Prairie Visions: Writings by Hamlin Garland ed. by Keith Newlin (review)
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Reviewed by
Keith Newlin, ed., Prairie Visions: Writings by Hamlin Garland. Des Moines: Iowan Books, 2015. 175pp. $21.95.

Prairie Visions portrays the enduring splendor of rural Iowa during the farm seasons of the 1870s through to modern time. Forty photographs taken by Jon Morris feature the area of the Garland Homestead in Mitchell County, Iowa. These photos, taken during each season during 2011, compliment and appear among six articles Hamlin Garland wrote in 1888 for American Magazine under a series title of “A Boy Life on the Prairie.” Written to instruct eastern readers on farming practices out west, and to demonstrate art can derive from farm-related topics, Garland’s boyhood memories convey a celebratory tone rarely associated with the author of Main-Travelled Roads.

Morris’s photographs seek to capture the “whispers” of beauty found in the Iowa countryside. The images regularly alternate between the panoramic and the close-up: fields in various stages, riverbeds, sparse shelter belts, a single leaf, the horizon, winter frost, winter corn, berries, plants, farm buildings, and the Garland home. Accompanying each photo is an excerpt from a Garland publication, including Prairie Folks, Crumbling Idols, Main-Travelled Roads, and A Son of the Middle Border. The short passages present readers with numerous examples to highlight what Garland scholar Keith Newlin describes in the book’s introduction as Garland’s “pictorial [End Page 132] sense” (19). Garland’s descriptive passages next to images of the places that inspired him show Iowa’s lasting influence on Garland’s writing style.

Garland’s boyhood point of view brings a sense of awe to the size of the farm operations. In “The Huskin’,” “The Thrashin’,” “The Voice of Spring,” “Between Hay an’ Grass,” “Meadow Memories,” and “Melons and Early Frosts,” Garland recounts such experiences as the sixteen acres of corn hand dropped per day, the friendly competition and banter of farmhands, the respite of eating turkey on Thanksgiving after husking eighty or more bushels of corn, digging tunnels in the hay pile, herding cattle by horseback over acres of open prairie, and ice skating in early spring. Boys spent their days cherishing any liberty from the farm labor while admiring the men who managed the machinery and gave orders.

Garland’s articles also describe the monotony and toil involved in the farm lifestyle, reminding readers “But it was not all fun” (110) or that “the experiences were not unmixed delights” (131). Garland regularly emphasizes that the farming practices described in the articles have already disappeared by the late-1880s. Farmhands, once invited into the home for dinner and fellowship, now bring their own dining tents, for example. Large machinery reduces the hands-on labor and boosts production, but farmers no longer immerse themselves in the soil or learn the art of hay stacking. To further help readers visualize Iowa farming practices in the 1870s, an annotations section includes illustrations and explanations of the farm machinery described in each of Garland’s articles, along with other biographical and literary context.

The lives of girls and women do not emerge as a regular subject in Garland’s articles. However, one extended passage in “Melons and Early Frosts” acknowledges the lack of beauty in the domestic space and signals the theme of loneliness and drudgery that would appear in much of Garland’s fiction. In a passage that foreshadows a core theme in his later fiction, Garland writes “However beautiful may be the natural surroundings, and there is always the charm of earth and sky, there is no touch of beauty in the average American farm-house” (160). Fittingly, all of Morris’ photos portray outdoor subjects.

Readers new to Garland will benefit from Keith Newlin’s introduction as he provides the necessary biographical details and context for understanding Garland’s literary legacy and the role of “A Boy Life of the Prairie” series. The original articles, only now available in book form, provide those interested [End Page 133] in the literary history of the region with an early account of prairie realism from one of the region’s most important late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century authors. Whether drawn to the book for nostalgia for the region’s...