The Return of a Private

by Hamlin Garland

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Garland's short story "The Return of the Private," published in 1891, illustrates in many ways how Garland was a "bridge" writer with one foot firmly planted in the grim realism that would characterize modernist twentieth century anti-war literature and one foot firmly rooted in Victorian sentimentality. His genius is his ability to interweave both strands.

"The Return of the Private" is also a "historical" story. Just as a story published in 1991 about a veteran returning home from World War II in 1945 would have been considered historical fiction in 1991, so with Garland's tale. We today may blend the later nineteenth century together as one undifferentiated lump, but the people living through that period certainly did not. Historical fiction, therefore, offers Garland a distance from the events described that allows him to both show realities that might have been too much to handle at the time while wrapping the past in a nostalgic haze. Garland uses both of these aspects of the historical genre to his advantage in this tale.

Garland is grimly realistic in ripping away the facade of war as heroic. The soldiers returned are sick, starved, and injured:

One had a great scar down his temple; one limped; and they all had unnaturally large bright eyes, showing emaciation.

There is no band waiting to greet them and no heroes' welcome. They enter into a world that is "chill," "dark," and "dingy." Private Smith carries the trauma with him of the death of his friend Billy Tripp: a "ball . . . tore a great ragged hole in his heart."

Further, Garland does not pull away from the economic devastation the war wrought on the women left behind, such as Smith's wife, who has let their farm go to rack and ruin in her husband's absence:

seemed to her that she had borne her share of the country's sorrow. Two brothers had been killed, the renter in whose hands her husband had left the farm had proved a villain, one year the farm was without crops, and now the overripe grain was waiting the tardy hand of the neighbor who had rented it, and who was cutting his own grain first.

Nevertheless, Garland also weaves unabashed Victorian sentimentality into the story in the (almost) stock figure of the kind-hearted Old Widow Gray with a heart of gold, who offers an outpouring of kindness to Mrs. Smith:

She was the visible incarnation of hospitality and optimistic poverty. With Western open-heartedness she fed every mouth that asked food of her, and worked herself to death as cheerfully as her girls danced in the neighborhood harvest dances.

The loving reunion of Private Smith and his family, and their return to the farm, is also sentimentalized and idealized:

The pale man with big eyes standing there by the well, with his young wife by his side. The vast moon swinging above the eastern peaks; the cattle winding down the pasture slopes with jangling bells; the crickets singing; the stars blooming out sweet and far and serene ...

The common soldier of the American volunteer army had returned. His war with the South was over, and his fight, his daily running fight, with nature and against the injustice of his fellow men was begun again. In the dusk of that far-off valley his figure looms vast, his personal peculiarities fade away, he rises into a magnificent type.

And yet Garland never lets sentimentality have the final word. We note that Widow Gray is working herself "to death," and the story ends on a realistic note:

He [Smith] is a gray-haired man of sixty now, and on the brown hair of his wife the white is also showing. They are fighting a hopeless battle, and must fight till God gives them furlough.

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