Hamlin Garland's Detour into Art Criticism: Forecasting the Triumph of Popular Culture over Populism at the End of the Frontier

Article excerpt

In the July 1895 issue of McClure's Magazine, the rising champion of American vernacular literature, Hamlin Garland, singled out the sculptor Edward Kemeys (mostly known for his depictions of Western subjects such as wild animals and Native Americans) as an example of "the true genius of American art" (130). Just a year earlier, Garland had articulated his definition of national creative excellence in Crumbling Idols, a collection of polemical essays on the current state of American arts and letters. Focusing primarily on literature, he had called for a distinctly native voice, one immediately responsive to the languages, customs, and concerns of the emerging nation outside of the convention-bound urban centers of the East (whose literature he regarded as essentially derivative of European tradition). As he put it, "The blight upon the literature of the West, like that of all provinces, has been its timidity, its tendency to work in accepted modes, its childish desire to write for applause of its masters in the East" (121). In following Eastern expectations about literature, the Western writer misses the "infinite drama [...] going on in these wide spaces of the West" (13-14). For Garland, Kemeys' "genius" resided in his embodiment of this native ideal, not within the field of writing but within the visual arts (and within sculpture in particular).

Despite the lofty ambitions for native genius expressed in Crumbling Idols, however, Garland himself as a writer has steadily drifted to the margins of the American literary canon (a passage into inconsequence only surpassed by Kemeys within accounts of American art history). Much has been written about Garland's contributions to vernacular literature, but over time this attention has gravitated toward his problematic status given his eventual abandonment of gritty realism and populist causes in favor of increasingly anodyne and toothless mainstream fiction. More recently, though, in "Locating Hamlin Garland," Bill Brown argues for a re-assessment of the writer's career as especially illustrative (for our postmodernist perspective) of the challenges attending an effort to write something like "serious fiction" that would both appeal to a wider authence and facilitate that authence's more active political participation. Although for Garland such a project ultimately failed, Brown draws attention to a uniquely late nineteenth-century moment when one "could imagine a cultural field that would be modernist ... yet popular, nationalist and populist," as opposed to the actual history of modernist fiction in the twentieth century, in which an "institutionalized antagonism between ['high' and 'low' culture] is precisely what obscure[d] populist culture from the aesthetic imagination" (99, 104-05). In an arguably allied fashion, Mark Storey attempts in "Country Matters" to reverse the earlier tendency of modernist critics to regard "regionalist" writers like Garland as merely "quaintly anachronistic" by recovering those moments in their novels that register social and political conflict, "buried but still-glowing embers of the clamorous and transformative social world from which the novel emerges" (192). It is as though Storey adopts a perspective that actively looks for and thereby supplies the socially progressive bite otherwise missing in such fiction, a kind of critical salvage operation that Brown sees as an only marginally effective strategy of contemporary "politicized criticism" (even as it seems to be one of its only options), which tries to "recuperate 'popular literature' and 'low culture' for its subversive potential" (91).1

Garland's ideas about success in the visual arts, exemplified by Kemeys, point to similar dilemmas. More particularly, his characterization of the sculptor's vernacular strengths through a deployment of specifically frontier associations makes him more popularly accessible yet blunts his populist potential. That is to say, Garland's portrayal of Kemeys as an artist prefigures his turn to popular romantic fiction, with its sentimental, nostalgic (and de-politicized) construction of Western subjects, even as he strives to characterize the sculptor's untutored, untainted practice as ideally suited for contemporary themes. …