Review of A Daughter of the Middle Border

A Daughter of the Middle Border, by Hamlin Garland

Review by John Carbonara

The edition reviewed was published by Borealis Books, an imprint of the Minnesota Historical Society, USA, 2007.  This work is the companion volume to  A Son of the Middle Border originally published in 1917.  A Daughter of the Middle Border was first published in 1921.   The work was exceedingly difficult to write, especially as Hamlin Garland was under pressure from his publishers to follow-up the success of A Son of the Middle Border.  His patience proved right, for A Daughter of the Middle Border was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for biography.  The first of several lessons a young writer will find in this work.

Although the title would suggest that the work was about the life and times of a woman who underwent the trials and tribulations of life on the middle border, the work is more about Garland’s adult life.  Several themes dominate and are developed and returned to throughout the work:  First, we need to note that Garland has become exhausted with fiction and is seeking a new theme for this writing.  Secondly there is his participation in efforts to make Chicago a literary/art center the equal of New York City.  He was one of the Vice-presidents of the Cliff Dwellers Club, a literary group of significance.  Thirdly, there is his intimate relation with his family and their relocation to the area of one of the old homesteads.  Of special concern to him is his mother, a women who did live the life of the middle border and whose infirmities give proof to the truth of those difficult times.  Finally, we come to the “daughter” who is the putative subject, indicated by the title.

These themes are developed and displaced and returned to again and again.  Zulime Taft, who became his wife and the “daughter” which Garland’s mother constantly pressed Garland to provide, proves to be a women of great industry and patience.  She was an artist and and a sculptress in her own right, although she seldom pursued any of this after her marriage.  She was a perceptive woman and where she saw a need for service, she was always ready to fulfill the task.  Most of the time this involved caring for Garland’s mother and father.  It should be noted that her lack of artistic effort was not a result of Garland’s interference.  Consequently, although Zulime is frequently part of the story, as a character she is not developed as one would hope or expect.

Garland’s decision to change from fiction to non-fiction found him again on the middle border.  He decided to chronicle the dying old west and the recent developments in the gold rush.  In addition, he was commissioned to write a history of U. S. Grant, a work which brought him much praise.  As he vacillated about what to do, after Grant, he returned to fiction, utilizing themes from the northwest. This sidetrack from his ultimate work in non-fiction has the merit of illustrating how a fiction writer works.  For any reader aspiring to write fiction, there is much to be learned by noting his methods.  In particular, there was his need to travel the actual ground and talk to the people of the area who were to be the inspiration for his fiction.  This work is rich in references to noted American Indians of the time, as well interviews with prospectors and other figures of historical significance.  In addition, young writers should attend to his copious notes and sketches which formed the basis of the stories and poems to be written when he returned to Chicago and New York.  Young writers can also profit from his continuous challenge regarding the worth of what he had written.  At one point there is an almost “Seinfeld” like answer:  His writing, he feared, was about nothing.  One supposes all writers must have such moments such as this, Pulitzer Prize winner or not.

As he grew older, he saw his world change in radical ways.  He came to acknowledge that there was no going back to the life of the middle border and all that that entailed.  He was a member of a community of writers and this group constituted his literary family.  It was difficult for him to see them die one by one.  As he said of these friends (their names are familiar yet today):  “All were hastening to be history.”  (p. 270)  Thus, there is a special sadness, towards the end of this work, that sadness which often accompanies old age.  The reviewer leaves the details to the reader.

In sum, it is a work which completes his first work.  It still contains strains of the poetical lyricism which highlighted the earlier work, but that youthful lyricism is muted.  Of course, this is a much more mature writing, with mature themes, and mature endings.  Still, if the “Son” was of interest to you, the “Daughter” will complete the story.

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