Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cowboys and indians

Hamlin Garland, an American realist writer who went west to observe cowboys and indians for real so as to make his fiction more authentic, was born 150 years ago today. He is better remembered, however, for a series of memoirs which he wrote later in life. A large collection of his diaries are held by the Huntington Library but were judged, all of half a century ago, to shed little new light on the man or his work; nevertheless a few interesting extracts are available online.

Hamlin Garland was born on 14 September 1860 in West Salem, Wisconsin, and lived on various Midwestern farms before settling in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1884 to pursue a career in writing. A first success came with Main-Travelled Roads, a collection of short stories, published in 1891. He then moved to Chicago where he lectured on literary topics. Encyclopedia of World Biography explains that Garland ‘augmented local-color writing by the new naturalistic techniques that combined realism with a sense of the individual's overwhelming struggle against a hostile environment.’

Garland’s manifesto on American literature, Crumbling Idols, in which he argued for an art that was truthful, humanitarian, and rooted in a specific locale, was followed in 1895 by a novel, Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, about a young woman who rebels against the drudgery of farm life and goes to Chicago to pursue her talent for literature. In the mid-1890s, he began visiting the American West, observing cowboys and the mountain scenery alike, as well as American Indians, taking copious notes for later use in his fiction. He also travelled to the Yukon to witness the Klondike Gold Rush, which inspired his 1899 novel, The Trail of the Gold Seekers.

That same year, Garland married Zulime Taft, the sister of the sculptor Laredo Taft, and they had two daughters. A series of novels about the West followed, the most successful of which was The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop. In 1915, Garland moved to New York, where his writing turned more autobiographical. A Son of the Middle Border, which appeared serially before being brought out in book form in 1917, was much praised at the time; and its sequel, A Daughter of the Middle Border, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1922. Further volumes of family history and memoir followed. He spent his final years living in Hollywood, California, writing about his interest in psychic phenomena. He died in 1940. More biographical information is available at Wikipedia, or a website hosted by University of North Carolina Wilmington.

For more than four decades until his death, Garland kept diaries. These are held by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, which published a volume of extracts, edited by Donald Pizer, in 1968. Before then, John F Higgins wrote about them for the Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives. His article - A Man from the Middle Border: Hamlin Garland’s Diaries - is available online and contains a few quotes from the diaries.

Overall, Higgins judges that there is ‘a literary falseness and lack of genuine candour’ in most of Garland’s entries. He says: ‘The descriptions of celebrities like Joseph Conrad and John Barrymore, or of promising younger men like Robert Frost, have the stiffness of old daguerreotypes. Even more unfortunate, the diaries contain only the most cursory references to Garland’s own literary work, usually just the bare record that he had worked on a manuscript for so many hours. Nor did Garland reveal much directly about his inner life.’

Here are a few extracts quoted by Higgins.

26 November 1900
‘This marks an epoch in my life, . . I am forty years of age and my mother has passed out of my physical life. For eleven years she has been a burden I have delighted to bear. I did much for her - I should have done more.’

Glimpses of Garland’s father run through the diary, Higgins says. On a morning in October 1914 he was found by his sons dead, lying on the floor of a barn.
21-22 October 1914
‘This ends a good man’s life - a soldier and a pioneer. . . For fifty years his clarion voice has rung in my ears - and now it is silenced forever.’

3 March 1935
‘Every faithful married couple must go through what we are now going through - seeing our partners growing old and gray and inert from day to day while we look hopelessly on.’

19 June 1927
‘We took a ride in our new Dodge Sedan and felt elated - almost rich and we rolled along on our balloon tires. As we came and went we looked like the illustrations in magazines.’

Garland dined with Herbert Hoover at the White House, Higgins says, shortly after the stock market crash.
16 November 1929
‘[Hoover] looked ill, weary and worried. . . I contrasted him with Roosevelt who never allowed work or worry to interfere with his resilient joy in a dinner.’

According to Higgins, the later diaries report a melancholy series of strokes, heart attacks and funerals; nevertheless, Garland’s response to old age is ‘the most personal and moving part of the diaries.’

21 Jan 1938
‘Is anything gained by long life? . . . Is it anything to brag about? Is it not a progressively bad habit?’

18 July 1939
‘[My body] is not only a poor fumbling, tremulous machine, it is a decaying mass of flesh and bone. It needs constant care to prevent its being a nuisance to others. It stinks, it sheds its hair. It itches, aches and burns. It constantly sloughs its skin. It sweats, wrinkles and cracks. It was a poor contrivance at the beginning - it is now a burden.’

28 February 1940
‘No man’s biography is complete without a record of his moments of doubt and despair.’

Garland suffered a cerebral hemorrhage the following day, and died a few days after that.

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