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 The SDSHS Press published Wilder’s previously unpublished memoir Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography several years ago.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.

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.

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.