A Son of the Middle Border Summary
by Hamlin Garland

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A Son of the Middle Border Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A Son of the Middle Border begins with the same incident used in “The Return of a Private,” probably Hamlin Garland’s most popular short story, but more than twenty-six years separates the writing of the two versions. The discrepancies between the two may be caused by Garland’s habit of squeezing as much publication out of his materials as possible or by Garland’s tender age when his father returned from the Civil War. There is little doubt, however, about the main lines of his life from 1865 to 1893. The repetition of material chiefly shows that the two series of works for which Garland is best known begin with the earliest remembered dramatic incident in his life and that later reflection showed him some of the depths of meaning contained in that incident. Garland was four or five years old when his father returned from the war; he was thirty when he first published his short story and fifty-seven when he published A Son of the Middle Border. This was the first of four volumes of family history that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 and reestablished his career as a writer. The other three volumes are A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921), the story of his marriage and life until 1914; Trail-Makers of the Middle Border (1926), the story of his family before 1865; and Back-Trailers from the Middle Border (1928), the history of the family after 1914.

Although the Middle Border is Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, the appeal and range of the volumes on this area is national in implication. The story of the Garlands and McClintocks, the two sides of Garland’s immediate family, reaches back across the Atlantic to Scotland and forward to the coast of California. It is the American story of nineteenth century immigration and the moving frontier. Garland is a symbol of America at the turn of the century. Born in West Salem, Wisconsin, near the geographical center of the Middle Border, he moved with his parents farther west to Iowa and South Dakota. Then, obeying the attraction of the nation’s cultural centers, he moved east to Boston and New York, eventually settling in Chicago in his middle years. In the last chapters of this volume he followed another attraction to California, where he was later to spend his last days. In three other aspects he was also typical: He broke with the land and became a white-collar worker; he left the country for the city; and he was a model son, spending his savings on the unheard-of luxury of taking his parents, pioneer farmers, to visit relations in California, “The End of the Sunset Trail,” as Garland calls it. Finally he established “the Garland homestead” in a little house in the old home town of West Salem, Wisconsin.

In the typical Garland way, the story of his first thirty years is an unreconciled mixture of beauty and ugliness, of delight in the success resulting from unremitting hackwork and despair at the waste of the human soul in backbreaking labor. The saddest figure in the book is not grandfather Hugh McClintock, who saw his family break up and leave him, nor Belle Garland, the writer’s mother, who like many frontier women worked till she dropped. It is his Uncle David McClintock, first seen as a tremendous physical giant, the hero of the boy Garland, and last as an exhausted wreck in California. One of the most moving scenes is that in which Uncle David plays his fiddle for the last time at the family reunion in California, and Garland realizes what a fine musician was ground down by toil and by chasing the pioneer’s rainbow, the promise of ever better land to the west. David McClintock stands for the countless thousands who suffered to create the nation. Garland’s own parents could have shared the same fate. His father, at the end of the war a physical wreck, could have perished while trying to revive his neglected holdings. That the story of his parents ends happily is a result of Garland’s interference when his father wanted to make one more shift,...

(The entire section is 1,809 words.)