Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A son of the middle border

‘I am settled in a neat room at 58 East 25th and now sit writing therein waiting for my trunks to arrive. Already I feel the superciliousness of this old town, not toward me but toward my people. The feeling that nothing worthwhile exists in the West, that things are so much superior here. This conception runs through every conversation. It annoys and embitters me.’ This is Hamlin Garland, an American writer who died 80 years ago today, confiding in his diary about his feelings having just arrived in New York City. By then he was already well known, for writing fiction about the West in a realist style - such as in Main-Travelled Roads - but later in life he found more popular success with his autobiographical books, many based on the diaries he had kept. Extracts from his diaries were first published in the 1960s, and a major biography, issued quite recently in 2008, relies significantly on the diaries.

Garland was born in 1860 near West Salem, Wisconsin, the second of four children. The family lived on various farms, moving progressively westward; but by 1884 Garland had decided against the pioneering life for himself and moved to Boston, Massachusetts. Largely self-taught, with many hours spent in public libraries, he became a teacher, and then a touring lecturer. His first success as a writer was with Main-Travelled Roads, a collection of short stories published in 1891. Highly acclaimed, the book provided an unromantic view of the pioneering farming life. He dedicated the book to his parents: ‘whose half-century pilgrimage on the main roads of life has brought them only toil and deprivation.’ In 1893, he moved to Chicago (although in the years to come he would spend some winters in New York City), and soon after published Crumbling Idols in which he put forward his theory of realistic fiction, which he called ‘veritism’.

In 1895, Garland published Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, which tells the story of a sensitive young woman who rebels against the drudgery of farm life and goes to Chicago to pursue her talent for literature. Around this time, he began visiting the American West, making notes about the cowboys, the mountain scenery so unlike his native Wisconsin, and American Indians. Several of his Indian stories were collected much later in The Book of the American Indian. He serialised a biography of Ulysses S. Grant in McClure’s Magazine before publishing it as a book in 1898. That same year, he traveled to the Yukon to witness the Klondike Gold Rush, which inspired The Trail of the Gold Seekers. In 1899, he married Zulime Taft, the sister of a sculptor, and they had two daughters. Over the next 15 years he published a series of romances. For much of his life he had lived on a farm in Iowa, but in 1915 he moved to New York City to be closer to his publishers and literary life.

Tiring of fiction, Garland turned to reminiscing about his early life, and A Son of the Middle Border, which appeared serially before being brought out in book form in 1917, to nearly universal acclaim. Its sequel, A Daughter of the Middle Border, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1922. Several further volumes followed until 1929 when he moved to California. There, he revived an earlier interest in psychic phenomena, which led to two further books. He died on 4 March 1940. Further information is available from The Hamlin Garland Society, Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica and Spartacus Educational.

A major biography of Garland by Keith Newlin was published in 2008 - Hamlin Garland: A Life - by University of Nebraska Press (some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks). In his acknowledgements, Newlin notes that his chief sources for details of Garland’s private life were ‘voluminous letters, manuscripts, and especially his diaries’. He further explains that Garland began keeping a diary at the start of 1898, but that it wasn’t until after the success A Son of the Middle Border that he realised that his diaries could provide source material for further family history books. Newlin also notes that, in his biography of Garland, he tended to rely upon the diaries ‘for first impressions and the details of his remarkable life’ rather than on Garland’s own polished memoirs.

Some 40 years earlier, in 1868, The Huntington Library, which holds the Garland archive of diaries, published a selection of extracts as edited by Donald Pizer: Hamlin Garland’s Diaries. This can be read online by borrowing it from Internet Archive (requires free log-in). Rather than organised chronologically, the diary extracts are arranged by topics (places, events, personalities etc.). Here is a selection of those extracts.

19 December 1898 [New York]
‘I am settled in a neat room at 58 East 25th and now sit writing therein waiting for my trunks to arrive. Already I feel the superciliousness of this old town, not toward me but toward my people. The feeling that nothing worthwhile exists in the West, that things are so much superior here. This conception runs through every conversation. It annoys and embitters me.’

27 April 1899 [London]
‘Bang! I find myself plump in the middle of London. After a swift ride through green England under a misty white sky I shot suddenly under a yellow pall which overhung the great English-speaking maelstrom. It was not unlike the change which comes in sweeping into Chicago from the West. I found the city distracting with its ugly omnibuses, its rush of cabs, and its maze of streets, but less noisy, less imposing in bulk than I had imagined it would be. It seemed dingy, dark, multitudinous but not toweringly impressive. I stayed at a little hotel called the Edwards House near the Euston Station. A very primitive place. Indeed, everything I saw was primitive.’

23 July 1906 [Verona]
‘Verona interested me so much I determined to stay another day. I wandered about the streets till the last minute. First of all by good luck I blundered into the cattle market and got an enfilading shot at a crowd of several hundred farmers. I stood about watching them barter. They looked not unlike Kansans of the “hard times” of 1890 - lean, brown as leather, and poorly clothed - but when they began to trade they were of a different world! They yelled, they pushed, they pulled. They became fierce of face and ego. A trade was a battle. It was all deeply diverting to me.’

12 August 1917 [New York]
‘I left at 3 p.m. for the city in the midst of the most amazing collection of New York City Hebrews. Pink, brown, hook-nosed, straight-nosed, young, old - all chattering or bawling. They mobbed the train. They shoved, elbowed, pulled and pushed for seats, clamoring, shouting, all in perfect good humor. They were not poor, nor illiterate, but they were without a particle of reserve or politeness. Their nasal voices silenced all other outcry. The few “Americans” on the train were lost in this flood of alien faces, forms and voices. The women [were] mostly all short, many with handsome features but no grace of body. From a humanitarian point of view I should have been glad of their number for they were returning from a happy outing but as I was lame, their jostling greediness made me angry and their lack of the ordinary civilities of life disgusted me. I was glad when I got to the flat and to bed.’

24 July 1936 [Los Angeles]
‘It is not pleasant to feel oneself growing toward futility but such is the lot of most men of seventy or more. The question arises in me, “What shall I do to fill out my days?” I saw this sadness come to Howells and Burroughs. They both kept on writing when the public no longer desired their books. There are books that I might write but I feel no urge to set about their composition. My eyes will not sustain the strain. I cannot take on a history or biography for the reason that too much reading and travel would be involved. I can only set down what is in my mind.’

9 November 1936 [Los Angeles]
‘Constance informed me today that she and Joe, after eight years of wedded life, had agreed to separate, and so I, who have stood for decency and loyalty in social life, find myself with two daughters seeking divorces! There is every prospect that my final years of life will be clouded by these daughters who were for nearly thirty years my pride and joy. There is nothing to be done. They are both grown women and have all the character Zulime and I could give them. If they elect to see “freedom” in the way of the women of today, I cannot prevent them. I am too old and, at this moment, too sick to even argue the matter with them.

All this, as I said to Zulime, is just more evidence that our world is disintegrating. Lorado’s death and this sudden declaration of purpose on our daughters’ part coming together while we are both weakened and disheartened is almost more than we can surmount. However, we shall probably go on very much as usual.’

26 April 1938 [Los Angeles]
‘It is difficult for me to abandon the hope of achievement. For more than fifty years I have arisen each morning in the determination to do something to make the day worthwhile. I am now facing emptiness and futility. I begin each day with a sense of dismay.”Another empty day!” The attempt to justify the mere living ends in failure. We walk of a morning. I do little writing. I doze often. I send a few letters. I work a little in the garden and end the day by taking Zulime to the theater which she enjoys, mainly, I think, because it enables her to forget her disabilities and her loneliness, for she also lives almost wholly within herself. Our daughters her us as best they can, but they cannot neglect their own affairs in order to comfort us. In this condition of mind and body of men like Frederick Peterson and others of my friends undoubtedly spend those years beyond the biblical limit. I hope they have a philosophy which sustains them. I have none.’

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