A decaying mass of flesh and bone

Hamlin Garland in 1893
Photo: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library

Remembered chiefly for his short stories, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Hamlin Garland earned praise for his vivid portrayals of Midwestern life, and for finding the profound in the mundane. Born in Wisconsin in 1860, it was in 1898 that Garland began to keep a daily diary in which to record his reflections on life and literature, an activity he faithfully pursued for the next four decades, and as he ventured into his twilight years, grappling with declining health and the shadows of mortality, he wrote frequently in those diaries of the realities of old age. The following entry came in 1939, less than a year before Garland’s death at seventy-nine.

The Diary Entry

18th July 1939

As I was dressing this morning, I had a disheartening concept of what my aging body requires. It is not only a poor, fumbling, tremulous machine; it is a decaying mass of flesh and bone. It needs constant care to prevent its being a nuisance to others. It stinks. It sheds its hair. It itches, aches and burns. It constantly sloughs its skin. It sweats, wrinkles and cracks. It was a poor contrivance at the beginning—it is now a burden. I must continue to wash it, dress it, endure its out-thrusting hair and fingernails and keep its internal cogworks from clogging. The best I can do for it is to cover it up with cloth of pleasing texture and color, for it is certain to become more unsightly as the months march on. I agree with John Bradley, who calls man an absurd bundle of inconsistent survivals of his immemorial past. In age these outworn parts are a pest.

Further Reading

Hamlin Garland’s original diaries—forty-three volumes in total—are held at The Huntington Library in California, and in 1968, the Library published Hamlin Garland’s Diaries, edited by Donald Pizer, in which a selection of entries feature. Interestingly, that published volume is divided into chapters, each relating to a theme or person, and the entries within those themes are arranged chronologically. It’s an unusual but surprisingly pleasing format for a diary.

To learn more about Garland, visit the website of The Hamlin Garland Society. On there you can also find links to Garland’s work online.

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