Little House Manuscripts

Last week I promised that I would report on the archival research that I did at the archives of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. Here is the first installment of that report.

One of the reasons that I went to the Hoover Library was to look at a set of microfilm documents that included original manuscripts of several of the Little House books. The microfilm was made by the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri and the State Historical Society of Missouri. The actual documents are held by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association in Mansfield, Missouri. The collection includes Wilder’s original handwritten manuscripts of Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and By the Shores of Silver Lake. It also has later, typescript manuscripts of Pioneer Girl, Little House in the Big Woods, and Little House on the Prairie. I had thought that the collection had some kind of manuscript of all eight of the Little House books, but I was mistaken. However, I was glad to look at what was available.

I’ve worked on two books myself, so I understand how many times a text is revised before it is published. But it still struck me how many different versions there were of each Little House book. This is most clear for On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. It appears that for these books at least, Wilder wrote out two different drafts in longhand on yellow lined paper. Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane then typed a draft, changing the order of some stories and adding structure, pacing, action, and dialogue. Then Wilder read over the drafts and made corrections. At times she argued with Lane about changes. We have the letters Wilder and Lane sent to each other about these books because they were living in different parts of the country (and because Lane did not destroy them – see my post on Selected Letters). As a result, the original manuscript is often extremely different from the final, published versions of the stories.

I was also struck by how much of the material for the completed books, how much of the action and dialogue, actually was the work of Lane. It is clear that the books were a collaboration between mother and daughter, with each contributing what each was best at. Wilder excelled at description and she knew her characters and her audience. Lane provided overall structure, pacing, excitement, and dialogue. My apologies to Pamela Smith Hill, who I think has greatly influenced my understanding of this collaboration; she says something close to this in her biography, but I don’t have time to look it up right now.

I was especially interested in whether the depiction of the church and Christianity changed between the original handwritten manuscripts and later versions. It was my hypothesis that Wilder’s original drafts would have more positive descriptions of church people than eventually appeared in the published versions. I was guessing that Lane would have supplied the more negative comments. What I found supported this hypothesis. I can provide two striking examples, one from Farmer Boy and one from On the Banks of Plum Creek.

In my post on Farmer Boy, I related how God comes into the story of the strange dog who guarded Almanzo’s family’s house from thieves when they had been paid $200 cash for two horses and could not get to town to put it in the bank. Here is Wilder’s original manuscript:

          Father took the money to Mother. They didn’t like to keep $200 in the house overnight, but it was too late to take it to the bank at Malone. Mother put it away in the bureau drawer in her room. She said good Christians ought to feel that God would take care of them, but she’d rather the money were in the bank. (Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, Western Historical Manuscripts Collection C-3633, Folder 11)

This becomes, in the published book, the following exchange:

          “The Lord will take care of us,” Father said.

          “The Lord helps them that help themselves.” Mother replied. “I wish to goodness that money was safe in the bank.” (164)

Then, at the end of the chapter, Mother says the following in Wilder’s original:

          Father shook his head and said, “Well! Well! Well!” But Mother said she would always believe the strange dog had been sent by the Lord to watch over them and that he had kept the robbers away. (Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, Western Historical Manuscripts Collection C-3633, Folder 11)

The published book says the following:

          Mother said she would always believe that Providence had sent the strange dog to watch over them. Almanzo thought perhaps he stayed because Alice fed him.

          “Maybe he was sent to try us,” Mother said. “Maybe the Lord was merciful to us because we were merciful to him.” (167)

Both of the exchanges in the published version are more interesting and engaging since they are dialogue instead of narrative. This directness is one of the things that makes the Little House books memorable. But I believe that the original manuscript better expresses how Wilder understood God and His actions in the lives of His people. It expresses a more settled faith. Mother and Father agree that God is in control, even when they are anxious. They believe that it was God’s providence that sent the dog to be the means of their protection. The addition of the words from Aesop’s fables (which many believe are in the Bible) and the multiple interpretations given by Mother and Almanzo confuse this depiction of God’s work in the world. Lane must have been the source of these changes, and that confusion reminds me of Lane’s experience of religion. She rejected Christianity until late in her life, was drawn towards Islam when she visited the Middle East, and was a pretty confirmed agnostic if not an atheist during the 1930s.

Even more striking are the changes to the description of church in On the Banks of Plum Creek. In my post on that book, I noted that the treatment of her Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Tower, had a bit of a negative edge. Laura’s original draft is much more positive:

          “The lady told them her name was Mrs. Tower and learned all their names. Then she told a Bible story.

          It was one Ma had told Laura and Mary, so they knew it already, but they liked to hear Mrs. Tower tell it…

          After the story Mrs. Tower repeated a verse from the Bible to each little girl in turn and told her to remember it and tell it to her the next Sunday. That would be her Sunday school lesson.

          When Mrs. Tower came to Laura, she said, “My very littlest girl must have a small lesson. It will be just three words, ‘God is love.’ Can you remember that for a whole week?”

          Laura thought she was not so small as Mrs. Tower imagined. Why! She could remember long verses and whole songs. But she wouldn’t hurt Mrs. Tower’s feelings by telling her that so she answered, “Yes, Mam!” (Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, Western Historical Manuscripts Collection C-3633, Folder 22)

This becomes the following exchange in the published book:

          “When the others were settled on the square of benches, the lady said her name was Mrs. Tower, and she asked their names. Then she said, “Now, I’m going to tell you a story!”

          Laura was very pleased. But Mrs. Tower began, “It is all about a little baby, born long ago in Egypt. His name was Moses.”

          So Laura did not listen any more. She knew all about Moses in the bulrushes. Even Carrie knew that….

          [Mrs. Tower gives out Bible memory verses:] When it was Laura’s turn… she said, “My very littlest girl must have a very small lesson. It will be the shortest verse in the Bible!”

          Then Laura knew what it was. But Mrs. Tower’s eyes smiled and she said, “It is just three words!” She said them, and asked, “Now do you think you can remember that for a whole week?”

          Laura was surprised at Mrs. Tower. Why, she remembered long Bible verses and whole songs! But she did not want to hurt Mrs. Tower’s feelings. So she said, “Yes, ma’am.”

          “That’s my little girl!” Mrs. Tower said. But Laura was Ma’s little girl. “I’ll tell you again, to help you remember. Just three words,” said Mrs. Tower. “Now can you say them after me?”

          Laura squirmed.

          “Try,” Mrs. Tower urged her. Laura’s head bowed lower and she whispered the verse.

          “That’s right!” Mrs. Tower said. “Now will you do your best to remember, and tell me next Sunday?”

          Laura nodded. (505-506)

Like the alterations to the text of Farmer Boy, the changes to this account make it much more direct. One can feel what Laura felt. It’s much more effective storytelling. However, the tone of the writing and the feelings conveyed to the reader are completely different in the two versions. In Wilder’s original manuscript, Laura enjoys this new person and likes to hear her tell a story, even though she has heard it already. Later, Laura is a little surprised at Mrs. Tower’s notions, but doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. In the published book, which must be Lane’s retelling, Laura is offended that she would be told such a juvenile story and tormented by Mrs. Tower’s assumptions that she can’t memorize anything longer than several words. Add to this the fact that the shortest verse in the King James Bible (which was undoubtedly what was used) is only two words: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) “God is love” is actually part of a longer verse (I John 4:8) It appears that Lane did not know this, and it also appears that she deliberately avoided including the words “God is love” in the story.

I believe that these examples, and several others that I’ve not given here, show that it was Lane who changed Wilder’s straightforward and positive depictions of Christianity into the more mixed or even negative descriptions found in the published works. It is good to have some confirmation of something that I’ve long suspected.

However, Wilder did read Lane’s changes before they were finalized. She sometimes argued with Lane about keeping things the way she had written them, and at times she prevailed. But in none of the correspondence that I looked at does the depiction of Christianity come up. So it appears that Wilder accepted Lane’s changes. I think we might explain this acceptance in one of several ways. First, Wilder may have seen this as an acceptable shift in tone. Second, Wilder may not liked the changes, but she may have decided to choose her battles with Lane; she left these changes and concentrated on others. Third, Wilder might have objected to the changes in conversations or correspondence that we do not have, but ultimately lost the argument. I think one of the first two explanations is most likely.

The other reason I went to West Branch was to look at the correspondence the Hoover Library has between Wilder and Lane, which I will address in a separate post. Thanks for reading and I appreciate all comments.

(Page number references are from Volume 1 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

On the Way Home and West From Home

This week I traveled to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library to do research. I had received a travel grant from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Foundation, and I had a great time working with the staff, especially Spencer Howard, Matt Schaeffer, and Craig Wright. I found some good information, took a number of digital photos, and got a CD of scanned correspondence. I am currently working through what I found, and next week I hope to post about it.

This week, however, I thought I’d address two Wilder books that I haven’t addressed yet: On the Way Home and West From Home. I was prompted to address these by seeing copies of the original diary and letters published in these books at the Hoover Library.

On the Way Home was published by Harpers in 1962, five years after Wilder’s death in 1957. It reproduces a diary that Wilder wrote when she, Almanzo, and their daughter Rose traveled with another family, the Cooleys, from DeSmet, South Dakota, to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894. The Wilders drove a team and covered wagon with all of their possessions. Rose was seven years old. The 650 mile trip took from July 17 to August 30. Laura wrote in her diary every day. When it was published, Rose Wilder Lane provided a “setting” for the diary, which means she wrote an introduction and afterword based on her memories of the trip. The book is lavishly illustrated with 18 pictures and a map of the journey.

The diary itself is fascinating as an early example of Laura’s powers of description. Some descriptions are spare and simple; she notes whether crops looked good or bad in the area, the prices for staples, and the temperature (until they lost the thermometer). Other descriptions are more elaborated, especially when she is describing people. They encountered a number of different kinds of people, including a settlement of Russians, many groups of Germans, and a variety of emigrants on the roads to and from Missouri.

This book tells us just a little bit about Wilder’s faith. Only twice does it explicitly mention Christianity or the church. The first is in an entry about the town of St. Mary’s, Kansas, “A pleasant town but strange, it is altogether southern, and Catholic. There is a beautiful large church with a pure white marble Saint Mary above the wide doors and two white marble statues of Mother and Child in the yard.” (On the Way Home, 48-49) The second describes the town of Mansfield: “There is everything here already that one could want though we must do our worshipping without a Congregational church. There is a Methodist church and a Presbyterian.” (On the Way Home, 74)

On the subject of worshipping, she never mentions attending church services on any of the six Sundays they were on the road. However, they also never traveled on Sunday. They stayed in one place and rested, or visited with local people, or did washing, or repaired equipment. This was a contrast to dozens of emigrant groups that they met who were traveling on Sunday. So the diary reveals that Sunday observance was important to the Wilder and Cooley families, if church attendance was less so.

West from Home was published in 1974. After Rose’s death in 1968, her heir Roger Lea McBride found among her papers a collection of letters from Laura to Almanzo. Laura wrote them when she was visiting Rose in San Francisco in August, September, and October 1915. Rose was working for the San Francisco Bulletin as a writer at the time, and she was still married to Gillette Lane (though there were some signs that their marriage was in trouble). The trip had multiple aims. First, Rose had pleaded with her mother to come visit to see the Panama-Pacific World’s Exposition that year. Second, Rose wanted Laura and Almanzo to consider moving to a farm in California. Finally, Laura had begun writing for the Missouri Ruralist, and Rose was an experienced writer. Both women hoped that Rose could teach Laura how to be a better writer if they sat down together.

Laura, inspired by the fact that she was describing parts of the west that she and Almanzo had never seen before, wrote extended descriptions of the landscape through the train window on the way to California. She also gave detailed narratives of happy trips to the ocean, visits to the World’s Fair, and rambles around Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. She did have some time to talk with Rose about writing, and the result was that the number of columns that Laura wrote for the Ruralist increased markedly after 1915. Laura and Almanzo decided against moving to California, even though Laura had gone to the Santa Clara valley to check out the prospects. It’s unclear how seriously they had entertained the idea. The trip came to a rather untimely end when Laura fell from the side of a streetcar and had to be treated in a hospital for a concussion.

There is not a lot that can be added to our understanding of Laura’s faith from this book. She does describe several pictures of the crucifixion she saw in the French building at the World’s Fair (West from Home, 148), but the tone of that description is the same as the wallabies and kangaroos next to the New Zealand exhibit or the Keen Cutter knife display. Perhaps more telling is the fact that several times letters mention Sunday activities but never attendance at worship. For instance: “Sunday we went for a twelve mile street car ride all directions over the city and it only cost us a nickel apiece because of transfers.” (West From Home, 98) and “Sunday about five o’clock Rose finished writing for the day and she and I took a street car for the ocean beach.” (West From Home, 143) Laura describes their activities so minutely otherwise, one would imagine that she would have told Almanzo if they had gone to worship.

One gets the impression from these books that Wilder was most interested in church life when she was settled in a community and she knew the people. She was not as interested in attending worship when out of her normal surroundings. It’s pretty clear that Rose was not interested in keeping Sunday in any kind of traditional way, including church services.

Last fall I was at a conference and a presenter suggested describing a person’s faith by looking at their beliefs, their belonging, and their behavior. For Laura this would mean considering her writings about her religious beliefs, what church she belonged to, and what we might infer about her faith from what she did. I’ve conjectured in previous blog entries that while there are few explicit descriptions of her adult doctrinal beliefs, we might best describe her approach to Christianity as mainly having to do with right behavior. I’ve also noted that the only church she ever officially joined was the Congregational Church in DeSmet. She attended the Methodist Church in Mansfield for years without officially becoming a member. These two books suggest that in terms of behavior, she did not have an evangelical desire to attend church services wherever she went.

More next week when I’ve worked through the materials from West Branch more thoroughly.

Page number references are to Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894, with a setting by Rose Wilder Lane (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) and West From Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco, 1915, edited by Roger Lea MacBride (New York: HarperCollins, 1974).

The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder

I’m very sorry to have been away from the blog for three weeks. My daughter graduated from Chicago Christian High School on June 2, which meant visits from both my parents and my wife’s parents. We also have had some  car trouble. During that time, my school, Trinity Christian College, went public with the news that I’ve been awarded a travel grant to do research at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. But during the last two weeks I was able to get time to read the new Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson.

As I’ve said in a post on Anderson’s biography of Wilder, Anderson is the foremost living authority on Wilder. He has read everything that there is to be read about Wilder and the books. He has written quite a bit himself. He has worked with the organizers and caretakers of all of the various Wilder historical sites. Now, he has edited a collection of over 400 letters Wilder wrote to a variety of correspondents, including family members, personal acquaintances, business contacts, and fans of the Little House books. The book provides a brief introduction for almost all of the letters, providing background on the recipient and placing the letter in context of Wilder’s life. It is a wonderful collection.

As I worked through the 380 pages of letters, I found myself thinking that this volume could have been several smaller books. One book might have focused on the correspondence between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane as Wilder was writing several of the books and Lane was editing them for publication. These letters give an in-depth look at the collaboration between mother and daughter. They also take up about 120 pages of the book before they abruptly end, for Lane burned a lot of letters (!!!) during the weeks after Wilder’s death, both at Wilder’s home in Missouri and in her own home in Connecticut. (xviii) Wilder’s personal letters to fans of the books who wrote her could have been another volume; they occupy another 100 pages at least. But perhaps just the one volume is best. The letters are given in strict date order, and the collection is divided into six chapters chronologically.

Small collections of letters give fascinating looks at different parts of Wilder’s person and life. Selected letters home to her husband Almanzo while she was visiting Rose in San Francisco in 1915 show her ability to describe scenes exquisitely. (All of these letters were published by Harper in 1974 as West From Home.) A later automobile trip to California with Rose and one of Rose’s friends in 1925 is similarly fascinating. Later, we can follow her correspondence with her agent, George Bye, as she tries to get the best terms possible in book contracts with Harpers. The last chapters of the book feature dozens of letters to complete strangers who enjoyed the books and wrote her.

Several letters shed light on the question of Wilder’s faith:

– One of the first letters in the book is to the secretary of the Eastern Star Chapter of the lodge in DeSmet as Wilder prepared to move to Missouri. (5) I’ve looked back at John Miller’s biography and realize now that he also mentions that Almanzo and Laura were both active in the Eastern Star, which is an adjunct organization to the Freemasons, but for some reason I hadn’t thought about this until reading this letter. Membership in a Masonic organization would not have been acceptable for some Christian denominations, like the Presbyterians, who saw the Masons as teaching ideas in competition with or even contrary to Christianity. But apparently this was fine with the Congregationalist church where she and her parents were members and the Methodist church she attended in Missouri.

– There is also a letter on 29 September 1952 written to a correspondent only identified as Suzanna:

“My favorite quotation is from the nineteenth Psalm.

‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.’

The whole book of Psalms is a favorite of mine and I can repeat all. Can you?

I hope you win the trophy for the second time.

Sincerely, your friend

Laura Ingalls Wilder” (342-343)

Anderson does not provide any introduction to the letter, so the reader is left to surmise that Suzanna was a young person who was involved in some kind of competition, probably one that required interaction with the Bible. Perhaps it involved memorization; Wilder had won such a competition when her family lived in Walnut Grove (see my post on Pioneer Girl). Was Wilder asserting that she had memorized the entire book of Psalms or something else? The letter is tantalizingly short. It does show that Wilder had much more than a passing acquaintance with God’s word.

– Like the previous letter provides some evidence about Wilder’s relationship to the Bible, two other letters to a neighbor named Dorothy mention prayer: The first, on 21 July 1955, says: “It is wonderful that you will pray for me. I need it. I will remember you in my prayers every night.” (372) The second is undated and says “I thank you for your sweet note and shall remember you when I say my prayers. I hope you will do the same for me. One needs the prayers of their friends.” (372) Out of 400 letters in the book, only two mention prayer, but together they use the word “pray” or “prayers” four times.

– There are three points in the letters where Wilder swears. In each instance the word is damn, it is used in a letter to Rose (the correspondent she was closest to), and it is in response to frustration: with a neighborhood interpersonal challenge (85), with the New Deal (112), or with the writing process (156). This is not to say that this means that Wilder was not a Christian. But it is not something we normally think about Laura Ingalls Wilder doing. It does fill out her character a bit.

– Finally, Wilder mentions attending church in Mansfield to Rose (188), to her editor at Harpers (246), and a librarian in California (320).

I think that one might infer one of several things from the evidence provided in her letters. The church and Christian practices like Bible-reading and prayer are mentioned a handful of times in a very large amount of correspondence. One might conclude that therefore faith must not have been very important to Wilder. However, as has been suggested in previous blog entries, it might also mean that while faith was actually very important, Wilder saw it as an intensely personal part of her life. It was not something that she shared readily with others. Lane was an avowed atheist during the 1930s, so in their correspondence perhaps Wilder stuck to topics that they agreed on, like politics, or that greatly concerned them, like work on the Little House books. One also might appreciate why Wilder didn’t mention Christianity to business acquaintances or fans.

I’m glad that I read this book before I travel to Iowa to do research at the Hoover Library at the beginning of next week. I’m sure I’ll have a lot to write about when I get back.

All page number references are to Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson (New York: HarperCollins, 2016).