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.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life

This week I re-read Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. I was glad to read this book when it came out in 2007, and I was glad when John Miller introduced me to Hill at LauraPalooza in 2010.

Hill brings the knowledge and sensibility of a published writer to her task. While the book is a full biography of Wilder, it focuses on how the Little House books were written. Thus, the chapters that focus on Wilder’s early life compare accounts in the Little House books to Pioneer Girl and other extant records for the Ingalls family. The chapters about her adult life describe how the Little House books were written. Hill is particularly interested in understanding the collaboration between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane.

To the question of “how should we understand Wilder’s and Lane’s contributions to the Little House books?”, Hill answers that Wilder should be considered the author of the books, and Lane should be seen as an editor. Hill describes several letters that Lane wrote to Wilder about her writing as editorial letters, examples of a type of letter written by an editor to a writer in response to a manuscript. The aim of such a letter is to improve the resulting book. Hill also notes that the editors at Harper and Brothers who received Wilder’s books rarely had to make many changes to the manuscript; this was because Lane had already edited them—in some cases heavily—as she typed them. In general, Hill argues that each woman brought her own strengths to the series. For Wilder this included vivid descriptions and a deep understanding of her characters. Lane contributed in the areas of large scale structure, sentence editing, and the creation of drama.

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life does not say much about Wilder’s faith. It mentions the Ingalls family’s interactions with Congregational Churches in both Walnut Grove and DeSmet (21, 45). It also notes that Laura was disappointed that there wasn’t a Congregational church in Mansfield, Missouri. (85) Finally, it states that “The Wilders joined the Mansfield Methodist church, where they worshiped for the rest of their lives.” (89) The second half of the statement is true, but the first is not. John Miller in Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder more reliably notes that while they attended the Methodist church, they never joined. (John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend [Columbia: University of Missouri, 1998], 86, 102.)

Hill does make some observations about choices Wilder made concerning audience in relation to The First Four Years. Hill asserts that Wilder had a particular approach to an adult audience, that “Wilder’s perception that a novel for adults should appeal to a mature, perhaps even jaded, audience; the book’s characterizations, plot, and theme had to reflect adult readers’ more careworn vision of reality.” (75-76) Interestingly, Hill argues that Wilder modeled her writing in that book on Lane’s work, especially her book Let the Hurricane Roar, which was based on Wilder’s parents’ story. I believe this supports some of my impressions about The First Four Years. Specifically, when considering the possible reasons that faith is nowhere mentioned in the book, I wrote in my blog entry, “Perhaps she thought that religion should be kept out of an adult novel.”

Thus I think that the contribution that Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life makes directly to a project on the Wilder’s faith is small. However, Hill’s insights about the relationship between Wilder and Lane will be helpful as I approach the Little House manuscripts at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library this summer. I’m hoping to specifically examine the places where the church or Christianity is mentioned in the Little House books and determine if the particular form it takes is primarily because of Wilder or Lane’s influence.

As always, your comments are welcome.

Page number references are from Pamela Smith Hill, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society, 2007).

Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder

Last week I re-read John Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost twenty years since it was published in 1998. It was groundbreaking then; it is still the most scholarly biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder on the market. It has held up very well. I had forgotten how insightful Miller’s analysis is. He read all that was available about Wilder at the time, and the book shows that he had a very good understanding of the contours of Wilder’s life and personality.

I should say at this point that Miller is a good friend of mine. I first corresponded with him via email in the mid-1990s when I was getting my M. A. in History at Duquesne University. I was working on a seminar paper on Laura’s articles for the Missouri Ruralist, which had just been published in book form for the first time. He was teaching at South Dakota State University at the time, and his answers to my questions were incredibly helpful. Later, when I was getting my Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, he graciously agreed to read a copy of my dissertation prospectus and to get together at a conference we were both presenting at to talk about it. I saw him most recently at the first LauraPalooza conference in 2010. LauraPalooza was a fascinating experience. A third of the program was an academic conference where papers were presented by some of the foremost scholars on Wilder. Another third of the program consisted of presentations by k-12 teachers about how they use the books in their schools. The last third was activities for Little House enthusiasts and their families. Miller was treated like royalty.

Overall, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder not only provided the world with a solid biography that paid attention to questions that academic historians ask, including questions about context, culture, causation, and continuity and change (I tell my history students they’re the “big-C” questions). Miller’s book also contributed to the literature on Wilder in several other particular ways. First, it was the first book to use Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles and columns to fill in gaps in what we know about her life between the 1890s and 1930s. Miller also used the Ruralist pieces to explain Wilder’s personality and her development as a writer. Second, it responded to William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House, a biography of Rose Wilder Lane, which had been published by the same publisher in the same series—the Missouri Biography Series—five years earlier. Holtz had asserted that Wilder remained an amateurish writer and that most everything that people love about the Little House books can be traced to the work of Lane; in effect Lane was the ghostwriter for the books. By contrast, Miller argued that Wilder’s writing improved over time, both during the ten years that she wrote for the Ruralist and when she composed the Little House books. The Little House books were the result of a collaboration between mother and daughter where each contributed what the other lacked. A close examination of the relationship between Wilder and Lane is the book’s third contribution. Miller describes it clearly, concisely, and in some detail. One of my favorite passages comes from the last chapter of the book:

The two were alike in so many ways: intelligent, self-disciplined, perfectionist, critical of other people’s foibles and shortcomings, capable of bursts of energy, and highly ambitious to achieve something significant. Each was an individualist, and each opposed governmental intrusions. Each one saw herself as being set apart from the ordinary run of people, and each let no one else do her thinking for her. Rose, the precocious child, demonstrated a brilliance of intellect not evident in her mother. But Laura proved her competence over and over as a housewife, farm manager, loan officer, and author. In her own special way, she was as remarkable a person as Rose. Yet, their differences outweighed their similarities. One was devout, the other a skeptic. One was traditional, the other avant-garde. One was ruled by convention, the other ridiculed it. One enjoyed rural ways, the other escaped to the city as soon as she could. One settled down and lived with a man for two-thirds of a century, the other found it impossible to accommodate herself to any other person for any length of time. One was content, the other restless. One found meaning and satisfaction in simple ways and simple people, the other remained at heart an elitist. (253)

Miller’s description of Wilder as “devout” in this passage gives an indication of how he depicts Wilder’s faith. It was Miller’s account of Wilder’s faith, and the fact that I’m not sure that it always matches depictions of Christianity in the Little House books, that first inspired me to undertake this project. However, Miller does trace the influence of Christianity throughout Wilder’s life. The book describes the New England Congregationalist background of her mother’s family. It reveals that there was a church in Pepin when the Ingalls family lived in the Big Woods, but it was Methodist, not Congregationalist. (19, 29) Miller provides some background information from other sources about both Rev. Alden and Rev. Brown. (33, 62) He describes Laura’s childhood church attendance and her sense of privacy about personal beliefs. (42) He notes that as adults in Mansfield, Missouri, the Wilders attended the Methodist church, but never became members. (102)

For Miller, Laura’s religion, her Christianity, her faith in God, were all central to her world and life view. Her faith was one of her most important inner convictions. Furthermore, he views her morality as being mainly derived from the Bible. For example, here is part of Miller’s summary of the overall message of Wilder’s columns in the Ruralist:

Many things drew Laura’s ire, among them selfishness, overreliance on experts, the tendency to find fault with others, negative—as opposed to friendly—gossip, swearing, relativistic ideas, and the failure to follow Christian precepts. If a single lesson stood out, it was the necessity of love, a message she derived no doubt both from the warm and loving family environment that she had grown up in and from her own experiences as an adult. The commitment to love was strengthened by her religious beliefs. While seldom mentioned explicitly in her columns, biblical teachings lay at the core of her thinking. (131)

Miller doesn’t directly address the many places I’ve identified in this blog where the church or particular Christians are not depicted positively in the Little House books. The positive depictions of Christianity in Pioneer Girl, Wilder’s lifelong church attendance, and her overall morality are enough evidence for him. As he wrote in an email to me several months ago, “I think even though she may not have talked much about God and religion in the Little House books, that religious thoughts were always a presence — in the background.”

This idea that her faith was key to her personality also comes out in an earlier passage when Miller describes some of the conflicts between Wilder and her daughter:

We can assume that Laura always considered that what she did was best for Rose and that she was doing it for Rose’s own best interest, and not her own. But the mother’s idea about what constituted her daughter’s best interest did not always coincide with Rose’s. Add to that a large degree of certitude and self-righteousness on Laura’s part, heavily reinforced by religious belief, and we arrive at a situation in which the mother’s stifling presence could frequently seem overwhelming to the daughter and make her want to get out from under her mother’s strict rules and regulations. (105)

Here Miller admits that Wilder’s core convictions about morality, shaped by Christianity, could tend towards self-righteousness.

Re-reading Miller’s book has solidified several things that have been coming together in my mind as I’ve been thinking about Wilder’s faith during the last several months. First, I think that the question I need to answer is not whether Wilder was a Christian but what type of Christian Wilder was. Second, the evidence I’ve considered so far (the Little House books and Pioneer Girl) suggests that her Christian beliefs center on moral actions. One might say that for her, a Christian is someone who does the right thing. She saw the Bible as the standard of what is right and wrong. The Bible calls everyone to worship God and learn about His word. The Bible calls everyone to treat others as they would be treated. Christians are to love God and love their neighbors. This is a version of Christianity that has been very popular in American history. I’m guessing that it was taught in the Congregational church at the time. I will need to figure out what exactly to call it.

The Christianity that I believe in—Evangelical Christianity, or just the gospel—does not preach moral actions as the most important thing in life. In fact, it proclaims that in his or her own strength, no one can do anything good. Everyone is a sinner. No one does what is right. We cannot save ourselves. It is God who saves sinners. He did so by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ. Christ is the only one who has ever lived a sinless life. Then, Christ died to pay for the sins of those who trust in Him. Anyone who believes in Christ will have his or her sins forgiven by God. God will apply Christ’s righteousness to them, and their sins will be paid for by Christ’s sacrifice. Morals are important, but the good news of salvation is more important. Christians obey God’s commands out of gratitude for this salvation.

The difference between these two versions of Christianity—Christianity as the doing of good deeds and Christianity as the message of God’s salvation in Christ—can help to explain why Jesus Christ is not mentioned in any of the Little House books, or in Pioneer Girl, or in any of the Ruralist columns.

I think that this is a step towards a better understanding of Wilder’s faith.

I also think that I need to re-read Laura’s articles and columns in the Ruralist. I have photocopies from when I was doing research for my dissertation, but I’ve also just ordered a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist. I believe it is the most complete published edition of the Ruralist material.

As always, I’d be glad to hear comments.

All page number references from John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1998)