- The Landscapes of Hamlin Garland and the American Populists
In July 1892, the People’s Party held its first political convention in Omaha, Nebraska. Although the candidate nominated by the party, General James B. Weaver, placed far behind the major party candidates, the Party platform included a number of reforms that were adopted in the United States over the next generation: direct election of senators, a graduated income tax, the secret ballot, ballot initiatives and election referenda, and labor laws enforcing workplace standards. The party platform also included several proposals of a more socialistic nature that did not come to pass in the near term—for example, state ownership of transportation and communication networks. The Populists, as they came to be known, however, were essentially individualistic in their outlook, firmly in support of private property. As they saw it, individual freedoms were eroding under the ascendant system of corporate capitalism, and the role of the state was to ensure that the citizenry maintained its access to those freedoms. One of the most outspoken supporters of the People’s Party was a young writer based in Boston named Hamlin Garland. He had moved to the Northeast from the Midwest in 1884 to pursue a teaching and literary career. As his activity on behalf of the Populists increased, 1891 marked a turning point for him: he published the literary work which would solidify his lasting reputation—the collection of six short stories entitled Main-Travelled Roads, which depicted the downtrodden farmers who formed the central core of Populist support.
Despite the critical success of Main-Travelled Roads, Garland remains a problematic figure in American literary history. He published consistently for over sixty years, but his reputation rests upon a small number of works, including this early volume of short stories, his literary critical work [End Page 219] Crumbing Idols (1894), and the later reminiscences of his Middle Border series published in the 1920s. The consensus view of Garland among literary historians is that he was a reformer insofar as he was a realist and that the quality of his work generally diminished as he turned to more romantic material later in his career.1 As Quentin Martin argues, “the momentum of Garland-bashing . . . is so strong that it has remained impossible, so far, to reverse it,” since the thesis that “Garland’s talent and convictions went downhill together after 1895 or so” has become “the starting point for nearly every subsequent study.”2
This reading of Garland parallels in many ways what has become the dominant school of thought on American Populism. In The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter argued that “the idea of a golden age” was central to “Populist ideology,” and this “agrarian myth” nostalgically located “the utopia of the Populists . . . in the past, not the future.”3 Populism was regressive in Hofstadter’s view, and he described it as an essentially sentimental movement whose adherents clung to an agrarian past incompatible with the exigencies of modern life. Hofstadter’s negative thesis with regard to Populism provoked intense disagreement among historians, but his critique of their utopian rhetoric long remained unchallenged. For Norman Pollack, Hofstadter’s overstated “discussion of utopianism” within the movement was a way “to make the Populists appear ridiculous”;4 for Richard Goodwyn, “nostalgia [was] the devastating opponent of Populism,” because it “lent strength to [a] tradition” they were rallying against.5 Indeed, much of the rhetorical thrust of Populism focused on practical issues, including such themes as plutocracy, monopoly, land speculation, the Panic of ’73, high interest rates, and, of course, the gold standard. Thus far from simply espousing nostalgic rhetoric, the Populists articulated demands for concrete reforms.
Nevertheless, to ignore the sentimental, utopian framework within which this critique was posed would also misread the logic of the movement. From Sarah E. V. Embry’s Seven Financial Conspiracies (1887) to N. B. Ashby’s The Riddle of the Sphinx (1890) and Henry Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth and Commonwealth (1894), many Populist texts follow a similar rhetorical pattern: nature, and particularly American nature, is bountiful, but the fruits of this bounty are being denied to those who work the land. The subsequent portions of these...