Hamlin Garland

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Hamlin Garland’s more than fifty published works include nearly every literary type—novels, biography, autobiography, essays, dramas, and poems. His best and most memorable novels are Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly (1895), similar in plot to the later Theodore Dreiser novel, Sister Carrie (1900), and Boy Life on the Prairie (1899), chronicling the social history of Garland’s boyhood. One book of essays, Crumbling Idols (1894), presents his theory of realism (“veritism”). His autobiographical quartet, A Son of the Middle Border (1917), A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921), Trail-Makers of the Middle Border (1926), and Back-Trailers from the Middle Border (1928), recounts the story of his family. A Daughter of the Middle Border won the Pulitzer Prize for 1922. These books contain episodes that are treated in greater detail in some of his short stories.


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Hamlin Garland’s work stands at an important transition point from Romanticism to realism, playing a role in ushering in the new literary trend. His best works are important for their depiction of a segment of society seldom delineated by other writers and for the relationship they show between literature and its socioeconomic environment. He used American themes—rather than Americanized European themes—and commonplace characters and incidents that turned the American writer away from his colonial complex, even away from the New England tradition of letters. His realism emancipated the American Midwest and West and the American farmer particularly from the romanticized conception that kept their story from being told before. Like Walt Whitman, Garland wanted writers to tell about life as they knew it and witnessed it. His realism foreshadowed the work of young writers such as Stephen Crane, E. W. Howe, and Harold Frederic. His naturalistic inclination, apparent in his belief that environment is crucial in shaping men’s lives, preceded the naturalistic writing of Crane, Frank Norris, and Dreiser. Aside from their value as literature, Garland’s best stories are a comprehensive record of an otherwise relatively unreported era of American social history. Much read in his prime, he enjoyed considerable popularity even while antagonizing, with his merciless word pictures, the very people about whom he wrote. Garland was awarded honorary degrees from the University of Wisconsin, the University of Southern California, Northwestern University, and Beloit College. In 1918, he was elected to the board of directors of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and Autobiography in 1922.

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Hamlin Garland published in nearly every literary form—short story, biography, autobiography, essay, drama, and poetry. Several of his short stories, such as “Under the Lion’s Paw,” “A Soldier’s Return,” and “A Branch Road,” were much anthologized. His autobiographical quartet, A Son of the Middle Border (1917), A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921), Trail-Makers of the Middle Border (1926), and Back-Trailers from the Middle Border (1928), is a valuable recounting of life during the latter part of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. Garland also wrote about psychic phenomena in such books as Forty Years of Psychic Research: A Plain Narrative of Fact (1936).


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Hamlin Garland was a pioneer in moving American literature from Romanticism to realism. His early works of frontier life on the Middle Border (the midwestern prairie states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska, as well as the Dakotas) made his reputation, and even today he is best known for his strongly regional, unpretentious pictures of the brutalizing life on the farms and in the isolated communities of the monotonous prairie lands.

Even though his reception as a writer did not afford him the financial rewards he sought, Garland was an active participant in the literary scene in Chicago and New...

(This entire section contains 403 words.)

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York. He traveled widely in the United States and made the obligatory trip to Europe. He counted among his friends and acquaintances such literary giants as William Dean Howells,Mark Twain,George Bernard Shaw, and Rudyard Kipling, and others such as Bliss Carmen, Kate Wiggins, George Washington Cable, and Frank Norris (whom he regarded as a promising young writer).

While Garland published stories in magazines such as The Arena, Circle, and Century, he augmented his income by lecturing, often at the University of Chicago. He was instrumental in organizing and perpetuating literary clubs and organizations such as the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the MacDowell Club, The Players, and the Cliff Dwellers Club. When his fiction-writing skills began to abate in his late middle age, Garland wrote plays, articles about psychic phenomena in magazines such as Everybody’s, and his memoirs. The popular reception of his autobiographical quartet on the Middle Border region revived his confidence in his writing ability, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for the second of the quartet, A Daughter of the Middle Border.

Though Garland wrote several novels after his critically noteworthy Middle Border novel Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, they were mostly set in the Far West and dealt with cowboys, American Indians, and rangers; compared to his earlier work, they can be considered strictly commercial potboilers.

Primarily a gifted short-story writer, Garland had difficulty sustaining anarrative for the length of a novel. With the exception of Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, Garland is to be remembered more for what he accomplished as a writer of short stories and autobiography than for what he produced as a novelist. He was elected to the board of directors of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1918 and, in 1922, he won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and autobiography.


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Garland, Hamlin. Selected Letters of Hamlin Garland. Edited by Keith Newlin and Joseph B. McCullough. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. The volume’s introduction serves as a good entry into Hamlin’s biography.

Joseph, Philip. “Landed and Literary: Hamlin Garland, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the Production of Regional Literatures.” Studies in American Fiction 26 (Autumn, 1998): 147-170. Compares some of Garland’s early stories with the stories in Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs to examine ideological conflict within literary regionalism. Argues that while Garland’s support for social reform leads him to challenge some of the conventions of late nineteenth century realism, Jewett does not see class differences as a hindrance to U.S. destiny.

Kaye, Frances. “Hamlin Garland’s Feminism.” In Women and Western Literature, edited by Helen Winter Stauffer and Susan Rosowski. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1982. Kaye discusses Garland’s deliberate feminism, identifying him as the only male author of note at the end of the nineteenth century who spoke in favor of women’s rights, suffrage, and equality in marriage.

McCullough, Joseph. Hamlin Garland. Boston: Twayne, 1978. This study follows Garland through his literary career, dividing it into phases, with major attention to the first phase of his reform activities and the midwestern stories. A primary bibliography and a select, annotated secondary bibliography are included.

Martin, Quentin E. “Hamlin Garland’s ‘The Return of a Private’ and ‘Under the Lion’s Paw’ and the Monopoly of Money in Post-Civil War America.” American Literary Realism 29 (Fall, 1996): 62-77. Discusses how Garland made money and power the central features in his two stories; discusses the connection between the stories and the financial system of Gilded Age America in the 1890’s.

Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on Hamlin Garland. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Nagel’s introduction surveys the critical responses to Garland’s work. This volume is especially rich in reviews of Garland’s books, and it also includes twenty-six biographical and critical essays.

Newlin, Keith. Hamlin Garland: A Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2008. A comprehensive look at Garland’ life and career, including his political activity, his interest in the American West, and his memoirs. By far the most thorough biography of Garland to date.

Newlin, Keith. “Melodramatist of the Middle Border: Hamlin Garland’s Early Work Reconsidered.” Studies in American Fiction 21 (Autumn, 1993): 153-169. Discusses Garland’s development of a dramatic method to express the privation of the Middle Border; argues that he was torn between his admiration for the universal truths of melodrama and his realization that melodrama was limited in its realistic presentation of life.

Newlin, Keith, ed. Hamlin Garland: A Bibliography, with a Checklist of Unpublished Letters. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing, 1998. Basically a primary bibliography, with one section listing articles that addressed Garland extensively. The introduction surveys the availability of primary and secondary sources. Newlin includes a chronology and title index.

Pizer, Donald. Hamlin Garland’s Early Work and Career. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. Pizer treats in careful detail Garland’s intellectual and artistic development during the first phase of his literary and reformist career, from 1884 to 1895. He discusses Garland’s development of his creed, his literary output, and reform activities in society, theater, politics, and the arts. Pizer includes a detailed bibliography of Garland’s publications during these years.

Silet, Charles. Henry Blake Fuller and Hamlin Garland: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977. This volume contains a comprehensive annotated guide to writing about Garland through 1975. For information about scholarly writing on Garland after 1975, see American Literary Scholarship: An Annual.

Silet, Charles, Robert Welch, and Richard Boudreau, eds. The Critical Reception of Hamlin Garland, 1891-1978. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1985. This illustrated volume contains thirty-three essays that illustrate the development of Garland’s literary reputation from 1891 to 1978. The introduction emphasizes the difficulty critics have had trying to determine the quality of Garland’s art.

Taylor, Walter. The Economic Novel in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1942. Taylor examines Garland’s work in the context of fiction that reflects economic issues and trends. In Garland’s literary career he sees a reflection of the fall of pre-Civil War agrarian democracy with the halting of the advance of the frontier and the decline of populism.


Critical Essays