Hamlin Garland was at the forefront of the realist movement. He called it “veritism,” and it led him to reject virtually all the romance and sentimentality that had traditionally clothed stories about the farm family. Garland knew the poverty, injustice, and dullness of rural life at first hand and conveyed that understanding with exceptional clarity in his early writings. “The Return of a Private” is a case in point. Although the focus here is on the homecoming itself, the hardships of working the land are always present. The land is not kind, and nature takes her toll, in terms of worn-out bodies and shattered dreams; as Widow Gray makes clear, though, the generosity of the human spirit is able to prevail under even harsh conditions.
Garland was a critic of land speculation and banks. A follower of economist Henry George, he saw the ubiquitous mortgage as the primary reason for the poverty of farm life. At one point in this story, the narrator even contrasts the sacrificing patriotism of Private Smith, who left his farm, wife, and babies to fight for the North, with the selfish millionaires who sent their money to England for safekeeping. Private Smith is constantly aware of the insatiable mortgage, ever threatening to devour all that he has worked for, including the security of his family. The injustice of it all is palpable, and it is relieved only slightly by the strength of character of the victims themselves. There are glimpses of a depressing determinism that presages the naturalism of later writers such as Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser.
Despite the cultural and material poverty he describes, Garland affirmed the dignity and nobility of the human spirit. Conditions might be harsh, but tenderness and family affections still survive, as does the struggle of the father and the mother to make a better life for their offspring. Still, there is no retreat to sentimental optimism. One finishes the story convinced that the protagonist and his family are good, loving, and deserving. However, it is clear that they cannot overcome the drabness and harshness of their environment. Their joys, whether visiting Widow Gray or simply resting together outside by the well, are all the more poignant because they are so few.