The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Garland, Hamlin Hannibal
(September 14, 1860–March 4, 1940)

–a prolific writer who published almost 50 volumes of fiction, poetry, plays, and essays—was the second of four children of Richard and Isabelle (McClintock) Garland. He was born in a small cabin on the outskirts of West Salem, Wisconsin. Hamlin Garland remembered his father, a native of Oxford County, Maine, as a stern military disciplinarian who constantly moved his family westward–from certainty to uncertainty, from a modest but comfortable home to a shanty–in search of a better life. Garland was drawn to his mother, who accepted the moves with quiet resignation, despite the suffering and hardships they caused. The contrast between his parents was to leave him with a particular tenderness toward women, which he transformed into a recurring theme in his fiction, in which he dealt with suppressed and beaten farm women.

    When the Civil War came in 1861, Richard Garland left his family to fight for the Union, returning home in 1864. Restless and impatient, he moved his family to Winneshiek County, Iowa, in 1868, then to Mitchell County, Iowa, in August 1869. From 1876 to 1881 the Garlands lived in Osage, the county seat of Mitchell County, where Hamlin attended and graduated from Cedar Valley Seminary, an institution founded by Baptists to provide college preparatory classes at a time when Osage had no high school.

    During Garland's early years on the farm, he was expected to do a man's work–plowing, threshing, corn husking, haying, caring for animals, and cleaning stables. He gradually developed an intense dislike for farm work and yearned for a better life away from the prairies of the Middle Border. After his graduation, he left home to travel, returning briefly to Dakota Territory, where his family had moved, but left to teach school for a year in Illinois. He again returned to Dakota Territory in the spring of 1883 to stake a claim, but had no intention of remaining a farmer Then, in the fall of 1884, he made the most crucial decision of his personal and artistic career: with about $100 and letters of introduction, he set out for Boston, with a vague ambition to become a writer.

    In Boston, he discovered, among others, the writings of Walt Whitman, Herbert Spencer, and Henry George; he also formed a lifelong friendship with William Dean Howells. He taught private classes and was a lecturer for a short time in and around Boston, and then began writing essays and short stories about midwestern farm life.

    For the next 50 years, Garland became an important figure in American literary culture. In 1899 he married Zulime Taft, and the Garlands had two daughters, Mary Isabel and Constance. In addition to his writings, Garland was a founder of many influential organizations, including the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Authors' League of America, the Cliff Dwellers Club of Chicago, the Society of Midland Authors, and the MacDowell Colony.

    But his reputation rests principally on his short fiction written before 1895, particularly on his innovative volume of short stories, Main-Travelled Roads (1891), and his autobiography, A Son of the Middle Border (1917), whose instantaneous success not only brought about his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1918 but was also instrumental in his being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, ostensibly given for his next autobiographical volume, A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921). In these volumes, Garland demonstrated that it had at last become possible to deal with the American farmers. in literature as a human being instead of seeing him simply through the veil of literary convention. By creating new types of characters, Garland succeeded in dramatizing the severe restrictions of prairie life, with its lone liness and drudgery, and suggested the waste of finer values exacted by that life. Through his fiction, as well as his lectures and essays, he also became a principal spokesman for 19th-century agrarian America and the Populist revolt, as well as an advocate of the single tax, advocated by Henry George in Progress and Poverty (1879).

    Disappointed in the reception of his work, Garland resolved to move to Chicago in 1893, where he published his literary manifesto, Crumbling Idols (1894), in which he argued for realism, impressionism, and local color in American literature. However, with the defeat of the Populist Party in 1896 and his continued disappointment with the reception and sales of his work, he turned to the Mountain West for new material. He would produce dozens of Rocky Mountain romances, as well as campaign for more humane treatment of American Indians, thus signaling a change in the subjects with which he had been occupied in his Middle Border fiction.

    Unable to create new material, and with his subject exhausted, Garland again changed his angle of vision for the final phase of his literary career, returning to the Middle Border where he began. As his fiction began to decline, he felt the need to deal more directly and fully with the major events of his own life. Consequently, from 1916 until his death in Hollywood, California, in 1940, he produced a series of autobiographical works, the most important of which was A Son of the Middle Border. It told the story of his life from 1860 to 1893: his birth among the coulees of southwest Wisconsin, the family removal to the prairies of northeast Iowa, the hardships and pleasures of country life, his schooling, his self-education in Boston, and his early literary success with Main-Travelled Roads. The volume ends with his purchase in 1893 of a home in West Salem, Wisconsin, his birthplace, to which he persuaded his elderly parents to move back from Dakota Territory. Boy Life on the Prairie (1899) was an earlier attempt at autobiography. Although Garland initially argued that Boy Life was not an autobiography, in the preface to a later school edition in 1926 he acknowledged that the book was essentially autobiographical.

    In Crumbling Idols, Garland noted that a sense of place was central to his literary philosophy. And Garland's sense of place was essential to his literary success. His early experiences, especially in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Dakota Territory, influenced his later and best fiction, as well as his poetry and autobiographies, for they provided him with an intimate knowledge of the details of farm life. Although Garland spent only a little over a decade in Iowa, he consciously drew on several Iowa locales for his settings. Even his poetry, including the poems collected in Iowa, O Iowa (1935), drew from his experiences in the Midwest. Garland realized that his self-discovery and success as a spokesman for the Middle Border had emerged from his rejection of the Midwest. He was thus able to evoke his sense of loss and yet realize that he could never lose his identification with the Middle Border–an identification that remained as strong as his rebellion against it.
Sources The chief collection of Garland's unpublished manuscripts is in the Doheny Library, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, which also includes his notebooks, letters, diaries, and marginalia. See also Keith Newlin and Joseph B. McCullough, eds., Selected Letters of Hamlin Garland (1998); Jean Holloway, Hamlin Garland: A Biography (1960); Donald Pizer, Hamlin Garland's Early Work and Career (1969); Jackson R. Bryer and Eugene Harding, Hamlin Garland and the Critics: An Annotated Bibliography (1973); and Keith Newlin, Hamlin Garland: A Bibliography, with a Checklist of Unpublished Letters (1998).
Contributor: Joseph B. Mccullough