- Jen HirtJen HirtSchool of Humanities, Penn State Harrisburg
A prolific author whose early writings established him as a promising realist in American literature, Hannibal Hamlin Garland, who went by his middle name, was born on a farm in West Salem, Wisconsin, on September 4, 1860. His family moved around the Middle Border, now known as the Midwest, before settling in Mitchell County, Iowa, in 1876. By 1882, Garland was living in Illinois, but after just two years, he relocated to Boston, Massachusetts, where in 1885, he was hired at the Boston School of Oratory. This move would define the rest of his lifelong struggle, both to identify as a Midwestern writer and to hold that identity at a distance. While he had some publishing exposure prior to 1889, that year was when he began publishing in earnest. He would go on to publish over fifty books, the last of which appeared in 1939. Most notable was his Pulitzer Prize in biography for A Daughter of the Middle Border, a 1921 book that was second in a series of family histories. The award-winning book took a hard and realistic look at Garland’s family life. Some of his later work went on to serve as a call for reform toward the treatment of Native Americans and the riparian land of the Midwest and West. However, he framed the call to action within formulaic romances and thus suffered criticism for abandoning his talents in literary realism. More recently, scholars have argued that Garland’s shifting between genres should be not be criticized; they argue he was only doing what any talented writer seeking an income in the early 20th-century publishing market would do. A 2008 memoir by his daughter, Isabel Garland Lord, also stands in support of Garland’s artistic decisions, which earned him financial stability and a steady circuit of lectures and publishing. He never returned to the Midwest, and lived out his final years in Los Angeles, California, where he was drawn to Hollywood. There, he maintained strong relationships with influential writers at home and abroad, earning him the informal title of The Dean of American Letters. His final writing projects departed even further from literary realism; he delved into the paranormal, such as the purported power of buried objects. This attempt at making a name for himself in the realm of the paranormal did not pay off (even 21st-century scholars do not make much of these later books), and for many years he remained in the shadow of more eminent American writers. He can be credited, however, as a prolific writer and lecturer who succeeded in three areas—validating American realism at a time when the fad was to romanticize the rural life, showcasing the Midwest as a place of profound struggle and beauty, and documenting the American way of life as seen by a conscientious critic. He died in Hollywood of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 4, 1940, at the age of 79. He was buried with his parents in Neshonoc Cemetery in his hometown of West Salem, Wisconsin.