"Under the Lion's Paw": Single-Tax Land Reform and Agrarian America in Virgin Land

(Link to: Virgin Land, Chapter XXI: The Agricultural West in American Literature)
From Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads (1893):

"THE MAIN-TRAVELLED ROAD in the West (as everywhere) is hot and dusty in summer, and desolate and drear with mud in fall and spring, and in winter the winds sweep the snow across it; but it does sometimes cross a rich meadow where the songs of the larks and bobolinks and blackbirds are tangled. Follow it far enough, it may lead past a bend int he rive where the water laughs eternally over its shallows.

Mainly it is long and wearyful, and has a dull little town at one end and a home of toil at the other. Like the main-travelled road of life it is traversed by many classes of people, but the poor and the weary predominate."

"Writers and orators have lied so long about the idyllic' in farm life, and said so much about the independent American farmer,' that he himself has remained blind to the fact that he's one of the hardest working and poorest-paid men in America."

--Hamlin Garland, "Lucretia Burns"

Henry Nash Smith refers to Hamlin Garland as one of the pioneer Middle Western realists, one whose fiction emodies a "disillusioned view of farm life on the frontier." Garland and other realists such as E. W. Howe, Edward Eggleston, and William Dean Howells were instrumental in portraying the Western farmer in literature as a "human being" rather than as an idealized figure filtered through the guise of "literature, class prejudice, or social theory." Smith makes particular reference to Garland's short story "Under the Lion's Paw," for its effective dramatization of crucial issues of the West--land speculation and the "single tax"--and its unglamorous portrait of what it was like to try to earn a living as a frontier farmer. The Western realists used their writings to provide a counternarrative to the "Myth of the Garden" story perpetuated by legislation such as the Homestead Act and in the notions of the "Jeffersonian "yeoman farmer" and Timothy Flint's "fee-simple empire" (see Chapters XII, XIII, and XVI).

Tocqueville called the ideas of the yeoman farmer and the myth of the garden poetic. These ideas rarely were successfully converted into fiction, however, as problems of class identity inevitably complicated the portrayal of rugged farmers and wild, wooly scouts. Elsewhere in Virgin Land, Nash Smith discusses James Fenimore Cooper's calisthenic attempts to elevate his Western heroes' social status; Cooper's efforts often rang false, as he tried to have it both ways--rugged frontier physicality and refined, aristocratic sensibility. The problem of class impinged upon Cooper's desire to bestow elegance and manners to such uncultivated sorts as the farmer and the frontiersmen; such characters were unavoidably relegated to a lesser status than the urbane, aristocratic figures that populated the highbrow, sentimental novels of the 19th century. But when writers such as Garland, the "local-color realists," as they are sometimes described, rejected the aristocratic preoccupations of Cooper and wrote a more unrefined, gritty style, free of his sentimentalizing and contrived "suitable marriage" endings, they were able to make an important contribution to Americans' understanding of life in the West.

The Western farmer had at least two social strikes against him, according to Nash Smith. A "theocratic suspicion" of the farmer as a fugitive from civilized society was often accompanied by an impression that the farmer was a walking, talking rebuke to 19th century notions of human progress. These attitudes enforced the portrayal of the farmer as of low social class; by 1890, however, writers like Garland and Joseph Kirkland had presented the farmer as a sometimes unfortunate but nevertheless dignified human being. It is this shift in both social attitudes and literary conventions that makes Garland important to the argument of Virgin Land. Garland's main strength as a writer comes in his basic humanitarian sympathy for his characters, those pioneers struggling to make a living in the West. However, in "Under the Lion's Paw," Garland manages more than mere pathos; this short story includes a pointed commentary on the exploitation of single tenant farmers by land speculators.

Garland's work is characterized by Vernon Parrington as torn between a "stark realism" and an "ethical romanticism." What sets Garland apart from the other writers in the "local-color" genre is his heartfelt, passionate reaction to the environment. He is very sensitive to beauty, concerned with justice, and maintains that a reasonable way of life ought to enjoy a good measure of both. As mentioned above, Garland is an important writer because of his rejection of the genteel school of Boston fiction and his subsequent efforts to portray, literally from the ground up, the lives of average working folks who, like Garland's own family, moved to the frontier in search of the "boundless prosperity" propagated in what Nash Smith refers to as the "myth of the garden." Garland's critical stance is outlined in his Crumbling Idols, in which he articulates the principles of "Veritism." Combining aspects of regional (local-color) writing, French impressionism, and Walt Whitman, Garland's "veritism" aims to do away with the impositions of authoritative literary traditions. Garland reveals his position to be intensely democratic, progressive-minded, and individualistic. This mindset energizes the conflict between the forces of industrialization/incorporation and agrarian America--"Under the Lion's Paw" dramatizes this antagonistic relation in the dispute between Butler, the land speculator, and Haskins, the hapless tenant farmer trying to establish himself on the land.

Garland's own family had been broken by a failed attempt to establish themselves on the Dakota plains, and Joseph Kirkland encouraged Garland to make use of this painful experience in his fiction. "You're the first actual farmer in American fiction," he told Garland, "now tell the truth about it." Inspired by personal experience, the single-tax theory of Henry George (which argued that land rent was the cause of poverty), Whitman's romanticization of democracy, and a growing desire for justice in the plight of the farmers, Garland completed Main Travelled Roads in 1893. "Under the Lion's Paw" is the most significant story in this collection, which is generally thought of as Garland's best work.

The story begins with the Haskins family's arrival at Jim Council's farm in Iowa. Unable to buy land farther east, the Haskins family had settled in western Kansas, where they were eaten out by grasshoppers. Jim Council, kindly neighbor that he is, helps them out in purchasing farmland from Jim Butler, a landlord who believes that land speculation is the most dependable way to get rich. Haskins and his family set to work on the farm, pouring out heart and soul, sweat and effort, and after three years are prepared to buy the farm. Butler, noting the increased value of the farm, establishes a higher price for the farm then Haskins is able to pay. Haskins threatens Butler but does not kill him in the interest of his wife and daughters. The story concludes with Haskins sitting alone, crushed under the paw of the "lion" of land speculation.

It is generally acknowledged that Garland eventually became as much a propagandist for causes, notably the single tax, as a novelist. His advocacy of the single tax placed him on the side of the farmers, for which he had so much personal empathy, and opposed to the three "great fundamental monopolies" that threatened the fabric of American society: "the monopoly of land, the monopoly of transportaion, and the monopoly of money." The American settlers, like the Haskins of "Under the Lion's Paw," had been forced to the margins of society because the speculator, holding choice land for high prices, forced the settlers to seek cheap or free land in remote, unpopulated areas. In the cities, as well, Garland would argue in his speeches on the single tax, the monopolization of land had produced unfortunate effects: tenements, inflated rents, vice, crowding, and the dehumanization of laborers (who had to work like machines).

But what exactly was this "single tax"? Garland supported the idea as expressed by Henry George, a prominent social reformer of the 1880s and 90s. George, in the interests of equality of opportunity, devised a method of taxation which would make it impossible to hold unused land in areas where land was in demand. Land would be taxed, not in ration to improvements, but according to the average value of the land around it. This system would eliminate land speculation and free both industry and the public from all other forms of rent and taxation. Through this single reform, land would be opened to free use; industry would be furthered through lowered taxes and increased demand; laborers would achieve greater freedom of opportunity, higher wages; and, importantly in Garland's analysis, individual Americans would have the chance to rise spiritually and culturally once freed from bare economic need. Garland, for his part, believed wholly in the single tax as a panacea for America's social ills; he was convinced that democratic progress relied heavily on such reform, which would weaken the Butlers of the world and extend a much-needed hand to the suffering agrarian Haskinses. He campaigned widely for the single tax platform and became as well known for his exertions as social reformer as for his "local colorist" fiction.

Later in his life, Garland's chronicle of his family's experience on the Dakota prairies, A Son of the Middle Border, won him the Pulitzer Prize for biography. His place in American letters has been disputed, but there can be no doubt that in the context of Nash Smith's argument about the necessity of an interpretive approach to the American West that did not rely on the "paired but contradictory ideas of nature and civilization." America in the late 19th century was a rapidly expanding nation, one which saw the closing of the Western frontier (1890) and the dawning of a new and increasingly regimented era, one in which increased attention to social reform and individual dignity--of the sort Garland so fervently wrote about--would challenge America in new ways.

Henry Nash Smith: Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth

Donald Pizer: Hamlin Garland's Early Work and Career

Jean Holloway: Hamlin Garland: A Biography

Hamlin Garland: Main-Travelled Roads

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