American Literature Hamlin Garland
Keith Newlin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0038


Hamlin Garland (b. 1860–d. 1940) was born in West Salem, Wisconsin, and in his youth moved to a number of prairie farms in Iowa before taking up a homestead near Aberdeen, South Dakota, in 1883. In 1884 he sold his homestead rights and traveled to Boston, where he undertook a program of self-education in the Boston Public Library. Soon, he was lecturing on American writers and began publishing a number of stories, poems, and essays in magazines, where he gained a reputation as a literary radical who advocated for realistic fiction and drama that celebrated the commonplace even as it underscored the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots. In 1891 he published his first collection of short fiction, Main-Travelled Roads, stories that sought to depict the actual working life of Midwestern farmers and that are generally regarded as his best work. His energy and ambition were such that he soon flooded the literary market with material, including four novels in 1892 alone. In 1894 he published his literary manifesto, Crumbling Idols, in which he argued that writers needed to shrug off their reliance on East Coast and British masters to realize their identity as American writers with an intimate connection to the land. Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, generally regarded as his most successful novel, appeared in 1895, and then Garland turned to the mountain West for new material, having grown weary of his subject. From 1895 to 1916 he published twenty-one books, most of them conventional romances devoted to the western cowboys, ranchers, and forest rangers who enthralled him, before he also tired of this subject. Thereafter, he turned to autobiography, capitalizing on his reputation as a prominent lecturer who had made the acquaintance of most of the leading American and British writers. In 1917 the first volume of his autobiography appeared, A Son of the Middle Border, a remarkably honest and moving account of his rise from life on a frontier farm to international celebrity. Its sequel, A Daughter of the Middle Border, carrying his story to 1914, was published in 1921 and received the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Thereafter Garland turned to mining his daily diaries for material and produced, among other books, a second sequence of autobiographies, which largely recount his meetings with authors and other celebrities, interspersed with the daily events of a busy author and lecturer. In the early 21st century Garland is chiefly remembered for his early fiction and his role in advocating for realism in literature.

General Overviews

The only readily accessible volume to assess Garland’s full career is McCullough 1978, which remains the best introduction for students. Pizer 1960 is the definitive treatment of Garland’s influences, composition process, and development of his literary creed to 1895, and it remains the single most important work in Garland criticism. Mane 1968 is a fine study of Garland’s life and work, but because it has not been translated from French, it remains relatively unknown. Gish 1976 offers a brief assessment of Garland’s western writings. Simpson 1941 was responsible for initiating a major movement in Garland criticism, arguing that he sold out his early promise as a writer for commercial success, a thesis to which Walcutt 1956 developed an equally influential corollary: that Garland lacked the intellectual and artistic skill to follow through on his early promise. Over the years, a number of rejoinders have appeared, including Saum 1972, which argues that Garland abandoned his reform writing because the times had changed, and he had lost his early optimism; Newlin 2006 suggests that Garland adapted his work to respond to changes in the literary market.

  • Gish, Robert. Hamlin Garland: The Far West. Boise State University Western Writers 24. Boise, ID: Boise State University Press, 1976.

    For those unacquainted with Garland’s western writings, this pamphlet presents a succinct account of Garland’s western travels (1895–1914), the essays and novels stemming from them, and the place of this writing in critical estimations of his career.

  • Mane, Robert. Hamlin Garland, l’homme et l’oeuvre (1860–1940). Paris: Didier, 1968.

    Biographical and critical overview of Garland’s life and work, with detailed attention to Garland’s formative years and prairie writings and discussions of his other works. Includes sections on Garland’s philosophy and style, as well as a bibliography of his works. In French.

  • McCullough, Joseph B. Hamlin Garland. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

    Only single work to discuss Garland’s full career, with chapters appraising each period of his work. A solid overview for students.

  • Newlin, Keith. “Why Hamlin Garland Left the Main-Travelled Road.” In Special Issue: Inaugural Double Issue in Honor of Donald Pizer. Studies in American Naturalism 1.1–2 (2006): 70–89.

    Revisionist discussion of Garland’s decision to abandon the subject and method of the early stories that made him famous and turn to western romances. Explores the role of the literary marketplace and Garland’s effort to adapt to changing market conditions.

  • Pizer, Donald. Hamlin Garland’s Early Work and Career. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.

    Definitive survey of Garland’s sources, influences, career, and achievement until 1895. On the basis of the rich resources of the Garland Papers at the University of Southern California, Pizer comments on nearly all of Garland’s published writing until 1895. Includes a bibliography of Garland’s work until 1895.

  • Saum, Lewis O. “Hamlin Garland and Reform.” South Dakota Review 10 (1972): 36–62.

    Surveys Garland’s work in relation to a number of reform movements (agrarian, religion, alcohol, politics, women’s rights) to conclude that Garland abandoned his reform writing because he had lost his optimism for the efficacy of reform and that his shift is consonant with a similar loss of confidence in late-19th-century culture. Reprinted in Silet, et al. 1985 (cited under Collections).

  • Simpson, Claude. “Hamlin Garland’s Decline.” Southwest Review 26 (1941): 223–234.

    Responsible for initiating the argument that Garland compromised his art by preferring commercial success to the militant realism he advocated. Reprinted in Nagel 1982 (cited under Collections).

  • Walcutt, Charles C. “Adumbrations: Harold Frederick and Hamlin Garland.” In American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream. By Charles C. Walcutt, 45–65. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956.

    Influential essay (pp. 53–65) that argues that Garland’s reformist zeal was short lived and that he was a promising but unsophisticated writer who lacked the artistic skill to integrate new ideas into fiction. Reprinted in Nagel 1982 and Silet, et al. 1985 (both cited under Collections).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.