In the summer of 1887, after having been three years in Boston and six years absent from my old home in northern Iowa, I found myself with money enough to pay my railway fare to Ordway, South Dakota, where my father and mother were living, and as it cost very little extra to go by way of Dubuque and Charles City, I planned to visit Osage, Iowa, and the farm we had opened on Dry Run prairie in 1871.
Up to this time I had written only a few poems and some articles descriptive of boy life on the prairie, although I was doing a good deal of thinking and lecturing on land reform, and was regarded as a very intense--disciple of Herbert Spencer and Henry George a singular combination, as I see it now. On my way westward, that summer day in 1887, rural life presented itself from an entirely new angle. The ugliness, the endless drudgery, and the loneliness of the farmer's lot smote me with stern insistence. I was the militant reformer.
The farther I got from Chicago the more depressing the landscape became. It was bad enough in our former home in Mitchell County, but my pity grew more intense as I passed from northwest Iowa into southern Dakota. The houses, bare as boxes, dropped on the treeless plains, the barbed-wire fences running at right angles, and the towns mere assemblages of flimsy wooden sheds with painted-pine battlement, produced on me the effect of an almost helpless and sterile poverty.
My dark mood was deepened into bitterness by my father's farm, where I found my mother imprisoned in a small cabin on the enormous sunburned, treeless plain, with no expectation of ever living anywhere else. Deserted by her sons and failing in health, she endured the discomforts of her life uncomplainingly--but my resentment of "things as they are" deepened during my talks with her neighbors, who were all housed in the same unshaded cabins in equal poverty and loneliness. The fact that at twenty-seven I was without power to aid my mother in any substantial way added to my despairing mood.
My savings for the two years of my teaching in Boston were not sufficient to enable me to purchase my return ticket, and when my father offered me a stacker's wages in the harvest field I accepted and for two weeks or more proved my worth with the fork, which was still mightier--with me--than the pen.
However, I did not entirely neglect the pen. In spite of the dust and heat of the wheat rieks I dreamed of poems and stories. My mind teemed with subjects for fiction, and one Sunday morning I set to work on a story which had been suggested to me by a talk with my mother, and a few hours later I read to her (seated on the low sill of that treeless cottage) the first two thousand words of "Mrs. Ripley's Trip," the first of the series of sketches which became Main-Travelled Roads.
I did not succeed in finishing it, however, till after my return to Boston in September. During the fall and winter of '87 and the winter and spring of '88, I wrote the most of the stories in Main-Travelled Roads, a novelette for the Century Magazine, and a play called "Under the Wheel." The actual work of the composition was carried on m the south attic room of Doctor Cross's house at 21 Seaverns Avenue, Jamaica Plain.
The mood of bitterness in which these books were written was renewed and augmented by a second visit to my parents in 1889, for during my stay my mother suffered a stroke of paralysis due to overwork and the dreadful heat of the summer. She grew better before the time came for me to return to my teaching in Boston, but I felt like a sneak as I took my way to the train, leaving my mother and sister on that bleak and sun-baked plain.
"Old Paps Flaxen," "Jason Edwards," "A Spoil of Office," and most of the stories gathered into the second volume of Main-Travelled Roads were written in the shadow of these defeats. If they seem unduly austere, let the reader remember the times in which they were composed. That they were true of the farms of that day no one can know better than I, for I was there--a farmer.
Life on the farms of Iowa and Wisconsin--even on the farms of Dakota--has gained in beauty and security, I will admit, but there are still wide stretches of territory in Kansas and Nebraska where the farmhouse is a lonely shelter. Groves and lawns, better roads, the rural free delivery, the telephone, and the motorcar have done much to bring the farmer into a frame of mind where he is contented with his lot, but much remains to be done before the stream of young life from the country to the city can be checked.
The two volumes of Main-Travelled Roads can now be taken to be what William Dean Howells called them, "historical fiction," for they form a record of the farmer's life as I lived it and studied it. In these two books is a record of the privations and hardships of the men and women who subdued the midland wilderness and prepared the way for the present golden age of agriculture.