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).

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Author: johnfry2013

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

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