Prairie Fires

Happy 2018. I hope that everyone’s year has begun well.

This week I finished Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I had started in the middle of December, but Christmas intervened. It is an excellent book. Fraser has read just about everything there is to read by and about Wilder, and she provides an interpretation of all of it. She has read Wilder’s published works, all the extant manuscripts of the Little House books, and pretty much all of the books that have been written about Wilder. She also appears to have read all of Rose Wilder Lane’s materials as well, which is quite a feat—Lane often kept a detailed diary, and she typed reams of letters to friends, published dozens of articles in newspapers and magazines, and wrote a number of books. Eighty of the Prairie Fires’s six hundred pages are footnotes. It is clearly the most up to date and exhaustively researched biography of Wilder published.

But the book strives to do more than just chronicle the lives and works of Laura and Rose. It sets those lives in the contexts of American national history. Fraser provides detailed descriptions of the Dakota War of 1862, the Homestead Act, and the settlement of the upper Midwest by white Americans. She argues that these events both shaped and were reflected in Wilder’s life and works. The book also considers how World War I, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II impacted Wilder’s writing of the Little House books (they were published between 1932 and 1943). John Miller’s book Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder does some of this contextualization, but Fraser’s work is more comprehensive.

In a nutshell, Fraser’s interpretation of the settlement of the upper Midwest and Great Plains is that thousands of families created an environmental catastrophe. The land and climate in many places could not sustain small farmers, but they attempted to make a go of it anyway, spurred on by advertising and scientific ideas (like “rain follows the plow”) that led to marginal existence and misery for many. Many were forced to take jobs in town or rely on the support of others, including church, the local community, and the state and federal government. But government leaders often withheld support, and those who took it were often ashamed. The Ingalls and Wilder families were two of those families.

Fraser also attempts to understand how both Laura and Rose thought. She both allows their own words to speak for themselves and provides her own views of their actions. Laura is depicted as a woman hardened by misfortune but determined to provide for her family. She loved nature and everything in it, and she who ultimately created a literary masterpiece for children. Her detailed descriptions, her understanding of her own life and the characters she interacted with, and her love for her father all make the Little House books juvenile classics. By hard work she secured her family’s economic security.

The book’s depiction of Rose is much less positive. Throughout she is described as mixing the truth and fiction: in her articles for “yellow” newspapers during the 1910s and 1920s, in her fictional “biographies” of great men, in her work with her mother’s life story, and in her personal correspondence. She was never able to manage money, and she suffered from depression and perhaps deeper mental illness. By the end of her life she had let her libertarian ideology take over her understanding of reality. Fraser gives Lane credit for editing and improving the Little House books, making them possible to publish and memorable, but Wilder’s writing is seen as driving the books’ popularity and staying power.

Overall, Prairie Fires is a super book. Fraser’s writing is simple but powerful. She evokes the past well and sets Wilder and Lane in that past for us to consider. Its scope is encyclopedic. I am happy that it appeared while I am beginning to write my book so that I can use it in that effort.

As far as Wilder’s faith is concerned, the book focuses most on religion in the early chapters where Charles Ingalls’s ancestors are described. They were Puritans; one had come to Massachusetts Bay with John Endecott in 1629, one was executed during the witch craze in Salem in 1692 (Martha Ingalls Allen Carrier), and one wrote poetry that was published locally in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Of the latter, Samuel Ingalls, the self-described “unlearned poet,” the book says that he “was a Puritan and may have been a Congregationalist.” (32) I am not sure that Fraser understands the relationship between Puritans and Congregationalists. In terms of church governance, all Puritans were Congregationalists. By the late 1700s, I believe that the term Congregationalist was used for most of the the churches in New England founded by the Puritans of the 1600s. I have a book on Congregationalism by Margaret Bendroth (The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past, [University of North Carolina, 2015]) that I hope will help me get everything straight.

Beyond that, there is not a lot of attention to Laura and Rose’s faith in the body of the book. This is probably partially because Wilder says little about her Christian beliefs in her writings. In addition, Laura and Rose’s religious outlook is not really primary to Fraser’s understanding of the two women. She considers their economic situation, their physical health, and their relationships with each other in much more detail (and again, they have the benefit of greater documentation, especially in Rose’s writings). Interestingly, Fraser returns to Puritanism at the end of the book to help explain why Laura firmly believed that individuals and families could make it without government assistance, even though her parents’ family and her own family were not able to:

Wilder wrote that her mother was fond of a saying: “What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.” If anything was bred in her family’s Congregationalist bones, it was their exemplary devotion to self-sufficiency… Puritan identity was based on redemption through mastery of self, and the rigid application of principles including frugality, diligence, and, above all, independence. (455)

I’m pretty sure that Seventeenth Century Puritans and Eighteenth Century Congregationalists would not have agreed with this description. They believed in redemption on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ alone. They taught that those who repent and trust in Christ for salvation must also work to discipline their bodies by cultivating these virtues. But those virtues were not the basis of their salvation.

I relate these disagreements with Fraser’s interpretations not because I think that they mar the book as a whole. Indeed, I think that Fraser understands Laura better than many other writers. Prairie Fires is a monument to years of work in the archives, thousands of hours of thinking about how best to understand the sources, and writing ability that I know that I can’t match. I am glad that I am not setting out to write a book of this scope. In the book that I am setting out to write, however, I hope to provide a better understanding of this one aspect of Laura’s life—her faith—and to explain what it might tell us about the history of American Christianity. In some ways, I think that all scholars are comforted when they find that they disagree in some way with other authors, because disagreements show that there is still something that can be added to the conversation.

I may not be writing very much for the blog this spring. It is my hope to write a chapter of the book, and I think that staying off of the blog may assist me in doing this. (See Cal Newport’s book Deep Work for an explanation of why I believe that this may be the case.) I am also teaching two sections of Western Civilization, which means I have 75 students’ papers to grade when they start coming in at the end of next week. I will see if I am able to give reports perhaps once a month.

Thanks again for reading.

(Quotations are from Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder [New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017].)

Link: Prairie Fires

 

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Articles and Anticipation

It has now been almost a month since I last posted here. My attention and time have been taken in several directions, including teaching, grading papers and exams, committee meetings, and my work as an Academic Dean. In addition, I have been asked to speak about my last book, Almost Pioneers, at a 25th Anniversary celebration for the Iowa Women’s Archives in Iowa City next weekend. Almost Pioneers is the memoir of Laura Gibson Smith, a woman from Iowa who homesteaded in Wyoming during the 1910s; I edited it and got it published in 2013. I’m glad to be part of the celebration, but it has taken me out of my pattern of reading for the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder project.

However, I have spent some time each week with Laura Ingalls Wilder materials. I’ve been able to read four articles that concern Wilder, the Little House books, and history. I also stand in anticipation of the next book-length biography of Wilder which is due to be released this month.

Articles: “Little House, Big Lessons” is actually a conference paper presented by historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg at an agricultural history conference this fall in Belgium. Pam and I have known each other since I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa in the late 1990s and she was teaching at Illinois State University. She now teaches at Iowa State, one of the flagship schools for the study of rural and agricultural history. We see each other every couple of years at a conference. She reached out to me last summer for help with how Europeans responded to the Little House books; I was able to connect her with several Wilder scholars who provided a lot of leads. The paper is both about European reception of the Little House books and what they teach about everyday life in late-nineteenth century American rural areas. She concludes that the books are useful in enabling students to better understand “the environment of the American Great Plains, and the complexities of gender ideals versus gender realities.” Fascinating stuff.

The second article was “Re-examining the American Pioneer Spirit: The Extended Family of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” It was published in the Wisconsin Magazine of History last March and uses materials at the Wisconsin Historical Society to fill in some information about the families of Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner, Laura’s parents. It’s pretty interesting. I fed some biographical information from this article into the timeline of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life that I am constructing for the book project.

I also read “American Indians in the Fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by John Miller. I had previously read the three books that Miller has written about Wilder (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane), but I had never read this article, published in South Dakota History in 2000. Miller provides a nuanced consideration of the depiction of Native Peoples in the Little House books and Wilder’s other published work. Clearly there are multiple voices in the books: Ma and others are very anti-Indian, but Pa and Laura are not unremittingly so. Pa respects the Native Americans that he encounters, but assumes that they will be moving on so that whites can have their land. Laura is more like Pa than Ma, and Laura identifies with Indians at times. Miller argues that Americans in 2000 might see the depictions of Native Peoples in the books as problematic, but that Wilder’s views were probably more open than those of most others who lived in the Ozarks during the 1920s and 1930s. I know that I will have to engage this issue in some way in my biography of Wilder.

Finally, I was able to read “Homesteading Remembered: A Sesquicentennial Perspective” by Brian Cannon, published in Agricultural History in 2013. 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, and Cannon investigates how homesteading was depicted in popular culture—both books and movies—during the twentieth century. Major literary works examined include the last three Little House books, Rose Wilder Lane’s Free Land, Elinore Stewart’s Letters of a Woman Homesteader, and O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. The article engages movies from The Homesteader in 1919 to Shane in 1953, Heartland in 1979, and Far and Away in 1992. Cannon points out that “The most pointed criticism of the government’s administration of homesteading in these works is actually the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Without exception these works valorize the homesteaders’ tenacity, work ethic, and family values. Only one, Giants in the Earth, seriously questions the prudence of homestaders’ decisions although many show the travails of homesteading.” He concludes that scholars’ assessment of homesteading have rarely been taken up in popular culture, and that some works reveal more about the time that they were produced than the time that they depict.

Anticipation: Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is set to be released on November 21. Advance copies have been reviewed by major library outlets, and there are already 10 customer reviews on Amazon.com. At 640 pages, it promises to be a nearly comprehensive biography setting Wilder’s life and writings in historical context. I hope to get a copy as soon as it’s released.

Thanks for reading.

Links:

My Almost Pioneers blog

Almost Pioneers at Globe-Pequot Press

Iowa Women’s Archives 25th Anniversary Celebration

Pamela Riney Kehrberg at Iowa State University

John Miller’s books at Amazon

Caroline Fraser’s website

End of Summer

Thanks very much to everyone who reached out to me (via email, in person, via Facebook) after I announced two weeks ago that I had received a book contract. You all are the best.

Today all first year students will be moving into the dorms here at Trinity Christian College. There have been some students on campus for the last week or two, including fall athletes, student leaders, and some others. It’s been great to see more students around; they bring life back to a college campus. All the new freshman will be here by this evening. Returning resident students and new transfers arrive by the middle of next week to complete the student body. My daughter moves back to Trinity (she’s a sophomore) this Sunday. Regular courses begin next Wednesday. My three sons start school (two in high school and one in homeschool eighth grade) next Thursday morning. All of this means that the summer is just about over.

It’s been a productive summer:

– I finished my book review of Christine Woodside’s Libertarians on the Prairie for Fides et Historia (the journal of the Conference on Faith and History) in April. (I guess this wasn’t really summer, but I hadn’t mentioned it on the blog before.)

– I finalized my book proposal and sent it off to Eerdmans in May.

– I presented a paper at the Midwest History Conference in Grand Rapids in June.

– I spoke at LauraPalooza in July.

– I received a book contract from Eerdmans and signed it in July.

– Last week I completed a book review of Pioneer Girl Perspectives for The Annals of Iowa.

– This morning I wrote three and a half pages of a possible introduction to the book.

I hope to keep reading for the book project once school starts at least once a week. I got a list of books to read from Mark Noll, one of the editors of the Eerdmans series I’m writing for, about American religious history. I also hope to do more thinking and writing. I will try to keep up the blog as much as I can.

Thanks for following. Best wishes to all who has someone in their home who returns to school during the next several weeks.

Links:

Trinity Christian College

Fides et Historia and the Conference on Faith and History

My Libertarians on the Prairie blog post

My LauraPalooza post

My book contract post

My Pioneer Girl Perspectives post

The Annals of Iowa

Libertarians on the Prairie

Now that I have the blog going at a more regular pace, I plan to post again about the books that I read and how much they shed light on my central research question: what is the best way to describe the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder? I actually read a brand new book about Wilder during the spring semester, but never was able to do a blog post about it.

The book is Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books by Christine Woodside. It was published last year by Arcade Books. Woodside is a writer and editor of journals and books about the nature and the wilderness. She lives in Connecticut, not the Midwest, but she has a lifelong fascination with the Little House books. She will be giving the keynote speech at LauraPalooza this July in Springfield.

An article in Politico last fall reveals quite a bit of her argument. Woodside recognizes that one reason for the Little House books’ popularity and staying power is their attractive presentation of American individualism. She argues that Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane was the source of this vision: she “transformed the whole of her mother’s life by removing many parts and changing details where necessary to suit an idealized version of the pioneer story.” (p. xvi) Furthermore, stories in the Little House books “outlined the basic tenets of libertarianism: freedom, property rights, ‘spontaneous order,’ (which means that left alone people make ethical chioices), limited government, and free markets.” (p. xix) Woodside argues that Lane was the one who was responsible for placing libertarian ideas into the fictional lives of the Ingalls family.

To do this, Libertarians on the Prairie traces the process by which the Little House books were written. As readers of this blog know, Wilder wrote first drafts in longhand on lined paper and gave them to Lane. Lane then typed them, editing, making changes, providing plot and narrative structure, and adding dialogue. Wilder reviewed the typed drafts, making additional changes and at times overruling Lane’s alterations. For the first several Little House books, Wilder and Lane lived on the same farm property in Missouri, but for the final five books their residences were distant, so there is correspondence that can be used to track changes. Lane also poured out her thoughts and feelings into diaries and long letters to friends, so that Woodside can narrate the development of her political ideals during the time that the books were written.

The book ends by describing Lane’s connections to other Libertarian leaders. Lane became one of the founders of this movement in political philosophy during the middle of the twentieth century, along with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand. Roger Lea MacBride was Lane’s adoptive grandson and heir; he cast an electoral vote for the Libertarian candidate for President in 1972 and ran for President on the Libertarian ticket in 1976. Rose also donated to Robert LeFevre’s libertarian “Freedom School” north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, which later named a building after her. Charles Koch attended that school during the 1960s; he went on to become co-founder of the Cato Institute and Americans for Prosperity.

Libertarians on the Prairie should succeed in bringing its argument about the Little House books to a popular audience. Previous scholarly books about Rose’s contributions—William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane—and the books’ political ideas—Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture—are longer, denser books. Woodside’s book is much more lively and readable. Furthermore, to my knowledge Libertarians on the Prairie breaks new ground in several areas. The book is the first to link the Little House books and Lane to the Freedom School and thereby to the Koch brothers. Woodside also does a good job considering the impact that keeping the secret of Rose’s contributions to the books may have had on Rose and her relationship with her mother.

However, The Ghost in the Little House and Little House, Long Shadow also provide more nuanced arguments. I think that several of Woodside’s arguments ultimately fail to convince. First, her assertion that Rose did more editing and shaping on the final two books than the earlier ones is disputed by John E. Miller, author of the most scholarly biography of Wilder (<a href="/2016/04/26/becoming-laura-ingalls-wilder/"Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend). That book suggests that Rose did less on those books. While Miller’s work appears in Woodside’s bibliography, it is not engaged in the text.

In addition, while Libertarians on the Prairie is meant to be about both Wilder and Lane, it’s mainly about Lane. Lane’s life drives the narrative, and Lane’s point of view dominates the book. I think this is somewhat understandable since Lane left many more sources. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the book ever seriously considers Wilder’s political ideas; Woodside at times seems to deny that Wilder had political ideas of her own. I also don’t think that the book engages the Wilder’s reasons for writing the books.

Finally, it may be that the libertarian, individualist side of the Little House books is overemphasized in the book. Woodside does at times recognize that there are other things that draw readers to the series, especially the books’ loving descriptions of nature and wilderness which first attracted her. I think that there is also a countercurrent of interdependence running through the books as well.

There is one passage in the book that particularly interested me in terms of Wilder’s faith. It is a description of life at Rocky Ridge Farm in the late 1920s when both Wilder and Lane lived there: “Saturdays and Sundays were like any other days; they seemed to hold no special purpose for either. I see little evidence that they were going to church.” (p. 47) Apparently, Lane mentioned a conversation with Wilder on Easter Sunday, 1928 in a letter Lane wrote to a friend. So on Easter Sunday, Lane was writing a letter and Wilder was reading her mail, and this may mean that Easter Sunday was not treated as particularly special. I emailed Woodside about this passage, and she was very gracious in her reply. This reminds me that I will probably have to do at least some work in Lane’s papers to find what I might turn up about family religious practices while Rose lived with her parents.

At any rate, I think that Libertarians on the Prairie mostly provides new insights about Lane’s life, not about Wilder’s. I think that anyone interested in understanding the collaboration between Wilder and Lane in the writing of the Little House books should probably not read Woodside’s book without also reading Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, which provides an alternative to Woodside’s assertions and a deeper understanding of Wilder and her contributions to the novels.

On the other hand, it is always fascinating to see what different readers bring to and see in the Little House books. I’m glad that I read Woodside’s book, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak in Springfield this summer. And I’m open for comments.

(All page numbers are from Christine Woodside, Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2016.)

Presentations and Meditations

Well, it’s March. It’s incredible how fast time is moving this semester.

On Wednesday of last week I spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The talk was sponsored by the History Department and the Mellema Program in Western American Studies. It was a great time. Over fifty people turned out to hear me speak—at least I took fifty handouts and they were all gone. My presentation gave a report of what I’ve come to understand so far about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith: 1) that the descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church in the Little House books were shaped by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and 2) that Wilder’s faith was deep and genuine, but it emphasized God the Father and His laws more than Jesus Christ and salvation. These conclusions will be familiar to those who have been reading this blog for any length of time.

The question and answer period was especially rich. The audience had students, faculty members, and members of the community, including a mother with two young children. I took questions from all three groups. It was a fascinating experience. At one point, I had to try to explain to a faculty member why so many Americans for the last eighty years have been drawn to the Little House books. (Briefly: engaging descriptions, emotionally gripping prose, and a vision of human flourishing that provides an attractive alternative to modern life for many.) I also at times had to explain to some members of the community that not everything in the books represents exactly how things happened. I’m still working on how to characterize the complex collaboration of Laura and Rose.

Many thanks to Will Katerberg for inviting me and Jenna Hunt for taking care of so many of the details for the talk. If you’re interested, the audio recording may be made available, and I’ll put up a link when it is.

While I was in Grand Rapids, I also met with David Bratt, an editor for the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, which is headquartered there. David would like me to write a proposal for a book-length biography of Wilder with particular attention to her faith. Eerdmans has a series titled the Library of Religious Biography, and the series editors are also very interested in seeing a proposal. Eerdmans publishes books for academics and readers in the church, so they may be a good fit; it is my hope that any book I do write will not only speak to college faculty and students but also to a broader audience of people who are interested in the books. My plan is to write the proposal by the end of this semester.

In addition, on Monday of this week, I spoke at a Faculty Coffee sponsored by the Faculty Development Committee here at Trinity Christian College. It was an abbreviated version of the Calvin talk, because I only had forty-five minutes rather than ninety to speak and take questions. I was very happy that one of the students from my Honors Seminar course came, as well as many faculty and staff.

My conversation with David, my lecture at Calvin, and my talk here at Trinity have led me again to think about audience and reception. As I talk with more people about the project, I’m realizing that my research points in two directions. First, it seems that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a committed Christian, and that at least some of the straightforward and positive descriptions of God, Christianity, and the church in her handwritten original manuscripts were changed by her daughter into the more mixed or even negative depictions that appear in the published Little House books. One might imagine that this would be welcomed by many of those who love the books, especially those who are serious Christians themselves. However, I also think that my research suggests that Wilder was not what we might call a born-again or evangelical Christian. Her descriptions of God, Christianity, and church emphasize God’s power, His laws, and personal morality. Wilder’s writings hardly mention Christ, the gospel, or salvation. I think that this runs against what some readers believe about her. I think that the television series may play a role in this. Although I have never watched an episode (I guess that I need to watch at least some soon), it is my understanding from others that Christianity was pretty central to the series.

I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to navigate this, except to say, as I said in response to a question on Monday morning, that one thing that historians often have to do is to try to get behind how a historical figure is remembered to the historical person himself or herself. I don’t want to do it just for the purpose of cutting down Laura in people’s estimation or telling people that what they believe is wrong. But I do think that loving one’s neighbor who lives in the past includes being honest about who they were, what they believed, and how they lived.

I’m still thoroughly enjoying the Honors Seminar on the Little House books. This week we finished Little Town on the Prairie. Perhaps I can do a post next week (next week is spring break, so I’ll have some more time) where I reflect a little on what has been going on in that class.

Thanks for reading.

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.