March 14, 2012

Garland: Chart me the difficult main

A relatively small group of 35 mourners gathered at Neshonoc Cemetery in West Salem, Wisconsin on March 14, 1940 to celebrate the life of Hamlin Garland, the writer and literary scholar who had died ten days earlier. In his 80 years, he had done what he could to promote the American Midwest (or, as he called it, the Middle Border). His writings, including many autobiographical ones, traced through Wisconsin, Iowa, the Dakotas, Illinois, and more. As one modern critic has noted, Garland "contrasted the beauty and power of nature with the labors of farmers too hard-pressed to appreciate it." Reverend John B. Fitz concluded the funeral services with a reading of Garland's poem "The Cry of the Age" (1899):

What shall I do to be just?
  What shall I do for the gain
Of the world—for its sadness?
Teach me, O Seers that I trust!
  Chart me the difficult main
Leading out of my sorrow and madness
  Preach me the purging of pain.

Shall I wrench from my finger the ring
  To cast to the tramp at my door?
Shall I tear off each luminous thing
  To drop in the palm of the poor?
What shall I do to be just?
  Teach me, O Ye in the light,
Whom the poor and the rich alike trust:
  My heart is aflame to be right.

*The image of Garland at his typewriter above dates to 1937. Courtesy of the Hamlin Garland Society. For some of the information in this post, I turned to Keith Newlin's Hamlin Garland: A Life (2008).

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