Garland & Lewis

Hamlin Garland was born on this day in 1860 in West Salem, Wisconsin. Though he was a prolific novelist and short story writer, Garland’s fame lies in his Pulitzer-winning memoirs of pioneer prairie life, most notably A Son of the Middle Border (1917) and A Daughter of the Middle Border. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, his contemporary from the same area, Garland wished to document his Midwest boyhood as both a personal and historical record, capturing a way of life all but forgotten. First reviewers praised it as “a memorial of a generation, of a whole order of American experience” (William Dean Howells). Subsequent critics gave Garland a lofty place in literary history, too: “Was it not in Garland that American farmers first talked like farmers? Was it not Garland who among the very first dedicated his career to realism?” (Alfred Kazin).

Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt was published on this day in 1922—at the same time as Garland’s memoirs, about the same Midwest, but its central character has devolved from the pioneer-hero to a lip-serving, glad-handing, prairie realtor:

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y.M.C.A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling: “Course I don’t mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel. You see—you see it’s like this: In the first place, maybe the owner of the property exaggerated when he put it into my hands, and it certainly isn’t my place to go proving my principal a liar! And then most folks are so darn crooked themselves that they expect a fellow to do a little lying, so if I was fool enough to never whoop the ante I’d get the credit for lying anyway!”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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