A Son of the Middle Border

by Hamlin Garland

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1400

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.

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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 fifth, to some new land in the West. The book is thus a monument to the travail of “westering,” to the grim reality behind the song that runs through the book, “O’er the hills in legions, boys.” Its central ritual is the “send-off,” a surprise party for those moving on.

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The memoir is in two roughly even halves, the first nineteen chapters being about life on the frontier in Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota. The details are similar to those in local-color work elsewhere: plowing, reaping and threshing, the smell of horses and sweat rising above the aroma of fresh biscuits, bare one-room schools, dancing, skating, riding, reading, gatherings at the local store, the ever-present fear of crippling sickness, the tragedies of burnt barns, and death. Garland’s sisters die on the frontier, leaving his mother and father alone when the boys depart. The break in the memoir comes near the end of Garland’s schooling, when the family spent a year in the town of Osage, Iowa. After that, the family returned to the farm and then made a final move west to South Dakota. In the meantime, Garland was drawn back to the East. After a year spent with his brother Frank exploring Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., living on odd jobs and on a teaching spell in Ohio, he returned to South Dakota to work his quarter-section. After his brother sold his holding and left for Chicago, Garland also sold out and went to Boston. The second part of the book tells an almost incredible story of hardship, self-education, and slow success, first as a “professor” at the Boston School of Oratory under Principal Brown, then as a writer encouraged by those interested in his local-color stories, such writers and editors as William Dean Howells, James Herne, Henry George, and B. O. Flower. Most of this section is Garland’s straightforward autobiography and more germane to the study of how to achieve a career by passing through journalism to literature. As is, however, the case with Garland’s first piece of writing, “The Western Corn Husking,” which is intended to be typical of Middle Border life, so much of the personal detail is seen either by Garland or by the reader as illuminating the case history of the Middle Borderer. This effect springs from Garland’s sense of duty not only to his parents—his first literary earnings are spent on his mother’s first silk dress—but even more to his people, the sons and daughters of the Middle Border.

This realization of himself as a “son of the Middle Border” came only after his first return to the West, when he met Joseph Kirkland in Chicago and was told to write fiction because he was a farmer who could speak the truth about rural life. A second visit in 1889 confirmed this determination and provided material for the stories that make up his first book, Main-Travelled Roads: Six Mississippi Valley Stories, published in 1891.

In Garland’s story, behind the moves of the family, the daily and seasonal activities on the farm, and the slow successes in the city, stand two figures: Dick Garland, ever westering, and Belle, following faithfully. It was the pathetic image of the latter that troubled Garland during his years in the eastern cities, and it was probably his realization of the cost wives and children paid in pioneering that precipitated his first fiction. Although the vogue for his work did not last, Garland was able to recapture his audience when late in life he began his memoirs of Middle Border life. That his real story was capable of a happy ending was due in part to his own persistence but more to the realization that pioneering was not a glamorous adventure, as many Americans have viewed it. Toward the end of the story, Garland’s mother sings an old frontier song, the others joining in the chorus: “We’ll stay on the farm and we’ll suffer no loss/ For the stone that keeps rolling will gather no moss.”

When Garland was thirty-three, he asked his mother what he could bring her from the city; she told him that the thing she wanted most was a daughter—and some grandchildren.

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