A Daughter of the Middle Borderby Hamlin Garland
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Pulitzer Prize–winning sequel to A Son of the Middle Border continues the autobiographical theme of that book and deals with Garland's marriage and later career. A sensitive study of individuals, their relationships, and the colorful drama that made up their daily lives. Among the most perceptive regional works in American literature, this volume about the trials and challenges of pioneer life in mid-America will be of interest to history students and anyone fascinated by the 19th-century cultural scene.
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A DAUGHTER OF THE MIDDLE BORDER
By HAMLIN GARLAND
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1998 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
My First Winter in Chicago
WELL, Mother," I said as I took my seat at the breakfast table the second day after our Thanksgiving dinner, "I must return to Chicago. I have some lectures to deliver and besides I must get back to my writing."
She made no objection to my announcement but her eyes lost something of their happy light. "When will you come again?" she asked after a pause.
"Almost any minute," I replied assuringly. "You must remember that I'm only a few hours away now. I can visit you often. I shall certainly come up for Christmas. If you need me at any time send me word in the afternoon and I'll be with you at breakfast."
That night at six o'clock I was in my city home, a lodging quite as humble in character as my fortunes.
In a large chamber on the north side of a house on Elm Street and only three doors from Lake Michigan, I had assembled my meager library and a few pitiful mementoes of my life in Boston. My desk stood near a narrow side window and as I mused I could look out upon the shoreless expanse of blue-green water fading mistily into the north-east sky, and, at night, when the wind was in the East the crushing thunder of the breakers along the concrete wall formed a noble accompaniment to my writing, filling me with vaguely ambitious literary plans. Exalted by the sound of this mighty orchestra I felt entirely content with the present and serenely confident of the future.
"This is where I belong," I said. "Here in the great Midland metropolis with this room for my pivot, I shall continue my study of the plains and the mountains."
I had burned no bridges between me and the Island of Manhattan, however! I Realizing all too well that I must still look to the East for most of my income, I carefully retained my connections with Harper's, the Century and other periodicals. Chicago, rich and powerful as it had become, could not establish—or had not established—a paying magazine, and its publishing firms were mostly experimental and not very successful; although the Columbian Exposition which was just closing, had left upon the city's clubs and societies (and especially on its young men) an esthetic stimulation which bade fair to carry on to other and more enduring enterprises.
Nevertheless in the belief that it was to become the second great literary center of America I was resolved to throw myself into the task of hurrying it forward on the road to new and more resplendent achievement.
My first formal introduction to the literary and artistic circle in which I was destined to work and war for many years, took place through the medium of an address on Impressionism in Art which I delivered in the library of Franklin Head, a banker whose home had become one of the best-known intellectual meeting places on the North Side. This lecture, considered very radical at the time, was the direct outcome of several years of study and battle in Boston in support of the open-air school of painting, a school which was astonishing the West with its defiant play of reds and yellows, and the flame of its purple shadows. As a missionary in the interest of the New Art, I rejoiced in this opportunity to advance its inspiring heresies.
While uttering my shocking doctrines (entrenched behind a broad, book-laden desk), my eyes were attracted to the face of a slender black-bearded young man whose shining eyes and occasional smiling nod indicated a joyous agreement with the main points of my harangue. I had never seen him before, but I at once recognized in him a fellow conspirator against "The Old Hat" forces of conservatism in painting.
At the close of my lecture he drew near and putting out his hand, said, "My name is Taft—Lorado Taft. I am a sculptor, but now and again I talk on painting. Impressionism is all very new here in the West, but like yourself I am an advocate of it, I am doing my best to popularize a knowledge of it, and I hope you will call upon me at my studio some afternoon—any afternoon and discuss these isms with me."
Young Lorado Taft interested me, and I instantly accepted his invitation to call, and in this way (notwithstanding a wide difference in training and temperament), a friendship was established which has never been strained even in the fiercest of our esthetic controversies. Many others of the men and women I met that night became my co-workers in the building of the "greater Chicago," which was even then coming into being—the menace of the hyphenate American had no place in our thoughts.
In less than a month I fell into a routine as regular, as peaceful, as that in which I had moved in Boston. Each morning in my quiet sunny room I wrote, with complete absorption, from seven o'clock until noon, confidently composing poems, stories, essays, and dramas. I worked like a painter with several themes in hand passing from one to the other as I felt inclined. After luncheon I walked down town seeking exercise and recreation. It soon became my habit to spend an hour or two in Taft's studio (I fear to his serious detriment), and in this way I soon came to know most of the "Bunnies" of "the Rabbit-Warren" as Henry B. Fuller characterized this studio building—and it well deserved the name! Art was young and timid in Cook County.
Among the women of this group Bessie Potter, who did lovely statuettes of girls and children, was a notable figure. Edward Kemeys, Oliver Dennett Grover, Charles Francis Browne, and Hermon MacNeill, all young artists of high endowment, and marked personal charm became my valued associates and friends. We were all equally poor and equally confident of the future. Our doubts were few and transitory as cloud shadows, our hopes had the wings of eagles.
As Chicago possessed few clubs of any kind and had no common place of meeting for those who cultivated the fine arts, Taft's studio became, naturally, our center of esthetic exchange. Painting and sculpture were not greatly encouraged anywhere in the West, but Lorado and his brave colleagues, hardy frontiersmen of art, laughed in the face of all discouragement.
A group of us often lunched in what Taft called "the Beanery"—a noisy, sloppy little restaurant on Van Buren Street, where our lofty discussions of Grecian sculpture were punctuated by the crash of waiter-proof crockery, or smothered with the howl of slid chairs. However, no one greatly minded these barbarities. They were all a part of the game. If any of us felt particularly flush we dined, at sixty cents each, in the basement of a big department store a few doors further west; and when now and then some good "lay brother" like Melville Stone, or Franklin Head, invited us to a "royal gorge" at Kinsley's or to a princely luncheon in the tower room of the Union League, we went like minstrels to the baron's hall. None of us possessed evening suits and some of us went so far as to denounce swallowtail coats as "undemocratic." I was one of these.
This "artistic gang" also contained several writers who kept a little apart from the journalistic circle of which Eugene Field and Opie Read were the leaders, and though I passed freely from one of these groups to the other I acknowledged myself more at ease with Henry Fuller and Taft and Browne, and a little later I united with them in organizing a society to fill our need of a common meeting place. This association we called The Little Room, a name suggested by Madelaine Yale Wynne's story of an intermittently vanishing chamber in an old New England homestead.
For a year or two we met in Bessie Potter's studio, and on the theory that our club, visible and hospitable on Friday afternoon, was non-existent during all the other days of the week, we called it "the Little Room." Later still we shifted to Ralph Clarkson's studio in the Fine Arts Building—where it still flourishes.
The fact is, I was a poor club man. I did not smoke, and never used rum except as a hair tonic—and beer and tobacco were rather distasteful to me. I do not boast of this singularity, I merely state it. No doubt I was considered a dull and profitless companion even in "the Little Room," but in most of my sobrieties Taft and Browne upheld me, though they both possessed the redeeming virtue of being amusing, which I, most certainly, never achieved.
Taft was especially witty in his sly, sidewise comment, and often when several of us were in hot debate, his sententious or humorous retorts cut or stung in defence of some esthetic principle much more effectively than most of my harangues. Sculpture, with him, was a religious faith, and he defended it manfully and practiced it with skill and an industry which was astounding.
Though a noble figure and universally admired, he had, like myself, two very serious defects, he was addicted to frock coats and the habit of lecturing! Although he did not go so far as to wear a plaid Windsor tie with his "Prince Albert" coat (as I have been accused of doing), he displayed something of the professor's zeal in his platform addresses. I would demur against the plaid Windsor tie indictment if I dared to do so, but a certain snapshot portrait taken by a South-side photographer of that day (and still extant) forces me to painful confession—I had such a tie, and wore it with a frock coat. My social status is thus clearly defined.
Taft's studio, which was on the top floor of the Athenaeum Building on Van Buren Street, had a section which he called "the morgue," for the reason that it was littered with piaster duplicates of busts, arms, and hands. This room, fitted up with shelf-like bunks, was filled nearly every night with penniless young sculptors who camped in primitive simplicity amid the grewsome discarded portraits of Cook County's most illustrious citizens. Several of these roomers have since become artists of wide renown, and I refrain from disclosing their names. No doubt they will smile as they recall those nights amid their landlord's cast- off handiwork.
Taft was an "easy mark" in those times, a shining hope to all the indigent models, discouraged painters and other esthetic derelicts of the Columbian Exposition. No artist suppliant ever knocked at his door without getting a dollar, and some of them got twenty. For several years Clarkson and I had him on our minds because of this gentle and yielding disposition until at last we discovered that in one way or another, in spite of a reckless prodigality, he prospered. The bread which he cheerfully cast upon these unknown waters, almost always returned (sometimes from another direction) in loaves at least as large as biscuits. His fame steadily increased with his charity. I did not understand the principle of his manner of life then, and I do not now. By all the laws of my experience he should at this moment be in the poorhouse, but he isn't—he is rich and honored and loved.
In sculpture he was, at this time a conservative, a worshiper of the Greek, and it would seem that I became his counter-irritant, for my demand for "A native art" kept him wholesomely stirred up. One by one as the years passed he yielded esthetic positions which at first he most stoutly held. He conceded that the Modern could not be entirely expressed by the Ancient, that America might sometime grow to the dignity of having an art of its own, and that in sculpture (as in painting and architecture) new problems might arise. Even in his own work (although he professed but one ideal, the Athenian) he came at last to include the plastic value of the red man, and to find in the expression of the Sioux or Omaha a certain sorrowful dignity which fell parallel with his own grave temperament, for, despite his smiling face, his best work remained somber, almost tragic in spirit.
Henry B. Fuller, who in The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani had shown himself to be the finest literary craftsman in the West, became (a little later) a leader in our group and a keen delight to us all. He was at this time a small, brown-bearded man of thirty-five, whose quick humor, keen insight and unfailing interest in all things literary made him a caustic corrective of the bombast to which our local reviewers were sadly liable. Although a merciless critic of Chicago, he was a native of the city, and his comment on its life had to be confronted with such equanimity as our self-elected social hierarchy could assume.
Elusive if not austere with strangers, Henry's laugh (a musical "ha ha") was often heard among his friends. His face could be impassive not to say repellent when approached by those in whom he took no interest, and there were large numbers of his fellow citizens for whom the author of Pensieri-Vani had only contempt. Strange to say, he became my most intimate friend and confidant—antithetic pair!
Eugene Field, his direct opposite, and the most distinguished member of "the journalistic gang," took very little interest in the doings of "the Bunnies" and few of them knew him, but I often visited him in his home on the North Side, and greatly enjoyed his solemn-faced humor. He was a singular character, as improvident as Lorado but in a far different way.
I recall meeting him one day on the street wearing, as usual, a long, gray plaid ulster with enormous pockets at the sides. Confronting me with coldly solemn visage, he thrust his right hand into his pocket and lifted a heavy brass candlestick to the light. "Look," he said. I looked. Dropping this he dipped his left hand into the opposite pocket and displayed another similar piece, then with a faint smile lifting the corners of his wide, thin-lipped mouth, he gravely boomed, "Brother Garland—you see before you—a man—who lately— had ten dollars."
Thereupon he went his way, leaving me to wonder whether his wife would be equally amused with his latest purchase.
His library was filled with all kinds of curious objects—worthless junk they seemed to me— clocks, snuffers, butterflies, and the like but he also possessed many autographed books and photographs whose value I granted. His cottage which was not large, swarmed with growing boys and noisy dogs; and Mrs. Field, a sweet and patient soul, seemed sadly out of key with her husband's habit of buying collections of rare moths, door-knockers, and candle molds with money which should have gone to buy chairs and carpets or trousers for the boys.
Eugene was one of the first "Colyumists" in the country, and to fill his "Sharps and Flats" levied pitilessly upon his friends. From time to time we all figured as subjects for his humorous paragraphs; but each new victim understood and smiled. For example, in his column I read one morning these words: "La Crosse, a small city in Wisconsin, famous for the fact that all its trains back into town, and as the home of Hamlin Garland."
He was one of the most popular of Western writers, and his home of a Sunday was usually crowded with visitors, many of whom were actors. I recall meeting Francis Wilson there—also E. S. Willard and Bram Stoker—but I do not remember to have seen Fuller there, although, later, Roswell, Eugene's brother, became Fuller's intimate friend.
George Ade, a thin, pale, bright-eyed young Hoosier, was a frequent visitor at Field's. George had just begun to make a place for himself as the author of a column in the News called "Stories of the Street and of the Town"; and John T. McCutcheon, another Hoosier of the same lean type was his illustrator. I believed in them both and took a kind of elder brother interest in their work.
In the companionship of men like Field and Browne and Taft, I was happy. My writing went well, and if I regretted Boston, I had the pleasant sense of being so near West Salem that I could go to bed in a train at ten at night, and breakfast with my mother in the morning, and just to prove that this was true I ran up to the Homestead at Christmas time and delivered my presents in person—keenly enjoying the smile of delight with which my mother received them.
Excerpted from A DAUGHTER OF THE MIDDLE BORDER by HAMLIN GARLAND. Copyright © 1998 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Meet the Author
Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), author of more than 40 books, is best known for his short story collection Main-Travelled Roads. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1918 and won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1922.
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