Hamlin Garland, One of the Great Literary Pioneers of America


Boston has always been a city that prides itself on its social reform ideals, and Jamaica Plain has played its part as well. But few would think that Jamaica Plain played any part in the militant reform movement in the Midwest one hundred years ago. Yet America's leading writer of the farming frontier, Hamlin Garland, wrote his very first stories from an attic room in Jamaica Plain.

Hamlin Garland was one of the great literary pioneers of America. The subjects of his best writing were the dirt farmers of the "middle border", that area between the land of the hunter and the land of established agriculture. In Garland's time, this was Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakota Territory where he had grown up between 1860 and 1884.

Life was hard for his farming family, and he wanted to improve his future by becoming a teacher. A Maine minister passing through Ordway, Dakota convinced young Hamlin Garland that Boston offered more opportunities for study than did the Midwest, and Garland came to Boston in November of 1884.

After unsuccessfully trying to get into Boston University using the minister's recommendation, Garland began a period of self-instruction at the old Boston Public Library on Boylston Street, while staying in a cold, bleak room around the corner in Boylston Place. He lived in virtual poverty, slowly wasting away. In order to save the little money he brought with him, he daily spent only eight cents for breakfast, fifteen cents for dinner and ten cents on supper.

The next spring, he met the Maine minister at his home in Portland and received a recommendation to visit Dr. Hiram Cross in Jamaica Plain. The doctor had purchased some land in Dakota territory and the minister thought that Cross and Garland could talk about the West; the minister also hoped the good doctor would offer Garland advice about his frightfully run-down condition. And so Hamlin Garland took the horsehair "along winding lanes under great overarching elm trees, past apple orchards in bursting bloom... The effect upon me was somewhat like that which would be produced in the mind of a convict who should suddenly find his prison doors opening into a June meadow." The two men liked and trusted each other and Dr. Cross offered Garland a room with board for the summer at five dollars a week. Thus was Hamlin Garland installed in Dr. Cross' attic room at 21 Seaverns Avenue in Jamaica Plain.

During this time, Garland was studying and going to lectures regularly. After one talk, the speaker, Professor Moses Brown, owner of the Boston School of Oratory, asked him to give a summer course on literature. He happily accepted. The fortunate combination of a pleasant place to live and someone's confidence in his literary and speaking abilities inspired Hamlin Garland to begin to write.

His first major piece was prompted by the sound of the coal shovel beneath his window in Jamaica Plain. He said it reminded him of the sound of the corn-shucking shovel, and "The Huskin'" was accepted by American Magazine of Brooklyn, New York. The story's focus on life in the Midwest would mark Garland's entire career. For while the city made him articulate, Hamlin Garland wrote about the land he knew best.

His stories are remarkable for the realism they depicted. Garland contrasted the natural beauty of the land and the heroism of its families with the failures of the pioneer enterprise. He showed the life of a farmer in this stark region in America as unremitting labor amidst poverty and filth. Drudgery and hopelessness came with the unpredictable weather and the predictably mean spirit of the moneylender. His writings exploded the myths of the rural movement westward.

Garland saw his writing as the first wave of a true American literature, free from European convention. He believed that the local settings and realistic language of the Midwest was the basis of a future natural American literature. He also wrote extensively in support of Impressionist painting as the realistic art of the future. The writer insisted on using his stories to convey his ideas in social reform. Garland was a fervent believer in the Single Tax philosophy of Henry George, and campaigned personally for the People's Party of Iowa and the Populist Party in 1892.

The magazine stories he wrote at Seaverns Avenue were collected into his first book, Main-Traveled Roads, which is acknowledged by critics to be his best. Garland's reputation began to grow in Boston and spread throughout the country. He became friends with William Dean Howells, the Boston urban realist writer, as well as John Enneking, the impressionist painter from Hyde Park. The other writers in "honest" literature with whom he became friendly included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Rudyard Kipling, as well as Edward Eggleston, Joseph Kirkland and E.W. Howe.

By December 1890, he moved to 12 Moreland Street in Roxbury, and then established his home in Chicago during 1893, in order to be close to the new trends developing at the World's Fair. He married Zulime Taft, sister of the Chicago sculptor Loredo Taft, in 1899. His writings continued to be realistic and socially concerned. Then in 1919 he wrote his autobiography, A Son of the Middle Border, and its sequel, A Daughter of the Middle Border, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1921. These books capped his career with a return to his roots and are considered among the best American biographies ever written.

He moved to California with his daughters in 1929, and died on March 4, 1940 at the age of seventy-nine. A reformer who was at the start of the populist movement, a writer of a new American literature, Hamlin Garland's reputation traveled far from its beginning in Jamaica Plain.


Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border, New York, 1917; Jean Holloway, Hamlin Garland, A Biography, Austin, 1960; Current Biography 1940; Boston City Directories, 1884-1893. Photograph courtesy of Miami University and The Hamlin Garland Society.

Copyright © 1995 Michael Reiskind