- Prairie Visions: Writings by Hamlin Garland ed. by Keith Newlin
As readers of American literary naturalism turn their attention to nature and the land, this fascinating look at Hamlin Garland’s poetics of place proves timely indeed. Prairie Visions captures the significance of rural narratives [End Page 175] often overlooked by naturalist scholars more focused on urban experience, social Darwinism, and deterministic discourse. Through the editorial and artistic collaboration of Keith Newlin, Jon Morris, and Kurt Meyer, this book delves into uncharted territory by republishing Garland’s earliest Iowa writings, along with evocative contemporary photographs of rural Iowa. The effect is to capture visually what the reader of Garland sees historically: an American literary landscape in transition; as the prairie itself underwent change, so too did the aesthetic tastes of late nineteenth-century readers.
The literary foundation of Prairie Visions is “Boy Life on the Prairie,” a set of six autobiographical sketches published by Garland in American Magazine in 1888. These were Garland’s first published essays, apart from book reviews and a few poems. Notable enough in that regard, the pieces were “substantially reworked” and incorporated by him into the longer fictional work Boy Life on the Prairie, published in 1899. Prairie Visions marks the first time the original sketches have been reprinted, enriched by Morris’s photographs. The visual rhetoric of this pairing of sketch and image underscores the “centrality of place” in Garland’s writing.
As Newlin puts it, the reprinted “Boy Life” articles accompanied by spectacular “scenes of rural Iowa” express “two complementary visions of what drew Garland’s eye to the landscape.” Prairie Visions communicates these two “visions” by placing quotations from Garland’s various writings alongside Morris’s evocative photographs and interspersing these within the book’s six chapters, which proceed chronologically according to their original magazine publication: “The Huskin’” (January 1888); “The Thrashin’” (March 1888); “The Voice of Spring” (April 1888); “Between Hay an’ Grass” (June 1888); “Meadow Memories” (July 1888); and “Melons and Early Frosts” (October 1888). A helpful foreword by Meyer explains the book’s origins and authors’ vision, while Newlin’s introduction sets the context for Garland’s life and work. Detailed illustrated annotations supplement each chapter.
Appealing to the observer as much as the reader, Prairie Visions makes an aesthetic as well as a scholarly contribution to the fields of American realism, naturalism, and regionalism. Reading Garland’s “Boy Life” articles while gazing at Morris’s photographs is very much like experiencing Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890), a visual and literary expression of urban labor and poverty in particular. While Riis’s photography paints a poignant portrait of city life for the underclasses, Garland’s early prairie writings give voice to the realities of rural experience and farm work. Through this “poetry of unplowed spaces,” readers of this edition see how Garland’s early Iowa writings juxtapose the pristine prairie setting against [End Page 176] the harsh realities of agricultural labor and rural poverty. According to Newlin, Garland’s nonfiction prose offers a clear “contrast between the crudity of farm life and the beauty of the land.” While “Boy Life on the Prairie” aims to present an accurate yet positive portrait of his Iowa youth, excerpts from Garland’s later writings like Main-Travelled Roads (1891) depict “human lives that fail to measure up to the promise of the land.”
The autobiographical sketches of “Boy Life on the Prairie” do not romanticize the family farm, but they do express a nostalgic yearning for youth and his pre-adolescent years of rural living. Looking back at his recent youth from Boston’s confined urban quarters, Garland reflects on the pristine prairies in which he spent his childhood, writing, toward the beginning of “The Huskin’,” that “the whole scene and its emotions come back to me as I write.” Despite this nostalgic tone, the Garland’s realism prevents sentimentalizing farm life. As Newlin puts it, “the squalor of the Midwestern farm amid...