A Chinese View of Hamlin Garland
By Luo Xiaoyun
In his writings Hamlin Garland sticks to his unique style of telling the truth and shows sympathy for the people he cares. He influenced the early writings in American literature and also inspired the Chinese people when such works as Main-Traveled Roads were translated into Chinese.
After the Civil War there were great changes in the American society and the growth of communication and transportation linked the regions of the country and made people newly aware of differences in speech and custom. Especially the publishing cultural center moved from Boston to New York, which predicted that American culture came to its new stage of development. The magazines showed their great functions to the literary growth, for “American realism is largely a product of this high culture of letters… ”(Elliot 1988: 474) The conflict between a culturally mature East and a raw and expanding West led to the decline of romanticism and the rise of realism. At the time people were more educated and began to notice what was actually happening in the whole country. As a matter of fact, “America was already a nation of readers in 1800, and there is hardly an account of the life of that time in which literature fails to appear.” (Elliot 1988: 46) Now that the war was over and another golden period came for literary prosperity, realism rose timely as the mainstream in the literary world then. Some writers focused their attention on the local culture and events and their writings were full of local color and primarily aiming at the people of a geographical setting. Their efforts were entitled regionalism as a subline of realism and helped to bring the nation closer together. Among such writers Ham Garland was one of the most militant. In his early time he escaped from the poor sights of his homeland, but returned and got shocked by the poverty and suffering of the local farmers including his mother toiling on the bare land. He felt it his responsibility to tell the truth about the West. In China at first people only prefer his early writings which offer vivid pictures about the life just as in China around 1950s. However in his lifetime Garland’s artistic perspective turned from realism to its extreme—veritism (a word coined by himself) and withdrew to romanticism and his literary direction changed from hardship displaying to adventure pursuing, which could not be understood and forgiven by the Chinese people in the period from 1950s to 1970s.
Cover design for the Chinese edition of Main-Travelled Roads
Courtesy of Dr. Luo
Realism is the theory of writing in which familiar aspects of contemporary life and everyday scenes are represented in a matter-of-fact manner. In such fiction characters from all social levels that are usually ignored in the romantic writings are closely examined. Realism offers an objective view of the human nature and experience and these writers often stick to the moral values and accepted social standards. Their work is more thoughtful than that of romanticists. Realist writers pay more attention to the current social events and base their literary creation on their own accurate observation of the world. Cunliffe says in his The Literature of the United States that realism required the author to write about “the environment one knew, with strict regard to its actual properties—speech, dress, scene, behavior”. (Cunliffe 1970: 180) For Hamlin Garland realism offers an adequate perspective to examine the society then. Though some writers were in an embarrassed situation and did not know with certainty who in particular might be addressed, Garland stood out and spoke for the poor farmers. In his writings he combined realism with regionalism, basing his work on his thoughtful travels between town and country. When he finished his self-education in Boston public libraries he returned to Middle West only to find his mother and other folks struggling in poverty. He was extremely touched and took his pen at once to pour out his anger to the evil side of life. His vivid descriptions of the bankrupt farms showed his anxieties about his ideal country that should have appeared different. His Mid-West writings were chiefly collected in Main-Travelled Roads (1891), Prairie Folks (1893), Wayside Courtships (1897) and his early novel Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly (1895), which made people begin to think about whether the “American Dream” was just an illusion. Garland stuck to his own aesthetic principles and believed that being true is more important than being colorful and picaresque. In his short story “Under the Lion’s Paw” from Main-Travelled Roads, he showed his sympathy to the poor farmers who were struggling for a survival and told the public the truth about the Middle West:
Haskins worked like a fiend, and his wife, like the heroic woman that she was, bore also uncomplainingly the most terrible burdens. They rose early and toiled without intermission till the darkness fell on the plain, then tumbled into bed, every bone and muscle aching with fatigue, to rise with the sun next morning to the same round of the same ferocity of labor. (Inge 1989: 545)
The farmer (Haskins) thought he could realize his dream through his hard labor, considering “himself a free man, and that he was working for his wife and babes” and “getting nearer and nearer to a home of his own, and pushing the wolf of want a little farther from his door”. (Inge 1989: 546) But at the end of the three years the landlord with the power of the law took all he gained. Haskins came to know that he was under the lion’s paw: “He felt a horrible numbness in his heart and limbs…there was no path out.” (Inge 1989: 548) At the end of the story Haskins could not bear any longer and rose to fight back. Here we may feel the anger of Garland toward the injustice in the Middle West, for his passionate personal involvement with the harsh conditions of his people’ lives gave him greater strength to put them to words. Such fight spirit inspired the writer’s literary creation and enabled him to get great success and he was finally regarded as the spokesman of the poor farmers who went to the West in hope of a good future. The descriptions, speeches and living manners in Garland’s farm fiction display the characteristics of that part of the country, which could not be found elsewhere. His local color fiction describes the exotic and picturesque, exactly presenting things as they are. His characters were often small independent farmers facing the powerful landowners and monopoly capitalists and their conditions were deteriorating due to the rapid Westward expansion and threatening industrialization. Until late in the nineteenth century most Americans lived on farms, but some independent farmers were still trying to fight “a losing battle against both the rich individual landowners and the growing money power backed by a property-oriented legal system”. (Rubinstein 1988: 222) Garland’s work focused on their struggles and proved instructive and appealing to readers with its sharp contrast between the unbearable harshness of life and overall beauty of the prairies. His protagonists often display the rare quality of silent heroism and great potential of fighting spirit against the bitter nature and the human evils. Contrary to the romantic views, he described the Mid-West not as “New Eden”, but as a land of poverty and hardship. In his essays of Crumbling Idols (1894) he upholds his own aesthetic ideas and tries to be truthful to reality. Though his stories rank high as regional fiction, Garland had no interest in other things; “it was genuineness that he valued”. (Bradley 1967: 924) He called his own realism “veritism” to indicate that “he stood somewhere between the realism of Howells and the naturalism of Zola”. (Cunliffe 1970: 197) When the famous writer Howells read Garland’s stories, he praised them highly, saying, “The stories are full of those gaunt, grim, sordid, pathetic, ferocious figures…whose blind groping for fairer conditions is so grotesque to newspapers and so menacing to the politicians”. (Rubinstein 1988: 224)
However, when Garland gained some success, he turned away from such concerns to the romantic imaginations to meet the demands of the genteel public in the cities. His tone gradually changed, showing great admiration for his wealthy friends:
“Here again wealth was showing its kindly side. All my life I had heard much of the corruption of riches, the domination of millionaire and the criminal cruel use of gold but here…was another instance of the helpful use of money. It is only fair to say that, in my later years, I have often found wealth a justifying, civilizing agent.” (Rubinstein 1988: 225)
These conceptions led to his decline from his literary prime. To some extent we may say that he was also a victim of the industrialization then. And he was surpassed by other young writers, such as Frank Norris, Stephen Crane and Jack London. Hamlin Garland’s changes from his realistic views to romantic imagination could make the readers to sense the temptation and pressure from the rapid industrialization the intellectuals like him confronted. As the result, Garland’s veritism was temporary and his aesthetic ideas were a mixture of realism, regionalism and romanticism. But what is more important is that realism and regionalism in the period had tremendous influence on the later development of American literature, for Gertrude Stein’ indicated sixty years later “that with the Civil War America had begun creating the twentieth century”. (Elliot 1988: 482)
Indeed when the new century came Garland and his realism kept their influence and even reached China, which was far away and tightly shut up from USA. It is worthwhile to note that in 1958, shortly after the national liberation some intellectuals found the situation under Garland’s pen just like that in China. So they quickly organized a group to translate Garland’s short stories and published them in large quantity to meet the requirements then. In 1958 Shanghai New Literature Publishing House published A Son of the Middle Border, which was translated by Yang Wan. And in 1959 People’s Literature Publishing House published Garland Short Stories, which was translated by Li Wenjun & Chang Jian. Almost 30 years later when the country was re-opened to the outside in 1980s the Chinese people remembered Garland and translated more stories of the author. In 1987 Foreign Literature Publishing House published Garland Short Stories Collection, which were translated by Hu Yunheng & Li Wenjun. And in 1993 Shanghai Translation Publishing House published Main-Travelled Roads, which was translated by Zhen Daming. In 2000 when the Chinese government called on the people to go and develop the west part of China, people took up Garland’s again and realized the hardship and corruption that was described by the author still existed. So the reception of Hamlin Garland in China offers a practical value even now in China. Therefore at present college teachers are teaching Garland’s in classrooms and the postgraduates are interested in his works again.
Bradley, Sculley, ed. American Tradition in Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 1967.
Cunliffe, Marcus. The Literature of the United States. Beijing: Cultural Section, Embassy of USA, 1970.
Elliot, Emory, ed. Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
Inge, M. Thomas. A Nineteenth Century American Reader. Washington, D.C.: United States Information Agency, 1989.
Rubinstein, Annette T. American Literature: Root and Flower. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 1988.
Our thanks to Luo Xiaoyun, Ph.D Class of the Foreign Languages School, Nanjing University, Jiangsu, P. R. China