Hamlin Garland’s literary career is often divided into three phases: early Howellsian realist, middle romantic activist, and late nostalgic autobiographer. The work that lives on in anthologies comes almost exclusively from the early phase—and from Main-Travelled Roads (1891) in particular—after which Garland critics have often claimed his work went into decline. Yet, as Donald Pizer observes in his preface and introduction, the negative reputation of Garland’s later writing increasingly threatens to overshadow even the early work of this important writer.
Hamlin Garland, Prairie Radical tries to set the record straight. This short collection cuts across various genres Garland worked in to show the breadth of his challenges to post–Civil War conservative politics. The “middle border” (mostly Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas) that Garland’s writing engages presents the reader with places the frontier [End Page 432] left behind, places where the nation’s settlers’ dream has become the resident farmers’ nightmare. In the fiction and nonfiction Pizer collects, Garland attacks various economic monopolies, gender inequalities, geographic imbalances in cultural influence, and unsustainable practices, among other things.
In particular, Pizer’s collection allows the pieces to show for themselves the way Garland progressively understood the imbrication of these issues. So, for example, in a piece titled “‘Single Tax’ and Woman Suffrage” (October 19, 1889), Garland argues for a link between economics and gender equality before the Feminist Movement’s widespread embracing of the tie. In other pieces, Garland offers his opinions about the connections between regional production and aesthetic originality. Garland’s stories also address the mutually constitutive relationships among people, environment, and economics in ways that were not mainstream at the time they were written. Garland’s demonstrated transatlantic reading and position in a cultural tug of war between Eastern cultural centers and regions, too, complicate understandings of Garland as a writer whose sole memorable contribution to American letters might have been overturning bucolic ideas about agriculture in the West.
Pizer’s scholarly scaffolding is helpful and concise. Following a preface explaining the task of the book and an introduction that quickly covers Garland’s career and intellectual influences, Pizer divides the book into two sections. In the first (“Middle Border Fiction”), four short stories share an introduction. In the second (“Social, Political, and Critical Writing”), Pizer foregoes a common introduction for brief head-notes to each piece. Pizer provides endnotes for lesser-known terms and allusions in Garland’s writings, and the book also includes a short but thorough index. While this volume has no critical conclusion, the Garland piece from McClure’s that Pizer chooses to close the collection ends on a note clearly consistent with his stated purpose.
Hamlin Garland, Prairie Radical provides a valuable introduction to Garland’s work. As a scholar with extensive experience writing about Garland and his contemporaries, Pizer serves as an authoritative guide and compiler for this particular project. Ultimately, more of Garland’s work may be “worth remembering and preserving” than Pizer allows for (xxvii). Nonetheless, Pizer successfully brings to the fore many of the reasons that readers appreciate Garland’s work and makes clear the way reading it enriches our understanding about a period of change in America that was, clearly, radical. [End Page 433]