Friday, April 16, 2010

Main-Travelled Roads, by Hamlin Garland

My edition of Garland's breakthrough work has an introduction by Van Wyck Brooks, and in it, Brooks makes Garland into a sort of reverse-pioneer. I'll quote at length because I'll probably need this quote later, but I'll bold the most obviously relevant sentences so you can just skim:
Hamlin Garland was a follower of Howells, who said that a novelist should deal with the life he knows best and cares the most about. In fact, according to Eugene Field, who preferred to write about valorous knights, fairy godmothers and especially children, Howells was the 'only bad habit' of Garland. At that time both Field and Garland were living in Chicago, but Garland himself had spent several years in Boston before he began to write at all. He had taken the 'back trail,' to the amazement of the westward-streaming millions for whom the sunset sky stood for the promise and romance, and, alone and poor in the 'cradle of liberty,' he studied Darwin and John Fiske, absorbing the ideas of Taine about environment, race, and moment. Then he had fallen in with Howells, who had turned his mind back to the prairies on which he had grown up, and, still in Boston, he began to put together the stories he collected in Main-Travelled Roads.

Garland had come from the Middle Border, one of the last of the Westerners for whom Boston was the literary metropolis. His family had moved from Wisconsin to Iowa, then to Minnesota and then to South Dakota, but Garland himself refused to follow, although for a winter he took up a claim of his own. He had been for a while in charge of his father's farm, and Garland remembered the feeling of adventure when his family moved to the remoter West and the unploughed places of the unsettled prairie. The Garland cabin was a house of song, for his maternal uncles were all musicians, but one and all were subject to moods of heartache and loneliness, and the father resented the stumps that impeded his plough. Garland resolved to leave his shack on the wind-swept plain, go to Massachusetts—which no other plainsman before him had done by choice—and fit himself to teach.
Howells himself also came from the Midwest (Martins Ferry, Ohio), although Brooks is probably right in distinguishing Garland from Howells as a "plainsman"—Martins Ferry is right on the Ohio River, immediately across from Wheeling, West Virginia, and it would not due to call a man from that part of the country a "plainsman." Still, I wonder at Brooks's silence about this experience of eastward migration that Howells and Garland shared: while it is reasonable to say that "no other plainsman before [Garland] had [gone to Massachusetts] by choice" (even if this may not actually be true—I can't recall a prior case, but I bet there is one, though less notable than Garland), it is striking to say this in the immediate context of the influence of another emigrant from the internal U.S. Riparian Ohio is certainly quite different from Wisconsin, but Howells was a young man for whom Boston was the Eastern literary metropolis just as it was for Garland. (Not too much later, of course, Boston would be supplanted by New York.)

How similar were their experiences, really? How much should we credit Howells's origins for encouraging Garland to write about the prairies? Would a hypothetical Howells who had been born in say, Springfield, Massachusetts have done so? To be perfectly honest, I haven't yet read enough of either really to compare the two writers judiciously or substantially or to answer my hypothetical, but I do want to pose the question now as a sort of placeholder for future inquiry. The question of whether there was something like a regional identity (or if not a regional identity, something shared in the common experience of moving east to a metropolis) in play in the relationship between the two men, and if so, to what extent that served as a foundation for their literary production is something I want to continue to explore not just for these two men, but for many sets of men and women who have had similar experiences and similar relationships.

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