Hamlin Garland, Pulitzer Prize Winner and Noted Western Author
As a senior at Notre Dame (Indiana) I enrolled in a course entitled “Literature of the American West,” a rare curricular offering at any college then and now. Among the books on the class syllabus were Willa Cather’s O Pioneers and Hamlin Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads.
After graduation I stayed on in the Midwest and taught American literature at a high school in Cincinnati. Here I assigned novels like Cather’s My Antonia and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I noted the connections and contrasts between “the East” and “the West” in both books.
When I returned to Boston in the early 1970s I settled in Jamaica Plain and continued to read fiction, especially by American and Canadian writers. Years later – at a reading at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge – I learned about an annual celebration of the life and fiction of Willa Cather in her hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska. I signed up for and attended the 2014 conference sponsored by the Willa Cather Foundation.
The keynote speaker at the Cather Conference, Lee Jenkinson, focused on Cather, of course, but as an aside near the end of his address mentioned a number of other now little-read “Western” writers, including Mari Sandoz (Old Jules), E.W. Howe (The Story of a Country Town) and Hamlin Garland.
His remarks caused me to pick up my old Signet Classic paperback edition of Main-Travelled Roads. In the preface Garland writes of his coming as a young man to Boston in 1884 after years of hardscrabble farming in Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakota Territory. Boston was the shining city on a hill for ambitious prospective writers like Garland.
At first Garland settled in a small rooming house on Boylston Place near the old Boston Public Library. Then a friend in Boston suggested that Garland meet Dr. Hiram Cross, a Boston physician with an interest in the West due to his recent purchase of a farm in the Dakota Territory. Garland decided to “risk a dime and make the trip to Jamaica Plains, to call upon Dr. Cross.” His half-hour trip aboard a little horse-car introduced Garland to a greener Boston with its “winding lanes under great overarching elm trees, past apple-orchards in bursting bloom.”
Dr. Cross lived in a “small frame house” at 21 Seaverns Avenue in Jamaica Plain, a home “in the midst of a clump of pear trees.” Soon afterwards – in late spring 1887 – Dr. Cross invited Garland to live in the attic of his home. Garland – hard-pressed financially and loving the country atmosphere of Seaverns Avenue and Jamaica Plain – was delighted to move to a more rural setting.
From fall 1887 to spring 1888 Garland wrote a series of what he called “sketches,” that became the short stories of Main-Travelled Roads, the book that established his reputation as a writer. Garland wrote that the book’s “composition was carried on in the south attic room of Doctor Cross’s house at 21 Seaverns Avenue, Jamaica Plain.”
William Dean Howells, a prominent novelist and literary figure of the time, hailed Garland as an important new voice in American literature. The aged Walt Whitman praised Garland as one of the literary pioneers of the West. In late September 2016 I journeyed to St. Paul, Minnesota, for a family wedding. The day after the wedding I joined a small group for a walking tour of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s St. Paul. From St. Paul I headed south – first to Northfield, Minnesota, where I toured St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges – and then travelled on to my second literary destination: the hometown of Hamlin Garland, West Salem, Wisconsin.
I learned to my dismay that the Hamlin Garland Homestead had closed for the season. West Salem is tiny with a two-block downtown. I noticed one store that seemed to represent an Easterner’s idea of Wisconsin – Le Coulee Cheese Castle – and walked in and met Nick Miller, the proprietor, who personified Midwestern graciousness. When he learned that I was a Bostonian wanting to see Garland’s home he picked up his phone and dialed the President of the West Salem Historical Society, 90-year old Errol Kindschy.
Errol lives in a grand Colonial house overlooking the downtown. His house doubles as an antique shop and used bookstore. Now hobbled, he lives on the second floor and uses the stairs once a day on orders of his physician. But hearing that a Garland reader from Boston was in town he came down the stairs a second time that day to greet and chat with me. I learned quickly that Errol is an expert on the life and works of Hamlin Garland and a raconteur of the first rank. He recounted stories for an hour about Garland, sold me a couple of Garland first editions from his book stacks, and made a phone call to arrange for the Garland Homestead to be opened for me! That is the beauty of small-town America. As I was departing, Errol asked me to join the West Salem Historical Society. I did so!
I walked over to the Garland Homestead, a two-story house on the National Register of Historic Places. There Norma Schmig, another member of the West Salem Historical Society, met me and provided a well-informed hour’s talk about the home and grounds. Hamlin had purchased the “two-story frame cottage” in the early 1890s for a retirement home for his pioneer parents. For both generations it was a return to Lacrosse County and the town of West Salem, where the best years of the Garland family had been spent.
I doubled back to Le Coulee Cheese Castle, thanked Nick, and bought a $1 ice cream cone and my first-ever bag of cheese curds. I drove by two other historical homes managed by the West Salem Historical Society, and then proceeded to Neshonoc Cemetery, where Hamlin and his wife Zulime (Taft) Garland are buried – a beautiful spot on a hill on the outskirts of town.
In late fall I sent Errol Kindschy a photo of 21 Seaverns Street, the site where Garland composed his first and best-known book. Later on in his career Garland wrote family memoirs, A Son of the Middle Border and A Daughter of the Middle Border (winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1922), that traced his parents’ lives as pioneers and his own life as a best-selling author, husband, and father of two daughters.
By Will Dunfey
1. Garland, Hamlin. A Son of the Middle Border, Grosset &Dunlap, 1917. Quotes in the sixth and seventh paragraphs: pp. 337-338. Quote in the twelfth paragraph: p. 461.
2. Garland, Hamlin. Main-Travelled Roads, New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1962. Quotes in the eighth paragraph: p. X.
Editorial assistance provided by Kathy Griffin.