Middling: On Hamlin Garland’s "Main-Travelled Roads"
Hamlin Garland | Main-Travelled Roads | Belt Publishing | June 1, 2018 (Originally Published 1891) | 352 Pages
I grew up in Western Wisconsin a hundred and forty years and a ten minutes’ drive from Hamlin Garland, the most important Midwestern writer of the late nineteenth century, but we never learned about him in school. Even though there aren’t many people who do read him now, Garland’s masterpiece collection of short stories, Main-Travelled Roads, has had a lasting influence on the ways we understand the region.
Garland did his most important writing in the 1880s and 1890s, when the Midwest as we know it began to coalesce. Immigration swelled the region’s population as frontier conditions gave way to cleared farmland and settled communities, shifting its social values from rugged independence to open-hearted hospitality and its geographic focus from the Ohio River Valley to the prairies farther west. The region was undergoing a process of middling in this double sense, becoming what F. Scott Fitzgerald would later famously call America’s “warm center.” The name “Middle West” was itself first coming into widespread use as writers attempted to articulate this newly-emerging sense of the region’s culture.
Garland was at the forefront of this movement. Breaking away from the quaint, romantic Midwest of popular precursors like Edward Eggleston or James Whitcomb Riley, Main-Travelled Roads flouted genteel convention by not only including poor farmers in the purview of “serious” literature but making them protagonists and narrators. The men and women of these stories don’t merely speak in the dialect and cadence of their place (indeed, in some phrases and mannerisms we still hear): their cares and concerns, stripped of stereotype, are those of ordinary laborers striving to provide for their loved ones while seeking what moments of beauty they can.
Garland’s Midwest was caught in an intermediate state that in many ways family farming in the region has never left. The late-nineteenth-century shift from subsistence to commercial agriculture left farmers without the pride of mythic pioneer heroism only to leave them without modern comforts at the mercy of usurious creditors and railroad monopolies. Land prices went up, crop prices went down, and foreclosures abounded. Unprecedented economic strife stoked antipathy towards Northeastern political capital. In the same year Main-Travelled Roads was published, these tensions also gave birth to the optimistic yet ill-fated Populist Party.
Stories like “Under the Lion’s Paw” and “The Return of the Private” chronicle these men and women who “worked ‘nights and Sundays,’ as the saying goes, to clear the farm of its brush and of its insatiate mortgage.” The rhetorical jolt zeugma lends this line Garland elsewhere accomplishes with experimental plots. “Under the Lion’s Paw” devastatingly concludes with a farmer who, unable to bring himself to kill his creditor, pathetically accepts mortgage terms he knows will bleed him dry. In its frustrations of fortune, stark juxtapositions, brusque understatements, and abrupt expressions of sentiment, Main-Travelled Roads compels us to feel, not with melodramatic romanticism or patronizing realism but in the language of an equal writing to equals.
Garland was long and perhaps best known for fiery denunciations of conditions perpetuating inequality, but the animating power of Main-Travelled Roads lies in its ability to balance heartbreaking depiction of rural hardship with endearing testimony to the small joys and bonds of community that persist in spite of it. Rob in "Among the Corn-Rows" is no Prince Charming, but his proposal offers Julie a Cinderella-like chance to escape parents that treat her like a hired hand and become “a member of a new firm” in a marriage where she can work hard “because she wanted to, and not because she was forced to.” "Mrs. Ripley's Trip" to the town of her birth is the only vacation of her life, yet the memory of it sustains her. Mere passing kindness can transform a girl’s hard life, complimented cooking makes up for scant food, and spousal teasing expresses mutual respect that would sound insignificant if named.
In moments like these, Main-Travelled Roads testifies to the proverbial middleness that continues to characterize the Midwest. Garland’s characters acutely experience the push and pull of departure and return, the compromise between individual aspiration and communal obligation, the attempt to find meaning in the tension between the beauty of the landscape and the banality of labor. His overlooked dreamers influenced Sherwood Anderson’s “twisted apples”; his conflicted wayfarers who love the land they must leave are kin to Willa Cather’s; his lonely prairie families became Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth.
These themes are most fully integrated in “Up the Coolly.” It is the story of two brothers, the successful dramatist Howard returning to the family farm after a decade and the dour Grant who remained behind to work it. The prodigal’s expectations of a warm welcome and relaxing stay quickly evaporate before the bitter reproach of Grant’s poverty. Grant hasn’t the luxury of enjoying the beauty his brother sees in the Upper Mississippi, and Howard embarrassingly finds that soft hands and foppish clothes render him unfit for the work he once did. The authenticity of Howard’s memory nonetheless fails to address the family’s present reality, much as Grant’s indignation, however justified, is poisoning him more surely than his expenses. “Up the Coolly” holds us in the middle of these tensions to the very end, speaking to both the Grants and the Howards of our nature. Neither brother can represent a solution alone: the future of the Midwest can lie only in some compromise between them. Garland presses upon his readers the need to find this middle ground.
Garland’s Midwesterners are heroic after all, not in the ways of worldly success but in the suffering they determinedly meet and the sacrifices they make for one another. Accordingly, Main-Travelled Roads prioritizes the experience of events rather than the mere facts of them - of pitching hay in July, of ploughing through the first night of winter to finish in time, of a failing mortgage. In its impressionistic prose, characters’ feelings and their landscapes blur together. With every joy all nature, from the katydids to the Mississippi River, erupt in song; with every defeat the clouds and bluffs themselves groan in shared agony. In the process we too are pulled into this community of shared feeling.
I first read Main-Travelled Roads coming home from college on a train from Chicago to Lacrosse, the same line Howard takes home in “Up the Coolly.” I remember feeling a tinge of betrayal. How was it that I had never read Garland before, that no one had told me of this Midwestern literary inheritance? And yet I also had the reassuring sense that I had known him all along.
This piece is part of our “Midwest Canon” series, where writers highlight books they deem central to Midwest, Rust Belt, or Heartland history, culture and discourse. To pitch the series, send an email to email@example.com.