( Originally Published 1907 )
HAMLIN GARLAND is Western in every sense of that broad term. To him the West has been birth-place, playground, battlefield. Not only as a writer but also as a man he takes that far-seeing, keen, sincere, unconventional view of things in general that distinguishes the thoroughbred Westerner. Like Jim Matteson, the hero of his latest novel, he sympathizes with the elements. He might appear to be at home in an Eastern drawing-room, but we think that he would prefer to live in his own country.
There might be some dissent from the opinion that he is the foremost of our Western novelists ; but there can hardly be any dissent from the opinion that he occupies an unique place in American literature, for not only has he sounded a new, vibrant, resonant chord in our literature, but he also has been our one fearless and unchangeable literary impressionist. " I believe," he said once, to illustrate his rule of work, "that the beauty disease has been the ruin of much good literature. It leads to paint and putty — to artificiality. If a thing is beautiful, well and good ; but I do not believe in an artist using literary varnish in writing of sordid things. He can discover the beauty in sordid lives not by varnishing them, but by sympathetic interpretation of them."
The West has been his birthplace and his playground. He was born in the beautiful La Crosse Valley, Wisconsin, in September, 1860. His parents were of Scotch Presbyterian stock, which fact, together with his early environment, must account for his radical and aggressive mental out-fit. "My dear old parents," he says, "brought me up like a Spartan soldier. I owe so much to my mother ; to the goodness and patient sympathy with which she trained and softened my blustering boyish nature." If you look at the dedication of " Main-Travelled Roads " you will find an echo of this eulogy : " To my father and mother, whose half-century pilgrimage on the main-travelled road of life has brought them only trial and deprivation, this book is dedicated by a son to whom every day brings a deepening sense of his parents' silent heroism." This appreciation of his parents' more than dutiful sacrifices constantly finds expression in the author's work ; it is a salient feature of his individuality.
Seven years after his birth the family moved to Winneshiek County, Iowa, a spot typical of the primeval West; and it was here that Garland first got the vivid impressions of nature which he has so successfully pictured in his stories. There is, for instance, in Up the Could," a little picture worthy of Millet.
" 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 sideways in the blast. The ploughman, clad in a ragged gray coat, with uncouth, muddy boots upon his feet, walked with his head inclined toward the sleet to shield his face from the cold and sting of it. The soil rolled away, black and sticky, 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."
But did Garland take any part in such experiences ? He did, indeed. "I ploughed seventy acres of land when I was ten years old," he says, and more each year after that. I was so small that I had to reach up to catch hold of the handles of the plough, but I did it. I can remember well how I felt when I started out for my first ploughing in the spring. My muscles were then tender, my feet sank down into the soil, throwing my weight on the ankles and the tendons of the feet. By the end of the first day I was almost ready to drop with pain, but I had to go on. And how my bones did ache the next morning when I was called to go to work 1 I worked right along, however, going to school in the winter until I was fifteen."
But not all the work was at the plough. With his brother Frank he worked out on the prairies, sometimes herding cattle, sometimes scouting for the neighbors. In-deed, somewhere, we believe, the author has said that almost half his life has been spent in the meadows and on horseback. Many recollections of these days are to be found in " Prairie Songs," which book, in fact, is almost a complete reflection of his boyhood days. And on the prairies, too, he met the grangers,— we use the word in its dignified sense — " those incessant toilers who experience, in all its bareness, the rough and bitter side of the great ' main-travelled road.' "
But the school in which he got the bulk of his education was Cedarville Academy, in Mitchell County, just a little westward from his home. There he made a special study of history and English composition ; and there, for the first time in his life, he had the use of a library. He was graduated from the academy at the age of twenty-one. The following two years he spent teaching and lecturing in the East.
The list of the subjects of his lectures show us the breadth of mind which he had reached just as he entered citizenhood ; it attests, too, his remarkable intellectual energy and his sympathy with his times. These are some of the literary topics : The Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau; The Balladists, with readings from Whit-tier, Longfellow and Holmes ; Walt Whit-. man, the Prophet of the New Age ; The Epic of the Age, the Novel, the American Novel ; Americanism in the Novel, with reference to William Dean Howells and Henry James ; The Pioneers, Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller ; Some Representative Names, Joseph Kirkland, E. W. Howe, George W. Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, Miss Murfree, Miss Baylor, Miss Wilkins, Miss Jewett, Rose Terry Cooke ; the City in Fiction and the Drama ; The Future of Poetry and Fiction ; The Art of Edwin Booth; Shakespeare and Browning.
There is something truly Western in the fact that Garland was attracted to Dakota by the land boom of 1883. He soon learned, however, that the boom was not for him; indeed, his only profit from it was experience.
In 1884, consequently, he took up the study of English literature in the Boston Public Library. He had intended to take a course in literature and oratory at some college, preliminary to returning to the West to teach. But it is significant of his mental make-up that he found college methods "too scholastic and too dry," and, in general, opposed to his own convictions. This brings to mind what a man who met him early in the nineties said : " It would be impossible for any conventional critic to kill Mr. Garland with scholarly criticism ; he has a buoyancy of indifference to obstacles as free as a cyclone from one of his own Iowa prairies ; he would joyously tell the most learned professors of Harvard College that the universities as at present conducted in America are the bulwarks of conservatism and the foes of progress ; the people who hear him talk about realism and naturalism and truth usually confess an exhilaration at ' finding someone nowadays' who believes the things he does believe with most consuming fervor."
Naturally his unconventional method of studying English literature had an unusual result. To quote from remarks that he made in Boston a few years ago : " The whole perspective of English literature changed with me. Chaucer was no longer great simply because someone had said that he was ; Crabbe was not dry because some professor of English literature had said so. I went into the philosophic development of English literature from the earliest myth, through the drama — which, by the way, I found to be a continuous chain, and not a miracle — up to distinctively modern literature. Throughout, I gave to my reading a modern man's comments. If I did n't like an author's work I did n't try to like it. So, you see, after all, my work in the library was mainly a process fitting me for teaching."
But all the time, as a matter of fact, he was moving farther away from the teacher's desk. As he studied American literature it occurred to him that the Western side of it might be still further developed. That side certainly lacked anything corresponding to his fresh and deep impressions of it. It was only a step from the thought to the deed.
Harper's Weekly published his first poem, "Lost in the Norther," a description of a man lost in a blizzard, and paid him twenty-five dollars for it. With characteristic generosity, he spent the money on his parents, buying a copy of Grant's " Memoirs " for his father and a silk dress for his mother. His mother, too, by the way, received half the money paid for his first bit of fiction. This is the story that Garland told in Washington five or six years ago :
" I had been studying in Boston for several years, when I went out to Dakota to visit my parents. The night after I arrived I was talking with mother about old times and old friends. She told me how one family had gone to New York for a visit and had returned only too happily to their Western home. As she told the story the pathos of it struck me. I went into another room and began to write.
The story was one of the best chapters of my book ' Main-Travelled Roads.' I read it to mother, and she liked it, and upon telling her that I thought it was worth at least seventy-five dollars she replied: 'Well, if that is so I think you ought to divvy with me, for I gave you the story." I will,' said I, and so when I got my seventy-five dollars I sent her a check for half. I got many good suggestions during that trip to Dakota. I wrote poems and stories. Some of the stories were published in The Century Magazine, and I remember that I received six hundred dollars within two weeks from its editors. It was perhaps a year later before I published my first book."
This first book is " Main-Travelled. Roads," which by some is still regarded as his best book. During the past ten years he has been almost restlessly busy with novels, poems, essays, and plays, in all of which there is more or less evidence of his magnificent unconventionality.
For if there be anything magnificently unconventional in American literature it is such works as " A Spoil of Office " and "Crumbling Idols." "I am," said Gar-land, in a letter written in 1891, " an impressionist, perhaps, rather than a realist. I believe, with Monet, that the artist should be self-centred, and should paint life as he sees it. If the other fellow does n't see the violet shadows on the road, so much the worse for him. A whole new world of color is opening to the eyes of the present generation, exemplifying again that all beauty, all mystery, is under our spread hand— waiting to be grasped. I believe, also, that there is the same wealth of color-mystery in the facts of our daily lives, and that within a single decade a race of dramatists and novelists will demonstrate the truth of my inference."
The decade has come and gone, but the new race of dramatists and novelists is still absent. Mr. Garland is even now far ahead of the crowd.
He once described his manner of working to Mr. Walter Blackburn Harte, an-other radical, but not so fortunate, thinker. He said that he never writes under pressure. "I work precisely as some painters do. I have unfinished pictures lying around my workshop. After breakfast each morning I go into my writing-room, and whichever picture chimes in with my mood, after a glance around, claims me for that morning. I work on it as long as I find great pleasure in it, and I stop the moment I am conscious of it becoming a grind. If I have any power left, I turn to something else ; if not, I quit and turn to recreation— reading, study ; or I go out for a walk. I do all my writing on blocks of manuscript paper, and I have stacks of these lying around, as many as forty or fifty in various stages of completion. I never write on any one thing day after day just with the purpose of getting it done. I believe thoroughly in moods, although I do not wait for any particular mood, for I am in the mood every morning for something. All my work interests me supremely, or I should not do it."
Mr. Garland was married a few years ago to Miss Zuleme Taft, of Chicago, who has achieved some fame as a sculptor.