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).

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Author: johnfry2013

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

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