Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Just like a Fly in a Pan of Molasses": Farming the Midwest in Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Just like a Fly in a Pan of Molasses": Farming the Midwest in Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads

Article excerpt

Hamlin Garland has occupied somewhat of an ambivalent place in American letters. Popular and read widely in his own time, today Garlands work seems to be valued mostly for historical reasons. This is no doubt due to Garland's strong penchant for polemic, a tendency that can often undermine the aesthetic merit of his writing. Moreover, while Garland's early work is regarded as critical and serious, his later career is marked by what many critics have seen as a downward slide into the realm of the popular. More recent work on Garland, however, has attempted to re-establish the value and impact of his contributions to, and important place in, the canon of American literature. These works include a 2008 biography, Hamlin Garland: A Life, by Keith Newlin, as well as, in 2014, a collection of Garland's essays, The Significant Hamlin Garland, edited by Donald Pizer. As the collection of essays clearly demonstrates, Garland can be used to examine a number of important issues in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, including Hebert Spencer's views on evolution as well as the Single Tax Movement advocated by Henry George. I would like to suggest in this essay that Garland's fiction can be also be used to examine another important issue, one that Garland had personal experience with and one that continues to affect us today: the tension between agriculture and the natural environment.

The purpose of this essay is to critically re-visit one of Garland's early and most significant works, the short story collection Main-Travelled Roads, by applying an ecocritical lens, which focuses on trying to understand the complicated relationship between fiction and the natural environment. Critics have typically regarded Hamlin Garlands Main-Travelled. Roads as a realist critique of social and economic forces oppressing Midwestern family farms at the turn of the twentieth century. While such forces are undoubtedly important to consider, these stories also prompt critical reflection on the relationship between agriculture and the environment. As I shall suggest, among other things, Garlands short fiction alerts us to the dangers of generalizing agricultural knowledge developed in specific ecological contexts and applying it blindly to natural environments markedly different from the ones out of which such knowledge was initially developed. Approaching Garlands fiction through an ecrocritical lens offers key insights into problematic American attitudes towards farming and the environment, ones that can be located in Garlands own historical moment yet persist to this day.

Though I lack space here to fully explicate my theoretical position within the diverse and broad field of ecocriticism, it is nevertheless worth mentioning that my analysis does not assume a transparent relationship between language and the external environment. Rather, my approach recognizes that all texts are complex "refractions of human environments" (30). Garland's representation of the natural environment is mediated by the semantics of discourse, which include the influences of literary movements and ideological systems, or, as Lawrence Ruell puts it, the "artifactual properties of textual representation and their mediation by ideological and other sociohistorical factors" (Ruell 30). Ecocriticism constantly reminds us that there is indeed a material environment that exists apart from our perception of it, but it also reminds us that how we perceive this material environment is inextricably bound up with how we know and use it. The overlapping space between the conceptual and the material world is where we can rigorously apply our methods of critical thinking and inquiry. While I recognize that Garlands writing is a fictional representation of a natural environment, nevertheless, as Buell affirms, "the subject of a text's representation of its environmental ground matters ... Language never replicates extratextual landscapes, but it can be bent toward or away from them" (33). …

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