Updates / Prairie II

I’ve been working on several parts of the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder project for the last several weeks. My plan was to get as much as possible done before the due date of the first paper in my Western Civilization course here at Trinity Christian College. It was handed in today. So I will be grading for the next week, and then that class will be taking the first exam, so I’ll be grading for another week…

I did get confirmation this week that I will be speaking at the Midwestern History Conference, sponsored by the Midwestern History Association, in June. The panel is on “The Uses of Public Memory in the Rural American Midwest.” My paper title is “Little House and Little Church: Memory and the Church in the Published Works of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Many thanks to panel organizer and presenter Nancy Berlage from Texas State University and presenter David Brodnax, Sr., my colleague here at Trinity. Thanks also to Commenter Jon Lauck, and Chair David Zwart.

I was able to finish my lecture for the Calvin College History Department Colloquium that I will be speaking at later this month. Many thanks to Will Katerberg and the Mellema Program in Western American Studies for inviting me. The lecture is titled “‘This is What Men Call God:’ The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I also finished a presentation for a Faculty Coffee here at Trinity, which will be the week after I speak at Calvin.

This week I also traded emails with John Miller about Wilder manuscripts, and he told me about a conference in April in honor of the 150th anniversary of Wilder’s birth. It’s called “Laura Ingalls Wilder: a 150 Year Legacy,” it’s being put on by the South Dakota State Historical Society (SDHS) in Sioux Falls. The SDHS is releasing a new book of essays on Wilder, and the conference will have all of the big names in Wilder studies. I’m trying to figure out if I can go. It’s during my last week of classes.

Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying my Honors Seminar on the Little House books immensely. So far we’ve read and discussed Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, and Little House on the Prairie. The students are pointing out things to me that I hadn’t noticed. For instance, they noted that during the account of the family’s getting malaria (“Fever and Ague”) in Prairie, baby Carrie isn’t mentioned at all. (Carrie is actually mentioned twice in the chapter, but it is before and after the family is sick.) Who took care of the baby while everyone was stricken? This sent me to Pioneer Girl. In that memoir, the story of malaria is given before the story of Ma giving birth to baby Carrie. But because of the order in which the children’s books were published, Carrie was already in Big Woods, so she had to be in Prairie. We also discussed other challenges involved in running two timelines in our heads – the timeline of the Little House books and the timeline of Wilder’s actual life…

I also found an additional mention of Christianity in Little House on the Prairie that I hadn’t written about last year. In chapter 17, when Pa is gone to town, Ma sits up late in the rocking chair by the fire with Pa’s pistol in her lap and sings “There is a happy land / Far, far away, / Where saints in glory stand, / Bright, bright as day. / Oh, to hear the angels sing, / Glory to the Lord, our king.” (359) I probably should have noticed this when I worked through The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook, but I didn’t.

Thanks for listening.

(The page number reference is from Volume 1 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)


Saving Graces

Hmmm.  It’s been over a month since I’ve posted.  My apologies.  Classes are back in session here at Trinity Christian College, where I teach.  I’ve had many meetings, and I served as a faculty mentor to a group of nineteen incoming freshmen.  But yesterday, I was able to read Saving Graces: The Inspirational Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Nashville: Brodman and Holman, 1997).

Saving Graces is a short book (164 pages) that reproduces forty-eight of Wilder’s articles and columns from the Missouri Ruralist.  It was edited by Stephen Hines, who also edited the complete collection of the Ruralist material, Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist.  In the time that I had to dedicate to the task, I was able to find all but ten of the articles from Saving Graces in Farm Journalist.  For Saving Graces, Hines gave a different title to each article.  He also added an italicized Bible passage, right in the middle of each.  The titles and passages connect the content of the articles to Christian virtues, topics, and themes.  The book also reproduces ten of Wilder’s best loved hymns with music.

One might wonder why, when I was embarking on a project about Wilder’s faith, I didn’t begin with this book, rather than reading twenty some other volumes first.  Well, I came to the project with my own questions about the Little House books, and I wanted to read them before anything else.  Then I worked my way around to Wilder’s other writings, including the Missouri Ruralist articles.  When I got to reading them, I wanted to make my own decisions about which of those articles were helpful in understanding Wilder’s faith.  So I read Farm Journalist.

The articles in Saving Graces are on a variety of topics, including nature, success, childrearing, work, Thanksgiving, and service to others.  Once I had read the book, I looked through my notes from Farm Journalist to see if I had noted that the articles Hines had chosen gave information about Laura’s faith.  It turns out that I had only identified about half of the articles Hines does.

Hines has a brief introduction titled “The Christian Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”  There he references interviews with neighbors of the Wilders, Laura’s lifelong church attendance, and her conversion experience related in Pioneer Girl.  (See Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill [Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society, 2014], p. 137.) Unfortunately, as he describes the context of that experience, he sets it in Burr Oak, Iowa, when in actuality she was living in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

Perhaps a key to the difference between Hines’s and my idea of what gives evidence of Wilder’s Christianity lies in the book’s subtitle:  The Inspirational Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  There is certainly a difference between something that mentions the church, Christianity, or Christian ideas (what I was looking for) and what might be termed inspirational.  As a result, there are a number of articles reproduced in Saving Graces that display Wilder’s wisdom, insight, and traditional values.  But I don’t think that they are particularly Christian.  They do sound more Christian when juxtaposed with the Bible verses added by Hines.

I appreciate what Hines was trying to do with the book, and it will encourage readers to consider Wilder’s ideas about life, relationships, and what really matters.  But since there is not really any new material in Saving Graces that I had not already read, I don’t think that my understanding of Wilder’s faith was changed much by it.

A Little House Sampler and A Little House Reader

It’s been several weeks again since I’ve posted. This summer has been going incredibly fast. I’ve been trying to get my classes ready for the fall. But I’m back working on Wilder materials this week. Yesterday I was able to read A Little House Sampler and A Little House Reader.

A Little House Sampler was published by HarperCollins in 1988. William Anderson was the editor. The book contains an eclectic collection of writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. There are some of Laura’s Missouri Ruralist articles and columns, some of Lane’s short stories and articles, some articles Laura wrote for other publications (including The Country Gentleman and The Christian Science Monitor), and a few speeches. Several of the materials had previously been unpublished. Like his Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anderson has arranged the pieces in chronological order and provides an introduction for each.

Probably the most important pieces in the book that are not readily available in other publications are “My Work,” Laura’s speech about her writing to a local women’s club during the 1930s, and her speech to the Detroit Book Fair in 1937. Both give descriptions of how she came to write the Little House books. Each gives the same simple story: she wanted to preserve her father’s stories by writing them down, they became Little House in the Big Woods, and that book’s success and requests from children inspired her to write more. Knowing the longer story of how Laura and Rose attempted to get Pioneer Girl published, this seems a bit disingenuous. But it may also be that Laura had come to believe this narrative. The Book Fair speech was an occasion where Wilder placed her life in the context of the history of the frontier and the American West: “I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American History. That the frontier was gone and agricultural settlements had taken its place when I married a farmer.” (Sampler, 217) Fascinating stuff to file away for when I write my book…

This volume doesn’t add much to our understanding of Wilder’s faith. Christianity and the church are mentioned just a few times. Two of the Missouri Ruralist articles include meditations on Sundays as a child, Biblical themes, and Thanksgiving. These articles are also available in Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist. There is also an account by Lane of the family’s trip from South Dakota to Missouri that parallels the events in On the Way Home. Lane confirms that the family did not travel on Sunday, but doesn’t say anything about church attendance. (Sampler, 83)

Anderson also edited A Little House Reader, which was published by HarperCollins in 1998. It is another collection of writings, mainly by Laura but also by other members of her family. Like A Little House Sampler, each selection is introduced by Anderson. Unlike the Sampler, the Reader is organized thematically and laid out as a children’s book, with larger type and more margins between lines. The book begins with some extant writings from Charles and Caroline Ingalls (Pa and Ma), Mary, Carrie, and Grace. It then proceeds with excerpts from the Missouri Ruralist and other published writings by Laura and Rose.

The Reader has a number of selections that attract the attention of one studying Wilder’s faith. First, in a nature poem about winter, she inserts the first four verses of Psalm 19 about creation showing forth the handiwork of God. (Reader, 100) Second, the book includes a description of “Sacrament Sunday” at a local General Baptist church, which apparently she and Almanzo attended. This included a morning worship service, a luncheon, then an afternoon worship service where the congregants washed each other’s feet at the end. Laura was impressed by the humility of those who participated.

However, most important for this project is the last section of the book, which Anderson titled “Of Time, Life, and Eternity.” The introduction contains Anderson’s bead on Laura’s Christianity:

Laura Ingalls Wilder held private her most personal beliefs and thoughts, so it seems almost invasive to speculate upon her religion. She transcends any effort by any sect or creed to claim a shared faith or denomination; her values and morals stood for more universal qualities of courage, honesty, kindness, and compassion, as her public and private writings indicate. Like those of other uncommon characters in history, Laura’s appeal and influence are widespread; her philosophy is best understood through the principles she practiced and the life she lived.

Although formal religious training was sporadic for Laura Ingalls while she grew up in a pioneer family, what she missed in church and Sunday school was more than compensated for through the teachings of her parents. Reading from the Bible, memorizing and quoting its verses, and singing the hymns of the era along with Pa’s fiddle were routine activities in the Ingalls home. (Reader, 185)

Later, Anderson says more about the influences on her faith outlook:

“Through more than sixty years in Mansfield, Laura was associated with the town’s Methodist church, though interestingly, neither she nor Almanzo ever joined officially. They attended Sunday services, entertained the minister, and were involved in the congregation’s efforts to build a church [building]. At home the Bible was a frequently consulted resource. The big black embossed family Bible, a gift to the Wilders from Pa and Ma soon after their wedding, was always a visible part of the household, but Laura preferred her own small well-thumbed Sunday school Bible. Surprising as it may seem for one who was a bookworm, and who accumulated a whole library of volumes, Laura evidently considered the Bible her only needed religious text…. In her later years, her Bible was a fixture on the table next to her favorite rocking chair, as familiar to visitors as the piles of mail that always accumulated in the same place. In ink, on the same soft lined tablet paper she used to write her Little House books, Laura wrote down a guide for important Bible references. (Reader, 195)

I certainly agree with Anderson that Laura was very private about her personal religious beliefs. But I don’t think that the best way to characterize her is as holding some kind of universal beliefs. She was a Christian, and her outlook on life was formed by the Congregationalist and Methodist churches she attended. By contrast, she certainly wasn’t a Presbyterian, as she rejected predestination and strict Sunday observance. I agree that her worldview was shaped by her upbringing and the Bible.

This section contains two poems that Laura wrote as a teenager. One, “Love Your Enemies,” is a meditation on how hard it is to do and a prayer for help from God. The other is “Praise Ye the Lord,” an imitation of one of the Psalms. It praises God for showing His people goodness and mercy, watching over them, giving the weak and oppressed strength, and caring for His people’s troubles. The poem ends:

Praise ye the Lord.

That He pardons and forgives us!

Pardons all who repent and turn from the wrong!

Oh! Praise ye the Lord, for His goodness and merchy

Praise him in heart and praise him in song.

Praise ye the Lord! (Reader, 188)

This is certainly a more full description of Christian doctrine about sin, repentance, and forgiveness than given anywhere in the Little House books. However, neither poem mentions Jesus Christ.

The other materials in the last section of the book do not mention God, Christianity, or the church; they are more or less secular in outlook. They are: a prose description of her dreams written to Almanzo when she was traveling west with Rose in 1925; a poem about resignation and optimism in the face of troubles, and a poem about eternity.

I’ve begun writing the paper I’m going to present to the Conference on Faith and History Biennial Conference this October. I will be traveling the next two weeks to visit family in Pennsylvania, so I don’t know when I will post again. Thanks for reading.

Page number references are to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, A Little House Sampler, edited by William Anderson (New York: HarperCollins, 1988) and Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Little House Reader, edited by William Anderson (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).


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).

The First Four Years

This is my first blog entry for three weeks. To those who are following, please accept my apologies. I’ve been grading again, and last weekend was Easter Break.

I was able to read The First Four Years yesterday. Wilder fans dispute whether the book should be included as one of the Little House Books. It does pick up, more or less, where These Happy Golden Years leaves off. However, most scholars don’t include it with the other eight children’s novels, despite the attempts of HarperCollins to sell it that way. Several things clearly separate First Four from the other books:

1) The novel’s voice is completely different than the other eight. This is probably because it was written to be an adult novel, not children’s fiction. Pamela Smith Hill suggests that Laura deliberately adopted a more adult point of view in order to address an adult audience.

2) In this work, Almanzo is called Manly, the name that Laura actually used for her husband, instead of Almanzo, which is used in all of the other Little House books.

3) In First Four, Laura questions the wisdom of Manly making a living as a farmer. They agree to try farming for three years, and if they were unsuccessful, Manly would seek a new profession. A “year of grace” is added to make the four years of the title.

The First Four Years was not published during Laura’s lifetime. It appears that she never showed the manuscript to her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. It was sent to Lane with others of Laura’s belongings when Laura died in 1957. Lane never told anyone about it, and her heir Roger Lea MacBride found it among her possessions after her death in 1968. He moved to get it published. The manuscript was not edited, by Lane or by others, so it is nowhere near as polished or engaging as the Little House books.

I knew all of this when I was doing Wilder research several years ago, but I had to refresh my memory when I reread the book yesterday. For more information about the book, you can see Pamela Smith Hill, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society, 2007), chapter 8, and John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), p. 240-243.

What I can say about the depiction of religion in The First Four Years is, regrettably, very little. Sunday buggy rides and sleigh rides are mentioned in the initial chapter. Other than that, Sunday isn’t mentioned anywhere else. There is no mention of Christianity, the church, or any type of religious practice anywhere in the book. This is the case even though Laura and Manly are described as going through some of the most crushing events of their lives: crop failures, financial troubles, debilitating disease, the death of their only son, and the loss of their house and all their possessions to fire.

One must always be careful about making an argument from silence. One part of my mind asserts that it is difficult to believe that Christianity played much of a meaningful part in Wilder’s life if it is not mentioned in connection with these kinds of tragic events. There is no questioning of God’s acts here, no expressions of “Why would God destroy our wheat crop repeatedly?” or “Why would He take our son?” or “Why would He take almost everything we own?” (The chapel speaker here at Trinity Christian College spoke on the Biblical book of Job this morning, so perhaps this is close to my mind right now.) There are also no statements of trust in God’s provision, or expressions that they go forward in reliance on His strength.

However, another part reminds me that there may be other reasons for the omission that have less to do with Wilder’s beliefs and more to do with how she approached writing. Perhaps she was just too matter-of-fact in this draft to describe any mental interactions with God’s providence. Perhaps she wanted to show the isolation of the characters as they fought against the difficult realities they encountered. Perhaps she thought that religion should be kept out of an adult novel.

Thanks much for reading. As always, I welcome comments.