Selected Letters of Hamlin Garland

Edited by Keith Newlin and Joseph B. McCullough

an excerpt:

General Introduction

     As he neared the end of a long and varied literary life, Hamlin Garland mused in a letter to the critic Van Wyck Brooks: "I have gone beyond any illusions about my career. Few are interested in me now and no one will be interested in me tomorrow" (31 August 1939, Letter 394). Despite his pessimism about the value of his contribution to American literature, Garland has continued to attract a steady and growing body of critical work. Born on a farm near West Salem, Wisconsin, on 14 September 1860, Garland took a modest first step in launching his literary career in March 1885 with the publication of his first story, the Hawthornesque "Ten Years Dead." Within six years a flood of stories, verse, and essays arguing for a native realism attracted the epithet, "That radical Garland," and inaugurated what was to become the earliest of several controversies surrounding his career, for the energetic writer was an outspoken advocate of the realistic depiction of speech, setting, and character, as well as a vigorous campaigner for "veritism" and realistic drama, painstakingly lobbying on its behalf in letters to magazine editors, critics, and other writers. Later, however, as writers such as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and Eugene O'Neill were gaining ascendancy, he came to condemn their work as "pornographic" after the manner of the French naturalists, notably Emile Zola, and as pandering to prurient interests.

      What these letters share in common is Garland's earnest proselytizing for his beliefs, and they lament the loss of a genteel tradition in American life, reflecting the gradual shift in his standards as a new generation built upon the path he helped to blaze. Moreover, his rancor reflects his growing discomfort with current literature and his shock at the portrayal of sexuality in novels and movies about which he often lectured with his daughter at his side. Ironically, some of Garland's own early works, such as Rose of Dutcher's Coolly (1895), were similarly condemned as unwholesome by many contemporary readers and reviewers. After his death on 4 March 1940, some 40 books and 55 years after his first publication, Garland's career was no less controversial, for critics would debate whether Garland compromised the standards of his youth as he gained increased fame and influence.

      Yet Garland's prophecy about his marginal place in literary history is not far off. Most people remember him today chiefly for his earliest work, especially the innovative collection of short stories, Main-Travelled Roads (1891), and his memoir, A Son of the Middle Border (1917). In these volumes Garland demonstrated that it had at last become possible to deal realistically with the American farmer in literature instead of seeing him simply through the veil of literary convention. By creating new types of characters, Garland hoped not only to inform readers about the realities of Midwestern farm life but to touch the deeper feelings of the nation.

    As one of America's foremost local-colorists, Garland graphically depicted the countryside of his native Middle West in fiction, verse, plays, and compelling autobiographical narratives. Among Garland's best stories are those found in Main-Travelled Roads, for they portray more vividly than any other work of its time the conditions that led to the Populist revolt. The book has not only become an important historical document, but its poignant portrayal of man's struggle against overwhelming forces in nature and social injustices led William Dean Howells to observe that "these stories are full of the bitter and burning dust, the foul and trampled slush of the common avenues of life: the life of the men who hopelessly and cheerlessly make the wealth that enriches the alien and the idler, and impoverishes the producer."

     But in addition to Garland's historical importance as a purveyor of realism, he is significant for another reason. During his long life, he was intimately involved with the major literary, social, and artistic movements in American culture, responding as a zealous reformer to issues that still engage us today, such as agrarian populism, the inequities of the tax system, the necessity for a more humane treatment of Native Americans, and the struggle for women's rights. Pulitzer prize-winning author, proponent of local-color, regionalism, and realism in literature and impressionism in art, unabashed advocate of literary and cultural elitism, dabbler in research on psychic phenomena: the range of Garland's interests extended to nearly all aspects of American literary culture.

      Garland was an exceedingly gregarious man, and his many letters to such literary figures as Walt Whitman, William Dean Howells, James Whitcomb Riley, and George Washington Cable reveal him to be a vigorous literary nationalist and proponent of realism in literature. Applying this advocacy to Garland's own work is problematic, however, for a man whose early writings are now considered by many to be quintessentially Naturalistic, who eventually wrote a book advocating "veritism" (Crumbling Idols, 1894), who wrote about Impressionism and even described himself as an Impressionist late in his life, would, during his middle years, write a series of conventional romances extolling the virtues of the Rocky Mountain West. After some initial skirmishes over the future of American letters conducted through the press, Garland achieved some prominence as a man of letters. He began an extensive correspondence with the intellectual leaders of American culture, and his letters demonstrate his role in the formation of such cultural institutions as the American Academy of Arts and Letters and other organizations devoted to propagating a national literature, and they illustrate his influence in the administration of the Pulitzer Prize awards and in the development of avant-garde drama.

      Garland's letters are not only interesting to students and scholars of American literature, but also to literary and cultural historians and others who wish to further understand the political, social, and cultural issues in American life during the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries. His letters to Theodore Roosevelt and other government officials, for example, testify to his concern for our nation's appalling treatment of Native Americans and of the necessity for an enlightened conservation policy. He also maintained an influential correspondence with such early literary historians and critics as Brander Matthews, Edmund Clarence Stedman, Fred Lewis Pattee, Stuart Pratt Sherman, and Van Wyck Brooks who, with Garland, are largely responsible for the shape of academic study of American literature and culture today. And still other letters reflect Garland's gradual awareness that he himself represented the last of his generation of literary pioneers; his correspondence with Ph.D. students, themselves engaged in writing the first biographies of his peers, suggests a bemused Garland, wryly observing history being written, aware of his own recollections shaping that history.

. . . snip . . .

back from pp. xi-xiii of Selected Letters of Hamlin Garland, ed. Keith Newlin and Joseph B. McCullough (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998)