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)

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Author: johnfry2013

Chair, Department of History, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL

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