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...
(The entire section is 937 words.)