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M A R C I A J A C O B S O N Auburn University The Flood of Remembrance and the Stream of Time: HamlinGarland’s Boy Life on the Prairie In his introduction to Hamlin Garland’s Boy Life on the Prairie, B. R. McElderry laments the neglect the book has suffered: “The broad scope of [A Son of the Middle Border] has overshadowed [the] earlier and better book of reminiscence dealing specifically with Garland’s boy­ hood experiences on an Iowa farm from 1869 to about 1881” ; “Aside from Main-Travelled Roads, Boy Life is probably the best single book that Garland ever wrote.”1 Donald Pizer, the critic who has written most on Garland, concurs that “Boy Life is an unjustly neglected work.”2 Yet in spite of these invitations to a closer examination of the book, Boy Life remains overshadowed by Garland’s other work. While it is appreciated by McElderry and Pizer as “reminiscence” and “nostalgia,”3it is nowhere 1Hamlin Garland, Boy Life on the Prairie, introd. B. R. McElderry, Jr. (Lin­ coln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1961), p. v. .This edition reprints the first (1899) text of Garland’s book, his original introduction, and his 1926 introduction and notes. All parenthetical page references in my text are to this book. 2Donald Pizer, “Hamlin Garland’s A Son of the Middle Border-. Autobiography as Art,” in Essays in American and English Literature Presented to Bruce Robert McElderry, Jr., ed. Max F. Schulz with William D. Templeman and Charles R. Metzger (Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press, 1967), p. 81. 3Pizer, p. 81. 228 Western American Literature analyzed as a work of art that reaches beyond sentimental history to the broader theme of personal growth in a time of rapid change.4 Undoubtedly Garland’s presentation of himself as an historian has much to do with the rather tepid critical responses the book has received. In his original preface to Boy Life, he recalled the feelings that impelled him to write: “The life I intended to depict was passing. The machinery of that day is already gone. The methods of haying, harvesting, thresh­ ing, are quite changed, and the boys of my generation are already middleaged men with poor memories; therefore I have taken a slice of the year 1899 in order to put into shape my recollection of the life we led in northern Iowa thirty years ago” (p. xix). In 1926, he edited Boy Life for use as a school text and substituted a new introduction in which he reviewed his reasons for writing the book. He was a young man in Boston, in love with “that storied city” (p. 425), but still homesick for the West: “I began to write The Prairie Corn Husking [the first of the magazine articles that later became Boy Life] in a mood of homesick­ ness, but there was more than homesickness in my impulse, for I had begun to hope that I might be, in some small way, the historian of homely Middle Border family life” (pp. 425-26). In keeping with his role as historian, he added end notes to define some of the features of midwestern farm life in the 1870s that might puzzle his young readers. But even without this apparatus, the presence of the historian is evident throughout the book. The care with which Garland describes the farming methods and living conditions that were part of his boyhood and the loving detail in his account of the natural life of the prairie imply a writer anxious to record and preserve the past. But a more personal need is also at work in Boy Life and a con­ sideration of this must lead to a new appreciation of the book. Inter­ spersed throughout the text are a number of poems apparently meant to express an emotion too intense for ordinary prose. In several of these a city-dwelling speaker — in the context of Boy Life we can assume this 4Boy Life began as a series of magazine articles, not a book. McElderry, whose discussion of the book is the fullest we have, briefly notes that “unity is achieved by emphasis on the change in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 227-241
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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