously lacks. It emerges only when one is perfectly attuned to his environment and situation. As he says: "Peace of mind isn't at all superficial. . . . It's the whole thing. . . . The reason for this is that peace of mind is a prerequisite for a perception of that Quality which is beyond romantic Quality and classical Quality and which unites the two." In Persig's view cultures tend to approach the world either in the romantic (intuitive) way or classical (analytical) way. He argues that Western tradition has been so obsessively rationalistic that it has failed to achieve a holistic sense of being, a caring identification with the environment. Ultimately, this was the recognition towards which Garland was working. If technical advances could only be forced upon the Indian by inculcating him with the calculative mentality of white culture, he might be more victim than beneficiary. Thus, Garland tried to work out a concept which acknowledged the value of traditional Indian society and yet which showed how the Indian could benefit by civilization. As we follow his thinking through several key stories in The Book of the American Indian and selected episodes of The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop, the overall direction of Garland's thought will become clear.
"Drifting Crane" was the first Indian story, appearing first in Harper's in 1890 before its collection in The Book of the American Indian (New York: Harper, 1923). Its dramatic effect is achieved by juxtaposing two representatives of the competing cultures in what amounts to a stereotypical white man versus red man confrontation. A white rancher moves out on newly taken Indian land and is visited by the local chief, Drifting Crane, who views him as an invader. Garland describes the meeting thus: "It was a thrilling, a significant scene. It was in absolute truth the meeting of the modern vidette of civilization with one of the rearguard of retreating barbarism. Each man was a type; each was wrong, and each was right. The Indian was as true and noble from the barbaric point of view as the white man. He was a warrior and a hunter; made so by circumstances over which he had no control." Here Garland has acknowledged the presence of two standards, barbaric and civilized; but clearly the latter is of a higher order. As Persig points out, the basic structure for all Western knowledge is a hierarchy. In this case, Garland simply follows Lewis Henry Morgan's hierarchy of social evolution: savage, barbaric, and civilized. The significant law here is that lower cultures have fewer human rights.
It takes Garland a while to locate the nature of cultural superiority. It is not found in the character of the rancher, although he is a courageous, not a vicious, person. Rather Garland says: "The settler represented the unflagging energy and fearless heart of the American pioneer. Narrowminded, partly brutalized by hard labor and a lonely life, yet an admirable figure for all that. As he looked into the Indian's face he seemed to grow in height. He felt behind him all the weight of millions of westward-moving settlers; he stood the representative of an unborn state." The fallacy of manifest destiny was not yet apparent to Garland, although the modern reader will see in this passage the rationale of one Western nation which used this philosophy to justify conquest, reservation-like concentration camps, and genocidal pogroms against an allegedly inferior race.
The settler then takes down his rifle from the wall. It is:
The magazine rifle, most modern of guns; he patted the stock, pulled the crank, throwing a shell into view.
"You know the thing, chief?" The Indian nodded slightly.
"Well, I'll go when—this—is—empty."
The images are perhaps the most revealing thing in the dialogue. White superiority is based upon force backed by technological skill, especially in weaponry. Yet the rancher's machismo is disturbed by a curious note of ambivalence. Not oblivious of the great chief's dignity, he muses "there's land enough for us all, or ought to be. I don't understand—Well, I'll leave it to Uncle Sam." This would be the last time Garland let the ranchers off so easily. In later fiction they become a favorite bete noir, as they deliberately provoke reservation Indians into hostilities as an excuse for retaliatory preemption of more native land.
"The Story of Howling Wolf," first published in 1903, stands midway in philosophy between "Drifting Crane" and the concluding story, "The Silent Eaters." Here the traditionalist chief is transmuted into one ready to walk the white road, accepting the reservation agent, a just cavalry officer, as his role model. Carrying a note from the agent attesting to his peaceable character, Howling Wolf seeks to widen his experiences with white people by visiting a nearby town. Unfortunately, the townspeople have just been whipped by local yellow journalism into hysteria by false accounts of uprisings on the reservation. Howling Wolf is treacherously attacked and thrown in jail. And then tricked into thinking his freedom is being granted, he is ironically delivered into the hands of a mob during a Fourth of July celebration at which he is ridden down, beaten, dragged behind horses, mutilated, and left for dead. Miraculously, his iron constitution sustains him, but he is left a blind and bitter wreck of a once magnificent warrior. The savage irony of Howling Wolf's story suggests that Garland is beginning to think assimilation poses less of an Indian problem than a white one. The author's distrust of cowboys and ranchers, especially of the Far Western types observed in his travels, surfaces unmistakably. He is out to expose sensationally what he terms "the cruel, leering, racial hate of the border man, to whom the red man is big game." Not only is the story an outraged protest against white brutality, it discloses that the Indian has become primarily a symbolic problem. Since he had, by this time, been defeated militarily and reduced to beggary on barren reservations, he posed no material threat. Garland intuits that something crucial lies beneath the continuing need to vindictively and falsely hound the very people one professes to be leading into a higher level of existence. He has no answer yet to this mystery.
The concluding tale in The Book of the American Indian is the novella "The Silent Eaters," which takes its name from Sitting Bull's trusted executive council, men of probity who eat in silence, disdaining any frivolity, while they meditate upon the difficulties of their chief's losing struggle to retain cultural hegemony for his defeated people. The narrator, Iapi, is son to one Silent Eater. He has been encouraged by Sitting Bull and Lieutenant Davies, a typical Garland military hero and intellectual, to learn about white ways. Davies, a man trained in classical logic, admonishes Iapi that "knowledge is power. . . . Study, acquire words, the white man's wisdom, then you will be able to defend the rights of your people." Sadly, by following this advice, Iapi becomes trapped between the opposing forces represented by Sitting Bull, the conservator of traditional values, and the Indian-hating agent, who is characterized by the author as "hard, unimaginative, and jealous of his authority. He was also a bigot and it is hard for anyone not a poet or a philosopher to be just to a people holding a different view of the world. Race hatred and religious prejudices stand like walls between the red man and the white." Here Garland not only amplifies the note of cultural relativity sounded earlier, he suggests that civilization breeds racial and religious intolerance precisely because it has convinced all but poets and philosophers that its vision of civilized man is the only one. And to turn to Persig again, we see uncovered the commonest fallacy of classical thinking, the idea that of all alternative hypotheses about reality, there is only a single correct one. Ergo, civilized man has the only true way of life and the only true religion. All other humans of all other persuasions are wrong, and their insistence upon false culture and religion simply verifies their unworthiness. They are a threat. When one understands this thinking, the antagonism toward all things Indian becomes a little clearer.
In "The Silent Eaters," then, an absolutist culture confronts and methodically sets out to destroy a pluralistic one. The reason is simply its inability to see the quality of pluralistic vision or the higher vision which Persig claims contains both with equanimity. And that is precisely the resolution Garland seeks—how the Indian can retain his vision and still assimilate white ways. But only in the character of the great Sitting Bull do we find the possibility of such transcendence, and he is adamantly opposed to assimilation, at least under the present circumstances. His character is most insightfully drawn. The Bull has been a shrewd and moral politician since his early manhood, an inveterate peacemaker who is brilliant in detecting and defusing threats against the wellbeing of the people, and a genius at ratiocination who empirically evaluates the evidence about the Ghost Dance and finds its validity wanting. Yet this paragon of wisdom, justice, and forebearance is destroyed by the viciousness of a conquering people determined to turn the vanquished into carbon copies of themselves. Sitting Bull, however, is allowed the last word on this issue, commenting tartly that if the Great Spirit had wanted Indians to be white people, he would have made them white. So much for the claim that there exists an hierarchal order of races.
Besides the character of Sitting Bull, we do not learn much about Indian personality and culture. One exception comes in the opening lines when Garland, this time poet rather than philosopher, invokes the tranquility of Plains life before the white man came. In the spring when grass sprang back to life, creeks flowed again, and the sun waxed warmer, there was a time of matchless beauty, harmony, and plenty. This seamless unity of beauty was matched by the serenity and peace of mind in Plains Indian villages. But later in the story, Garland hints that white people find these same golden plains hostile and lonely. There are indeed alternative realities. The white man carried on to the plains his antagonism to nature and subverted the natural order of things. This is the kind of progress Garland begins to find disturbing.
As a philosophic statement, "The Silent Eaters" exposes the mendacity of white protestations to improve the quality of barbaric life. The Sioux are systematically relocated to the poorest land, dispossessed of their horses and hunting gear, and dispersed from their communal village pattern once tribal leadership in governance and sacred ceremonies has been destroyed. Then they are asked to farm this worthless land, emulating the life patterns of the alienated and materialistic settlers who pushed them out. The final straw for many Indians was the implacable desire of agents, missionaries, and teachers to destroy in their children any respect for their elders or traditional values and beliefs. It is very difficult in this portrait, which was solidly grounded upon Garland's personal investigation of reservations, to find a key to assimilation without the loss of Indian integrity. Yet Garland was still convinced that if abuses were corrected, the best of the two worlds could be brought together. His before-mentioned article, "The Red Man's Present Needs," articulately sets before the American public the need and possibilities of each reform.
In the same year as this article, 1902, Garland also attempted to put his theories about bridging the two cultures into fictive action. His chief spokesman is Captain Curtis, the title hero in The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop. The author's paternalism toward Indians is disappointingly obvious when Curtis's superior officer offers him an assignment as reservation agent: "You'll have a clear field for experiment at Smith. You can try all your pet theories on the Tetong." It would seem these Indians are reduced to little more than subjects of amateur experimentation in psycho-cultural engineering. This is not a promising start.
After Curtis takes over as agent, he and his ethnologist friend Lawson, as well as the young artist and aristocrat Elsie, debate the proper diagnosis and treatment of the Tetong problem. On one side are the enlightened men, on the other Elsie, who as daughter of the arch-conservative Senator Brisbane defends the genocidal assimilation approach of the U. S. War Department then administering the reservation system. Ultimately, Curtis wins the lovely Elsie to his side, though with a surprising concession, for she is artist enough to see that Curtis's rationalistic theories negelct the aesthetics of human life.
As Garland, through Curtis, struggles toward a principle to reconcile white and red realities, he first examines the doctrine of progress as Western peoples conceive it. Curtis muses that it may not be necessary for his Tetong charges to immediately, or ever, progress to the intensive agricultural and industrial techniques of Euro-Americans. Early in the novel he reflects that "the older I grow the less certain I am that any race of people has a monopoly of the virtues. I do not care to see the 'little people' of the world civilized in the way in which the word is commonly used. .. . If I could, I would civilize only to the extent of making life easier and happier—the religious beliefs, the songs, the native dress—all these things I would retain. What is life for, if not this?" While this judicious view moves Garland closer to the solution he seeks, an Indian might reply that Garland's assumptions are based upon a highly inaccurate history. It was the white man's arrival, introduction of European diseases, and wholesale seizure of land that destroyed for Indians their easy and happy life. But Garland was working toward an important principle. If the Indians themselves could determine which elements of foreign culture they wanted to adopt, a healthy balance between red and white might be struck. After all, the Sioux had radically transformed their society by integrating the European horse. Incidentally, one should note that Captain Curtis actually subverts his espousal of retaining native customs. Only at special ceremonies are the Tetong encouraged to wear native garb and remember their traditions.
In fact, Garland had not done his homework well at all. He pictures the frustrating difficulties of getting the Tetongs to become farmers. While it is probably true they relied extensively during the past hundred years upon a hunting economy, they were by no means ignorant of agriculture. But the exasperated agent Curtis maligns the intellectual capacity and motivation of red people. Though the Tetong have faithfully planted unfamiliar crops according to Curtis's instructions, they just cannot get the hang of farming: "These child-like souls said: 'Behold we have done our part, now let Mother Earth and Father Sun bring forth the harvest. We cannot ripen the grain; we can only wait. Besides we are weary'." In short, they are too lazy to weed and cultivate their crops by the workaholic standards of white people. Nor do they grasp the nature of a plant's life cycle: "The seed and the apple are too far apart" in time for them to see the connection. As we know now, and Garland should have been able to discover from narratives of exploration, Indian botanists were among the foremost in the world. They had domesticated numerous plants like maize before the dawn of European civilization. In fact, over four-sevenths of the United States' present agricultural produce is from Indian-developed crops.
By pandering to the worst suspicions of his audience about Indian intellective capacity, Garland measurably weakens the case for equitable treatment. If Indians are genetically and culturally thousands of years behind white people, how can the differences be bridged by simply eliminaing abuses on reservations? And how can the Indian expect to be assimilated on equal terms? Garland's answer is to go slow. As Captain Curtis explains: "They have developed like ourselves through countless generations of life under relatively stable conditions. These moderial conditions are giving way, are vanishing, but the mental traits they formed will persist. Think of this when you are impatient with them." This passage represents a vacillation back to Garland's earlier belief that white civilization is destined to make over the rest of the world in its image. He failed to indicate here, as he well knew, that the scientific approach of Western culture has severe limitations in providing the good life. As Persig has noted, Western-style rationality has worked very well since the Renaissance. And "so long as the need for food, clothing, and shelter is dominant [the scientific approach] will continue to work." But he warns that when such needs no longer overwhelm people, they will discover that "the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is—emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty."
Garland is manifestly dissatisfied with Curtis's advice, since it ignores Western civilization's deficiencies, the prime target of his earlier fiction. But he is in a quandry about how the Tetong should be led along the white man's road. The best he can do is have Captain Curtis vow to stay on the reservation "till I can demonstrate my theory that, properly led, the people can be made happy." And a few pages later we learn what that entails: "To be clean, to be peaceful, to be happy—these are precepts I would teach them." Unfortunately for Garland, he has the whole thing backwards. The Tetongs were undoubtedly cleaner, more peaceful, and happier folks before civilization arrived. However, it is true that once they have been deprived of their considerable land base, they needed to learn something about the scientific approach in order to survive.
Garland does intuit the unnerving possibility of Indians becoming totally rational like whites. They will undoubtedly then lose their aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities as Persig suggests Western civilization did after the Renaissance. Garland's recognition of this vital truth appears when Captain Curtis chides Elsie for painting an old Tetong as a mindless Indian beggar. Curtis insists that "Crawling Elk is the annalist and story teller of his tribe. He carries the 'winter count' and the sacred page, and can tell you of every movement of the Tetongs for more than a century and a half. His mind is full of poetry, and his conceptions of earth and sky are beautiful. He knows little that white men know, and cares for very little what the white man fights for, but his mind teems with the lore of the mysterious universe into which he has been thrust, and which he has studied for seventy-two years. In the eyes of God, I am persuaded there is no great difference between old Crawling Elk and Herbert Spencer. The circle of Spencer's knowledge is wider, but is as far from including the infinite as the redman's story of creation." And a moment later, Curits concludes: "All these things, and many more, you must learn before you can represent the soul of the redman. You can't afford to be unjust." Nor does Garland wish to be unfair. This long paragraph was as close as he would come to granting the Indian a complete, independent, and poetric construction of reality second only to that produced by the best mind of the Western world. That was more than almost any other white writer or anthropologist of the time would allow. Its weakness, as Persig would tell us, is that one cannot create a hierarchy of poetic and rational constructions of reality. They are inherently equal and complementary. Somehow they need to be combined: the red man's direct apprehension of nature's unity and the white man's breaking down nature into controllable entities.
In an effort to amalgamate both the poetic and rational modes, Garland reaches for a principle capable of that synthesis. Sensing that the essential quality of Indian life lies in the realm of aesthetics, but beyond language, Garland has Captain Curtis finally acknowledge the deficiency of a purely intellectual solution to the Indian (or for that matter, white) problem. Curtis confesses to his artistic fiancee, "you've given me a dim notion of a new philosophy. I haven't organized it yet, but it's something like this: Beauty is a sense of fitness, harmony. This sense of beauty—call it taste—demands positively a readjustment of the external facts of life, so that all angles, all suffering and violance, shall cease. If all men were lovers of the beautiful, the gentle, then the world would be suave and genial, and life harmoniously colored, like your own studio, and we would campaign only against ugliness. To civilize would mean a totally different thing. I'm not quite clear on my theory yet, but perhaps you can help me out" [my italics]. Philosophically speaking, this is the high point of The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop. But Elsie proves quite unable to help Curtis develop his insight, which is frittered away in the remaining pages of the novel.
In a remarkably parallel passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Persig supplies the explanation Garland sought. Persig too finds ugliness pervasive, the real enemy of the good life. But he argues that ugliness does not reside in modern technology nor its materials: "Real ugliness lies in relationships between people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use." By this he means that in the West products of technology are not created out of a sense of identity between the craftsman and the material: "It is this identity [which non-Western people have] that modern, dualistically conceived technology lacks." In short, ugliness of spirit is what plagues Western civilization. By a curious paradox, once nature has been reduced to the manipulatable, material level, it becomes ordinary. And while it can be made to yield the physical aspects of the good life, its sacredness is lost. As Curtis noticed, the Tetong winced at the idea of tearing the breast of mother earth with a plow. It violated their carefully developed sense of identity with nature.
Persig believes the impasse between these disparate approaches can be hurdled. He argues that "the way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That's impossible. The way to resolve the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is—not exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both." He adds that every dimension of human existence involves problems which admit of either a beautiful or ugly solution. To achieve beauty, Persig explains just what civilizing means, the principle for which Curtis groped. The requirements are "both an ability to see what looks good' [the Indian's well-developed aesthetic sensibility] and an ability to understand the underlying methods to arrive at that 'good' [the white man's scientific method]."
Therefore, we can conclude that Garland came very close to an understanding of the real issues involved in assimilation of Indian people. He would have come full circle to recognize that the Indian world needed less from the white world than vice versa, although both would have profited from each other. But the old Indian life, whose beauty Garland so keenly appreciated, was already whole and complete, being based upon a spiritual sense of identity with the material/spiritual world. Ugliness of spirit was discouraged there, nature was revered rather than exploited, and one's fellow man was respected despite his race or creed. The aboriginal Sioux and Tetong may have been inferior in material possessions, but not in things of the spirit.
Pushed to its logical conclusion, The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop is a continuation of Garland's earlier criticism of our failure to establish a worthy civilization in America. Had we learned from the first Americans how to limit technology so it did not diminish man's identity with the wondrous world around him, there would not be the ugliness of spirit that so enraged Garland—the avariciousness of land-hungry ranchers, the leering racial brutality of drunken cowboys, the crookedness of traders, and the sanctimoniousness of missionaries and other emissaries of white culture who despised the very people they attempted to help. To Garland's credit, he opened a fruitful trail for later critics of our national culture. And his intuition that the Indian was crucial to understanding our failed culture proved perfectly accurate.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3216
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 literature—old 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 opening the Midwest to fiction more authentically than his regional predecessors, writers like Edward Eggleston, E. W. Howe, and Joseph Kirkland; for fulfilling Howells' dictum that the commonplace is the proper subject for the realist; and for instilling into the main-stream of American writing a capacious yet gritty humanitarian sympathy. But he has, I believe, also done one other notable thing: he has given serious, extended, and successful treatment to a subject that is more often than not skirted in American literature—old age.
Garland's consideration of old people is especially notable because it runs counter to the prevailing myths embodied in the classic literature of our culture. Whitman [in Leaves of Grass] gave voice to the image that has stirred the American literary imagination most deeply:
As Adam early in the morning,
Walking forth from the bower refresh'd with sleep
Behold me where I pass . . .
Our literature has been predisposed to see America in Edenic terms, as the New World garden, and to see the archetypal Americans as the New Adam and the New Eve, wandering hand-in-hand their solitary way, perpetually beginning anew. With their emphasis upon youthful innocence and change, our Edenic myths exclude a priori the elderly whose characters tend to be fixed and whose knowledge has come from a gradual accumulation of experience. In this context, Garland's depiction of the aged is both a needed counterbalance and a daring experiment. . . .
Garland himself outlived his generation of realists, "The Class of the '70s" as Warner Berthoff has called them [in The Ferment of Realism, 1965], that included Stephen Crane and Frank Norris. But long before he was old himself, Garland was haunted by visions of the elderly, by images of people who had, as he put it in one of the prosey, sentimental verses he sometimes mistook for poetry, grown old together:
F'r forty years next Easter day,
Him and me in wind and weather
Have been a-gittin' bent 'n' gray,
Moggin' along together.
[From Prairie Songs. ]
The "bent 'n' gray" loom large in Garland's fiction from the first, partly because they were pivotal in his life. As Garland repeatedly made clear, the immediate impetus behind Main-Travelled Roads was his return from the East, first in 1887 and then again in 1888, to the prairie home of his aged parents in Ordway, South Dakota, where he discovered both regional poverty and familial distress. With a lacerating mixture of pity and guilt, he witnessed [as he recounted in the preface to Main-Travelled Roads, 1922] "the ugliness, the endless drudgery, and the loneliness of the farmer's lot," and he found his parents, especially his mother, hopelessly "imprisoned" in that dreary life. Most critics have emphasized the general awareness of hard times instilled in Garland by his returns, but it seems clear that what stirred his creativity, as it cut closest to the bone of his compassion, was the plight of his aging parents. Garland got the idea for the first of the Main-Travelled Roads stories, "Mrs. Ripley's Trip," from his mother, and he wrote most of it in between grinding work with his fifty-nine year old father as a stacker in the wheat harvest. In a real sense, Garland's aged and struggling parents—to whom he dedicated his book—provided the models as well as the inspiration for Main-Travelled Roads.
Old people are central to the book. They appear in one role or another in all six of the original stories, and they are prominent in four of them. Garland creates his old people in the spirit of the realist—or more exactly, in the spirit of what he would come to call "veritism," which was for him a combination of truth to things as they are and to individual perception. In Crumbling Idols he summarized the essence of his version of realism in this injuction: "Write of those things of which you know most, and for which you care most. By so doing you will be true to yourself, true to your locality, and true to your time." Garland's old people are perfect examples of this theory. While they are patterned after his family members, about whom Garland cared deeply, they represent quite convincingly the Middle Border region in its time of agrarian struggle. They appear as the debilitated survivors of the hardships of Midwestern life.
On the face of it, the most commonplace feature of Garland's elderly characters is their attachment to the land. Of course the heroes of our literature are often found absorbed in the natural world, whether that world is a receding frontier, a whale-haunted ocean, a Mississippi flowing insistently South, or a rocky mountain peak rising starkly from the plains. Garland's aged characters, however, inhabit a more down-to-earth landscape; they are simply living on farms. Garland frames the opening and closing of the book with realistic scenes of old people at work on the land. In the first story, "A Branch-Road," old man Kinney, who is, Garland says, a "Hardfeatured, wiry old man," "entering his second childhood," is pictured beginning "to limp painfully" as he goes through the daily chore of "driving the cows" out to pasture, and in the last story of the original six, "Mrs. Ripley's Trip," old Ethan Ripley is seen "husking all alone in the field, his spare form rigged out in two or three ragged coats, his hands inserted in a pair of gloves minus nearly all the fingers, his thumbs done up in 'Stalls', and his feet thrust into huge coarse boots." Both men are bent and stiff, weary from work, poverty, and age. Like Kinney and Ripley, all the elderly of Main-Travelled Roads are locked into a farm life that yields only a marginal existence at best. They are enslaved on the land, and while its natural beauty provides intermittent satisfaction, there is no retirement from their grinding work short of death.
Garland's old people of the Middle Border do not live in consonance with the deeper rhythms of the natural world. Max Westbrook has pointed out that the seminal Western hero has an intimate relationship with nature in its most profound dimension; he is, Westbrook says, one who has experienced at some moment the sacred "original creation" and thereafter knows the essential "unity" of all things [in an essay in The Westering Experience in American Literature, edited by Merrill Lewis and L. L. Lee, 1977]. For all of their direct contact with the land, Garland's old people have no such knowledge. They do not take from the land ultimate truth, but only labor to eke out a living. They are not extraordinary Western heroes but ordinary Midwestern people, a part of the land in its nonmythic actuality.
The young people of Main-Travelled Roads often try to sever themselves from the land. Will Hannan, Agnes Kinney, Howard McLane, Rob Rodemaker, and Julia Peterson all leave their Middle Border farms for such places East and West as New York, South Dakota, and Arizona. In their desire to escape, to flee from home, as well as in their mobility, they are typical of the figures who populate most American fiction, characters who are, more often than not, on the run, lighting out for the territories—or if they start there, for the cities—to get away from or to catch up with the rest. Further, in their urgent exodus Garland's younger people trace a pattern that will become distinctive in Midwestern literature—a path of departure followed by such later figures as Anderson's George Willard, Lewis's Carol Kennicott, and Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, to mention only a few. Garland's old people, on the other hand, are sedentary. And this makes them unique. They are confined to their regional homes by economic necessity, by the exhaustion of old age, and, most importantly, by choice. Of all the elderly people in Main-Travelled Roads only one, Mrs. Ripley, leaves the region, and she does so simply to visit her family in the state of New York. Significantly, having begun Main-Travelled Roads with the flight of young Will Hannan, Garland ends the volume with the return of old Mrs. Ripley, who comes back to her husband, her grandson, and her work—to stay.
At the emotional and normative center of Main-Travelled Roads is the home. With the single exception of old widow Gray in "The Return of a Private," all of Garland's old people are married couples—home-folk "Moggin' along together," as he put it in his poem. In all six of the stories Garland depicts families which include more than one generation. While he is attentive to the hardships of farming and the snares of capitalism, issues which make Main-Travelled Roads protest fiction, Garland envisions the ultimate threat arising from these conditions as the loss of the family home. Fully two-thirds of the stories turn upon either the fact or the possibility of dispossession. Such loss looms as the ultimate horror, for home is the core of life in Garland's Middle Border. Lapsing at one point into Victorian sentimentality, Garland observes,
There is no despair as deep as the despair of a homeless man or woman. To roam the roads of the country or the streets of the city, to feel there is no rood of ground on which the feet can rest, to halt weary and hungry outside lighted windows and hear laughter and song within—these are the hungers and rebellions that drive men to crime and women to shame.
The homes Garland cherishes are uniformly dilapidated, realistic emblems of Midwestern poverty and deprivation. Yet they are enlivened by the spirit of their aged inhabitants, especially the old women.
For all of his interest in realism, Garland was, as Jay Martin has observed, "a maker and follower of myth and romance"[ Harvests of Change, 1967]. His imagination, even at its most factual, strained to lift its creations into larger configurations of meaning. In Main-Travelled Roads this inclination results in a glorification of the Aged Mother. While the Mother figure obviously derives from Garland's own mother, to find in the type, as some critics have, only an embarrassingly unconscious Oedipal love is to miss Garland's indication of universality. Old Window Gray, old Mother Council, old Mrs. Ripley are virtually mythologized as avatars of love; they are Garland's equivalents of the archetypal Great Earth Mother who is the source and sustainer of life. Garland describes Old Widow Gray, the quintessence of the type, in quasisacramental language as the "visible incarnation of hospitality," and he compares the aged Mother Council to the sun and endows her with the power to instill vitality into those lifeless in body and spirit. Garland is too realistic to bestow full mythic stature upon the Mothers of the Middle Border, but he sees them all as elemental forces, universal nourishers, timeless figures of unconditional, enduring charity.
These almost mythic women live in a world that is not only real but even shabby. The widow Gray's parlor, a best-room carpeted with "a faded and patched rag" rug, is decorated, Garland says, by a "horrible white-and-greenstriped wall-paper" and "a few ghastly effigies of dead members of the family hung in variously-sized oval walnut frames." Whatever the failures of taste here (the room is Garland's counterpart to the Grangerford parlor in Huckleberry Finn,) the family portraits attest to a sense of the past. Unlike the typical heroes of our literature who are so bereft of history as to exist primarily in space, not time, Garland's old people are linked to the past. They have family as well as personal histories. Both resentments, like the Hannans' dislike of the Kinneys in "A Branch-Road," and loyalties, like the McTurgs' ties to the MacLanes in "Up the Coulé," linger through generations. The young are identified as the son or daughter of their parents, and the old are defined by the time they—or their parents—first settled in the region. Garland's old people naturally conceive of themselves in time as well as place, as Jane Ripley does when she explains her desire for a trip, "I ain't been away't stay overnight for thirteen years in this house, 'n' it was just so in Davis Country for ten more." Having lived out their histories, the aged retell them to newcomers with dignified restraint—in "Western fashion," Garland says, slowly, equitably, trading one long lifestory for another.
Embodying the past, Garland's old people represent not only continuity but also an ethic of communal cooperation, the code of "help" that obtained of necessity when the land was first settled. The sense of mutuality that informed such pioneer tasks as house-roofing, barn-raising, and harvesting lives on in the elderly people of Main-Travelled Roads. It leads the old Councils first to take-in the Haskins family and then to back their effort to farm with advice, seed, stock, and labor. And it prompts old widow Gray to help feed Private Smith's family while he is at war. In the later additions to Main-Travelled Roads this ethic of cooperation degenerates into what one critic [Anthony Channeil Hilfer in The Revolt From the Village 1915-1930, 1969] has called Garland's "ersatz glorification of small-town togetherness," but in the original stories the code convincingly animates the old people. For while Garland is, as Donald Pizer has pointed out [in Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, 1960], a romantic individualist, he deviates from romantics like Emerson and Thoreau in his outright celebration of communal living, both in the extended families headed by the elderly and in the larger rural society knit together by a common past.
Perhaps most importantly Garland's old people—like Faulkner's after him—endure. Despite their deprivations and sufferings, despite their drudgery and poverty, they survive, and their survival is in itself a kind of triumph. For Garland their spirit is unconquerable. Interwining the ideas of a harsh land, of home and family, of mutual concern, and of a binding past, Garland conveys the spirit of his old people in the image of old Mrs. Ripley returning from her once-in-a-lifetime trip:
And off up the road the indomitable little figure trudged, head held down to the cutting blast. Little snow-fly, a speck on a measureless expanse, crawling along with painful breathing, and slipping, sliding steps—"Gittin' home to Ripley an' the boy."
In Main-Travelled Roads Garland envisions the Midwest as a coherent culture: built upon a series of family farms, centered in the values of the home, animated by an ethic of communal cooperation, and bound together by the past living on into the present in the old people. Garland creates a dramatic and symbolic representation of the cohesion of the Middle Border ethos in "Up the Coulé," when William McTurg plays, for the young and the old, for the permanent community members and the temporarily estranged native sons, the old fiddle tunes of frontier settlement. As McTurg plays the old songs of Westward dreaming, the people of the Middle Border sense their common past and so draw together in their present. Personal resentments, intellectual differences, economic disparities, and separate generations are all bridged as the region's music sounds the past. The moment of transfiguring music is, however, heavy with melancholy, for McTurg's music reminds the community of unrealized hopes as well as heroic achievements.
Ignored in criticism, the aged William McTurg is one of the most significant figures in Main-Travelled Roads. Garland depicts him as an embodiment of the past: he is a patriarchal figure—a grizzled old man with white "hair and beard" and "great lion-like head," a "soft-voiced giant" who, despite his years, holds himself as "erect as an Indian." McTurg's enormous strength, instinctive kindness, and aesthetic appreciation of the land's austere beauty represent the noble qualities of the early pioneers. Most importantly, old McTurg is the native artist who expresses in his music the heritage of the region. Unlike the elderly mothers who suffer the ills of advancing age but who in their maternal aspect seem to rise beyond time, out of history to the realm of myth, Garland's regional artist is time-bound, linked to a specific moment of heroic settlement. His traditional materials express again and again the emotions, aspirations, and endeavors of a by-gone era. In Main-Travelled Roads both the character of this artist and his art are honored.
But in Prairie Folks, one of the sequels to Main-Travelled Roads, the native artist becomes a displaced person, as change overtakes Garland's Middle Border. In "Daddy Deering," for instance, Garland conveys with considerable power both the coming of old age and the passing of an heroic era. Deering, described as a "gaunt old man of sixty years" or "older," as a "giant" with a body as "bony and tough as hickery," is a variant of the aged William McTurg, and like McTurg, Deering is both prodigious worker of the land and its native artist. As a former logger, farmer, horse trader, cattle herder, hog butcher, and grain harvester, he is the epitome of the passing Middle Border life, and "above all else," Garland tells us, he loves to "play the fiddle for dances." With more grim honesty than pathos, Garland shows Deering's gradual but steady loss of physical prowess, a decline that finally leaves him crippled in his hands and lame in his legs. His diminished state terrifies him; it makes him, Garland observes, begin "to think and to tremble," for it brings "age and decay close to him." Deering's demise strips him of his heroic stature as an invincible pioneer. At the same time, the changing culture of the region denies him his place as its artist, and for Deering—and no doubt for Garland—this is more tragic than physical decay.
In his early old age Deering is able to fiddle for the local dances, sitting in a chair on the kitchen table "as if it were a throne," bearing himself with a "rude sort of grace and a certain dignity," playing the songs filled with "old-time memories." Although the young people delight more in his "antics" than his "tunes," they are nevertheless "immensely pleased" with him. But as an even newer generation comes of age, as the old neighbors die, as the young migrate West or to the cities, as, Garland says, "the wholesome simplicity of pioneer days is lost," Daddy Deering becomes not only unwanted as a musician but even unwelcome as a "visitor." He says flatly of himself, "I'm left out," and ironically his plain, laconic statement marks him indelibly as a Middle Border man, even as it expresses his exclusion from the region's present life. The utterance is Garland's epitaph for all his time-bound heroes, who become obsolete when the prairie lands are broken, when their own Herculean bodies decay, and when their traditional music falls upon indifferent young ears.
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