Friday, January 3, 2014

A Son of the Middle Border by Hamlin Garland

The plow and the pen
A Son of the Middle Border, originally published in 1917, is the autobiography of American author Hamlin Garland. Garland was a pioneering writer of American regional realism, and a precursor to socially conscious naturalist writers like Jack London, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser. In this memoir, Garland relates the details of his upbringing on a series of farms in the Midwest and his early development as a writer. The “Middle Border” referred to in the title is more than just an alternate name for the American Midwest. As Garland uses the term, it signifies the ever-shifting boundary between the settled lands of populated America and the wild territories of the western frontier. Garland’s father, Dick Garland, chases after this westbound frontier on a quest for the ever-elusive perfect piece of flat, treeless farmland. In the process, this American dreamer with an indomitable pioneer spirit drags his family along on a veritable odyssey through the farmlands of Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota.

Garland begins his life story in 1864, when, as a small boy, he witnessed his father’s return from the Civil War. His childhood remembrances of the family’s Wisconsin farm reveal an idyllic vision of a happy rural youth in which young Hamlin is surrounded by his loving extended family. The pioneer dreams of the clan’s menfolk soon lead, however, to a Midwestern diaspora, as the Garlands and their relatives scatter to farther fields. By the age of ten, young Hamlin is plowing his father’s fields, and as he comes of age and becomes more involved in the farm work, his view of the rural life becomes less romanticized and more realistic. A Son of the Middle Border paints a wonderfully honest and unglamorized picture of farm life in late 19th-century America. Garland’s writing, like a mixture of Frank Norris, Willa Cather, and Henry David Thoreau, captures a young man’s love of the land and pride in honest toil, while refusing to shy away from the gritty harshness of a life of back-breaking toil and poverty.

When he reaches manhood, Garland tramps around the United States doing odd jobs and farm labor. He eventually ends up in Boston, where he begins to pursue a writing career. He sets himself the difficult task of applying his literary talents to the stories of the rural West, a topic which was virtually ignored by the East Coast-dominated literary world of his day. Unfortunately, the story of Hamlin Garland the writer is not as fascinating as that of Hamlin Garland the farm boy. Though there is some interesting insight into his intellectual development, much of this portion of the story reads like a list of lectures given, books read, and plays attended. His literary idols are William Dean Howells and Walt Whitman, with whom he forms friendships. Stephen Crane also makes an appearance. Other than that, the roll of names he drops will be mostly unfamiliar to anyone but a scholar of American literature at the end of the 19th century.

Ultimately, the second half of the book negates many of the fond memories of the first. Garland begins to see the rural life as a trap and farming as little more than a form of slavery. Much of the final chapters of the book focus on him caring for his aged and ailing parents. While the farm narrative of the first half will appeal to anyone with an interest in American history, the second half will appeal primarily to those who are most familiar with Garland’s writings. I myself am a newcomer to his work, but I was impressed enough with this frank and touching memoir that I am looking forward to tackling some of his fiction in the near future.

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