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B O N N E Y M a c d o n a l d Union College Eastern Imaginings ofthe West in Hamlin Garland’s “Upthe Coolly” and“God’s Ravens” Along with other writers born in the Midwest during the nine­ teenth century, Hamlin Garland wrote his way out of America’s heart­ land into a successful career in the East. And, like Twain and Howells before him, once having “arrived” in the literary capital of Boston, Garland cast his glance westward again and began to promote the Midwest—and what CrumblingIdolswould call the West—as a source and setting for America’s growing literature. Through his physical/literal arrival in the East and his later aesthetic/literary return to the Midwest, Garland first gained access to and later challenged the pantheon of eastern “idols.” The “move east” has long occupied Garland critics intent on explaining his divided loyalties between his adopted East and his Midwest origins, and—at greater length—his long-debated “fall” from regional, social-reform fiction into eastern gentility. Here, I want to shift the focus from the effects of the East on his style (i.e., whether or not it corrupted his realism), to its lingering effects on his ability to “return” to his midwestern homeland. Although my argument also poses a “fall”of sorts, I contend that it is less a lapse in social conscience (from his early reformist fiction),1than it is a lapse in imaginative ideals. The open, ideal spaces of the midwestern frontier are left behind in Garland’sfiction not solelybecause he abandoned the social goals of his early writing; they are “closed” not only because the 1890 Census Bureau data had prompted the government to declare them officially closed; and they are compromised not only because of the harmful land policies that Garland criticized during his early career. 210 Western American Literature After a brief review of the author’s eastern sojourn and of his book Crumbling Idols, I want to argue that it is part of Garland’s message that the frontier is also “closed” because of how it is seen, imagined, and mythologized. In particular, the easternized characters of “Up the Coolly” and “God’s Ravens” (Main Travelled Roads, 1891) so idealize their midwestern landscape that they are unable to return on a mental, spiritual, or emotional level, even when they physically return. By fetishizing the ideal, open territory ofAmerica’s western frontier, these characters remind us that imaginative gestures were just as effective as political forces and social policies in “closing” America’s expansive frontier. My particular definition and placement of the frontier and the West in Garland’s 1891 geographically midwestern collection is part of a more general contemporary discussion about the West: Is it strictly a collection of many different regions, grounded in definable geographi­ cal, ethnic, and cultural specifics, as such critics as Kolodny and Slotkin have suggested? Or can the “West”be more broadly defined as a symbol, a cultural myth, or a state of mind? The tales of Main Travelled Roads are deeply rooted in the identifi­ able soil of the Middle Border. From this point of view, the territory of Garland’s Midwest is a specific place, identifiable by and understood according to specific geographical, social, and economic conditions. In this sense, one cannot incorporate both California and Kansas into a discussion of the West without first making clear that these are quite different parts of the nation. Regionalist literature, by its very nature, assumes differences between specific territories and states. And since Garland has long been associated with the specific geography and social problems of the Midwest, it is hard to leave regionalism behind in any discussion of his notions of the West or his image of the frontier. While I do not want to claim that Garland or any reader should mistake Nebraska for Idaho, or South Dakota for Texas, I do want to open up the definition of the words “West” and “frontier”to include the particulars of Garland’s midwestern region; to identify a more mythic West in Garland’s Main Travelled Roads-, and to examine the costs of embracing that mythic West in “Up the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 209-230
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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