Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy

Well, it’s May. It’s somewhat embarrassing that I haven’t posted anything since the middle of March. I could give some excuses. I could describe how in the last two months I’ve traveled to Pennsylvania (twice), Wisconsin, and South Dakota. But instead, I will try to make up for my lack of action by posting to the blog several times this week and next. (It’s finals week here at Trinity Christian College, so I have high hopes.) This post will report on the conference I attended in South Dakota at the end of last week. Lord-willing I will next put up a final report on the Honors Seminar I taught this term, and then an update on where the project is.

Last Friday and Saturday, the South Dakota State Historical Society (SDSHS) hosted the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls. It was an incredibly good event. I think that there were over 200 people in attendance. The SDSHS Press published Wilder’s previously unpublished memoir Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography several years ago. It was a beautiful book, and as I mentioned in my blog entry on the book, it became a surprise best-seller.  The Press has followed up that volume with a book of essays released this year titled Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. The conference speakers had all written an essay in that book. Nancy Tystad Koupal, the director of the Press and editor of the book presided over the conference. Pioneer Girl Perspectives will not be available to the public until the end of May, but it was for sale at the conference. I sold two copies of my last book, Almost Pioneers, so I was able to buy a copy.

As far as the presentations went, there were several that were especially insightful. One was by Caroline Fraser, who edited the two-volume Library of America edition of the Little House books and who has a new biography of Wilder coming out in November: Prairie Fires: The Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fraser placed Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane’s career in context of Yellow Journalism during the early 20th century, where “fake news” was used to attract readers. Fraser uses that context to explain why Lane included the story of the “bloody Benders” in some of the manuscripts of Pioneer Girl, and why Wilder mentioned them in her Detroit Book Fair Speech. Bill Anderson’s talk about what happened to the Pioneer Girl manuscripts between 1957 and the 1970s had some great stories and filled in many gaps in my knowledge of the manuscripts. And Sallie Ketcham described some ways that the Little House books, and especially Little House in the Big Woods, have characteristics of fairy tales.

Several historians presented, and they were excellent. Paula Nelson mined Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles to describe Wilder’s relationship to her time, especially Wilder’s ideas about women’s suffrage. Wilder’s pioneering was physical and geographical; she was not a pathbreaking feminist. Her ideas were shaped by the nineteenth century, and she believed in family, church, authority, self-control, and tradition. John Miller uncovered ways that Wilder was a Midwestern girl. Finally, Elizabeth Jameson outlined some of the reasons why the Little House books may be excellent literature, but they’re not representative of childhood on the late nineteenth century frontier. Wilder’s actual experiences, as outlined in Pioneer Girl, were in many ways not happy. She worked for wages to support the family, often had to live away from home, and was nearly sexually assaulted. But Wilder transformed her experiences into the happy childhood presented in the Little House books, and that may mislead people as they think about families in the past. I believe that it is important to have novels like the Little House books that put forth ideals of love and support for families to emulate. But I do understand Jameson’s critique. I would also feel better if Wilder and Lane had not told many people that the books described exactly what happened.

In addition to presentations, there were also panels of authors who discussed major controversies concerning Pioneer Girl and the Little House books. These included the roles of Wilder and Lane in their composition, and the political ideas presented in them. The panelists agreed that Lane acted as an editor and an agent for the books, but not as a ghostwriter. There was disagreement over whether Lane should be called a collaborator. Fraser and Miller argued that she was a collaborator, Koupal and Michael Patrick Hearn (a children’s literature scholar) asserted that she was not. The consensus about political ideas is that while there are some libertarian ideas in the Little House books (watch for a blog post about Christine Woodside’s Libertarians on the Prairie in a week or two), some arguments about the books’ political nature are overblown.

The conference was also great for networking. I was fortunate to meet Jameson (I had read two books she edited on women in the west when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa), Fraser, and Koupal for the first time. I also really enjoyed catching up with friends who attended, including Anderson, Miller, Nelson (she and I both had Malcolm Rohrbough as our dissertation advisor at Iowa), and Michelle McClellan, who teaches at the University of Michigan and is working on a book about the Little House historical sites. I also saw Sarah Uthoff from Trundlebed Tales, who live tweeted the conference (see her day 1 and day 2 compilations), and Sandra Hume from Little House Travel and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association (organizers of LauraPalooza – more on this in later blog entries). I also spoke briefly with Jon Lauck, who started the Midwestern History Association several years ago. It was also neat to talk to some women who just love the Little House books, especially Kasey and Alice, who bought the copies of Almost Pioneers.

All in all, this conference has given me new energy for getting back to work on the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. So Lord-willing there will be more material on the blog in the near future. Thanks for reading.

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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.

“This is What Men Call God”

Greetings. I’ve been working on my paper for the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) Biennial Meeting next week. It is titled “‘This is What Men Call God:’ The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I sent it off to the respondent for our panel last week. I thought I’d give an overview of the paper this week and then report about what happened after the CFH Meeting.

The paper opens with a brief description of the problems confronting someone trying to consider Wilder’s faith: conflicting evidence and the role of Rose Wilder Lane. The conflict is mainly that there is evidence that she believed in Christianity, but 1) there are negative depictions of the church and Christianity in the Little House books and 2) Wilder never formally became a member of a church. Then there is the question of what in the Little House books was written by Wilder and what was contributed by Lane.

I then describe what I found when I looked at the manuscripts of the early Little House books. Basically, it appears that Wilder wrote a pretty straightforward and conventional description of the church and Christianity. Rose took what Wilder wrote and made it more direct, engaging, and memorable, but she also complicated the simple descriptions Wilder wrote. For more, see my blog entry on the Manuscripts.

Finally, I consider several things that I believe that we can say about Wilder’s faith from all of the works Wilder wrote. First, she seems to have been a believer in God, His word, and His work in the world. Both Pioneer Girl and By the Shores of Silver Lake describe an experience with God. The title of the paper comes from the Pioneer Girl account. Her Missouri Ruralist articles give much evidence of her Biblical worldview. However, her Christianity emphasized moral action in the world and love for one’s neighbor. She very rarely mentioned sin and salvation, and almost never mentioned Jesus Christ. Second, there is good evidence that she participated in the most important Christian practices: Bible reading, prayer, and Sunday worship. Finally, she was active in the Congregationalist Church as a child and young adult in Minnesota and Dakota. She attended the Methodist Church in Missouri for most of her adult life. But there is no evidence that she ever formally became a member of any church.

I’m hoping that those who come to the session will help me with several questions. First, what historical contexts should I be trying to fit this in? Congregationalism? Women’s history? Rural religion? Second, who should I think about in terms of audience. Academics have not been all that interested in Wilder, but there seems to be a large number of people in the general public who read and love Wilder and her works, and they buy books.

We’ll see what people think. Thanks for reading.

A Little House Traveler

It’s been a while again since I’ve posted. I’ve been working on several things. Two weeks ago, I finished a draft of my article, now titled: “‘This is what Men Call God:’ The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I then emailed it to nine of my colleagues from the English, History, Music, Philosophy, and Theology Departments here at Trinity Christian College. Last week, some of those colleagues and I met for our monthly Historical Scholars Workshop. We discussed my article; they asked some really good questions and gave me some really good suggestions for the project going forward.

Since then, I’ve been working on a draft of my conference paper for the Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History to be held at Regent University. The session I will be presenting in is titled “‘On the Pilgrim Way:’ Writing Religious Biographies of Women.” (The quote in the title is from Chapter 23 of By the Shores of Silver Lake.) The other presenters are Kristen Kobes Du Mez from the History Department at Calvin College and Karen Swallow Prior from the English Department at Liberty University. The respondent for the session will be Timothy Larsen from the Biblical and Theological Studies Department at Wheaton College. I will only get 15-20 minutes for my presentation, so I have to pare my article back from 28 pages to about ten. I’ve already gotten it down to 15. More cuts to come.

However, yesterday I also got the chance to look through the last published volume of primary source materials written by Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America, published by HarperCollins in 2006. Like many recent publications of Wilder materials, much of it is material that has already been published. In fact, the first four-fifths of the book reproduce two books that I have already written about on this blog, On the Way Home and West From Home. There are some more photographs in this volume, it is hardcover, and the type is larger, but otherwise it appears that the text is exactly the same as the originals.

That leaves the last 70 pages of the 350 page work. The editors of the volume (who are not identified) call this part of the book “The Road Back: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Record of the Journey Back to DeSmet, South Dakota, 1931.” It reproduces notes that Wilder wrote to herself on a trip that she and Almanzo took from Mansfield, Missouri to DeSmet, South Dakota in 1931. They function as a diary, with daily entries describing how far they traveled, what they did, and how much they spent. Apparently Wilder wrote on loose sheets, and some of them were sent to her daughter for safe keeping while they were on the road. It may be that Wilder wanted to use them for future publications, or it may just be that she had written so much by this time (including fifteen years of Missouri Ruralist articles and columns and Pioneer Girl) that she found writing a valuable way of recording and making sense of what she saw.

I understand why the publishers decided to put these three sets of Wilder’s writings together. On the Way Home, a diary of the trip the Wilders took from DeSmet to Mansfield in 1894, describes their travels in a covered wagon. West From Home, letters Laura wrote to Almanzo from her trip to San Francisco to visit Rose, describe her travels by train. This third trip was taken in their Buick, which they named Isabelle, with their dog Nero. Once they reached South Dakota, they stayed with her sister Grace and her husband Nate Dow in Manchester, South Dakota, and visited DeSmet several times. Laura and Almanzo then drove to the Black Hills to see her sister Carrie and her husband David Swanzey. While there, they visited Mount Rushmore and the badlands. They then drove home, taking a different route. Wilder’s ability to describe a scene minutely and eloquently is often on display here. She saw much evidence of the depression, including idle factories, abandoned farms, and frustrated townspeople. It was a hot, dry summer, and many times she describes billowing clouds of dust.

It would have been helpful if the publisher had provided some kind of map for these travels for the benefit of readers. Also, the introduction to this portion of the book, by Abigail MacBride, says that this was the first time that Laura had visited DeSmet since leaving in 1894. (288-289) However this is not true; Laura had traveled to DeSmet by train in the summer of 1902 to see her father before he died of heart disease. (John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend [Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 111.)

The new material in this volume adds little to our understanding of Wilder’s faith. It does not mention God, Christianity, or the church. I did use my perpetual calendar to look up what Laura and Almanzo did on Sundays during the trip. It appears that they did not keep the pattern they had kept in 1894 of not traveling on Sundays. On Sunday, June 7, they traveled 277 miles from Shady Side, Missouri to Eureka, Kansas. (292-293) On Sunday, June 14, they were staying with the Dows and they visited their parents old house in DeSmet and Nate’s farm. (310) They drove to Mount Rushmore with the Swanzeys on Sunday, June 21. (321-323) Finally, on June 28, they were on the way back to Mansfield and they drove 233 miles. (341-342) I wrote in my entry on West From Home, “One gets the impression… that Wilder was most interested in church life when she was settled in a community and she knew the people. She was not as interested in attending worship when out of her normal surroundings.” It seems that the information about this additional trip confirms that observation.

Thanks for reading.

(Page number references are from A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America [New York: HarperCollins, 2006].)

“I Remember Laura”

Last week, when I would normally have tried to read a Laura Ingalls Wilder book and write a blog entry, I was working on the draft of my article “The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I actually succeeded in writing an additional seven pages (I now have twenty-one pages written.) I’m hoping to finish the article next week so that I can circulate it to some of my colleagues here at Trinity Christian College. We have a reading group of scholars from several disciplines—history, English, music history, theology—who read each other’s work and share comments and suggestions.

This week, I was able to work through I Remember Laura”: Laura Ingalls Wilder, a book edited by Stephen W. Hines and published in 1994. The book’s dust jacket has this additional subtitle (though the title page does not): “America’s favorite storyteller as remembered by her family, friends, and neighbors.” The book is a collection of a number of different types of materials, including some of Wilder’s columns from the Missouri Ruralist, some articles in other publications about Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and some first-hand reminiscences gathered by Hines from people who knew Wilder at the end of her life.

I used the verb “work through” at the beginning of the previous paragraph because there is much material here that is also published in other books. Almost three entire chapters are Missouri Ruralist pieces that I had already read. Other chapters republish articles from a variety of sources that are available elsewhere. There is also much material here that does not bear on Wilder’s faith. For instance, one chapter reproduces recipes from people who knew Wilder.

The unique material the book provides is in Hines’s interviews with people from Mansfield, Missouri who knew Laura, Almanzo, and Rose. Most knew them during the 1940s and 1950s, when the Wilders were in their eighties. In addition, the interviewees were quite advanced in years when Hines met with them during the early 1990s. Still, there is some new information here.

As far as material that bears on Wilder’s faith, there are several new revelations and several that connect to other bits of information I turned up previously. One thing I did not know was that her parents had given her a family Bible when she got married to Almanzo. She gave that Bible to Nava Austin, a friend, before she died:

She gave me her family Bible, the one her mother and father gave her when she and Almanzo were married. The family Bible had clippings and obituaries in it, including one for their boy. I thought Rose was the only child they ever had because Mrs. Wilder herself never mentioned anything about a son.

It was a huge Bible, and there were obituaries for both her mother and father. I’d never seen a Bible like it before, and she had pictures tucked away in it. If I am not mistaken, there was a paper clipping of when she and Almanzo got married. (117-119)

This Bible was never mentioned in either of the books that describe her wedding: Pioneer Girl or These Happy Golden Years. It is also not mentioned in The First Four Years.

“I Remember Laura” also includes an account from Carleton Knight, the pastor of the Methodist Church in Mansfield from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s. He and his wife visited the Wilders at their home a number of times. Almanzo often was working in his workshop or somewhere outside on the farm. Laura would take graham crackers and put powdered sugar icing on them to serve to her guests. Otherwise, the pastor didn’t remember much about their meetings.  However,

One thing I do remember so much is that when she came to church, even in the summer, she nearly always wore a red velvet dress, a dark maroon red, with a lace collar. Her black shoes had a big old silver buckle on them. That was her Sunday outfit. Her hair was beautiful and white and done up in a knot on the back of her head.

By that time she wasn’t terribly active. I never heard anyone say that she taught Sunday school, though she might have done before we came.” (225)

The one bit of information about Wilder’s faith that connects to another book is provided by Iola Jones. Jones spoke of taking Wilder to the Methodist Church for worship services after Almanzo’s death:

Mrs. Wilder had a good sense of humor and lots of wisdom, really; and she put it across in such an interesting way. She had been quite active in her church. In fact, she went to church with me quite a lot, which was a pickup in her activity because before that she hadn’t been going. You see, I don’t think she ever drove, so I think Almanzo’s death kept her in.

She did talk about spiritual things, and we went together to the Methodist Church where she had always gone. I can remember her telling me one time that she had memorized a book of the Bible, but I don’t remember which one. She just didn’t talk about herself a lot.  (136)

 The idea that Wilder had told someone that she had memorized a book of the Bible is striking. This connects to a letter to a Suzanna that I noted in my blog entry on William Anderson’s book, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder: “The whole book of Psalms is a favorite of mine and I can repeat all. Can you?” (Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson [New York: HarperCollins, 2016], 342). Can it be that she told multiple people that she had memorized all 150 Psalms? Fascinating.

It’s late Friday afternoon and I must post this. Thanks for reading.

(All page numbers are from Stephen W. Hines, ed., “I Remember Laura:” Laura Ingalls Wilder [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994].)

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.