Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border (1917)

First edition
Being a Nebraska farm boy, I grew up on a middle border between Midwest and West many decades after Garland. Yet I found much that was familiar in his memoir of rural life during the period of Western expansion, 1865 – 1900. By the 1940s, not that much had changed. 

Farm work was more mechanized, and gas-powered tractors had taken the place of horses. Improved roads and automobiles had shortened distances. But farm work was still hard, often grueling labor at the mercy of the elements. There was dust, manure, and mud, and whether bumper years or drought and crop failures, farm life was isolated and lonely.

Realism. Garland’s realistic portrayal of it—the beauty as well as the ugliness—collided with two different streams of thought about rural America in the early 20th century. One was a pastoral, bucolic, and picturesque vision of simple, wholesome living far from the corruptive influence of the city. Another was the go-west boosterism that coaxed settlers from the East and abroad to snap up free land and get rich as agricultural producers. Garland saw in his own family’s example the empty promise at the heart of both visions.

The Garland family
He came to understand that a nation’s culture thrived in its major cities, where books were published, talented artists gathered, and there was intellectual stimulation for freedom of thought. Those with heart and mind for such pursuits were deprived of them in rural backwaters. For Garland, there was only one such city, Boston, while Chicago was no more than a huge commercial center, and New York had yet to emerge as more than a crowded port of entry.

The lure of the West, as Garland came to see it, was even more devastating in its effect. His pioneering father moved west a total of five times, with time off to serve as a Union soldier during the Civil War. As a boy, Garland went with his family from their farm near La Crosse, Wisconsin, to a homestead community near Osage, in northeast Iowa. At the age of 10 he was plowing virgin sod there with horses.

The next move was to the James River Valley near Aberdeen in Dakota, where his father eventually acquired 1000 acres of prairie, converted to wheat. But after 2 – 3 years of crop failure he was ready to move once again, this time to Montana, where there was irrigation for farming. By now able to supplement his father’s income, and seeing his mother’s failing health, Garland persuaded his parents to return to Wisconsin, where they could spend their last years with the friends and family who never left.

Farewell gathering
The cost of pioneering. The lesson for Garland is that his father’s pioneering spirit grew from faith in false promises about the frontier. For all the energy he poured into making a living from the soil, he won little in return and would have been better off remaining in the Wisconsin settlement he had once fled from. Particularly ruinous was the effect on Garland’s mother, who labored unrewarded from before sun up to after sundown, seven days a week, years on end, giving birth to four children and losing two daughters to illness.

In Dakota, Garland observes that “nearly all, even the young men, looked worn and weather-beaten and some appeared both silent and sad.” He sees “the tragic futility of their existence,” their lives “dull and eventless.” Influenced by the social-economic theory of Henry George, he blames the system of land ownership, which has pushed settlers from the East and Europe/Russia onto western lands, where with “unremitting toil” they labor to feed and clothe families while remaining impoverished and fugitive.

Seminary graduation
Social history. There are other threads in Garland’s book that offer a modern-day reader (and especially writers) a deep experience of day-to-day life on the frontier in the latter third of the 19th century. I have already written here about how family life was enriched by song and music (see “Family musicale c1870”). A young person’s schooling, from the local country schoolhouse to “seminary” in town is also well described.

Interesting for book lovers is Garland’s recollection of his McGuffey Readers and how he supplemented his formal education with other reading material: 100 (by his count) dime novels, Hawthorne, Scott, Cooper, Paradise Lost, Twain’s Roughing It, western poet Joaquin Miller, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Franklin’s Autobiography, and Edward Eggleston’s Hoosier Schoolmaster, “a milestone in my literary progress,” he notes, “as it is in the development of distinctive western fiction.” Plus magazines and weekly newspapers: Hearth and Home, New York Saturday Night, New York Ledger, and New York Weekly.

Yet another thread of the book is Garland’s struggle as a starving writer and lecturer in Boston where he ekes out a living, while befriending the likes of novelist and editor William Dean Howells and eventually wins the praise of Walt Whitman. He is also deeply affected by the performances of Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, who taught “the dignity, the power and the music of the English tongue.”

Hamlin Garland, 1893, age 33
Wrapping up. As someone who grew up with “barn shoes,” went to a country school, learned of jazz concerts and Impressionist painters on trips to Chicago, and once worked in an office with a view of the Empire State Building, I found Garland’s story easy to identify with. I share his ambivalence about rural living, where the smell of new-cut hay and the song of meadow larks are among its pleasures, while shoveling cowshit from a milking parlor remains an indelible memory of my teen years.

Mostly I want to recommend this 467-page book as an excellent reference for any writer placing a story on the prairie frontier during the decades following the Civil War. It’s a valuable lesson in social history as it captures a period of rapid national transition, with a realism that is a corrective to the somewhat different view of Little House on the Prairie.

A Son of the Middle Border is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive and in print and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Further reading:

Image credits:
Illustrations from the novel, Maynard Dixon
Author's photo, Wikimedia Commons
First edition cover,

Coming up: Craig Johnson, Death Without Company


  1. This is a beautiful evaluation of a book I now know I must read.

  2. I'm currently working on some memoir stuff myself. I need to read a few others to see how folks do it.

  3. I've been aware of Garland since childhood mostly for his machismic poetry, "Do You Fear the Force of the Wind?" and the like, but this sounds vastly more interesting (quite aside from inspiring the musicale post as well!).

  4. Have always intended to read it. After your fine review, I will make it a must.

  5. Ron, the depth of your review reflects the intensity of this historical novel set on the frontier. It's good to know that this and many of his others books are available legally online.