Libertarians on the Prairie

Now that I have the blog going at a more regular pace, I plan to post again about the books that I read and how much they shed light on my central research question: what is the best way to describe the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder? I actually read a brand new book about Wilder during the spring semester, but never was able to do a blog post about it.

The book is Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books by Christine Woodside. It was published last year by Arcade Books. Woodside is a writer and editor of journals and books about the nature and the wilderness. She lives in Connecticut, not the Midwest, but she has a lifelong fascination with the Little House books. She will be giving the keynote speech at LauraPalooza this July in Springfield.

An article in Politico last fall reveals quite a bit of her argument. Woodside recognizes that one reason for the Little House books’ popularity and staying power is their attractive presentation of American individualism. She argues that Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane was the source of this vision: she “transformed the whole of her mother’s life by removing many parts and changing details where necessary to suit an idealized version of the pioneer story.” (p. xvi) Furthermore, stories in the Little House books “outlined the basic tenets of libertarianism: freedom, property rights, ‘spontaneous order,’ (which means that left alone people make ethical chioices), limited government, and free markets.” (p. xix) Woodside argues that Lane was the one who was responsible for placing libertarian ideas into the fictional lives of the Ingalls family.

To do this, Libertarians on the Prairie traces the process by which the Little House books were written. As readers of this blog know, Wilder wrote first drafts in longhand on lined paper and gave them to Lane. Lane then typed them, editing, making changes, providing plot and narrative structure, and adding dialogue. Wilder reviewed the typed drafts, making additional changes and at times overruling Lane’s alterations. For the first several Little House books, Wilder and Lane lived on the same farm property in Missouri, but for the final five books their residences were distant, so there is correspondence that can be used to track changes. Lane also poured out her thoughts and feelings into diaries and long letters to friends, so that Woodside can narrate the development of her political ideals during the time that the books were written.

The book ends by describing Lane’s connections to other Libertarian leaders. Lane became one of the founders of this movement in political philosophy during the middle of the twentieth century, along with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand. Roger Lea MacBride was Lane’s adoptive grandson and heir; he cast an electoral vote for the Libertarian candidate for President in 1972 and ran for President on the Libertarian ticket in 1976. Rose also donated to Robert LeFevre’s libertarian “Freedom School” north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, which later named a building after her. Charles Koch attended that school during the 1960s; he went on to become co-founder of the Cato Institute and Americans for Prosperity.

Libertarians on the Prairie should succeed in bringing its argument about the Little House books to a popular audience. Previous scholarly books about Rose’s contributions—William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane—and the books’ political ideas—Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture—are longer, denser books. Woodside’s book is much more lively and readable. Furthermore, to my knowledge Libertarians on the Prairie breaks new ground in several areas. The book is the first to link the Little House books and Lane to the Freedom School and thereby to the Koch brothers. Woodside also does a good job considering the impact that keeping the secret of Rose’s contributions to the books may have had on Rose and her relationship with her mother.

However, The Ghost in the Little House and Little House, Long Shadow also provide more nuanced arguments. I think that several of Woodside’s arguments ultimately fail to convince. First, her assertion that Rose did more editing and shaping on the final two books than the earlier ones is disputed by John E. Miller, author of the most scholarly biography of Wilder (<a href="/2016/04/26/becoming-laura-ingalls-wilder/"Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend). That book suggests that Rose did less on those books. While Miller’s work appears in Woodside’s bibliography, it is not engaged in the text.

In addition, while Libertarians on the Prairie is meant to be about both Wilder and Lane, it’s mainly about Lane. Lane’s life drives the narrative, and Lane’s point of view dominates the book. I think this is somewhat understandable since Lane left many more sources. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the book ever seriously considers Wilder’s political ideas; Woodside at times seems to deny that Wilder had political ideas of her own. I also don’t think that the book engages the Wilder’s reasons for writing the books.

Finally, it may be that the libertarian, individualist side of the Little House books is overemphasized in the book. Woodside does at times recognize that there are other things that draw readers to the series, especially the books’ loving descriptions of nature and wilderness which first attracted her. I think that there is also a countercurrent of interdependence running through the books as well.

There is one passage in the book that particularly interested me in terms of Wilder’s faith. It is a description of life at Rocky Ridge Farm in the late 1920s when both Wilder and Lane lived there: “Saturdays and Sundays were like any other days; they seemed to hold no special purpose for either. I see little evidence that they were going to church.” (p. 47) Apparently, Lane mentioned a conversation with Wilder on Easter Sunday, 1928 in a letter Lane wrote to a friend. So on Easter Sunday, Lane was writing a letter and Wilder was reading her mail, and this may mean that Easter Sunday was not treated as particularly special. I emailed Woodside about this passage, and she was very gracious in her reply. This reminds me that I will probably have to do at least some work in Lane’s papers to find what I might turn up about family religious practices while Rose lived with her parents.

At any rate, I think that Libertarians on the Prairie mostly provides new insights about Lane’s life, not about Wilder’s. I think that anyone interested in understanding the collaboration between Wilder and Lane in the writing of the Little House books should probably not read Woodside’s book without also reading Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, which provides an alternative to Woodside’s assertions and a deeper understanding of Wilder and her contributions to the novels.

On the other hand, it is always fascinating to see what different readers bring to and see in the Little House books. I’m glad that I read Woodside’s book, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak in Springfield this summer. And I’m open for comments.

(All page numbers are from Christine Woodside, Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2016.)

State of the Project

It’s time to take stock of where my project on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder has led me so far and where it is heading.

In January of 2016, I began this blog. The plan was to investigate Wilder’s faith and write an article for a history journal about it. I also had the idea that the article could be the core of one chapter in a book on how Wilder’s work engages topics of interest to readers in the twenty-first century. Many readers of this blog walked with me as I read through the Little House books, the best biographies of Wilder, and other books in the spring and summer of 2016. Last fall, I presented a paper on Wilder’s faith to the Conference on Faith and History. It was there that several individuals suggested that consider writing a book-length biography of Wilder with particular attention to her faith.

The idea of writing a spiritual biography of Wilder was confirmed by students when I taught an Honors Seminar on the Little House books during the spring 2017 semester. There also seemed to be enthusiasm for the project when I gave an invited lecture at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in February. And it received general support from many old friends and Wilder scholars I saw at the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls at the end of last month. So writing this book is currently my intention.

Last week, I sent a book proposal to Eerdmans Publishers in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The book would be part of their series titled The Library of Religious Biography. I projected that there will be ten chapters. If I can write two chapters each summer, the manuscript will be complete in five years. Both the series editor and an in-house editor at Eerdmans are receptive to the idea. So we will see what happens next.

This summer, I will be speaking on Wilder’s faith two times. At the beginning of June, I will be on a panel at the Third Annual Midwestern History Conference in Grand Rapids. The panel is titled “The Uses of Public Memory in the Rural American Midwest.” My paper title is “Little House and Little Church: Memory and the Church in the Published Works of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” My paper will suggest that the Midwestern upbringing of both Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane influenced the depiction of the church in Wilder’s works. However, because Wilder and Lane had strikingly different experiences in the church—and therefore strikingly different memories of the church—those differences also influenced how the church is described, especially in the Little House books.

In July I will be speaking at LauraPalooza. This year the conference is titled LauraPalooza 2017: Little Houses, Mighty Legacy: 150 Years of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am on their agenda first thing on Friday morning. The conference is sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association and held in Springfield, Missouri. Many of the attendees at this conference will be people who just love Wilder and the Little House books, not academics. Probably a large percentage of them will be women. My talk is just titled “‘On the Pilgrim Way’: The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” The title is taken from Chapter 23 of By the Shores of Silver Lake, which describes the first prayer meeting and worship service in DeSmet, SD, in 1880. I am hoping to roll out some of my observations about Wilder’s faith for this broader audience. It is also my hope to stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri, on my way to the conference.

Meanwhile, this summer I hope to continue to read and post about what I read. Thanks for being part of my work.

Honors Seminar Review

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been teaching an Honors Seminar this semester on the Little House books. In fact, that course is one of the reasons that I have not had as much time as I would have liked to write for this blog. Teaching a class that I had never taught before required an extra amount of my time to prepare for the class, which met every Tuesday and Thursday. On the other hand, it was a real pleasure to read the books with an extremely sharp group of students.

The title of the course was “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century.” Trinity’s Honors program requires that honors students take at least one of these seminars during their college career. The courses are intentionally interdisciplinary; mine was especially investigating the books as both history and as literature. This semester, eight students took the course. Majors represented included Accounting, Art, Biology, Education, History, Nursing, and Math. Students came from Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin. It was a true cross section of Trinity’s Honors program, except for the fact that all of them were young women. This fact is probably not surprising to anyone.

After a brief introduction to the study of history and literature, the class read one of the Little House books every week. During class time, we discussed what we had read. When we were done with all eight books and The First Four Years, we read Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. At the start of the semester, students chose a theme that they were interested in tracing through the books. They journaled about those themes, and reported to the class regularly on what they had observed. At the end of the semester, they wrote research papers that made arguments about how the Little House books and Wilder’s other writings engage those themes.

Last week, the students handed in their final papers and presented their research. The director of Trinity’s Honors Program came to hear the presentations. I couldn’t have been prouder of how the students carried themselves and the conclusions they came to. Here are the topics of the research papers:

– Cultural difference – Argued that the description of non-white cultures (Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants) in the Little House books exhibited characteristics of late-nineteenth century understandings of cultures different than the majority.

– Economics – Argued that while Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane opposed government intervention in the economy, the Little House books themselves described situations that many have used to call for increased government involvement in business.

– Education – Argued that the depiction of education in the Little House books connects hard work and success.

– Family and Survival – Argued that the family was vital to survival on the frontier of the American West, using the analytical categories from an article by sociologist Mary Douglas.

– Family Roles – Argued that the Little House books presented the ideal family as one where all members fulfilled their traditional roles.

– Individualism and Community – Argued that Wilder’s experiences with the communities depicted in the Little House books prepared her for community involvement later in life.

– Love – Argued that all four types of love described in The Four Loves by author C. S. Lewis are represented in the Little House books: family love, friendship, romantic love, and love for God.

– Nature and the Environment – Argued that the environment in the Little House books is depicted either as a setting, focusing on the natural beauty of the Midwest and West, or as an actor, focusing on the unpredictability and destructive force of the natural world.

I have been trying to find out whether it would be possible to publish these essays in some way in order to attract more young people to read the Little House books. Stay tuned.

Finally, at the end of the semester, while the students were working on writing and revising their research papers, we used class time to watch some episodes from the Little House on the Prairie television show. We watched “A Harvest of Friends,” “Country Girls,” and “Town Party-Country Party.” All were from the first season and aired in 1974. I had never watched the TV show before, and I found it somewhat difficult going at times. The pacing is much slower than television today, and the spirit of the show is very different from the Little House books, even when it is portraying events related in the books. It is clearly the vision of Michael Landon and the show’s other directors and producers, not the vision of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I did discover that if I used my computer’s playback software to run the DVD at 1.1x speed, it made the show more watchable for twenty-first century viewers.

During the semester, I also shared what I’ve discovered about Wilder’s faith with the class – that was the theme I was tracing through the works we read. Students were receptive to my observations and kind in their criticisms. They also read and gave me comments on my book proposal (more about this in my next post).

All in all, I greatly appreciated the work that all of the students put into the course. I will miss it very much.

Thanks for reading.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy

Well, it’s May. It’s somewhat embarrassing that I haven’t posted anything since the middle of March. I could give some excuses. I could describe how in the last two months I’ve traveled to Pennsylvania (twice), Wisconsin, and South Dakota. But instead, I will try to make up for my lack of action by posting to the blog several times this week and next. (It’s finals week here at Trinity Christian College, so I have high hopes.) This post will report on the conference I attended in South Dakota at the end of last week. Lord-willing I will next put up a final report on the Honors Seminar I taught this term, and then an update on where the project is.

Last Friday and Saturday, the South Dakota State Historical Society (SDSHS) hosted the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls. It was an incredibly good event. I think that there were over 200 people in attendance. The SDSHS Press published Wilder’s previously unpublished memoir Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography several years ago. It was a beautiful book, and as I mentioned in my blog entry on the book, it became a surprise best-seller.  The Press has followed up that volume with a book of essays released this year titled Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. The conference speakers had all written an essay in that book. Nancy Tystad Koupal, the director of the Press and editor of the book presided over the conference. Pioneer Girl Perspectives will not be available to the public until the end of May, but it was for sale at the conference. I sold two copies of my last book, Almost Pioneers, so I was able to buy a copy.

As far as the presentations went, there were several that were especially insightful. One was by Caroline Fraser, who edited the two-volume Library of America edition of the Little House books and who has a new biography of Wilder coming out in November: Prairie Fires: The Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fraser placed Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane’s career in context of Yellow Journalism during the early 20th century, where “fake news” was used to attract readers. Fraser uses that context to explain why Lane included the story of the “bloody Benders” in some of the manuscripts of Pioneer Girl, and why Wilder mentioned them in her Detroit Book Fair Speech. Bill Anderson’s talk about what happened to the Pioneer Girl manuscripts between 1957 and the 1970s had some great stories and filled in many gaps in my knowledge of the manuscripts. And Sallie Ketcham described some ways that the Little House books, and especially Little House in the Big Woods, have characteristics of fairy tales.

Several historians presented, and they were excellent. Paula Nelson mined Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles to describe Wilder’s relationship to her time, especially Wilder’s ideas about women’s suffrage. Wilder’s pioneering was physical and geographical; she was not a pathbreaking feminist. Her ideas were shaped by the nineteenth century, and she believed in family, church, authority, self-control, and tradition. John Miller uncovered ways that Wilder was a Midwestern girl. Finally, Elizabeth Jameson outlined some of the reasons why the Little House books may be excellent literature, but they’re not representative of childhood on the late nineteenth century frontier. Wilder’s actual experiences, as outlined in Pioneer Girl, were in many ways not happy. She worked for wages to support the family, often had to live away from home, and was nearly sexually assaulted. But Wilder transformed her experiences into the happy childhood presented in the Little House books, and that may mislead people as they think about families in the past. I believe that it is important to have novels like the Little House books that put forth ideals of love and support for families to emulate. But I do understand Jameson’s critique. I would also feel better if Wilder and Lane had not told many people that the books described exactly what happened.

In addition to presentations, there were also panels of authors who discussed major controversies concerning Pioneer Girl and the Little House books. These included the roles of Wilder and Lane in their composition, and the political ideas presented in them. The panelists agreed that Lane acted as an editor and an agent for the books, but not as a ghostwriter. There was disagreement over whether Lane should be called a collaborator. Fraser and Miller argued that she was a collaborator, Koupal and Michael Patrick Hearn (a children’s literature scholar) asserted that she was not. The consensus about political ideas is that while there are some libertarian ideas in the Little House books (watch for a blog post about Christine Woodside’s Libertarians on the Prairie in a week or two), some arguments about the books’ political nature are overblown.

The conference was also great for networking. I was fortunate to meet Jameson (I had read two books she edited on women in the west when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa), Fraser, and Koupal for the first time. I also really enjoyed catching up with friends who attended, including Anderson, Miller, Nelson (she and I both had Malcolm Rohrbough as our dissertation advisor at Iowa), and Michelle McClellan, who teaches at the University of Michigan and is working on a book about the Little House historical sites. I also saw Sarah Uthoff from Trundlebed Tales, who live tweeted the conference (see her day 1 and day 2 compilations), and Sandra Hume from Little House Travel and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association (organizers of LauraPalooza – more on this in later blog entries). I also spoke briefly with Jon Lauck, who started the Midwestern History Association several years ago. It was also neat to talk to some women who just love the Little House books, especially Kasey and Alice, who bought the copies of Almost Pioneers.

All in all, this conference has given me new energy for getting back to work on the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. So Lord-willing there will be more material on the blog in the near future. Thanks for reading.

Presentations and Meditations

Well, it’s March. It’s incredible how fast time is moving this semester.

On Wednesday of last week I spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The talk was sponsored by the History Department and the Mellema Program in Western American Studies. It was a great time. Over fifty people turned out to hear me speak—at least I took fifty handouts and they were all gone. My presentation gave a report of what I’ve come to understand so far about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith: 1) that the descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church in the Little House books were shaped by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and 2) that Wilder’s faith was deep and genuine, but it emphasized God the Father and His laws more than Jesus Christ and salvation. These conclusions will be familiar to those who have been reading this blog for any length of time.

The question and answer period was especially rich. The audience had students, faculty members, and members of the community, including a mother with two young children. I took questions from all three groups. It was a fascinating experience. At one point, I had to try to explain to a faculty member why so many Americans for the last eighty years have been drawn to the Little House books. (Briefly: engaging descriptions, emotionally gripping prose, and a vision of human flourishing that provides an attractive alternative to modern life for many.) I also at times had to explain to some members of the community that not everything in the books represents exactly how things happened. I’m still working on how to characterize the complex collaboration of Laura and Rose.

Many thanks to Will Katerberg for inviting me and Jenna Hunt for taking care of so many of the details for the talk. If you’re interested, the audio recording may be made available, and I’ll put up a link when it is.

While I was in Grand Rapids, I also met with David Bratt, an editor for the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, which is headquartered there. David would like me to write a proposal for a book-length biography of Wilder with particular attention to her faith. Eerdmans has a series titled the Library of Religious Biography, and the series editors are also very interested in seeing a proposal. Eerdmans publishes books for academics and readers in the church, so they may be a good fit; it is my hope that any book I do write will not only speak to college faculty and students but also to a broader audience of people who are interested in the books. My plan is to write the proposal by the end of this semester.

In addition, on Monday of this week, I spoke at a Faculty Coffee sponsored by the Faculty Development Committee here at Trinity Christian College. It was an abbreviated version of the Calvin talk, because I only had forty-five minutes rather than ninety to speak and take questions. I was very happy that one of the students from my Honors Seminar course came, as well as many faculty and staff.

My conversation with David, my lecture at Calvin, and my talk here at Trinity have led me again to think about audience and reception. As I talk with more people about the project, I’m realizing that my research points in two directions. First, it seems that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a committed Christian, and that at least some of the straightforward and positive descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church in her handwritten original manuscripts were changed by her daughter into the more mixed or even negative depictions that appear in the published Little House books. One might imagine that this would be welcomed by many of those who love the books, especially those who are serious Christians themselves. However, I also think that my research suggests that Wilder was not what we might call a born-again or evangelical Christian. Her descriptions of God, Christianity, and church emphasize God’s power, His laws, and personal morality. Wilder’s writings hardly mention Christ, the gospel, or salvation. I think that this runs against what some readers believe about her. I think that the television series may play a role in this. Although I have never watched an episode (I guess that I need to watch at least some soon), it is my understanding from others that Christianity was pretty central to the series.

I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to navigate this, except to say, as I said in response to a question on Monday morning, that one thing that historians often have to do is to try to get behind how a historical figure is remembered to the historical person himself or herself. I don’t want to do it just for the purpose of cutting down Laura in people’s estimation or telling people that what they believe is wrong. But I do think that loving one’s neighbor who lives in the past includes being honest about who they were, what they believed, and how they lived.

I’m still thoroughly enjoying the Honors Seminar on the Little House books. This week we finished Little Town on the Prairie. Perhaps I can do a post next week (next week is spring break, so I’ll have some more time) where I reflect a little on what has been going on in that class.

Thanks for reading.

60 Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder died on February 10, 1957, three days after her 90th birthday, sixty years ago today.

She had lived during the administrations of 17 different presidents, had survived two world wars, and had seen the emergence of the United States as a world power. She rode in a covered wagon in the 1870s and flew in an airplane in the 1950s. She is buried in Mansfield, Missouri.

[Wow, I had the wrong year when I first posted this. Thanks to Connie for setting me straight.]