LETTERS

Birth of the California Canon

Hamlin Garland (1860-1940), novelist and author of 40 books on life, adventure and love in the Middle Border country.
GEORGE RINHART/GETTY IMAGES
Hamlin Garland (1860-1940), novelist and author of 40 books on life, adventure and love in the Middle Border country.
Hamlin Garland was the author of more than 40 books, including A Son of the Middle Border, an autobiographical narrative of easterners moving West. Here are excerpts from a pair of his letters. 

Hamlin Garland (1860–1940) was the author of more than 40 books, including A Son of the Middle Border, an autobiographical narrative of easterners moving West, and he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1922. Through his books and letters, he chronicled the breathtaking landscapes of the West and the rise of the motion picture industry in Hollywood, where he eventually settled. Historian Kevin Starr later wrote that these “dual attractions—the entertainment industry and natural beauty” define California, and helped give rise to a canon of American literature that is distinctly of the West.

Here are excerpts from a pair of Garland’s letters, revealing these passions:

TO THEODORE ROOSEVELT

Author of The Wilderness Hunter, conservationist, 26th U.S. president
July 17, 1917

Dear Wilderness Hunter:

…I am filled with longing to re-traverse the deserts and the high peaks we both know so well. I knew Ganado and Hubbell [the Navajo trading post of Lorenzo Hubbell, in Ganado, Arizona] and I knew the desert dawn and the clear song of the coyote—I spent a night in the Grand Cañon alone. The only human being in it from end to end—so far as I knew. The Snake Dance I saw in 1895—I studied the old cave dwellings west of Espinosa and climbed the Round Mesa—The Natural Bridge I did not see. Do you know I liked that trip of yours just because you did nothing but get there, look, and return! That’s the way I go about.

TO HARRY CARR

Los Angeles Times columnist
December 30, 1934

Dear Harry Carr:

…California is a land apart from the states east of the Continental divide. I felt this and so wrote of it forty-two years ago. I even dared to prophesy a new and distinctive literature…that springs from environment acting upon character. I had no prevision of course of the intrusion of a colony of motion picture scenarists who are not concerned with literature and who are utterly alien to the California scene.

I had in mind these facts: There are fewer violent contrasts in Southern California life. It is gorgeously colorful, suave, yet immensely picturesque. Its weather changes are subtler than those I lived through in Wisconsin and Iowa. Its winters have an utterly different quality even in the north where the snow falls. Its springs have their own peculiar loveliness. It should produce a subtler, less bitterly contrasted art and literature.

I honor…Harte, Miller, Norris, Markham, White, and others…but something more subtly characteristic is certain to come. What it will be I can not predict except that it will spring from race and environment, and be expressed with precision and grace.

My home is in Southern California but I know the other six Californias. I have motored seven thousand miles to discover them. My only question is have I the right to so much beauty and comfort?

The above letters can be found in the Library of Congress and at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, which is digitizing more than 10,000 items of Garland’s correspondence for public access.