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Fallen and Unfallen–Hamlin Garland’s Daughter of the Middle Border

Hamlin Garland (1860-1940)I have written elsewhere that I know of no writer, with the exception of Erskine Caldwell, who wrote so consistently about farming people and yet seemed to have so little sympathy for them. (And in fairness, the residents of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road had long ago given up the claim to farming.) Hamlin Garland, in his stories of late-nineteenth-century farmers, seems to see no redeeming aspect in the farm life and a neverending supply of–to use his favorite word–toil.

Granted, Garland wrote during the decades when a steady stream of rural Americans began to make their way from farms to factories. During the course of Garland’s life (1860-1940), the urban population of the United States rose from 19.8% to 56.5% of the total. Granted, part of this shift came because of immigration that landed in urban settings, but a huge number of rural people made their way to the cities in those years. Virtually my entire family tree was transplanted from subsistence farms to the greener pastures of Kansas City during those decades.

Why then does Garland speak so glowingly, a realist morphed into a mushy, soft-focus romantic, when he looks back on his younger, rural days in Daughter of the Middle Border?

How sweet and sane and peaceful and afar off those blessed days seem to me as I muse over this page. At the village shops sirloin steak was ten cents a pound, chickens fifty cents a pair and as for eggs—I couldn’t give ours away, at least in the early summer,—and all about us were gardens laden with fruit and vegetables, more than we could eat or sell or feed to the pigs. Wars were all in the past and life a simple matter of working out one’s own individual problems. Never again shall I feel that confidence in the future, that joy in the present. I had no doubts—none that I can recall.

It is almost as if Garland recalls a prelapsarian Wisconsin from his youth and then rights of a starkly realistic farming world somewhere east of his childhood Eden. In fact, the contrast here seems to go beyond Genesis 2 and 3. The “realistic” rural world that Garland paints in his stories goes beyond the curse leveled at Adam in Genesis 3:17-19:

The ground is cursed because of you.
You will eat from it by means of painful labor
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow
until you return to the ground,
since you were taken from it.
For you are dust,
and you will return to dust.”

Instead, the hopeless world that the author paints seems more descriptive of the bleak outlook of Revelation 6:5-6:

And I looked, and there was a black horse. The horseman on it had a set of scales in his hand. Then I heard something like a voice among the four living creatures say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius.

Neither view, of course, is truly realistic in its portrayal of the American heartland during the second half of the nineteenth century. Instead, Garland over-romanticizes on the one hand or indulges in the most grim “realism” on the other, employing each point of view as it suits him.

How ironic that in the same autobiography, Hamlin Garland seems dismissive of the claims of both schools of literature:

This bitter war of Realists and Romanticists will be the jest of those who come after us, and they in their turn will be full of battle ardor with other cries and other banners. How is it possible to make much account of the cries and banners of to-day when I know they will be forgotten of all but the students of literary history?

From the viewpoint of a century later, it is Garland who is largely forgotten while the more judicious practitioners of these two approaches remain influential and widely read.

Posted in Realism.

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