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The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Memory: Civil War Memory and American Nostalgia
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Memory
Text 1. Winslow Homer
Text 2. Hamlin Garland
» Reading Guide
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Text 3. Joel Chandler Harris
Text 4. Jane Addams
Text 5. Robert G. Ingersoll
Text 6. Re-Union and the Railroad
Text 7. Visions of the West
Text 8. Owen Wister

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Reading Guide
Hamlin Garland
Hamlin Garland, "The Return of a Private," short story in Main-Travelled Roads, 1891

Hamlin Garland could have borrowed the title of Homer's painting for this story. Garland drew the material for his fiction from the Midwest, what he called "the middle border." His family moved from Maine to Wisconsin, where he was born in 1860. From there they moved to Iowa and eventually settled in South Dakota. Although the Garlands ventured steadily westward to find their fortune, Hamlin found mainly toil and dullness. As soon as he could, he fled east to Boston. An 1887 visit back home confirmed his early impressions and led him to dramatize them in Main-Travelled Roads (1891), the collection that includes "The Return of a Private." The story suggests some ambivalence in Garland's mind about the West and the life people lived there. At one point Garland gives us a Bierstadtian (See below.) vision of "a beautiful symmetrical peak" glowing "like a beacon" in the "morning sun." Yet the rural Wisconsin life Private Edward Smith faces upon his return from the Civil War is a "daily running fight, with nature and against the injustice of his fellow men." Like Joel Chandler Harris, Garland asserts that in his protagonist we see a genuine American and not just a regional type. The story invites comparison with Homer's The Veteran in a New Field and with Harris's "Aunt Fountain's Prisoner." 14 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. Although the story was published in 1891, it is set immediately after the Civil War and is in a sense as much about the War as about Private Smith's homecoming. How does Garland present the War?
  2. Why is "Aunt Fountain's Prisoner," (See below.) a story from the defeated South, more optimistic than "The Return of a Private," a story from the victorious North?
  3. What purpose does the "Widder Gray" scene play in the story?
  4. How does Garland define the American character in his "magnificent type" Private Smith?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  In the aftermath of the Civil War, how did Americans look back and look forward?
  •  During this period, how did Americans promote the re-union of the nation?
  •  How did they reconceptualize their sense of national identity?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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