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Hamlin Garland's Literary Creed

Jump to: Veritism | Impressionism  

Local Color

Throughout his career Garland never deviated from his advocacy of "local color" as a distinctive feature of the fiction he admired in the 1880s and 1890s. Simply put, "local color" is an attempt to reproduce facts of immediate present, the texture of life which writer has experienced, with a focus on American life of a given locale in an effort to foster a distinctively American literature through the depiction of a region's characters, customs, and textures of life. Or, as Garland put it in an essay entitled "Local Color in Art," published in Crumbling Idols (1894), a collection of his essays about American literature:

Local color . . . means that the writer spontaneously reflects the life which goes on around him. It is natural and unrestrained art. (CI 52)
Local color in a novel means that it has such quality of texture and background that it could not have been written in any other place or by any one less than a native. (CI 53)

Garland distinguishes between local color that is added on from that which comes from the writer's experience: "local color must not be put in for the sake of local color. It must go in, it will go in, because the writer naturally carries it with him half unconsciously, or conscious only of its significance, its interest to him" (CI 54). So Garland's perspective is, like that of many realists, that one writes of what one knows.

In "Literary Prophecy," another essay collected in Crumbling Idols, Garland notes that

The realist or veritist is really an optimist, a dreamer. He sees life in terms of what it might be, as well as in terms of what is; but he writes of what is, and, at his best, suggests what is to be, by contrast. He aims to be perfectly truthful of his relation to life, but there is a tone, a color, which comes unconsciously into his utterance, like the sobbing stir of the muted violins beneath the frank, clear song of the clarinet. . . . (CI 43)



Hamlin Garland taking notes on the Klondike TrailOne of Garland's contributions (although some would call it a minor contribution) to the development of late nineteenth-century literary theory was his coinage of the term "veritism" to describe his method of composing fiction. For Garland, veritism was a form of realism that blended the realist's insistence upon verisimilitude of detail with the impressionist's tendency to paint objects as they appear to his individual eye. The veritist differed from the realist, Garland claimed, in his insistence upon the centrality of the artist's individual vision: the artist should paint life as he sees it (and not try to paint it as it should be or as it seems to others). Garland's most succinct definition of the term appeared as follows: "My own conception is that realism (or veritism) is the truthful statement of an individual impression corrected by reference to the fact" ("Productive Conditions of American Literature," Forum 27 [Aug. 1894]: 690.) Near the end of his life, Garland offered another, more extended definition of "veritism."

And he explained in an 1893 letter to the Chicago journalist Eugene Field that

The veritist does not "write up things as they are," but of things as he sees them: which is the whole width of art and the world from the position ascribed to him. (qtd. in Pizer, Early Work 126)

So, the distinction between veritism (or impressionism or local color) and realism, as Garland defines it, is that while the realist attempts to depict things as they are (photographic, as contemporary critics derided), Garland infuses the vision of the individual artist into the work.

In practice, there really isn't that much difference: the methods of the realist are those of the local colorist, with one notable exception:

  1. the local colorist tends to focus on a specific geographical region and depicts the manners, customs, and character of its inhabitants;
  2. the realist tends to portray the average, the typical, with a fidelity to average life and experience analogous to the objectivity demanded by science. Local color, as Garland conceived it, is decidedly subjective.

Note: Unlike realism, local color can be sentimental or romantic, picturesque or sensational, since it is not trying to be objective in what it depicts. 




Garland's writing of the 1890s is also notable for its adaptation of techniques borrowed from Impressionist painting. While he was living in Boston from 1885 - 1893, he had met many of the American followers of the French Impressionists, the most notable of which was John Enneking, who became a friend. For the influence of Impressionist painting techniques applied to prose, note, for example, the following scenes from "Up the CoulÚ." [Page refs are to the Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2nd ed., vol 2.]

Over the western wall of the circling amphitheatre the sun was setting. A few scattering clouds were drifting on the west wind, their shadows sliding down the green and purpled slopes. The dazzling sunlight flamed along the luscious velvety grass, and shot amid the rounded, distant purple peaks, and streamed in bars of gold and crimson across the blue mist of the narrower upper CoulÚs. (672)

Or this:

The circling hills the same, yet not the same as at night. A cooler, tenderer, more subdued cloak of color upon them. Far down the valley a cool, deep, impalpable, blue mist lay, under which one divined the river ran, under its elms and basswoods and wild grapevines. On the shaven slopes of the hills cattle and sheep were feeding, their cries and bells coming to the ear with a sweet suggestiveness. there was something immemorial in the sunny slopes dotted with red and brown and gray cattle. (679)

Garland will apply the same technique to less "cheerful" scenes:

A farm in the valley! Over the mountains swept jagged, gray, angry, sprawling clouds, sending a freezing, thin drizzle of rain, as they passed, upon a man following a plough. The horses had a sullen and weary look, and their manes and tails streamed sidewise in the blast. The ploughman clad in a ragged gray coat, with uncouth, muddy boots upon his feet, walked with his head inclined towards the sleet, to shield his face from the cold and sting of it. The soil rolled away, black and sticky and with a dull sheen upon it. Near by, a boy with tears on his cheeks was watching cattle, a dog seated near, his back to the gale. (677-78)
Finally, in a notable passage Garland clarifies the purpose of such description. Here is Howard McLane reflecting about what the ironic contrast between nature's bountiful splendor and man's inability to adapt easily to it means:
Howard felt it all--the horror, helplessness, immanent tragedy of it all. The glory of nature, the bounty and splendor of the sky, only made it the more benumbing. He thought of a sentence Millet once wrote: "I see very well the aureole of the dandelions, and the sun also, far down there behind the hills, flinging his glory upon the clouds. But not alone that--I see in the plains the smoke of the tired horses at the plough, or, on a stony-hearted spot of ground, a back-broken man trying to raise himself upright for a moment to breathe. The tragedy is surrounded by glories--that is no invention of mine." (693)

Garland was a deliberate and self-conscious craftsman who campaigned relentlessly on behalf of the developing realistic movement. As a professional lecturer and essayist, as well as a writer of fiction and poetry, he had ample opportunity to clarify his goals and ambitions. In an 1891 letter he offered this explanation of his method:

I am . . . an impressionist, perhaps, rather than a realist. I believe, with Monet, that the artist should be self-centered, and should paint life as he sees it. If the other fellow doesn't see the violet shadows on the road, so much the worse for him. (qtd. in Pizer, Early Work 125)

The fullest statement of his theories of Impressionism appeared in a chapter from Crumbling Idols. The entire chapter, "Impressionism," is reproduced here, as well as an illustration from Millet's painting The Gleaners. Note how well "Up the CoulÚ" reflects the attitude conveyed by the painting.

Want to learn more about Impressionism and its influence upon Garland?

  • Web Museum entry on Jean Francois Millet, the painter Garland mentions in "Up the CoulÚ"; or the
  • Web museum entry on Impressionism, which includes lots of explanation and images of the paintings.

Sources for further reading:

  • Cady, Edwin. The Light of Common Day: Realism in American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1971. [Consider especially chapter 2, "Three Sensibilities: Romancer, Realist, Naturalist."]
  • Garland, Hamlin. Crumbling Idols: Twelve Essays On Art Dealing Chiefly with Literature, Painting and the Drama. 1894; Ed. Jane Johnson. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard U, 1960.
  • Pizer, Donald. Hamlin Garland's Early Work and Career. Berkeley: U California P, 1960. [The best book on Garland's work.]
  • Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1966. [An oft-cited collection of 13 essays defining terms and discussing major figures of this period.]

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