Hardly a household name these days, Hamlin Garland remains in that third tier of American writers who will be known by name and reputation if not through actual reading to anyone well versed in American literature, especially the American literature of the late nineteenth century. Garland is best known for his autobiographical works and for the fiction that, while not precisely autobiographical, draws on his early years for its setting and situation.
Perhaps no writer in history has focused so consistently on rural matters and farming while showing so little understanding or sympathy for those who have dedicated their lives to the farm. If we are to take Garland’s account seriously, the farm life of the post-Civil-War period was one of unremitting drudgery with virtually no redeeming aspect. No one with any sense, it would seem, would remain on the farm.
One of his most celebrated stories is “Up the Coulee,” in which Howard, a Garland-esque character who has left the farm to make his fame and fortune in the city, returns to the family after an absence of many years. He encounters a loving but somewhat distant mother and an exceptionally distant brother. In the end, the outsider realizes that his brother resents him for abandoning the family, leaving all the difficulties behind, and making a success of himself. If this story is truly autobiographical, which it might be, do we have a great deal of confidence in a narrator who doesn’t recognize this little bit of basic psychology within his first thirty seconds with the brother?
To attempt to make amends, Howard offers to bring his considerable financial resources to his brother’s aid. Rather than responding in gratitude or anger, Grant, instead offers this dismal view.
“I mean life ain’t worth very much to me. I’m too old to take a new start. I’m a dead failure. I’ve come to the conclusion that life’s a failure for ninety-nine per cent of us. You can’t help me now. It’s too late.”
The two men stood there, face to face, hands clasped, the one fair-skinned, full-lipped, handsome in his neat suit; the other tragic, somber in his softened mood, his large, long, rugged Scotch face bronzed with sun and scarred with wrinkles that had histories, like saber cuts on a veteran, the record of his battles.
I will not argue that a pre-mechanized farmer’s life was not difficult, not filled with body-destroying labor and often demoralizing opposition from the weather and the markets, yet Garland’s farms are nothing but toil. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find one of his farm stories in which some form of the word “toil” does not appear multiple times. Had Garland seen what Cather saw in My Ántonia, he would have focused only on the despair and suicide of Mr. Shimerda and not at all upon the beauty, success, and hope that walked along those same trails.
Did Garland write in this bleak manner in order to placate his own guilt at running away from his rural roots, attempting to expiate his sin with stories rather than with money as Howard attempted? Or was he simply offering the sort of fare that his urban and rising-class audiences would nod their heads in response to? Either way, I find that as farm writers go, Garland doth protest too much about the difficulty of it all.