60 Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder died on February 10, 1957, three days after her 90th birthday, sixty years ago today.

She had lived during the administrations of 17 different presidents, had survived two world wars, and had seen the emergence of the United States as a world power. She rode in a covered wagon in the 1870s and flew in an airplane in the 1950s. She is buried in Mansfield, Missouri.

[Wow, I had the wrong year when I first posted this. Thanks to Connie for setting me straight.]

Happy 150th Birthday

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born one hundred and fifty years ago today, on February 7, 1867, in a cabin outside of Pepin, Wisconsin.

The Washington Post ran a nice article yesterday about Wilder, the Little House books, and her ongoing popularity:  At 150, Laura Ingalls Wilder Still Speaks to Readers Old and New

We will celebrate by having cake at the Honors Seminar.


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.)

Honors Seminar

Happy 2017. Thanks for coming back to read this after I’ve taken so much time off. I guess it has been exactly a month.

This spring is a complicated semester for my work here at Trinity Christian College. I’m juggling duties as a faculty member, chair of the History Department, and an Academic Dean. But this semester I am also blessed to be teaching an Honors Seminar titled “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century.” I have eight students and they are some of the best students at Trinity.

During the first part of the course, we’ll be reading one of the Little House books each week. During class, we will discuss the books and how they might speak to Americans today. Themes that students have chosen to study include the books’ depiction of family roles, nature and the environment, cultural interaction, love, individualism and community, survival, education, and economics. The plan is for everyone to keep their eyes open for all of the themes, but for one student to pay particular attention to each. I’m going to anchor discussions on Wilder’s faith.

Yesterday we discussed Little House in the Big Woods. There are two students in the class who had never read the Little House books before this week. There are several students who have read all of them and are big fans. And there are several students who have read some but not all of the books. So it’s a great group for thinking about how the books come across to different readers at different times.

When I asked what students thought Big Woods said about God and Christianity, their answer was “not much.” Then one student noted that while the book doesn’t say much about God and Christianity, it does show the influence of Christian religious ideas. She explained that she meant that while the chapter on Sundays and the saying of evening prayers are the only explicit mentions of God in the book, there is an underlying morality that is connected to Christian values. I think that she’s probably right.

Next week we’re on to Farmer Boy. Because of my workload, I expect that I will only be able to post every other week. We’ll see how it goes. Thanks again for reading.

The End of 2016

It’s almost Christmas, and my family and I will be traveling starting on Friday, Lord-willing. So this, my end-of-the-year post, is going up today.

This blog launched on Monday, January 4, 2016. In that post, I expressed my desire to write an article on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s faith and my plan to read the Little House books and post about them. Since then, I’ve written and posted twenty-nine additional entries.  I read the eight Little House books, twelve additional volumes of material by her, three biographies, and several other books. I got a grant to look at material by Wilder and Lane at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. I blogged about early manuscripts of the Little House books and correspondence I read there. I presented an article to a group of faculty here at Trinity Christian College and a paper to the Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. I was encouraged to propose a book-length biography of Wilder giving particular attention to her faith by representatives from two different publishers. As a result of my reading and interactions with others, I believe that my understanding of Wilder’s faith is much deeper than it was a year ago.

What’s next? I will be teaching an Honors Seminar here at Trinity titled “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century” during the spring semester. We will be reading and discussing the Little House books together as well as some other materials (I haven’t finalized the syllabus yet). I hope to write the book proposal as I teach the class.  It will be good to talk about it with students; as they write their research papers, I’ll be writing my proposal. I’ve also been asked to give a lecture on Wilder’s faith at Calvin College next February. There is a good chance that I will be able to present a paper at the Midwestern History Conference, sponsored by the Midwestern History Association, next June. Finally, I will be writing a book review of the latest book on Laura and Rose, Libertarians on the Prairie by Christine Woodside, for the journal Fides et Historia. So I have been blessed with many opportunities to engage Wilder and her faith.

I hope that everyone who reads this has a truly blessed Christmas and that the new year opens for you with optimism, peace, and trust in the child born in Bethlehem, who is also the King of all creation.

Will be back in 2017.

The Wilder Life

I knew that it had been a while since I posted anything, but I didn’t realize until today that it had been over a month. Many apologies to anyone who’s been waiting. During the last several weeks, I was able to read The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, a memoir by Wendy McClure published in 2011.

McClure grew up in Oak Park, one of the western suburbs of Chicago, during in the late twentieth century. When she read the Little House books as a child, she loved the world that the books created in her mind. When she read them again as an adult, she decided to try to enter that world. She began by reading everything she could about Wilder and the books. She then tried out the recipes in several Wilder cookbooks. She succeeded in buying an authentic, working butter churn and making her own butter. Then she visited all of the major Ingalls and Wilder historic sites in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota (both the historic homes and the Ingalls Homestead), Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and New York. The book describes these experiences, her feelings, and her observations about the books, about Wilder, and about life in general.

Christianity and Laura’s faith are mentioned mainly in two chapters of the book. In chapter 6, “The Way Home,” McClure tells the story of her trip to Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo lived most of their adult lives and where Rose grew up. In the museum next to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home, she met a Christian homeschooling family from Houston. They appreciated the Little House books because of “’the faith that was running throughout.’” (163) Their conversation prompts the following comments from McClure:

I know there are a lot of folks who can easily see Christian messages in the books, lessons about trusting and accepting the will of God in times of hardship and relying on the bedrock of one’s faith to get through. There’s plenty of stuff in the books that can help illustrate these things, I guess. But the Ingalls family in the books didn’t appear to be much the praying types, unless the occasional hymn on Pa’s fiddle counts. Mary becomes a little godly by the later books, but as for the rest of the family, their reasons for attending church seemed to have more to do with partaking in civilized town life than with religious devotion. I suppose I’m inclined to see it that way because that’s how my family did things—went to church (Congregational) sporadically and understatedly. Whenever Ma Ingalls brought out the Bible, it seemed to me to be pretty interchangeable with the other books they turned to for comfort, like the novel Millbank and Pa’s Wonders of the Animal World, only slightly more important.

But in the case of families like Keith and Karen’s, their Laura World includes certain aspects that mine does not; in their Little House scenes the Bible is likely always close by and the Lord near at hand watching over the family through the droughts and blizzards.

I don’t mind that it’s this way for other people, especially if it makes the books more meaningful to them. (163-164)

It’s fascinating to me that the Little House books have appeal for both conservative Christians and agnostic writers. Both groups view the religion of the Ingalls family through the lens of their own commitments. I think that McClure may undersell the importance of Christianity to the books. When I read the books this year specifically looking for mentions of Christianity and the church, I was both surprised about how much they appear in certain books and how little they appear in other books. As I’ve suggested in other blog posts, I also believe that the form Christianity takes in the books is as shaped by Rose’s vision of the church as Laura’s experiences and faith.

Christianity—and a particular type of Christianity—looms larger in the following chapter. Here, McClure and her and her live-in boyfriend Chris attend a “Homesteading Weekend” at a working farm in downstate Illinois. The owners use horse-drawn plows, raise turkeys, and try to live as much as possible like people from 100 years ago. They are joined by several families from a church in Wisconsin who think that the end times are coming and they need to get ready. That’s why they were trying to learn how to live off the grid. These families completely “freak them out,” so they leave early the next morning. This experience prompts her to wonder about how much the Little House books might be contributing to religious fanaticism, and what Wilder would think. McClure concludes that Wilder wouldn’t have liked it, based on comments she makes in Pioneer Girl about not appreciating the anti-Catholic sentiment of the family she sewed for in DeSmet. (205-6) I’m inclined to think that she’s right in this assessment.

Memoir is not something that I’ve ever wanted to write. I tell myself that I’m too humble to write a book completely about me. I tell myself that that I don’t think that I have that much to say that others would be interested in. But I think that it may be less humility and more a desire for privacy. I am amazed by many of the ways that people expose themselves on social media today. I have a Facebook account to catch up on what’s going on with family and friends, but I share almost nothing except when I’ve put up another blog post. I am most comfortable writing when I’m writing about other people, preferably dead people. I’m glad that I am planning to write a biography of Wilder, not a memoir of my experience with the world of the books.

But I’m also glad that I read The Wilder Life. McClure is an engaging writer. Her descriptions – of people, of landscape, of her own feelings – are honest, exquisite, and at times intense. The book also provides insights about Laura, her family, and the Little House books themselves. And at times, it’s just laugh-out-loud funny. It was a good book to read while the semester wound down toward finals.

I hope to post a year in review next week. As always, love to hear your comments.

(References are from Wendy McClure, The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie [New York: Riverhead Books, 2011].)

Her Heart Can See

I mentioned in my last blog post that I’ve been in contact with two publishers about the possibility of writing a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder with particular attention to her Christianity. So I went to Trinity’s library and checked out several religious biographies to see what they’re like. I was able to read one of them last week: Edith Blumhofer’s Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby. Blumhofer is a history professor and director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College.

Some readers may know that Fanny Crosby was an almost superhumanly prolific Christian hymnwriter during the late 1800s and early 1900s. She wrote for multiple publishers who printed her songs under her own name and dozens of pseudonyms. As a result, an exact number cannot be given, but it is probable that she wrote as many as nine thousand hymns and gospel songs. Apparently she was able to think of rhymes on the fly, and she composed multiple poems and songs every day. She was blind and dictated the songs to others who wrote them down. Crosby was also a popular speaker at churches, Sunday schools, YMCAs, and rescue missions in the greater New York City area. While most of her hymns have fallen into obscurity, some are still sung today, especially “Blessed Assurance,” “Rescue the Perishing,” and “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.”

Since I’ve never written a book-length biography, I’m especially interested in how historians organize biographies, what questions they’re asking, and how they address a broader audience. Blumhofer’s book gave me answers to all three questions:

Organization: The first three chapters, which describe Crosby’s family history, childhood, and early adulthood, are chronological. Crosby was born in 1820 in a small town about 60 miles away from New York City. She lost her sight in infancy, and at age 15 she went to the New York Institution for the Blind in Manhattan. After she finished their course of study, she became a teacher there. At age 38, she married Alexander van Alstine and moved to Long Island.

The next eight chapters are thematic and address Crosby’s main period of activity, from 1858 to around 1900. One chapter recreates the world of New York City evangelical Protestantism that Crosby operated in. Others present the background of nineteenth century Christian music, especially “gospel songs.” Others give the biographies of Crosby’s collaborators: her music teacher, her publishers, her composers, and her friends. Still others describe Sunday schools during the nineteenth century and her talks in different venues. Finally, one chapter analyzes some of her most famous songs to draw a picture of how she experienced her faith and how she depicted it in her poetry.

The last chapter of the book covers the final fifteen years of her life, and the afterword considers her legacy. The book also has “A Note on the Sources,” which describes the sources used to write the book, an appendix giving Crosby’s family tree, and an appendix listing 150 of her pseudonyms.

Questions: Early in the Introduction, Blumhofer notes that there have been a variety of previous biographies of Crosby. Apparently most of them are inspirational, telling her story in order to feed Christian faith and devotion. Blumhofer also notes that, unfortunately, many of them are inaccurate. Her aim is to tell a more truthful story of how Crosby experienced life in nineteenth century New York as a blind, Christian, female hymnwriter. How did she come to be who she became? What networks supported her? How was she shaped by and how did she shape nineteenth century evangelicalism? How should one understand Crosby’s relationship to her historial context?

To answer these questions, Blumhofer spends a lot of time describing the historical developments, institutions, and individuals that made it possible for a Christian woman to do what Crosby did during the nineteenth century. First, music was increasingly seen as an important way to educate children and to Americanize immigrants. Second, Protestant evangelicalism came to define elite New York society. Third, Sunday schools became ubiquitous in Protestant churches. Fourth, new printing technologies revolutionized the publishing business. Finally, Crosby cultivated associations with important Christian figures like Phoebe Palmer, Dwight L. Moody, Ira Sankey, and William H. Doane. In all of these ways, Blumhofer presents Crosby’s life as being interwoven with nineteenth century evangelical Protestantism.

Broader Audience: I think that the major way that this book reaches out to a broader audience is by not having footnotes or endnotes and not engaging many other historians’ works directly. Her “Note on the Sources” is great, and I have some ideas of what that would look like for Wilder if I do a book for Eerdmans. However, as one might infer from my description of Blumhofer’s questions and ways of answering them, many of them are the types of questions that academic historians ask. I’m not sure how successful this story of Crosby’s might be in attracting the attention of Christians who are more interested in an inspirational story about the blind woman who wrote so many hymns.

At any rate, these are all things that I’ll have to continue to consider if I’m going to write a book on the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Thanks for reading.