Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography

I took a week off from Laura Ingalls Wilder last week and painted the bathroom at our house. I also attended a conference on African Americans in the nineteenth century West. Trinity Christian College was a co-sponsor, and a colleague of mine in the History Department, David Brodnax, was a co-organizer of the conference and presented a paper. It was a great conference. But I’m back now.

This week I read Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography by William Anderson. Anderson is the foremost living authority on Laura Ingalls Wilder. He was reading, thinking about, and writing about the Little House books as a child during the 1950s and 1960s. He wrote his master’s thesis on Wilder and the books, and he wrote a series of pamphlets during the 1970s for the Ingalls and Wilder historical sites. He has written or edited a series of books and collections of Wilder’s works, most recently The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which just came out this year.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography was published in 1992. It was aimed at younger readers, and it has been a steady seller for HarperCollins ever since. At the time, Anderson was one of the few who had read Pioneer Girl, and he used both it and the Little House books to shape his narrative. He also had read deeply of Wilder’s papers in the collections of the historical sites, especially in De Smet, South Dakota and Mansfield, Missouri. Anderson’s narrative is lively and direct. He traces Wilder’s life clearly in 232 pages. One feature of this work is that he includes a number of poems that Laura wrote as a teenager, which show her growing ability to put words together in evocative ways.

From the point of view of my project to understand Wilder’s faith, this book does not necessarily add anything to what I had learned from Pioneer Girl or John Miller’s biography. Anderson describes Wilder’s childhood experiences with the Congregational Churches in Walnut Grove and De Smet, her religious experience as a teen in Walnut Grove, and her recitation of 104 Bible verses to win a prize. In his account of Wilder’s adult life, several times Anderson notes her consistent attendance at Sunday Services at the Methodist church in Mansfield.

I’m looking forward to reading Anderson’s edited book of letters, Lord-willing soon.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist

This week I read Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks, a collection of the articles and columns that Wilder wrote for the Missouri Ruralist, a farm newspaper, between 1911 and 1924. The collection was edited by Stephen W. Hines. Hines originally published selections from this material in 1991 as Little House in the Ozarks. More was published in Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Family Collection, edited by Edward Marshall and published in 1993. But Farm Journalist, published in 2007, is by far the most complete collection, reproducing all of the articles that can be identified as Wilder’s.

Wilder’s first two articles were published in 1911 under Almanzo’s name, although all Wilder scholars agree that they were written by Laura. During the next four several years, Wilder wrote both feature stories and advice columns under the byline “Mrs. A. J. Wilder.” In 1915, she traveled to San Francisco to visit her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Together they attended the Panama Pacific World’s Fair, and Lane coached Wilder on her writing. Wilder returned with a new understanding of writing for newspapers and new energy for the task. While before 1915 Wilder only wrote twelve articles and columns for the Ruralist, in 1916 alone she wrote twenty. Between 1917 and 1924, she wrote between ten and twenty five pieces for publication each year.

Wilder’s Ruralist material addresses a wide variety of topics. During the early 1910s and the early 1920s, a number of articles are features on different successful farmers. They are what I call “how I did it right” stories in my book on the Midwestern farm press. (John J. Fry, The Farm Press, Reform, and Rural Change: 1895-1920 [New York: Routledge, 2005], 19)  Wilder also wrote a regular advice column. In early years each column had an individual title, but in 1919 the column became regularly titled “The Farm Home,” and this changed to “As a Farm Woman Thinks” in 1921. Columns provide tips for raising chickens, advice for effective farm management, and guidance for farm wives in all areas of their work. More importantly, however, Wilder regularly addresses moral, political, economic, and family topics. Often she reflects on the role of women in the home and in society. Some of these observations respond to developments in in World War I, which the United States participated in from April 1917 to November 1918. Others are occasioned by events in Wilder’s life with neighbors and others.

I’ve mentioned John Miller’s use of the Ruralist articles in my blog entry on his biography of Wilder, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. I concur with many of Miller’s observations. Wilder shows a clear understanding of human nature, especially the role that selfishness plays in causing conflict between spouses, neighbors, or countries. She delivers numerous exhortations to moral living. She emphasizes the influence that mothers have on the early development of children, especially the development of their moral faculties. Miller sees this as evidence of a devout Christian faith, and I have to agree. At times she mentions Christianity outright:

Following all the unrest and unreason on down to its real source where it works in the hearts of the people its roots will be found there in individual selfishness, in the desire to better one’s own condition at the expense of another, by whatever means possible, and this desire of each person infects groups of people and moves nations.

Here and there one sees a criticism of Christianity because of the things that have happened and are still going on. “Christian civilization is a failure,” some say. “Christianity has not prevented these things, therefore it is a failure,” say others.

But this is a calling of things by the wrong names. It is rather the lack of Christianity that has brought us where we are. Not a lack of churches or religious forms, but of the real thing in our hearts. (“The Farm Home,” 20 December 1919, 208)

At many other times, the references to God and his laws are more veiled.

References to religion in general and Christianity also come in two other contexts. One is in regular meditations on Thanksgiving. Again, at times her exhortations to thankfulness in November are general, at times they are specific that thanks are to be given to God:  “But even more than for material blessings, let us, with humble hearts, give thanks for the revelation to us and our better understanding of the greatness and goodness of God.” (“As a Farm Woman Thinks,” 15 November 1923, 292)

Wilder also often meditates on the meaning of Christmas. The first article that does so, in 1916, is perhaps the most striking. Wilder describes the origin of Christmas in the pagan world of Europe “hundreds of years ago.” Since the sun was treated as a god, the shortening of the days in late fall led some priests to call for the sacrifice of a child in the evening of December 24. Doors in the village must be left unlocked so that the priests could come and take a child from one of the villagers. Families must have listened in terror for footsteps on Christmas Eve. Then,

How happy they must have been when the teachers of Christianity came and told them it was all unnecessary. It is no wonder they celebrated the birth of Christ on the date of that awful night of sacrifice, which was not robbed of its terror, nor that they made it a children’s festival. (“Before Santa Claus Came,”20 December 1916, 94)

Interestingly, however, the focus for this meditation is not Jesus Christ but Santa Claus. The title of the article is “Before Santa Claus Came,” not “Before Jesus Came.” St. Nick dominates the last paragraph:

Instead of the stealthy steps of cruel men, there came now, on Christmas eve, a jolly saint with reindeer and bells, bringing gifts. This new spirit of love and peace and safety that was abroad in the land did not require that the doors be left unbarred. He could come thru locked doors or down the chimney and be everywhere at once on Christmas night, for a spirit can do such things. No wonder the people laughed and danced and rang the joy bells on Christmas day and the celebration with its joy and thankfulness has come on down the years to us. Without all that Christmas means, we might still be dreading the day in the old terrible way instead of listening for the sleigh bells of Christmas. (“Before Santa Claus Came,”20 December 1916, 94)

Finally, Wilder uses a variety of quotes from Biblical passages to underscore points in a number of pieces. These include Exodus 20:8-11, Proverbs 15:1, Proverbs 22:6, Proverbs 27:1, Ecclesiastes 1:9, Matthew 7:12, and Matthew 25:40.

God and Christianity do appear to be vitally important to Wilder’s vision of life as revealed in these articles and columns. It is striking to me that this vision does not come through so clearly in the Little House books. This may be due to the influence of her daughter Rose. It may also be because of how Laura viewed the audience for her books. I’m looking forward to getting a look at copies of the original manuscripts at the Herbert Hoover Library this June.

Thanks again for reading. I appreciate all comments.

All page number references is are Stephen W. Hines, ed. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007).

The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook

In 2011, the Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook was published.  This should not be confused with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook. The latter was edited by Eugenia Garson and published by HarperCollins in 1968. It is 160 pages long and contains 62 songs. It is out of stock on Amazon, though you can get used copies from used booksellers.

The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook, by contrast, is an exhaustive and scholarly book edited by musicologist (music historian) Dale Cockrell. I heard Cockrell speak at the first LauraPalooza conference in 2010. He made a convincing argument—one that is given in the introduction of this book—that one of the ways that Wilder was able to include as many details in her books is that she used her memories of music to help her remember her childhood. The bulk of the book, however, is sheet music for the 127 songs that are mentioned in the eight Little House books. After each song, the book and chapter that the song is referenced in is provided, along with a brief description of the context.  As a result, the book is a whopping 425 oversize pages. It was a volume in two different series from the American Musicological Society: “Recent Researches in American Music” and “Music of the United States of America.” It also appears to be out of print on Amazon; the list price was $240, so few individuals would probably be in a position to buy it. I was fortunate to get the library at Trinity Christian College, where I work, to purchase one.

In his introduction, Cockrell describes the different roles that music played in the Little House books. Pa played his fiddle and the family sang both for entertainment and for community-building. The family was the primary community that music fostered, although the local, church, and national communities were also maintained by songs. Cockrell notes that the first time a formal church service is mentioned in the books (in On the Banks of Plum Creek), Wilder describes the congregation’s terrible rendition of the hymn “Jerusalem, the Golden.” Laura’s assessment of the church service is brief:

Pa turned on the seat and asked, “How do you girls like the first time you ever went to church?”

“They can’t sing,” said Laura. (xxxiv)

Cockrell classifies twenty-three of the 127 songs in the book as “Hymns or Sunday School songs.” So almost a fifth of the songs mentioned in the Little House books were used in Christian worship or educational settings. As I read through these songs, I divided them into eight different categories based on the content of the lyrics:

Song about being good and enjoying nature: “Gentle Words and Loving Smiles”

Songs about Christmas: “Merry, Merry Christmas,” “The Star of Bethlehem”

Songs for church services, Sunday School – “Doxology,” “My Sabbath Home”

Song about death: “When Jesus Holds My Hand”

Song about God’s protection: “A Shelter in the Time of Storm”

Songs about heaven: “Canaan,” “The Evergreen Shore,” “The Happy Land,” “The Home of the Soul,” “Jerusalem the Golden,” “The Mountain of the Lord,” “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” “Pull for the Shore,” “Sweet By and By,” “When I Can Read my Title Clear”

Songs about Jesus and Salvation: “The Ninety and Nine,” “Rock of Ages”

Songs about working for what is right: “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” “The Good Old Way,” “Lend a Helping Hand,” “What Shall the Harvest Be”

I was surprised by how this division came out. Given my previous observations in this blog about Wilder’s faith tending towards right behavior, I had assumed at the outset that most of the hymns would be about working for what is right. This is the second-largest category. However, the largest single category – ten out of the twenty-three songs – contains songs about heaven. I didn’t expect this.

I think that there are several possible reasons for this over-representation of songs about heaven. It may be that I should revise my ideas of Wilder’s faith to recognize a larger role for heaven in her thinking. On the other hand, seven of these ten songs are referenced in The Long Winter, which I have already noted as having many connections to Christianity. Many of the songs are sung while blizzards bear down on the family as a way of defying the storm. For instance, “The Evergreen Shore” has the chorus, “Then let the hurricane roar, / It will the sooner be o’er, / We will weather the blast, and will land at last, / Safe on the evergreen shore.” (187) So the songs about heaven are used for a particular reason in that particular book. Finally, it may just be that these songs have the most memorable lyrics for Wilder. In other words, the content of the entire hymn may be less important than how particular lyrics functioned in her upbringing and in her memory.

It is not surprising to me that only two of the twenty-three songs are specifically about salvation or Jesus’ sacrifice.

Clearly, Christian music had a great influence on Wilder’s life and upbringing. The type of Christianity that she experienced as a child—and later pursued and described as an adult—may have emphasized doing good works to please God (as opposed to a message of sin and salvation by Jesus’ blood). But it also emphasized singing.

Thanks for reading.

Page number references are from Dale Cockrell, ed. The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook (Middleton, WI: Published for the American Musicological Society by A-R Editions, Inc., 2011).