Hamlin Garland, “Under the Lion’s Paw”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Harper’s Weekly (7 September 1889): 726-727; collected in Main-Travelled Roads (Boston: Arena, 1891)
Hamlin Garland (1860-1940) grew up on farms in Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas before moving to Boston in 1884 to begin his writing career. A prolific writer and active social reformer, Garland published books, stories, articles, and pamphlets on a variety of topics: contemporary social and political issues, including The Book of the American Indian (1923); historical and cultural analysis of the American West, including The Westward March of American Settlement (1927); literary criticism, including Crumbling Idols: Twelve Essays on Art (1894); a presidential biography, Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Character (1898); plus several narrative memoirs, including the highly respected A Son of the Middle Border (1917) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921). His first major literary success was Main-Travelled Roads (1891), a collection of short sketches, including “Under the Lion’s Paw,” that describe the harsh realities of Midwestern farm life. Garland’s mentor William Dean Howells immediately praised the book and later wrote an introduction to the 1922 edition that emphasized its importance to American literary Realism. Garland devoted his final years to investigating psychic phenomena.
An influential work of regional literature, Main-Travelled Roads challenged the nineteenth-century romantic myths about the Midwest: the farmer as a Jeffersonian archetype and the countryside as a lush garden paradise where farming was easy, relaxing, and highly lucrative. In his preface to the book Garland explained that these stories of “historical fiction” record “[t]he ugliness, the endless drudgery, and the loneliness of the farmer’s lot.” His farmers are determined, but failure and misery cause some to become pessimistic and bitter. Their struggle for survival traps them in a life determined by outside forces: an indifferent, often hostile environment and an unjust, competitive society. As a result, contemporary critics categorized Garland’s fiction as Naturalistic, a label Garland himself rejected. In a 1939 letter he called himself an impressionist, a veritist, rather than the Darwinian Realist who used “sexual vice and crime in the manner of Emile Zola and certain German novelists.” His goal: portray the commonplace daily experiences of decent, ordinary people in the rural Midwest.
Garland, like other local-color authors, was influenced by Romanticism, as well as Realism; many of his narratives have an optimistic tone or color. Thus, his descriptions of desolate environments and the tremendously hard work necessary to farm them are truthful but not hopelessly bleak. Garland’s cruel landscapes have a rugged beauty, and his provincial, stubborn, petty farmers also express wisdom, strength, generosity, and psychological complexity. Garland’s farmers are heroes of the everyday, facing incredible hardship and deprivation often without complaint. In fact, a few characters, such as the Councils in “Under the Lion’s Paw,” are relatively content and adopt an optimistic approach to farm life. Furthermore, a handful of discontented characters—such as Agnes Dingman in “A Branch Road,” Howard McLean in “Up the Coulee,” and Nellie Sanford in “A ‘Good Fellow’s’ Wife”—break free from their assigned roles, grasping control of their lives to achieve some success and personal happiness.
“Under the Lion’s Paw” is a slice-of-life story of tenant farmer Timothy Haskins’s struggle to overcome natural and institutional obstacles. Haskins is an honest, self-reliant, hardworking family man who inspires the reader’s sympathy and respect. After drought and grasshoppers destroy his crop and drive him from his farm in Kansas, Haskins takes his wife and three small children to Iowa to look for a new home. Exhausted and starving, the homeless and penniless family appeals to the kindness of strangers: farmer Stephen Council and his wife. The Councils, who would not think of turning away someone in need, share their home until the Haskins family finds one of its own. As Mrs. Haskins sits before the Councils’ fire and watches her children eat their first full meal in days, she weeps with joy that “The world was not so desolate and cold and hopeless, after all.”
The next day, Council helps Haskins barter for a run-down farm owned by Jim Butler, a selfish and greedy land speculator. Council and Butler represent sharply different approaches to American individualism. Council is a democrat who treats Haskins as a fellow human being, selflessly helping him become selfsufficient. Council’s values, his “religion,” are built upon generosity and respect for human dignity; he gladly shares everything—his home, money, knowledge, personal toil—with a stranger without wanting any compensation. Butler, on the other hand, is an aristocrat who disregards Haskins’s dignity and humanity, only seeing him as a means to acquire more wealth and power. Butler is an opportunist, a taker and hoarder who buys up mortgages throughout the region and reduces self-respecting, independent farmers to serfdom. He has become a lord, spending his days in leisure and living off the labor of others.
Haskins agrees to lease Butler’s land, and with Council’s financial help and moral support he begins to farm it. After a year of desperately hard work—the result of a strong work ethic and a fear of homelessness and starvation—Haskins’s farm is moderately successful, and he is able to make fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of improvements to the property. However, these improvements cause Butler to double the purchase price of the land in line with its increased value. Haskins complains that he’s being charged twice for his own materials and labor. He reminds Butler that he trusted the speculator not to increase the price, to which Butler replies, “Never trust anybody, my friend.” Haskins raises his pitchfork with the intention of murdering Butler, but the sight of his two-year-old daughter stops him. Needing to support his family, Haskins must remain at the mercy of the land speculator: “He was under the lion’s paw.... and there was no
path out.” The story ends with Haskins holding his head in his hands, distraught at having to sacrifice his independence and self-respect.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. Although “Under the Lion’s Paw” addresses broad sociopolitical themes, its small details underpin Garland’s veritism. The story begins with a description of farmers plowing their fields in the snow and mud. The narrator focuses on one farmer, Council, as he struggles with his plow and horses, continuing to work even after nightfall. Snow covers Council’s “ragged greatcoat” and mud clings to his heavy books while wild geese honk and the wind howls. Students should research whether he is a typical farmer of that region.
- 2. Soon the Haskins family arrives, and the wives immediately begin discussing common domestic concerns over tea while watching the children. One of these children, Haskins’s nine-year-old son, will literally step into his father’s boots once they move to their new farm, laboring “in his coarse clothing, his huge boots, and his ragged cap, as he staggered with a pail of water from the well.” Garland writes that although a “city-bred visitor” might see this as child abuse, Haskins loves his son and would save him from this life if he could. Students might research what farm life was like for children during Garland’s time and today.
- 3. Students might also discuss Garland’s use of local color, particularly dialect. The story features regional dialects, a standard convention in local-color fiction. Council, the first character in the story to speak, says to his horse: “None o’ y’r tantrums, Kittie. It’s purty tuff, but gotta be did. Tchk! tchk! ” How does Garland’s use of the Midwest farmers’ voices reflect his own populist politics? Are his yeoman farmers politically engaged? What does Council read and discuss after a day of exhausting manual labor?
- 4. Students might also examine the animal imagery in the story. How does the oppressive “paw” in “Under the Lion’s Paw” symbolize selfish, ruthless speculators? How does it represent the entire American economic and political system? Students should research the Grange movement and populist politics of this time period. Garland campaigned for Populist candidates during the 1890s, often reading “Under the Lion’s Paw” aloud at campaign rallies and public lectures to arouse support for farmers, land speculation, urban labor, and the populist movement. How does the story discourage the speculation in land values in particular?
- 5. Finally, students might research the other progressive movements at the time. In addition to writing and speaking on behalf of farmers, Garland advocated other progressive social reform, including preservation of Indian land and women’s rights. Many of Garland’s stories, including “Under the Lion’s Paw,” feature a capable, hardworking farm woman. Do such portrayals promote gender equality between husband and wife?
Joseph B. McCullough and Keith Newlin, Selected Letters of Hamlin Garland (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).
Keith Newlin, Hamlin Garland: A Life (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).
The most comprehensive Garland biography. Donald Pizer, author of Hamlin Garland’s Early Work and Career (New York: Russell & Russell, 1969), calls the book “a significant contribution toward the understanding both of Garland and his times.”
Jackson R. Bryer, Eugene Harding, and Robert Rees, Hamlin Garland and the Critics: An Annotated Bibliography (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1973).
A comprehensive, annotated bibliography of Garland criticism. Must be supplemented by the MLA annual bibliography.
Robert Gish, Hamlin Garland: The Far West (Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1976).
An analytical study of Garland’s writing and the development of his literary voice, including a major section on Main-Travelled Roads.
Quentin E. Martin, “Hamlin Garland’s ‘The Return of a Private’ and ‘Under the Lion’s Paw’ and the Monopoly of Money in Post-Civil War America,” American Literary Realism, 29 (Fall 1996): 62-77.
An insightful essay about the origins and contemporary sociopolitical influence of “Under the Lion’s Paw.”
Joseph B. McCullough, Hamlin Garland (Boston: Twayne, 1978).
A critical study of Garland’s life and works.