Sexuality in Hamlin Garland's Rose of Dutcher's Coolly

Article excerpt

The history of the creation of Rose of Dutcher's Coolly is one of older ideas reshaped in response to fresh circumstances. (1) Garland had made notes in 1890 for a story about a Wisconsin farm girl whose intellectual development renders her dissatisfied with farm life, and during 1892 and 1893 he wrote portions of the story involving Rose on the farm and at the University of Wisconsin. He was perhaps initially led to explore this theme by his observation of the childhood of his younger sister Jessie, a vibrant tom-boy and later an intelligent young woman, and was further motivated when Jessie died tragically young in late 1890. It was only in late 1894 or early 1895, however, that he decided to bring Rose after graduation not to New England, as he had originally planned, but to Chicago, which he viewed as his future home. The work now expanded from a long short story to a full novel, the final half of which is set in Chicago. And now the central issues raised in the earlier portions set on the farm and in Madison are resolved not only in the context of Chicago but with its active participation and aid.

Garland had been deeply moved in late 1889 by the plays of Henrik Ibsen and the American dramatist James A. Herne which explored such feminist themes as the double standard of sexual conduct and the barriers facing women seeking self-determination in a male-dominated society. (2) These New Woman themes of Rose have been frequently discussed as has its illustration in theme and practice of the regionalist aesthetic Garland had expounded in his 1894 literary manifesto Crumbling Idols. This essay is devoted to an exploration of relatively unfamiliar approaches to the work, most of which arise from or are closely related to its representation of Rose's sexuality. These have not been previously explored largely because Garland has not been taken seriously enough as an intellect and as an artist to consider the possibility of the existence of complex and disturbing themes in his fiction. Indeed, he himself would no doubt have rejected most of the ideas which are about to be discussed--rejected them both as present in his novel and as proper areas of concern in general. But they are there nevertheless and may help explain the strong holding power of Rose during the more than a century since its publication.

Since Rose of Dutcher's Coolly breaks almost exactly into two halves, the novel can be usefully approached in relation to that division. In the first half, Rose is growing up in Wisconsin on her family farm and then at the University in Madison. In this portion of the novel she is nurtured and protected first by her father and then by Dr. Thatcher. In the second half, she goes to Chicago, armed only with a few letters of introduction, to make her way alone in that turbulent, unfamiliar world. One significant characteristic of Rose therefore is its place in the major late nineteenth-century American fictional form of the development story in which a young person journeys from a farm or village to a great city in order to define himself or herself in that larger, more competitive social context. Howells, for example, had used the device in several of his novels, and Dreiser was also to use it in relation to a young woman in Sister Carrie. In addition, each half of Rose's country/city division has its own distinctive thematic emphasis. The first depicts how a young girl absorbs from her immediate natural world the qualities of energy and freedom that will see her through the problems of life she later encounters. The second, beginning in Madison and reaching full expression in Chicago, shifts into what can be called a Victorian problem novel. In a work of this kind, all in the fiction is shaped around the overt discussion and dramatization of a major social issue of the day. In Rose the problem is that of the proper and productive roles of sex and marriage in the life of an attractive but also talented and intelligent young woman who wishes to make full use of all her attributes. …