[On November 18, 1865, Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published in The New York Saturday Press (under its original title, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog”). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy “Frog” and four other local color short stories, leading up to a special weekend post on teaching such American texts.]
On how a 130-year old story can speak as profoundly to our moment as it did to its own.
There are lots of reasons to read authors and texts that we’ve forgotten, including of course aesthetic ones (and audience-related ones: Fanny Fern makes me laugh as hard as any American author ever has, and that’d be enough of a reason to read her even if there weren’t a ton more!). But because of my own interdisciplinary and public scholarly AmericanStudies interests, it’d be fair to say that in this space (as overall) I’ve tended to make the case for recovering and reading such figures and works in one of two ways: because they help us better understand our histories; and/or because they help us engage more successfully with the world around us. Both of those are important individual effects, and any work that achieves either of them is well worth adding to (or keeping in) our collective memories and conversations. But the literary and cultural works that I’d call truly indispensable often manage to achieve both effects at the same time: to offer illumination into their distinct time periods and worlds, while helping provide a bit of light as we seek to navigate through the darknesses of our own.
Hamlin Garland’s short story “Under the Lion’s Paw,” published in his 1891 debut collection Main-Travelled Roads, is one such indispensable text. Garland spent most of his long career writing about the upper Midwest region he called “the middle border”; that included a four-volume autobiographical series about the region, but also a number of local color stories and collections focused on Midwestern lives and communities. He published those stories and collections across many decades, and so of course their historical and social contexts evolved dramatically—but in the 1891 setting of “Lion’s Paw,” one key specific context was the era’s conflicts between Populist images of the land and farmers and Gilded Age realities of bankers, mortgages, and profound inequality. Garland’s story dramatizes that conflict potently through his two main characters: Haskins, an itinerant farmer working desperately to carve out a piece of Midwestern farmland for his family’s survival and sustenance; and Butler, a banker who seems to support the Haskins family until (SPOILERS, although you know what’s coming) it is revealed in the story’s explosive climax that he has been doing so simply to raise the value of their land and earn more for himself (at their expense).
That fictional yet deeply historical conflict, which unfolds through dialogues around such familiar 21st century issues as mortgages and debt, itself feels as much of 2019 as 1891. But there’s an even deeper way in which Garland’s story illuminates our contemporary moment. There’s a great deal of debate over just how “working class” the support for Donald Trump was and remains (another spoiler alert: it largely wasn’t); but there’s no doubt that as an overarching trend, at least from the Occupy Wall Street protests down to the 2018 midterm elections and the current presidential campaign, working class and populist revolts have been a dominant force in 21st century American society and politics. Yet while political debates and social movements can engage with certain aspects of American identities and experiences, literary and cultural works can, in a complementary but crucial way, help us consider and empathize with others. Garland’s story in particular can help us feel along with Haskins and his family, experience the feeling of being always on the precipice of disaster yet also one break away from stability, experience the feeling of progressing toward a better future (with the help of a community of allies) and seeing it all potentially vanish (through the antagonism of a rigged system). Those effects are perhaps even more necessary in our Second Gilded Age than they were in the first.
Last short story tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this story? Other local color stories you’d highlight?
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