- Hamlin Garland in the “Third House”A Pragmatic Romancer of American Politics
[A] social state is possible in which poverty would be unknown, and all the better qualities and higher powers of human nature would have opportunity for full development. (557)—Henry George, 18791
He [President Grant] has associated himself with rich men, rather than with statesmen and patriots. In his desire to avoid politicians, he seemed likely to fall among thieves. (410)—Hamlin Garland, 18982
In 1892, the year that the People’s Party peaked in popularity, winning four Western states in the presidential election, Hamlin Garland published two political novels: A Spoil of Office and A Member of the Third House, the former depicting the rise of the Farmers’ Alliance (a faction of the People’s Party), the latter fictionalizing a Massachusetts bribery scandal. Largely forgotten, these progressive works, informed by Garland’s political activism and his radical economic theories, document the ascent of the Populist movement but also portend its demise.3 B. O. Flower, the Arena magazine editor who sponsored Garland’s reporting for A Spoil of Office and who later published the novel, characterized the work as “the most graphic picture of the influence of money in corrupting legislation that has even been penned” (43). And more recently, Martin Quentin has corroborated this claim: “A Spoil of Office (1892), Hamlin Garland’s most sustained Populist novel, captures as no other work of American fiction does the tremendous growth and difficulties of the post Civil War agrarian uprisings [End Page 103] in the West” (29). Although Donald Pizer also admires Garland’s depictions of the Populist movement, he has pointedly questioned Garland’s skill as a political novelist: “Despite the excellence of A Spoil of Office as contemporary social history, it is undoubtedly a failure as a novel” (Hamlin Garland’s Early Work and Career 105).
For Pizer, the romantic plot fails, as does the realism, when the setting shifts east, away from Midwest farms and small town politics. In evaluating A Spoil of Office, Pizer presents a literary crux on which Garland criticism has rested for the past century, a crux that posits a dichotomy between Garland’s realistic Midwest sketches, which appear in his early edition of Main-Travelled Roads (1891), and his sentimental novels, even his nostalgic autobiographies, which move away from the realism for which he is still admired. Written in 1892, Garland’s two political novels exemplify this dichotomy well in that they are marked by a blend of sentimental melodrama and gritty realism. For Garland, the sentimental plots allow him to imagine a utopian future, and the naturalistic realism exposes the corrupt political forces that inspire but that also thwart utopian plans. To promote a new social order and to reveal why such a transformation was needed, Garland employed complex modes of literary expression, experimental blendings of melodrama and realism, as several recent scholars have noted.4 For example, Christine Holbo, in “Hamlin Garland’s Modernism” (2013), embraces Garland’s mixed modes, finding in his fiction traits of modernism: “Reduced to representing Midwestern identity, the Midwestern realist quickly becomes not self-identical, but self-contradictory. It is only by reading realism as modernism that the opposition between realism’s social concerns and symbolism’s aesthetic rebellions disappears” (1231).
As modern amalgams, Garland’s political novels present Populist, utopian solutions as denouements to sentimental plots, but they also employ brutal realism to call for but also to call into question Populist panaceas. In accurately depicting the political failings that prevented utopian solutions, Garland adroitly, but reluctantly, enters the “third house,” where lobbyists control legislators with bribery, where pragmatic unions between financiers and politicians make possible urbanization, industrialization, and Westward expansion. In realistically representing the marriage of corporate capitalism and legislative bodies, Garland’s political works emerge, not as utopian answers nor as dystopian warnings, but as pragmatic explorations that depict ordinary individuals grasping for Populist solutions, solutions that may have done them more harm than good. [End Page 104]
As a pair, Garland’s political novels loosely form a continuous tale, a melodramatic success story. A Spoil of Office is a bildungsroman, dramatizing the...