What Denis Johnson and Hamlin Garland Have in Common

What do Denis Johnson and Hamlin Garland—two writers seemingly otherwise unrelated—have in common?

Johnson is the lit-famous author of  Tree of Smoke: A Novel and Jesus’ Son: Stories. Hamlin Garland used to be quite famous, but now rarely appears outside of footnotes in anthologies. Johnson’s Train Dreams: A Novella was a Pulitzer finalist this year; Garland won the Pulitzer in 1922.

I recently read Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads. With no particular reason, I then turned to Train Dreams (after plowing through The Sisters Brothers in record time). Anyway, after checking out TD from the library, I come to find a distinctive similarity between the two covers. Judge for yourself:

Apparently Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings make good cover art. Benton was a regionalist painter, born in Missouri, whose paintings fit both Main-Travelled Roads and Train Dreams. The cover of Johnson’s novella features “The Race (Homeward Bound),” which depicts a horse ostensibly attempting to beat a locomotive, John Henry-style. Garland’s short story collection, in an edition by my hometown University of Nebraska Press, has the painting “The Hailstorm,” which shows two farmers struggling against the elements.

Their use, if you’ve read the books, is fairly obvious. Train Dreams is the story of Robert Grainier, who struggles and eventually lives secluded as a luddite and hermit well into the mid-20th century. Main-Travelled Roads, Garland’s naturalist short story collection, contains stories of men (and women, too) attempting to eke out an existence in the harsh realities of the 19th century farm.

It’s really lovely when, as a reader, you stumble across these small connections between works you otherwise wouldn’t think linked. Both Train Dreams and Main-Travelled Roads are, by the way, worth a read.