Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 937
In 1887, Hamlin Garland traveled from Boston to South Dakota to visit his mother and father, whom he had not seen in six years. According to his own account, the trip through farming country was a revelation. Although he had been brought up on a farm, he had never realized...
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In 1887, Hamlin Garland traveled from Boston to South Dakota to visit his mother and father, whom he had not seen in six years. According to his own account, the trip through farming country was a revelation. Although he had been brought up on a farm, he had never realized how wretched farmers’ lives were. The farther west he traveled, the more oppressive it became for him to see the bleakness of the landscape and the poverty of its people. When he reached his parents’ farm and found his mother living in hopeless misery, Garland’s depression turned to bitterness, and in this mood he wrote Main-Travelled Roads, a series of short stories about farm life in the Midwest.
In one of these stories, “Up the Coolly,” Garland re-creates the mood of his trip under somewhat similar circumstances. Howard McLane, after years spent traveling with his own theatrical troupe, returns to the West for a surprise visit with his mother and brother. He finds them living in poverty on a small, unproductive farm, the family property having been sold to pay off a mortgage. Although his mother and his sister-in-law greet him warmly, Grant, his brother, makes it plain that he blames Howard for the loss of the farm that, had he shared his wealth, could have been saved. Howard’s attempt to win his brother’s friendship results only in alienation until Howard finally admits his selfishness and neglect and offers to buy the farm back. The brothers are reconciled, but the story ends bleakly with Grant’s refusal to accept any assistance.
Not many of Garland’s stories end on so despondent a note; most of them end hopefully and some even happily. Garland spares none of his principal characters a bitter sense of failure, but most of them manage to overcome it. Thus, in “A ’Good Fellow’s’ Wife,” Jim Sanford loses the savings of all the farmers who had invested in his bank. In “A Branch Road,” Will Hannon loses the beautiful girl he loves and only regains her when she becomes prematurely old and wasted. In “Under the Lion’s Paw,” Tim Haskins is forced to pay twice the former price of a farm whose value he himself has doubled by hard work.
Even in the stories that are lighter in tone, the characters taste the bitterness of life. In “The Creamery Man,” which is about a young man’s carefree courtship, Claude Williams wins not Lucindy Kennedy, the lovely daughter of a prominent farmer, but Nina Haldeman, the unrefined daughter of an immigrant. In “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip,” Gran’ma Ripley makes a journey back east, where she had been born, but not without a sense of guilt for leaving her husband, even for so short a time.
Beyond reflecting the bitterness that Garland himself felt, many of his stories set forth a disillusioning contrast between the farm life he remembered and the reality he found when he returned after a long absence. “The Return of a Private,” for instance, depicts the return of an American Civil War soldier to his farm. Expecting the farm to be as prosperous as when he had left it, Private Smith finds it “weedy and encumbered, a rascally renter had run away with his machinery . . . his children needed clothing, the years were coming upon him, he was sick and emaciated.” In “God’s Ravens,” Robert Bloom, who had moved to the country because he felt stifled by city life, goes through an apprenticeship of misery before the country people finally accept him and make him feel at home.
Garland’s disillusionment should not be overemphasized; practically all the stories in Main-Travelled Roads have a hopeful ending in that love for and trust in the land are ultimately shown to be justified. It is clear that with hard work Private Smith will restore his farm to its former prosperity. Robert Bloom discovers that the cause of his discontent is within himself, not in the hearts of his farmer neighbors. Tim Haskins, robbed by one man, is set on his feet by another. Garland’s realistic portrayal of hardship and poverty did much to shatter romantic illusions about an American pastoral idyll, but the book’s somber tone was not enough to discredit the traditional view of the farmer as a doughty, virtuous frontiersman. Rather, it was Garland’s accomplishment to expose the pathos, in some cases even tragedy, of people who felt the futility and injustice of farm life but were unable to change that life and so accepted it with fortitude and resignation.
Main-Travelled Roads is more than a social document. The respected author William Dean Howells recognized that it was important in the development of a new American literature. In an essay that was reprinted as an introduction to later editions of Main-Travelled Roads, Howells commended Garland for the social significance of his work and went on to praise his “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.” Singled out for special praise was the ending of “A Branch Road,” in which Will Hannon persuades Agnes Dingman to leave her husband and the farm to lead a life of comfort and ease. Such an ending Howells deemed immoral but justifiable, since for these characters it was probable and realistic. Howells’s judgment was sound. It is because of Garland’s contribution to the rise of American literary realism as well as for his social commentary that his works are still read.