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In his heyday, Hamlin Garland had a considerable reputation as a radical writer whose realistic stories and polemical essays agitating for a literature that accurately represented American life riled the nation’s press. Born in poverty and raised on a series of frontier farms, Garland fled the rural Midwest in 1881 at age twenty-one. When his stories combining the radical economic theories of Henry George with realistic depictions of farm life appeared as Main-Travelled Roads in 1891, reviewers praised his method...
In his heyday, Hamlin Garland had a considerable reputation as a radical writer whose realistic stories and polemical essays agitating for a literature that accurately represented American life riled the nation’s press. Born in poverty and raised on a series of frontier farms, Garland fled the rural Midwest in 1881 at age twenty-one. When his stories combining the radical economic theories of Henry George with realistic depictions of farm life appeared as Main-Travelled Roads in 1891, reviewers praised his method but were disturbed by the bleak subject matter. Four years (and eight books) later, his frank depiction of sexuality in his novel of the New Woman, Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly (1895), made Garland even more controversial.
After realizing he couldn’t make a living from such realistic works, Garland turned first to biography, then to critically panned but commercially popular romances set in the mountain west, and eventually to autobiography. In 1917 he published A Son of the Middle Border, a remarkable autobiography in which he combined the story of his life to 1893 with the story of U.S. westward expansion, to considerable critical acclaim and large sales. Its 1921 sequel, A Daughter of the Middle Border, received the Pulitzer Prize for biography.
Although the author eventually wrote no fewer than eight autobiographies, he showed little awareness of the effect of his strong personality upon others. The sixty-six reminiscences in Garland in His Own Time offer an essential complement to his self-portrait by giving the perspectives of family, friends, fellow writers, and critics. The book offers the contemporary reader new reasons to return to this fascinating writer’s work.
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Hamlin Garland was born in West Salem, Wisconsin, on 14 September 1860. When he was eight years old, the Garland family moved to the first of four Iowa farms, eventually settling on a tract of land near Osage in September 1872. In the fall of 1876, Garland enrolled in the Cedar Valley Seminary in Osage, an institution that provided college-preparatory classes during a time when Osage had no high school. When Garland graduated in 1881, he left to take a tour of the East and find work, returning in 1883 to join his family in the Dakota Territory, where they had established a homestead near Ordway in the James Valley, near present-day Aberdeen, South Dakota. With his brother Franklin (18631945) and school friend Charles Babcock, Garland established a homestead in McPherson County before selling his claim for two hundred dollars in 1884. The proceeds enabled him to move to Boston, where he hoped to continue his education. In this letter and its accompanying "side lights," Franklin provides the only extant account of Garland's early life apart from Garland's own narrative in A Son of the Middle Border. As is common with memories of events from years in the past, Franklin confuses chronology at some points in his recounting: when he graduated in June 1881, Garland first skittered about trying to find a job as a teacher and then joined his family for two weeks in the Dakota Territory before leaving for the East. Franklin joined him in July 1882; by April 1883, Garland was homesteading in Dakota before selling his claim and leaving for Boston in October 1884. I have retained Franklin's idiosyncrasies in spelling and capitalization.
JULY 19 1940
My Dear Mr. Hill:—
I am sorry I cant give you any information about the Girl Alice, as I never met her, and Hamlin was not much of a hand to talk about matters of that kind.
I was born March 11th, 1863, in Greens Coulee, some ten miles from Hamlins birth place in West Salem. Mother was born some place in Ohio April 16th, 1848.
While Hamlin was attending the Seminary, I was at home doing the chores and keeping up the Farm work on the assumption that I was to have my chance when he had finished, but my chance never came. Conditions got so bad Father could not spare me or the money, then he sold the Farm and we moved to Dakota. A wildly beautifull land the first two or three years we lived there.
When I first roamed those prairies Buffalo Carcases dotted the plain like hay-cocks in a hay meadow. The ground was so smoothe you could drive anywhere with a Horse and buggy, regardless of roads, and the most invigorating Air.
Wish I could live it over again.
I am also enclosing a few little side lights, that may possibly be of interest to you, if not to the reading public. Any way I hope they may be of some use.
Most Cordially Yours, Franklin Garland
Notes of the Early Life of Hamlin Garland
During the years from 14 to 17 of Hamlins life, we both belonged to a Baseball team composed of farm boys, Hamlin was our Star Pitcher and was a good one. He threw the curves, and had one particularly effective sinker that had the big boys swinging wildly and missing. He was so effective that we beat the County seat team more often than they did us. I played short in the line-up, but was pretty light to be much of service.
Also during these years, this was while he was attending the Cedar Valley Seminary, he was reading Shakespeare, and other High-brow works, which he would tell me about during his week end visits at home.
The Sword fights in Shakespeare made a great hit with both of us so we fashioned Broad Swords out of some tough Elm timber we had, then we engaged some very lively fights, though probably [not] very expert. But we had loads of fun at it.
We both rode Horses like wild Indians, bare-back mostly, until I won a saddle at a County fair, then we took turns using the Saddle while the other one used a blanket with a Circingle. We indulged in some wonderful races over the Prairies. We did a lot of the Cowboy stuff , swinging down to pick wild flowers with our mounts on the dead run, throwing our hats ahead to be picked up also with the horses on the dead run. Then lean down, unbuckle the saddle, throw it to the ground, unbuckle the Bridle, throw that aside then ride without anything to guide the Pony but the swaying of the Body or the touch of the hands on the side of the neck, things which we had taught the Horses with many hours of patient endeavor, then return, pick up the Saddle and Bridle just to fill up the time.
When I was 18, Hamlin had graduated from the Seminary. Father sold our Iowa Farm, and moved us to Dakota Territory in the upper Jim Valley, where he established a general store in which I was installed as a Clerk.
Hamlin had gone out on his own, part of the time he taught School, and part of the time he worked as Carpenters helper, and the way that boy could lay shingles was something to see. He would fill his Mouth with shingle nails, lay a row of Shingles[,] then with a one two tap of the hammer he would keep a continuous stream of nails from his mouth to the shingles til the row was all nailed down. He was always fast at any work that he undertook.
One sunday when he was visiting us at the Home on the Homestead which Father had filed on, he had been writing on something, and came out to sit on the Door step beside me to read it to me,—during his early writings, he always tried it out on me "as the Dog." He said I was of ordinary intelligence and if it went with me, the general public would like it, well anyway while listening to his reading I was watching a big black cloud forming in the southwest, and being experienced in such matters I knew what was coming. One could see for many miles across those Dakota plains, and by the time he had finished the story, the storm, a young Cyclone no less, had reached to within a couple of miles of our place hitting a wheat field, and what it did to that wheat was something spectacular to be hold. I had been watching it carefully, and was sure it was passing to the South of us, but close enough so that we would get part of it, and as he finished I called his attention to it and we went inside, closed all the doors and windows, and we weathered it with little damage to our place.
On our way to town next morning we saw a neighbors House had been picked up bodily and set down again on its Roof, apparently without very little damage. A cute little way with Cyclones.
The following Spring he came back and together we took a camp outfit and drove some twenty odd miles out in to McPherson County where we filed Timber Claims, built a little board store building, installed a little stock of goods to supply the neighboring settlers, with a living room at the back. We took in an old schoolmate, Charles Babcock, to live with us. I ran the store and did the Cooking for the outfit while Hamlin and Charles did the necessary improvements on our claims. The point of this incident, is that during his leisure hours, Hamlin, continuing his literary studies, covered the walls of our living quarters with Charts of English literature, from a way back up to then. He had it in periods, classes, epochs, cycles and what have you. As I look back upon it now it seems like great performance. It was preparing for his Teaching Job at the Boston School of Oratory in Boston.
In the Fall of 1883 we sold our Claims after proving up on them, and Hamlin went back to his teaching and I started for Valparaiso Indiana to attend the Northern Indiana Normal School.
We met by pre-arrangement at Madison Wisconsin, and promoted a little Amusement Company composed of Hamlin as Lecturer and Myself as Manager, ticket seller, door keeper and all around flunky.
I think we lasted about three nights out in the Country districts. Then he went to his School and I continued on to Valparaiso. It was when our several terms were over, that we got together again in Chicago for our celebrated trip to New England, Bunker Hill, the White Mountains, Fathers birth place, Etc, which He has written about.
Roxbury and Jamaica Plain Episodes
Early in October 1886 I received a letter from Hamlin saying he had found a job for me in Roxbury with a distant Cousin of ours who owned a large Clothing Store.
I was, at the time enjoying life, pitching grain to or with a big Steam Threshing outfit near Ordway, Brown County South Dakota. And on Saturday night, I stuck my fork in the ground announced to all and sundry, especially my employers, that I was leaving them, also the land of the Dakota's for good.
That night I packed my Paper Mache Bag and my Tin Trunk, and the next day, Bidding my folks Good Bye, I climbed aboard the Train bound for Boston, where I arrived some four or five days later, so green that the Cows nibbled at me as I walked across the Common.
Hamlin met me and took me out to introduce me to Mr. Lawrence, of the Clothing store, and to my prospective Land Lady, Mrs. Hutchinson, a charming elderly Lady, where [I] lived during my two years in Boston.
On Monday morning, I took up my duties as Clerk in said Clothing store. And as they say in the Studio's in hollywood, "get this, it's good." My only experience in Clerking had been in My Uncle Dick's store in Onalaska Wis, for a few months the winter I was 17, and then in Fathers "WAMBERGER GROCERY AND DRY GOODS EMPORIUM" in Ordway So. Dakota.
My cousin ran his business on the Jew Plan, and his head salesman took me in hand and gave me all the instructions I was to get in the art of selling Jew fashion. He said "Suppose a man comes in and wants a pair of Five dollar pants, you try to sell him at Five dollars, if he wont pay that try Four Fifty, and failing that, make it Four, then Three Fifty, and if he still holds, Turn him over to the head Salesman." I think that gives you the picture—Oh yes I was to receive Six dollars per for these most valuable services, of course I was a High-class Wash-out.
Mr. Lawrence kept me on for a couple of months, then he very Kindly secured a book-keeping place for me with THE SHAWMUT AVE. Street Car Company, where I was more at home as I had graduated from the Valparaiso Commercial College, with very good grade.
Meantime Hamlin and I were together as much as we could be, going to the Beaches in the summer, and to Theatres and Symphony Concerts, and during the Grand Opera season Each Saturday Night would find us each with his two bits clasped tightly in his right fist, waiting at the Gallery door for it to open when we made the mad rush up two or three hundred steps to the top gallery where we would sit and drink in That Glorious Music. In order to get good seats we had to be in line by Six thirty, but with our limited Capital that was our only chance. But it was pretty wonderful for two green country boobs.
Then again when BOOTH AND BARRETT, came to the old Boston Theatre, we did the same thing over again to see the Marvelous acting of Edwin Booth and his Company. Way up in the top of the Gallery, but we could see and hear perfectly up there, in fact I found we could hear the Music better up there than we could on the first floor at a later time.
Hamlin lived with Dr. Cross and family in Jamaica Plain, for many years, they were grand people, and treated him as a son. And were most cordial to me whenever I visited Hamlin there. Jamaica Plain is a beautiful Suburb, and in Winter we used to go Skating on Jamaica Pond a beautiful little lake only a short distance from the Cross home. And one day we were Idling about doing some fancy figures, when I saw a chap across the pond doing stunts backward, suddenly throw up his arms and disappear in an Air-hole in the Ice. I recalled seeing a ladder some 15 or 20 feet long lying near another hole not far away, and we made for that; I grabbed it by the large end and pushed it across the Pond to the Boy in the water. He had had presence of mind to come up and lay his arms out over the Ice, and not wear himself out threshing about; Hamlin took the front end of the ladder, and laying on his stomach, got close enough to the boy to push the top rung of the ladder to him and get him to grab it and hold tight while we pulled him out.
A couple of his friends took him one on each side, he was pretty badly chilled by that time, and escorted him home. A young man standing by, came up to us and tried to persuade us to apply for a Rescue Medal, but we were not interested, or possibly too green.
A few months after I entered the Street Car office that Company Consolidated with the larger Company, which controlled most of the lines in the City, and Our office was closed.
I was again unemployed. Then began a strenuous time for the "Greenhorn" from Dakota, hunting another job. I walked the streets, answered all the Ads in the Papers, annoyed office managers, Merchants etc, and what have you for six solid weeks, to land office work in the OSGOOD FURNITURE STORE on Washington St. This was a branch store and in several months he closed this place, moving the stock to his main Emporium, and again, yours Truly, as old John L. Sullivan used to say, was on his uppers again.
And after another session of six or eight weeks, I was fortunate enough to secure the position of Book-keeper for the Firm of SWEETLAND AND BURDON, on Milk Street, Wholesale Silverware dealers. Mr. Sweetland was the one who had the experience, Mr. Burdon had the money, and I had the office experience. And believe me it was some experience. I remained with this firm for two years, until I left them to go on the Stage. Mr. Burdon fired me twice during the two years, and hired me back again at an increase in salary each time.
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