The Return of a Private by Hamlin Garland, 1891

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by Hamlin Garland, 1891

Hamlin Garland, who believed that the American artist's responsibility was to find a form and content original to American experience, realized his literary ideals in the collection Main-Travelled Roads. Determined to avoid hackneyed traditional themes, he rejected the myth of idyllic agrarianism and portrayed farm life as harsh, unjust, and spirit killing. At the same time he could not adopt a strictly naturalistic vision of humans degraded and made powerless by their environment. His characters, although worn by their struggle, nevertheless persevere and even have brief moments of grandeur in which their humanity rises above their condition.

"The Return of a Private," collected in Main-Travelled Roads, is typical of Garland's artistic vision. In many respects a grim story, it shows a common Civil War soldier, significantly named Private Smith, who has survived the ravages of war only to return to a life of physical hardship and economic injustice on his Wisconsin farm. Mixed with the harshness of the portrait, however, is the tenderness of his fellow veterans toward him and his joy in being reunited with his wife and three young children.

A populist and reformer, Garland first published "The Return of a Private" in Arena, a journal of radical political thought. He objected to the injustices of economic policies toward Midwestern farmers. In fact, Joseph B. McCullough argues that Main-Travelled Roads accurately describes the frustrations over farm conditions that led to the populist revolt in the 1890s. "The Return of a Private" strikes a populist theme in contrasting the generosity of the private with the stinting behavior of the rich: "While the millionaire sent his money to England for safe-keeping, this man, with his girl-wife and three babies, left them on a mortgaged farm, and went away to fight for an idea."

William Dean Howells noted the political stance of the story in his introduction to Main-Travelled Roads, calling it "a satire of the keenest edge." Indeed, the beginning of the story bitterly contrasts the soldiers' return with their departure for the war three years before. Now there are no crowds or bands playing, only the indifferent looks of the town loafers. This indifference is juxtaposed with a careful description of the price Private Smith and his fellow soldiers have paid for their country. They are variously pale from long bouts with illness, scarred, or limping. All are emaciated. Besides the physical costs exacted, Smith is emotionally scarred by the memory of a young friend's gruesome death in battle. Another of the veterans is returning to an empty house. His wife died from pneumonia contracted as she worked in the fields in the rain.

Garland's aroused sense of justice is also evident as he describes the financial doom awaiting the private: "The inevitable mortgage [stood] ready with open jaw to swallow half his earnings." While Smith sacrificed in the war, no one looked out for his wife, his young children, or his farm. In fact, an unscrupulous renter absconded with some farm machinery, and a neighbor put the Smiths' crops at risk as he tended to his own welfare first.

Whereas a naturalist might have shown the Smiths devolving into degraded conduct as a result of their plight, Garland belonged to what Jane Johnson has called "the gentler school of realism." Even among the bitterest scenes of suffering, he might include redeeming moments of human triumph. Reminiscent of Walt Whitman's democratic vision of the common soldier in the "Drum Taps" section of Leaves of Grass, the generic Private Smith and men like him emerge as the true heroes of the war. To his son Smith's return is "epic," and his honorable conduct is a valued family heritage. This is apparently what Garland means when he insists that the American artist find among the common lives of Americans inspiration for his art. At the end of the story Private Smith is transformed into an archetypal common hero: "His figure looms vast … he rises into a magnificent type."

Garland termed his artistic technique "veritism." While it relies on realistic accuracy in creating the external world, it also insists on the writer's adding to that superficial creation his sense of moral truth. The description of the gaunt private might be enough for the realist, but the veritist is compelled to add the private's transformation into an archetypal hero according to the artist's inner conviction of the basic goodness of the common person. Influenced by Whitman, Garland coupled with realism a form of romantic individualism that raised his common characters above their environment, even if only temporarily.

In Main-Travelled Roads the metaphor of the road is used as what one critic calls the "structural center" of the book. According to Garland's headnote the road is "long and wearyful," and "it is traversed by many classes of people, but the poor and the weary predominate." In "The Return of a Private" the weary soldier literally returns on a road, and his wife looks anxiously down it for him. But the road also functions as a metaphor for the difficult lives led by the Smiths. When the emaciated private reaches the top of a ridge overlooking the valley of his home, the narrator suggests, "He is looking down upon his own grave." The road, then, evokes in a single, concrete image the pain and struggle and the harshness and sublimity of the common person's destiny. Moreover, the road seems a particularly apt metaphor to represent Garland's philosophy and its differences with naturalism. It suggests a quietly paced inevitability that leads characters to their destinies naturally. Although the paths can be bitterly difficult and wear a person down, characters choose those paths rather than being driven down them by inexorable forces. Garland insists on his characters' free choice and on their grace under duress. Their individualism ennobles them even in the midst of harsh conditions.

—William L. Howard

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The Return of a Private by Hamlin Garland, 1891

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