Saturday, April 05, 2014

Memories of the Prairie

A Son of the Middle BorderA Son of the Middle Border 
by Hamlin Garland

“I remember a hundred lovely lakes, and recall the fragrant breath of pine and fir and cedar and poplar trees. The trail has strung upon it, as upon a thread of silk, opalescent dawns and saffron sunsets. It has given me blessed release from care and worry and the troubled thinking of our modern day. It has been a return to the primitive and the peaceful. Whenever the pressure of our complex city life thins my blood and benumbs my brain, I seek relief in the trail; and when I hear the coyote wailing to the yellow dawn, my cares fall from me - I am happy."  -   Hamlin Garland, McClure's, February 1899

My fond memories of growing up in Wisconsin create a warm place in my heart for this memoir about growing up in a Wisconsin of the previous century; then as the mid-western frontier. Hamlin Garland captures the essence of the place and time that was already a distant memory during my boyhood. He does this through advocacy of a form of realism that blended the realist's insistence upon verisimilitude of detail with the impressionist's tendency to paint objects as they appear to his individual eye.

He begins in a tremendously moving fashion with the first time he met his father who was returning home from the Civil War in 1864, as he was a baby when his father went off to war.
""Come here , my little man," my father said.--"My little man!" Across the space of a half-a-century I can still hear the sad reproach in his voice. "Won't you come and see your poor old father when he comes home from the war?"
"My little man!" How significant that phrase seems to me now! The war had in very truth come between this patriot and his sons. I had forgotten him--the baby had never known him."(p 6)

Garland narrates his memoir in chronological fashion tracing the events of his boyhood, first in Wisconsin and later in Iowa, and continuing into adulthood with his own travels and development as a writer. He uses a first person narrator but, he has two different "I"s telling the story. Using a "double angle of vision" Garland frequently shifts from telling his story from a youthful perspective to viewing the events and commenting on their significance as an adult. It is a very personal narrative where he does not claim to be telling the literal truth but only his personal or interior truth. The story is shaped by his own reminiscences and recollections of the past forming a sort of literary impressionism that Garland called "veritism". The veritist differed from the realist, Garland claimed, in his insistence upon the centrality of the artist's individual vision: the artist should paint life as he sees it. In doing this he brings his world alive for the reader.

The stories of his family life, with his brother on the farm and in school, his uncle David playing the fiddle, and the life of the prairie with its flora and fauna were the sections that I enjoyed the most. In later life he would go on to write short stories that were gathered in the collection Main-Travelled Roads and, four years after Son of the Middle Border he wrote Daughter of the Middle Border for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. I think the depiction of a warm family life on the prairie, a region's characters, customs, and textures of life creates an interesting read even for those who do not share a personal connection with the beauty of Midwestern life.

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Brian Joseph said...

The personal, inner truth thing is very interesting. I think that there is at least a a fair amount writing is done this way, it is just that most writers do not acknowledge it.

James said...

I agree with your observation - it is surely something to be alert for when reading personal nonfiction like this fine memoir.

M. said...

Thank you for the fine review of Garland's A Son of the Middle Border, and for your own memories of growing up in a small I was unfamiliar with Garland or his work.
Sadly for my '60s generation, our take on Wis. towns was formed by Wisconsin Death Trip.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I am sorry that your experience was shaped by a somewhat darker depiction of rural Wisconsin.
In his memoir, Hamlin Garland does not shy from the rigors of farm life on the prairie but the difficulties he encountered are leavened by many joys of family life and natural surroundings.
My own experience growing up in small town in southern Wisconsin in the fifties and sixties was similar to his experience a century earlier.