Main-Travelled Roads

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Between his birth on a farm near West Salem, Wisconsin, on 14 September 1860 and his death in Los Angeles, California, on 4 March 1940, Hamlin Garland enjoyed a productive and varied, although sometimes controversial, literary career, during which he published nearly fifty volumes of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and autobiographies. But his reputation rests principally on his short fiction written before 1895, particularly on his volume of short stories Main-Travelled Roads (1891), to which he added new stories in subsequent editions, and on his autobiographies, A Son of the Middle Border (1917) and his Pulitzer Prize–winning A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921). In these volumes Garland demonstrated that it had become possible to deal realistically with the American farmer instead of seeing him or her through the veil of literary convention. By creating new types of characters and deflating the uncomplicated romantic pictures of farm life that dominated earlier fiction, Garland not only informed readers about the painful realities of midwestern farm life but touched the deeper feelings of the nation.

As one of America's foremost local colorists, Garland graphically depicted, in Main-Travelled Roads, the countryside of his native Midwest, becoming in the process a principal spokesman for late-nineteenth-century agrarian society. Writing with an authentic voice and a sense of urgency and passion while remaining faithful to his innate instinct for telling the truth, he used particular settings in the Midwest (or Middle Border, to use Garland's usual term) to bring to his readers the problems that men and women in crude surroundings had to face in order to survive, reflecting at turns the severe restrictions of this life, with its loneliness and drudgery, and the waste of finer values exacted by that life. Toward that end he was one of the first novelists to view skeptically the conventional American belief in the purity, wholesomeness, and freedom of life on the farm.

Garland's reading of Henry George's Progress and Poverty (1879) in 1884, after moving to Boston from his prairie homestead in South Dakota, confirmed his own experiences of farm life and hastened him on the path to full-fledged reformer. Through George, Garland was converted into an advocate of the single tax, which sought to correct the injustice of the unearned increment (profits made from the increased value of land) that favored absentee property owners at the expense of the laboring farmer. George's book also filled him with enthusiasm for the populist movement, as he was convinced that the problems faced by the small farmer were not only explainable but remediable.

Garland's association with Benjamin Orange Flower, editor of the radical Arena, gave impetus to his publishing career, for the Arena became Garland's most important literary outlet. For more than two years, beginning in 1888, he had an article in nearly every issue. Early in 1891 Flower suggested that Garland collect some of his stories into a volume to be published by the Arena Publishing Company, a subsidiary of the Arena. In June 1891 Main-Travelled Roads appeared with the subtitle "Six Mississippi Valley Stories." Of these six, "The Return of the Private" had first appeared in the Arena; "Under the Lion's Paw," "Among the Corn-Rows," and "Mrs. Ripley's Trip" had already been published in Harper's Weekly; "A Branch Road" and "Up the Coolly" saw first publication in the 1891 edition. Later, in an 1899 edition, Garland added three stories, "The Creamery Man," "A Day's Pleasure," and "Uncle Ethan Ripley"; in the 1922 edition "God's Ravens" and "A Good Fellow's Wife" were incorporated; and finally, in 1930 "Martha's Fireplace" was added. However, the stories added after the first edition occasionally weaken the impact and unified vision of midwestern life that informs the first edition.

Prefatory statement to the 1891 edition of Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads.

The main-travelled road in the West (as elsewhere) is hot and dusty in the summer, and desolate and drear with mud in fall and spring, and in winter the winds sweep the snow across it; it does sometimes cross a rich meadow where the songs of the larks and the bobolinks and blackbirds are tangled. Follow it far enough, it may lead past a bend in the river where the water laughs eternally over its shallows.

Mainly it is long and wearyful and has a dull little town at one end, and a home of toil at the other. Like the main-travelled road of life, it is traversed by many classes of people, but the poor and the weary predominate.

Garland, Main-Travelled Roads, 1891, Prefatory Statement.

Critical reaction to Main-Travelled Roads was immediate. Reviews indicate both the popular reception of his books and the critical terms on which they were received; they also helped to establish Garland's reputation as a writer and called attention to his subsequent volumes.

Garland's friends in Boston and elsewhere in the East were quick to heap praise on Main-Travelled Roads. B. O. Flower, in the Arena (July 1893), called it "one of the most valuable contributions to distinctive American literature which has appeared in many years." He compared the material with the "boldness of Tolstoi, with the originality of Ibsen, and with a wealth of tenderness, love, and humanity far exceeding either." Similarly a review in the Chicago Tribune (13 June 1891) spoke of Garland's stories as having "attracted notice by their Tolstoian boldness, plain speaking, and accurate observation," while one in the New York Tribune (28 June 1891) remarked that "every one of the stories is excellent, and they are fit to be compared with the best continental work of the same kind." Enthusiastically, W. B. Harte, in the New England Magazine (August 1891), concluded that the stories in the volume were "as realistic as anything written by Ibsen; but at the same time, they have a more dramatic quality, and are besides relieved with an undercurrent of humor, which makes the realism, true realism." But none of the positive reviews had the critical force or influence of William Dean Howells's comments in his "Editor's Study" column for Harper's Weekly (September 1891). In a far-ranging review in which several of the stories came in for specific comment, Howells observed:

These stories are full of the bitter and burning dust, the foul and trampled slush of the common avenues of life: the life of men who hopelessly and cheerlessly make the wealth that enriches the alien and the idler, and impoverishes the producer. If anyone is still at a loss to account for that uprising of the farmers in the West, which is the translation of the Peasants' War into modern and republican terms, let him read Main-Travelled Roads and he will begin to understand, unless, indeed, Mr. Garland is painting the exceptional rather than the average. The stories are full of those gaunt, grim, sordid, pathetic, ferocious figures whom our satirists find so easy to caricature as Hayseeds, and whose blind groping for fairer conditions is so grotesque to the newspapers and so menacing to the politicians. They feel that something is wrong, and they know that the wrong is not theirs. The type caught in Mr. Garland's book is not pretty; it is ugly and often ridiculous; but it is heart-breaking in its rude despair. (P. 639)

Not all critics were so warm in their praise of Garland's work. Many criticized the balance and tone of his stories, while others questioned their accuracy and representativeness. Still others felt that he too often emphasized the negative. Even Howells cautioned that Garland "still has to learn that though the thistle is full of an unrecognized poetry, the rose has poetry too, that even overpraise cannot spoil" (p. 639). A reviewer in The Nation (13 August 1891) argued: "There is no doubt that power of observation and of rendering the results with exactness is disclosed in these stories; but they lose by a successive reading. Descriptions of the same uninviting interiors, the same birds and insects, finally produce an impression of monotony and mannerism." And a reviewer for America (18 June 1891) protested that "though Garland's pictures are probably accurate, he seems to dwell too much on the seamy side of life." Meanwhile a critic for the Atlantic Monthly (February 1892) commended Garland for his earnestness but found it difficult to accept the totally grim pictures of life in the West that he paints, while a critic for the Overland Monthly (March 1892) felt that the harshness of the stories was only one side of the truth: "Mr. Garland would doubtless disclaim any intention of showing the whole truth in his stories, and put them forward only as dashes of shadow to modify the general picture of rural life in America."

Despite the many positive reviews of his work during this period, Garland was distressed by the negative reaction, especially from critics and reviewers in the West. He later recalled, in A Son of the Middle Border:

I had the foolish notion that the literary folk of the West would take local pride in the color of my work, and to find myself execrated by nearly every critic as "a bird willing to foul his own nest" was an amazement. Editorials and criticisms poured into the office, all written to prove that my pictures of the middle border were utterly false.

Statistics were employed to show that pianos and Brussels carpets adorned almost every Iowa farmhouse. Tilling the prairie was declared to be "the noblest vocation in the world, not in the least like the pictures this eastern author has drawn of it." (P. 415)

The stories in Main-Travelled Roads contain a number of themes, including daily lives spun out in hopeless toiling tragedy against the backdrop of natural glories, the irrelevancy of romantic love when set against the drudgery of farmwork, the ambivalence of isolation and companionship, the desire to leave the land versus the resulting guilt of leaving loved ones behind, the gap between those who have and those who have not, and loss of innocence. Garland's focus on these themes, especially the theme of lost innocence, is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it seems clear by his own admission in the foreword to his 1922 edition of the collection that his stories represented a deeply personal exploration of his own lost innocence, in his return after several years of living in the East to his parents' South Dakota home. For another, Garland increasingly saw his own loss of innocence mirrored in the passing of a more innocent time in America. His exploration of this theme consistently reflects his newly acquired beliefs after his exposure to the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, and his conclusions therefore carry a weight that is at once literary, sociological, and political in his implied understanding that survival for his characters must include not simply a loss of innocence but acceptance of the reality that it may be necessary to leave a hostile environment rather than attempt (often in futility) to adapt to it. Interestingly, however, Garland often is as concerned with his own version of "remembrance of things past" as he is with what will happen after the loss of innocence to the characters and to the land.

While some of the stories that comprise the original edition of Main-Travelled Roads contain flaws, the book as a whole is a powerful and evocative treatment of western farm life. In it, Garland uses the apt metaphor of the western road as the symbolic structural center, providing a prefatory statement to the book itself that sets the dominant tone and hints at what is to come, followed by epigraphs before each story to achieve unity. In story after story, including "The Return of a Private," "A Branch Road," "Up the Coulee," and "Under the Lion's Paw," one sees characters on the move, sometimes attempting to establish a better life somewhere else, sometimes returning to the land they left. Occasionally the journey is merely one for a few days' respite from the toils of farm life, as in "Mrs. Ripley's Trip" or "A Day's Pleasure" (added in the 1899 edition). But Garland makes a central point in all of this movement: a life of numbing hardship inevitably awaits the travelers if their destination is the farm.

While several stories, particularly "Up the Coulee," "A Branch Road," and "The Return of a Private," suggest that inequities in the economic system are responsible for the farmers' plight, "Under the Lion's Paw," the best-known and most widely reprinted story in the collection, is the only one that explicitly makes use of the single-tax doctrine. The story was written as an illustration of Henry George's thesis of the harmful social effects of the unearned increment, and Garland habitually used the text when he was lecturing and campaigning for Populist candidates in 1892. In the story, the Haskins family, forced to settle in Kansas because of the high price of land in the East, is plagued by grasshoppers and forced to move again. Aided by a hospitable family, they rent a farm in Iowa from Jim Butler, a villainous land speculator. After three years of hard labor, Haskins is ready to buy, but Butler doubles the price because of the improvements Haskins himself made upon the land. The banker, who has done nothing, will profit, and an enraged Haskins determines to murder Butler. However, Haskins refrains from carrying out his purpose when he sees his own child, and though crushed under the economic system, he resolves to renew his struggle for her sake.

A sense of guilt also permeates several stories in the collection, a theme that unquestionably resulted from Garland's personal guilt over leaving his family, especially his mother, and watching their plight from a distance. In "Up the Coulee," the most powerful and perhaps the most autobiographical story in Main-Travelled Roads, Garland depicts the return of Howard McLane, a successful actor, to Wisconsin from the East to visit his mother and his brother Grant. After first being awed by the beauty of nature upon his return, Howard is overwhelmed by the irrelevancy of this beauty in the lives of his family. When he confronts Grant and his family, he finds them living in poverty on a small, unproductive farm, for the family property has been sold to pay a mortgage. But Garland implies here, as elsewhere, that Grant's destruction is not primarily the result of Howard's neglect but rather of the overpowering evils inherent in contemporary farm conditions. Societal pressures and economic injustices have inevitably led to Grant's somber view of a life in which he feels hopelessly trapped: "A man like me is helpless. . . . Just like a fly in a pan of molasses. There ain't any escape for him. The more he tears around the more liable he is to rip his legs off " (pp. 126–127).

However, while Garland emphasizes that farm life is sometimes tragic and generally desolate and monotonous and while he constantly expresses outrage at the social injustices suffered by the farmer and the exacting toll taken on the women on the farm, his work contains exhilarating moments. Indeed, even at its most grim there is a persistent strain of romantic optimism and strength of individual will that reaffirms his compassionate view of human nature and his love of the land, which contradicts the diffused pessimism of the stories.

Ultimately Main-Travelled Roads remains an important cultural and historical document. In it, Garland provides a remarkably sustained fugue on the realities of late-nineteenth-century midwestern prairie life. The issues that Garland writes about and the characters that fill his pages are still relevant, and readers cannot come away from the best of his short fiction unmoved.

see alsoFarmers and Ranchers; Realism; Regionalism and Local Color Fiction


Primary Works

Garland, Hamlin. Main-Travelled Roads. Boston: Arena, 1891.

Garland, Hamlin. Selected Letters of Hamlin Garland. Edited by Keith Newlin and Joseph B. McCullough. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Garland, Hamlin. A Son of the Middle Border. New York: Macmillan, 1921.

Howells, William Dean. "Editor's Study." Harper's Weekly, September 1891.

Secondary Works

Bledsoe, Thomas A. Introduction to Main-Travelled Roads. New York: Rinehart, 1954.

McCullough, Joseph B. Hamlin Garland. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Mane, Robert. Hamlin Garland: L'homme et l'oeuvre (1860–1940). Paris: Didier, 1968.

Nagel, James, ed. Critical Essays on Hamlin Garland. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.

Pizer, Donald. Hamlin Garland's Early Work and Career. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.

Pizer, Donald. Introduction to Main-Travelled Roads. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 1970.

Silet, Charles L. P., Robert Welch, and Richard Boudreau, eds. The Critical Reception of Hamlin Garland. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1985.

Joseph B. McCullough

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Main-Travelled Roads

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