Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life

This week I re-read Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. I was glad to read this book when it came out in 2007, and I was glad when John Miller introduced me to Hill at LauraPalooza in 2010.

Hill brings the knowledge and sensibility of a published writer to her task. While the book is a full biography of Wilder, it focuses on how the Little House books were written. Thus, the chapters that focus on Wilder’s early life compare accounts in the Little House books to Pioneer Girl and other extant records for the Ingalls family. The chapters about her adult life describe how the Little House books were written. Hill is particularly interested in understanding the collaboration between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane.

To the question of “how should we understand Wilder’s and Lane’s contributions to the Little House books?”, Hill answers that Wilder should be considered the author of the books, and Lane should be seen as an editor. Hill describes several letters that Lane wrote to Wilder about her writing as editorial letters, examples of a type of letter written by an editor to a writer in response to a manuscript. The aim of such a letter is to improve the resulting book. Hill also notes that the editors at Harper and Brothers who received Wilder’s books rarely had to make many changes to the manuscript; this was because Lane had already edited them—in some cases heavily—as she typed them. In general, Hill argues that each woman brought her own strengths to the series. For Wilder this included vivid descriptions and a deep understanding of her characters. Lane contributed in the areas of large scale structure, sentence editing, and the creation of drama.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life does not say much about Wilder’s faith. It mentions the Ingalls family’s interactions with Congregational Churches in both Walnut Grove and DeSmet (21, 45). It also notes that Laura was disappointed that there wasn’t a Congregational church in Mansfield, Missouri. (85) Finally, it states that “The Wilders joined the Mansfield Methodist church, where they worshiped for the rest of their lives.” (89) The second half of the statement is true, but the first is not. John Miller in Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder more reliably notes that while they attended the Methodist church, they never joined. (John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend [Columbia: University of Missouri, 1998], 86, 102.)

Hill does make some observations about choices Wilder made concerning audience in relation to The First Four Years. Hill asserts that Wilder had a particular approach to an adult audience, that “Wilder’s perception that a novel for adults should appeal to a mature, perhaps even jaded, audience; the book’s characterizations, plot, and theme had to reflect adult readers’ more careworn vision of reality.” (75-76) Interestingly, Hill argues that Wilder modeled her writing in that book on Lane’s work, especially her book Let the Hurricane Roar, which was based on Wilder’s parents’ story. I believe this supports some of my impressions about The First Four Years. Specifically, when considering the possible reasons that faith is nowhere mentioned in the book, I wrote in my blog entry, “Perhaps she thought that religion should be kept out of an adult novel.”

Thus I think that the contribution that Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life makes directly to a project on the Wilder’s faith is small. However, Hill’s insights about the relationship between Wilder and Lane will be helpful as I approach the Little House manuscripts at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library this summer. I’m hoping to specifically examine the places where the church or Christianity is mentioned in the Little House books and determine if the particular form it takes is primarily because of Wilder or Lane’s influence.

As always, your comments are welcome.

Page number references are from Pamela Smith Hill, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society, 2007).

Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder

Last week I re-read John Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost twenty years since it was published in 1998. It was groundbreaking then; it is still the most scholarly biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder on the market. It has held up very well. I had forgotten how insightful Miller’s analysis is. He read all that was available about Wilder at the time, and the book shows that he had a very good understanding of the contours of Wilder’s life and personality.

I should say at this point that Miller is a good friend of mine. I first corresponded with him via email in the mid-1990s when I was getting my M. A. in History at Duquesne University. I was working on a seminar paper on Laura’s articles for the Missouri Ruralist, which had just been published in book form for the first time. He was teaching at South Dakota State University at the time, and his answers to my questions were incredibly helpful. Later, when I was getting my Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, he graciously agreed to read a copy of my dissertation prospectus and to get together at a conference we were both presenting at to talk about it. I saw him most recently at the first LauraPalooza conference in 2010. LauraPalooza was a fascinating experience. A third of the program was an academic conference where papers were presented by some of the foremost scholars on Wilder. Another third of the program consisted of presentations by k-12 teachers about how they use the books in their schools. The last third was activities for Little House enthusiasts and their families. Miller was treated like royalty.

Overall, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder not only provided the world with a solid biography that paid attention to questions that academic historians ask, including questions about context, culture, causation, and continuity and change (I tell my history students they’re the “big-C” questions). Miller’s book also contributed to the literature on Wilder in several other particular ways. First, it was the first book to use Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles and columns to fill in gaps in what we know about her life between the 1890s and 1930s. Miller also used the Ruralist pieces to explain Wilder’s personality and her development as a writer. Second, it responded to William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House, a biography of Rose Wilder Lane, which had been published by the same publisher in the same series—the Missouri Biography Series—five years earlier. Holtz had asserted that Wilder remained an amateurish writer and that most everything that people love about the Little House books can be traced to the work of Lane; in effect Lane was the ghostwriter for the books. By contrast, Miller argued that Wilder’s writing improved over time, both during the ten years that she wrote for the Ruralist and when she composed the Little House books. The Little House books were the result of a collaboration between mother and daughter where each contributed what the other lacked. A close examination of the relationship between Wilder and Lane is the book’s third contribution. Miller describes it clearly, concisely, and in some detail. One of my favorite passages comes from the last chapter of the book:

The two were alike in so many ways: intelligent, self-disciplined, perfectionist, critical of other people’s foibles and shortcomings, capable of bursts of energy, and highly ambitious to achieve something significant. Each was an individualist, and each opposed governmental intrusions. Each one saw herself as being set apart from the ordinary run of people, and each let no one else do her thinking for her. Rose, the precocious child, demonstrated a brilliance of intellect not evident in her mother. But Laura proved her competence over and over as a housewife, farm manager, loan officer, and author. In her own special way, she was as remarkable a person as Rose. Yet, their differences outweighed their similarities. One was devout, the other a skeptic. One was traditional, the other avant-garde. One was ruled by convention, the other ridiculed it. One enjoyed rural ways, the other escaped to the city as soon as she could. One settled down and lived with a man for two-thirds of a century, the other found it impossible to accommodate herself to any other person for any length of time. One was content, the other restless. One found meaning and satisfaction in simple ways and simple people, the other remained at heart an elitist. (253)

Miller’s description of Wilder as “devout” in this passage gives an indication of how he depicts Wilder’s faith. It was Miller’s account of Wilder’s faith, and the fact that I’m not sure that it always matches depictions of Christianity in the Little House books, that first inspired me to undertake this project. However, Miller does trace the influence of Christianity throughout Wilder’s life. The book describes the New England Congregationalist background of her mother’s family. It reveals that there was a church in Pepin when the Ingalls family lived in the Big Woods, but it was Methodist, not Congregationalist. (19, 29) Miller provides some background information from other sources about both Rev. Alden and Rev. Brown. (33, 62) He describes Laura’s childhood church attendance and her sense of privacy about personal beliefs. (42) He notes that as adults in Mansfield, Missouri, the Wilders attended the Methodist church, but never became members. (102)

For Miller, Laura’s religion, her Christianity, her faith in God, were all central to her world and life view. Her faith was one of her most important inner convictions. Furthermore, he views her morality as being mainly derived from the Bible. For example, here is part of Miller’s summary of the overall message of Wilder’s columns in the Ruralist:

Many things drew Laura’s ire, among them selfishness, overreliance on experts, the tendency to find fault with others, negative—as opposed to friendly—gossip, swearing, relativistic ideas, and the failure to follow Christian precepts. If a single lesson stood out, it was the necessity of love, a message she derived no doubt both from the warm and loving family environment that she had grown up in and from her own experiences as an adult. The commitment to love was strengthened by her religious beliefs. While seldom mentioned explicitly in her columns, biblical teachings lay at the core of her thinking. (131)

Miller doesn’t directly address the many places I’ve identified in this blog where the church or particular Christians are not depicted positively in the Little House books. The positive depictions of Christianity in Pioneer Girl, Wilder’s lifelong church attendance, and her overall morality are enough evidence for him. As he wrote in an email to me several months ago, “I think even though she may not have talked much about God and religion in the Little House books, that religious thoughts were always a presence — in the background.”

This idea that her faith was key to her personality also comes out in an earlier passage when Miller describes some of the conflicts between Wilder and her daughter:

We can assume that Laura always considered that what she did was best for Rose and that she was doing it for Rose’s own best interest, and not her own. But the mother’s idea about what constituted her daughter’s best interest did not always coincide with Rose’s. Add to that a large degree of certitude and self-righteousness on Laura’s part, heavily reinforced by religious belief, and we arrive at a situation in which the mother’s stifling presence could frequently seem overwhelming to the daughter and make her want to get out from under her mother’s strict rules and regulations. (105)

Here Miller admits that Wilder’s core convictions about morality, shaped by Christianity, could tend towards self-righteousness.

Re-reading Miller’s book has solidified several things that have been coming together in my mind as I’ve been thinking about Wilder’s faith during the last several months. First, I think that the question I need to answer is not whether Wilder was a Christian but what type of Christian Wilder was. Second, the evidence I’ve considered so far (the Little House books and Pioneer Girl) suggests that her Christian beliefs center on moral actions. One might say that for her, a Christian is someone who does the right thing. She saw the Bible as the standard of what is right and wrong. The Bible calls everyone to worship God and learn about His word. The Bible calls everyone to treat others as they would be treated. Christians are to love God and love their neighbors. This is a version of Christianity that has been very popular in American history. I’m guessing that it was taught in the Congregational church at the time. I will need to figure out what exactly to call it.

The Christianity that I believe in—Evangelical Christianity, or just the gospel—does not preach moral actions as the most important thing in life. In fact, it proclaims that in his or her own strength, no one can do anything good. Everyone is a sinner. No one does what is right. We cannot save ourselves. It is God who saves sinners. He did so by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ. Christ is the only one who has ever lived a sinless life. Then, Christ died to pay for the sins of those who trust in Him. Anyone who believes in Christ will have his or her sins forgiven by God. God will apply Christ’s righteousness to them, and their sins will be paid for by Christ’s sacrifice. Morals are important, but the good news of salvation is more important. Christians obey God’s commands out of gratitude for this salvation.

The difference between these two versions of Christianity—Christianity as the doing of good deeds and Christianity as the message of God’s salvation in Christ—can help to explain why Jesus Christ is not mentioned in any of the Little House books, or in Pioneer Girl, or in any of the Ruralist columns.

I think that this is a step towards a better understanding of Wilder’s faith.

I also think that I need to re-read Laura’s articles and columns in the Ruralist. I have photocopies from when I was doing research for my dissertation, but I’ve also just ordered a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist. I believe it is the most complete published edition of the Ruralist material.

As always, I’d be glad to hear comments.

All page number references from John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1998)

Pioneer Girl

Warning: this is a long blog post.

Last week I was able to re-read Pioneer Girl. This was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unpublished memoir. She wrote it at the end of the 1920s, before any of the Little House Books. She had hopes that it might be published in a national magazine or as a book. Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane had been a published writer for over ten years, and Wilder thought that she might approximate Lane’s success. Unfortunately, although Lane typed the manuscript, sent it to her agent, approached several publishers about it herself, and transferred the manuscript to a later agent, it was never published during either woman’s lifetime.

In fact, it was not published until this century, when the South Dakota State Historical Society raised money for a massive editing project. Pamela Smith Hill (who I have mentioned in previous posts) was the general editor. After five years, the beautiful book was published in 2014. It became a runaway bestseller. The total in print now exceeds 165,000.

Anyway, at some point, Lane pulled some of Pa’s stories out of Pioneer Girl and packaged them as children’s fiction. It was this work that developed into Little House in the Big Woods, which appeared in 1932. From there, Laura went on to write the other Little House books during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Like The First Four Years, Pioneer Girl was written for an adult audience. It is a memoir of Wilder’s life from her earliest memories to her marriage, from about age 2 to 17, during the years 1869 to 1885. It includes many of the events that later appeared in the Little House books, but it also has many that did not. For instance, it describes the year that the Ingalls family spent in Burr Oak, Iowa, which is completely omitted from the children’s books. The writing is less polished and the feelings are more raw in this book. But it is great to be able to read more directly about Wilder’s life in her own words.

Some of the accounts of religion in general and Christianity in particular are basically the same as in the Little House books. These include the descriptions of the Christmas tree in Walnut Grove, of Reverend Alden, of Pa giving his boot money to help buy the church bell, the first church service in DeSmet (in the surveyor’s cabin), and the strict Sunday observance of Mr. McKee.

But Pioneer Girl gives a number of glimpses into Wilder’s childhood faith that never appear in the Little House books:

1. Pictures from the family Bible. Apparently Laura and Mary loved the pictures of “Adam naming the animals” and “the Flood with people and animals all mixed together climbing out of the water onto a big rock.” (36) In the Little House books, the book most likely to be mentioned is Polar and Tropical Worlds.

2. A dramatic story of sin and repentance. Laura eats an icicle after Ma tells her not to, then lies to Ma about it. She repents later and tells Ma. “She smoothed my hair and said of course she would forgive me, because I had told her I was sorry and that now I must say a little prayer and ask God to forgive me too. She told me to say ‘Dear God please forgive me for telling a lie?’ And when I did, Ma said she was sure I would never be so naughty again, then she tucked me in kissed me and went away.” (61) Nowhere in the Little House books does Laura ask God for forgiveness.

3. A Sunday School picnic outside Walnut Grove that vividly reminds Mary and Laura of their socioeconomic status. “The lemonade and ice cream were there too, but the lemonade was 5c a glass and the ice-cream 10c a dish. As we had understood the lemonade and ice cream were provided for the Sunday school scholars we had taken no money, so we went without any. As Mary and I agree we would not have asked Pa to give us money for them anyway so it didn’t really matter.” (120-121)

4. Two churches, not just one, in Walnut Grove.

a. Wilder gives detailed descriptions of revival meetings both at the Congregational Church and the Methodist Church in Walnut Grove. (135-136) It seems that these may be one source for the descriptions of the revivals in Little Town on the Prairie, but Pioneer Girl gives generally positive descriptions, not the negative descriptions given of Rev. Brown looking like the devil.

b. Wilder describes going to the Congregational Church for Sunday School and morning worship, then to the Methodist Church for worship and Sunday School every Sunday afternoon. She did this to be part of a contest to see what child could memorize all the Sunday School “Golden Texts” and “Central Truths” for the year. The prize was a reference Bible. Both Laura and another boy, Howard Ensign, succeed. (136)

There are also several descriptions given in Pioneer Girl that are very different from the Little House books:

1. Laura’s Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Tower, is described, but nothing negative is said about her as in On the Banks of Plum Creek. It just says: “We loved to go to Sunday school. Our teacher, Mrs Tower, would gather us close around her and tell us Bible stories and every Sunday she taught us a verse from the Bible that we must remember and tell her the next.

2. A fuller explanation of how Rev. Brown came to be the pastor in DeSmet is given than in Little Town on the Prairie. Apparently, Rev. Brown claimed that Rev. Alden had sent him to organize the church. He had a letter from Mr. Alden introducing him to Pa. So Pa and Ma assisted him. Later they learned that: “Mr Brown was a retired preacher going west to get a homestead. Mr Alden had given him a letter to Pa out of kindness, but he had no authority to organize a church.” (192-193) Rev. Alden decided later not to interfere.

In fact, Rev. Brown gets even harsher treatment than he does in the children’s books. At one point, he is depicted as showing up at the Ingalls house right before meals. In one instance: “Ma had prepared a kettle of beans with only the small piece of meat necessary to cook with them. As we sat down at the table Mr Brown came. Being company the food was passed to him first. After helping himself to a huge plate of beans, he took the plate of meat, looked at it and around the table, then scooped all the meat onto his own plate saying, ‘Might as well take it. There ain’t much of it anyway.’” (256) In the Little House books he is eccentric and somewhat scary. Here he is depicted as downright selfish.

Finally, two passages that only appear in Pioneer Girl provide important clues to Wilder’s experience of Christianity. The first is her description of an experience of God’s presence. The Ingalls were living in Walnut Grove, but Pa didn’t have much work, and the family needed money. As a result, Laura was staying with a couple whose husband was gone a lot. “One night while saying my prayers, as I always did before going to bed, this feeling of homesickness and worry was worse than usual, but gradually I had a feeling of a hovering, encompassing Presence of a Power, comforting and sustaining and thought in surprise ‘This is what men call God!’” (137) This account did not get into the Little House books, because it is part of the two skipped years between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. It is similar to the description in Silver Lake of the special peace that came to her during prayer. This account is more explicitly connected to God and his grace. (Correction, 22 July 2016: This post originally said that this religious experience happened while Laura and her family were living in Burr Oak, Iowa. But it was actually when they were living in Walnut Grove.)

The second passage presents Wilder’s judgment of another young person’s expression of Christianity: “Howard Ensign had joined the Congregational church after their revival and would testify at prayer meeting every Wednesday night. It someway offended my sense of privacy. It seemed to me that the things between one and God should be between him and God like loving ones mother. One didn’t go around saying ‘I love my mother, she has been so good to me.’ One just loved her and did things that she liked to do.” (136) This attitude may explain why expressions of faith seem muted in Wilder’s writing.

How might Pioneer Girl contribute to an overall understanding of Wilder’s faith? I think in several ways:

First, this memoir, her first attempt to write the story of her childhood for publication, is more clear and straightforward in its description of her childhood faith than the depiction found in the Little House books. This difference could be because of her view of audience (this has also been suggested by a commenter on a previous post). It could be because of the influence of her daughter. And it could be just because she believed that faith was primarily a personal matter.

Second, it is clear that Wilder’s relationship to God and Christianity, like all individuals’ faith experience, is complicated. It was shaped by her parents’ influence, the institutional church, individual religious leaders (Rev. Alden and Rev. Brown), and particular religious experiences. Any real understanding needs to take all of these influences into account.

Finally, it is interesting to me that there is no mention of Jesus Christ in the memoir, the same as in the Little House books.

Up next: I think I’m going to re-read the major biographies for what they say about Wilder’s faith.

All page number references are from Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014).

The First Four Years

This is my first blog entry for three weeks. To those who are following, please accept my apologies. I’ve been grading again, and last weekend was Easter Break.

I was able to read The First Four Years yesterday. Wilder fans dispute whether the book should be included as one of the Little House Books. It does pick up, more or less, where These Happy Golden Years leaves off. However, most scholars don’t include it with the other eight children’s novels, despite the attempts of HarperCollins to sell it that way. Several things clearly separate First Four from the other books:

1) The novel’s voice is completely different than the other eight. This is probably because it was written to be an adult novel, not children’s fiction. Pamela Smith Hill suggests that Laura deliberately adopted a more adult point of view in order to address an adult audience.

2) In this work, Almanzo is called Manly, the name that Laura actually used for her husband, instead of Almanzo, which is used in all of the other Little House books.

3) In First Four, Laura questions the wisdom of Manly making a living as a farmer. They agree to try farming for three years, and if they were unsuccessful, Manly would seek a new profession. A “year of grace” is added to make the four years of the title.

The First Four Years was not published during Laura’s lifetime. It appears that she never showed the manuscript to her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. It was sent to Lane with others of Laura’s belongings when Laura died in 1957. Lane never told anyone about it, and her heir Roger Lea MacBride found it among her possessions after her death in 1968. He moved to get it published. The manuscript was not edited, by Lane or by others, so it is nowhere near as polished or engaging as the Little House books.

I knew all of this when I was doing Wilder research several years ago, but I had to refresh my memory when I reread the book yesterday. For more information about the book, you can see Pamela Smith Hill, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society, 2007), chapter 8, and John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), p. 240-243.

What I can say about the depiction of religion in The First Four Years is, regrettably, very little. Sunday buggy rides and sleigh rides are mentioned in the initial chapter. Other than that, Sunday isn’t mentioned anywhere else. There is no mention of Christianity, the church, or any type of religious practice anywhere in the book. This is the case even though Laura and Manly are described as going through some of the most crushing events of their lives: crop failures, financial troubles, debilitating disease, the death of their only son, and the loss of their house and all their possessions to fire.

One must always be careful about making an argument from silence. One part of my mind asserts that it is difficult to believe that Christianity played much of a meaningful part in Wilder’s life if it is not mentioned in connection with these kinds of tragic events. There is no questioning of God’s acts here, no expressions of “Why would God destroy our wheat crop repeatedly?” or “Why would He take our son?” or “Why would He take almost everything we own?” (The chapel speaker here at Trinity Christian College spoke on the Biblical book of Job this morning, so perhaps this is close to my mind right now.) There are also no statements of trust in God’s provision, or expressions that they go forward in reliance on His strength.

However, another part reminds me that there may be other reasons for the omission that have less to do with Wilder’s beliefs and more to do with how she approached writing. Perhaps she was just too matter-of-fact in this draft to describe any mental interactions with God’s providence. Perhaps she wanted to show the isolation of the characters as they fought against the difficult realities they encountered. Perhaps she thought that religion should be kept out of an adult novel.

Thanks much for reading. As always, I welcome comments.