On the Way Home and West From Home

This week I traveled to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library to do research. I had received a travel grant from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Foundation, and I had a great time working with the staff, especially Spencer Howard, Matt Schaeffer, and Craig Wright. I found some good information, took a number of digital photos, and got a CD of scanned correspondence. I am currently working through what I found, and next week I hope to post about it.

This week, however, I thought I’d address two Wilder books that I haven’t addressed yet: On the Way Home and West From Home. I was prompted to address these by seeing copies of the original diary and letters published in these books at the Hoover Library.

On the Way Home was published by Harpers in 1962, five years after Wilder’s death in 1957. It reproduces a diary that Wilder wrote when she, Almanzo, and their daughter Rose traveled with another family, the Cooleys, from DeSmet, South Dakota, to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894. The Wilders drove a team and covered wagon with all of their possessions. Rose was seven years old. The 650 mile trip took from July 17 to August 30. Laura wrote in her diary every day. When it was published, Rose Wilder Lane provided a “setting” for the diary, which means she wrote an introduction and afterword based on her memories of the trip. The book is lavishly illustrated with 18 pictures and a map of the journey.

The diary itself is fascinating as an early example of Laura’s powers of description. Some descriptions are spare and simple; she notes whether crops looked good or bad in the area, the prices for staples, and the temperature (until they lost the thermometer). Other descriptions are more elaborated, especially when she is describing people. They encountered a number of different kinds of people, including a settlement of Russians, many groups of Germans, and a variety of emigrants on the roads to and from Missouri.

This book tells us just a little bit about Wilder’s faith. Only twice does it explicitly mention Christianity or the church. The first is in an entry about the town of St. Mary’s, Kansas, “A pleasant town but strange, it is altogether southern, and Catholic. There is a beautiful large church with a pure white marble Saint Mary above the wide doors and two white marble statues of Mother and Child in the yard.” (On the Way Home, 48-49) The second describes the town of Mansfield: “There is everything here already that one could want though we must do our worshipping without a Congregational church. There is a Methodist church and a Presbyterian.” (On the Way Home, 74)

On the subject of worshipping, she never mentions attending church services on any of the six Sundays they were on the road. However, they also never traveled on Sunday. They stayed in one place and rested, or visited with local people, or did washing, or repaired equipment. This was a contrast to dozens of emigrant groups that they met who were traveling on Sunday. So the diary reveals that Sunday observance was important to the Wilder and Cooley families, if church attendance was less so.

West from Home was published in 1974. After Rose’s death in 1968, her heir Roger Lea McBride found among her papers a collection of letters from Laura to Almanzo. Laura wrote them when she was visiting Rose in San Francisco in August, September, and October 1915. Rose was working for the San Francisco Bulletin as a writer at the time, and she was still married to Gillette Lane (though there were some signs that their marriage was in trouble). The trip had multiple aims. First, Rose had pleaded with her mother to come visit to see the Panama-Pacific World’s Exposition that year. Second, Rose wanted Laura and Almanzo to consider moving to a farm in California. Finally, Laura had begun writing for the Missouri Ruralist, and Rose was an experienced writer. Both women hoped that Rose could teach Laura how to be a better writer if they sat down together.

Laura, inspired by the fact that she was describing parts of the west that she and Almanzo had never seen before, wrote extended descriptions of the landscape through the train window on the way to California. She also gave detailed narratives of happy trips to the ocean, visits to the World’s Fair, and rambles around Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. She did have some time to talk with Rose about writing, and the result was that the number of columns that Laura wrote for the Ruralist increased markedly after 1915. Laura and Almanzo decided against moving to California, even though Laura had gone to the Santa Clara valley to check out the prospects. It’s unclear how seriously they had entertained the idea. The trip came to a rather untimely end when Laura fell from the side of a streetcar and had to be treated in a hospital for a concussion.

There is not a lot that can be added to our understanding of Laura’s faith from this book. She does describe several pictures of the crucifixion she saw in the French building at the World’s Fair (West from Home, 148), but the tone of that description is the same as the wallabies and kangaroos next to the New Zealand exhibit or the Keen Cutter knife display. Perhaps more telling is the fact that several times letters mention Sunday activities but never attendance at worship. For instance: “Sunday we went for a twelve mile street car ride all directions over the city and it only cost us a nickel apiece because of transfers.” (West From Home, 98) and “Sunday about five o’clock Rose finished writing for the day and she and I took a street car for the ocean beach.” (West From Home, 143) Laura describes their activities so minutely otherwise, one would imagine that she would have told Almanzo if they had gone to worship.

One gets the impression from these books 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’s pretty clear that Rose was not interested in keeping Sunday in any kind of traditional way, including church services.

Last fall I was at a conference and a presenter suggested describing a person’s faith by looking at their beliefs, their belonging, and their behavior. For Laura this would mean considering her writings about her religious beliefs, what church she belonged to, and what we might infer about her faith from what she did. I’ve conjectured in previous blog entries that while there are few explicit descriptions of her adult doctrinal beliefs, we might best describe her approach to Christianity as mainly having to do with right behavior. I’ve also noted that the only church she ever officially joined was the Congregational Church in DeSmet. She attended the Methodist Church in Mansfield for years without officially becoming a member. These two books suggest that in terms of behavior, she did not have an evangelical desire to attend church services wherever she went.

More next week when I’ve worked through the materials from West Branch more thoroughly.

Page number references are to Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894, with a setting by Rose Wilder Lane (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) and West From Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco, 1915, edited by Roger Lea MacBride (New York: HarperCollins, 1974).


The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder

I’m very sorry to have been away from the blog for three weeks. My daughter graduated from Chicago Christian High School on June 2, which meant visits from both my parents and my wife’s parents. We also have had some  car trouble. During that time, my school, Trinity Christian College, went public with the news that I’ve been awarded a travel grant to do research at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. But during the last two weeks I was able to get time to read the new Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson.

As I’ve said in a post on Anderson’s biography of Wilder, Anderson is the foremost living authority on Wilder. He has read everything that there is to be read about Wilder and the books. He has written quite a bit himself. He has worked with the organizers and caretakers of all of the various Wilder historical sites. Now, he has edited a collection of over 400 letters Wilder wrote to a variety of correspondents, including family members, personal acquaintances, business contacts, and fans of the Little House books. The book provides a brief introduction for almost all of the letters, providing background on the recipient and placing the letter in context of Wilder’s life. It is a wonderful collection.

As I worked through the 380 pages of letters, I found myself thinking that this volume could have been several smaller books. One book might have focused on the correspondence between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane as Wilder was writing several of the books and Lane was editing them for publication. These letters give an in-depth look at the collaboration between mother and daughter. They also take up about 120 pages of the book before they abruptly end, for Lane burned a lot of letters (!!!) during the weeks after Wilder’s death, both at Wilder’s home in Missouri and in her own home in Connecticut. (xviii) Wilder’s personal letters to fans of the books who wrote her could have been another volume; they occupy another 100 pages at least. But perhaps just the one volume is best. The letters are given in strict date order, and the collection is divided into six chapters chronologically.

Small collections of letters give fascinating looks at different parts of Wilder’s person and life. Selected letters home to her husband Almanzo while she was visiting Rose in San Francisco in 1915 show her ability to describe scenes exquisitely. (All of these letters were published by Harper in 1974 as West From Home.) A later automobile trip to California with Rose and one of Rose’s friends in 1925 is similarly fascinating. Later, we can follow her correspondence with her agent, George Bye, as she tries to get the best terms possible in book contracts with Harpers. The last chapters of the book feature dozens of letters to complete strangers who enjoyed the books and wrote her.

Several letters shed light on the question of Wilder’s faith:

– One of the first letters in the book is to the secretary of the Eastern Star Chapter of the lodge in DeSmet as Wilder prepared to move to Missouri. (5) I’ve looked back at John Miller’s biography and realize now that he also mentions that Almanzo and Laura were both active in the Eastern Star, which is an adjunct organization to the Freemasons, but for some reason I hadn’t thought about this until reading this letter. Membership in a Masonic organization would not have been acceptable for some Christian denominations, like the Presbyterians, who saw the Masons as teaching ideas in competition with or even contrary to Christianity. But apparently this was fine with the Congregationalist church where she and her parents were members and the Methodist church she attended in Missouri.

– There is also a letter on 29 September 1952 written to a correspondent only identified as Suzanna:

“My favorite quotation is from the nineteenth Psalm.

‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.’

The whole book of Psalms is a favorite of mine and I can repeat all. Can you?

I hope you win the trophy for the second time.

Sincerely, your friend

Laura Ingalls Wilder” (342-343)

Anderson does not provide any introduction to the letter, so the reader is left to surmise that Suzanna was a young person who was involved in some kind of competition, probably one that required interaction with the Bible. Perhaps it involved memorization; Wilder had won such a competition when her family lived in Walnut Grove (see my post on Pioneer Girl). Was Wilder asserting that she had memorized the entire book of Psalms or something else? The letter is tantalizingly short. It does show that Wilder had much more than a passing acquaintance with God’s word.

– Like the previous letter provides some evidence about Wilder’s relationship to the Bible, two other letters to a neighbor named Dorothy mention prayer: The first, on 21 July 1955, says: “It is wonderful that you will pray for me. I need it. I will remember you in my prayers every night.” (372) The second is undated and says “I thank you for your sweet note and shall remember you when I say my prayers. I hope you will do the same for me. One needs the prayers of their friends.” (372) Out of 400 letters in the book, only two mention prayer, but together they use the word “pray” or “prayers” four times.

– There are three points in the letters where Wilder swears. In each instance the word is damn, it is used in a letter to Rose (the correspondent she was closest to), and it is in response to frustration: with a neighborhood interpersonal challenge (85), with the New Deal (112), or with the writing process (156). This is not to say that this means that Wilder was not a Christian. But it is not something we normally think about Laura Ingalls Wilder doing. It does fill out her character a bit.

– Finally, Wilder mentions attending church in Mansfield to Rose (188), to her editor at Harpers (246), and a librarian in California (320).

I think that one might infer one of several things from the evidence provided in her letters. The church and Christian practices like Bible-reading and prayer are mentioned a handful of times in a very large amount of correspondence. One might conclude that therefore faith must not have been very important to Wilder. However, as has been suggested in previous blog entries, it might also mean that while faith was actually very important, Wilder saw it as an intensely personal part of her life. It was not something that she shared readily with others. Lane was an avowed atheist during the 1930s, so in their correspondence perhaps Wilder stuck to topics that they agreed on, like politics, or that greatly concerned them, like work on the Little House books. One also might appreciate why Wilder didn’t mention Christianity to business acquaintances or fans.

I’m glad that I read this book before I travel to Iowa to do research at the Hoover Library at the beginning of next week. I’m sure I’ll have a lot to write about when I get back.

All page number references are to Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson (New York: HarperCollins, 2016).

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, Farm Journalist

This week I read Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks, a collection of the articles and columns that Wilder wrote for the Missouri Ruralist, a farm newspaper, between 1911 and 1924. The collection was edited by Stephen W. Hines. Hines originally published selections from this material in 1991 as Little House in the Ozarks. More was published in Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Family Collection, edited by Edward Marshall and published in 1993. But Farm Journalist, published in 2007, is by far the most complete collection, reproducing all of the articles that can be identified as Wilder’s.

Wilder’s first two articles were published in 1911 under Almanzo’s name, although all Wilder scholars agree that they were written by Laura. During the next four several years, Wilder wrote both feature stories and advice columns under the byline “Mrs. A. J. Wilder.” In 1915, she traveled to San Francisco to visit her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Together they attended the Panama Pacific World’s Fair, and Lane coached Wilder on her writing. Wilder returned with a new understanding of writing for newspapers and new energy for the task. While before 1915 Wilder only wrote twelve articles and columns for the Ruralist, in 1916 alone she wrote twenty. Between 1917 and 1924, she wrote between ten and twenty five pieces for publication each year.

Wilder’s Ruralist material addresses a wide variety of topics. During the early 1910s and the early 1920s, a number of articles are features on different successful farmers. They are what I call “how I did it right” stories in my book on the Midwestern farm press. (John J. Fry, The Farm Press, Reform, and Rural Change: 1895-1920 [New York: Routledge, 2005], 19)  Wilder also wrote a regular advice column. In early years each column had an individual title, but in 1919 the column became regularly titled “The Farm Home,” and this changed to “As a Farm Woman Thinks” in 1921. Columns provide tips for raising chickens, advice for effective farm management, and guidance for farm wives in all areas of their work. More importantly, however, Wilder regularly addresses moral, political, economic, and family topics. Often she reflects on the role of women in the home and in society. Some of these observations respond to developments in in World War I, which the United States participated in from April 1917 to November 1918. Others are occasioned by events in Wilder’s life with neighbors and others.

I’ve mentioned John Miller’s use of the Ruralist articles in my blog entry on his biography of Wilder, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. I concur with many of Miller’s observations. Wilder shows a clear understanding of human nature, especially the role that selfishness plays in causing conflict between spouses, neighbors, or countries. She delivers numerous exhortations to moral living. She emphasizes the influence that mothers have on the early development of children, especially the development of their moral faculties. Miller sees this as evidence of a devout Christian faith, and I have to agree. At times she mentions Christianity outright:

Following all the unrest and unreason on down to its real source where it works in the hearts of the people its roots will be found there in individual selfishness, in the desire to better one’s own condition at the expense of another, by whatever means possible, and this desire of each person infects groups of people and moves nations.

Here and there one sees a criticism of Christianity because of the things that have happened and are still going on. “Christian civilization is a failure,” some say. “Christianity has not prevented these things, therefore it is a failure,” say others.

But this is a calling of things by the wrong names. It is rather the lack of Christianity that has brought us where we are. Not a lack of churches or religious forms, but of the real thing in our hearts. (“The Farm Home,” 20 December 1919, 208)

At many other times, the references to God and his laws are more veiled.

References to religion in general and Christianity also come in two other contexts. One is in regular meditations on Thanksgiving. Again, at times her exhortations to thankfulness in November are general, at times they are specific that thanks are to be given to God:  “But even more than for material blessings, let us, with humble hearts, give thanks for the revelation to us and our better understanding of the greatness and goodness of God.” (“As a Farm Woman Thinks,” 15 November 1923, 292)

Wilder also often meditates on the meaning of Christmas. The first article that does so, in 1916, is perhaps the most striking. Wilder describes the origin of Christmas in the pagan world of Europe “hundreds of years ago.” Since the sun was treated as a god, the shortening of the days in late fall led some priests to call for the sacrifice of a child in the evening of December 24. Doors in the village must be left unlocked so that the priests could come and take a child from one of the villagers. Families must have listened in terror for footsteps on Christmas Eve. Then,

How happy they must have been when the teachers of Christianity came and told them it was all unnecessary. It is no wonder they celebrated the birth of Christ on the date of that awful night of sacrifice, which was not robbed of its terror, nor that they made it a children’s festival. (“Before Santa Claus Came,”20 December 1916, 94)

Interestingly, however, the focus for this meditation is not Jesus Christ but Santa Claus. The title of the article is “Before Santa Claus Came,” not “Before Jesus Came.” St. Nick dominates the last paragraph:

Instead of the stealthy steps of cruel men, there came now, on Christmas eve, a jolly saint with reindeer and bells, bringing gifts. This new spirit of love and peace and safety that was abroad in the land did not require that the doors be left unbarred. He could come thru locked doors or down the chimney and be everywhere at once on Christmas night, for a spirit can do such things. No wonder the people laughed and danced and rang the joy bells on Christmas day and the celebration with its joy and thankfulness has come on down the years to us. Without all that Christmas means, we might still be dreading the day in the old terrible way instead of listening for the sleigh bells of Christmas. (“Before Santa Claus Came,”20 December 1916, 94)

Finally, Wilder uses a variety of quotes from Biblical passages to underscore points in a number of pieces. These include Exodus 20:8-11, Proverbs 15:1, Proverbs 22:6, Proverbs 27:1, Ecclesiastes 1:9, Matthew 7:12, and Matthew 25:40.

God and Christianity do appear to be vitally important to Wilder’s vision of life as revealed in these articles and columns. It is striking to me that this vision does not come through so clearly in the Little House books. This may be due to the influence of her daughter Rose. It may also be because of how Laura viewed the audience for her books. I’m looking forward to getting a look at copies of the original manuscripts at the Herbert Hoover Library this June.

Thanks again for reading. I appreciate all comments.

All page number references is are Stephen W. Hines, ed. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007).

The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook

In 2011, the Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook was published.  This should not be confused with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook. The latter was edited by Eugenia Garson and published by HarperCollins in 1968. It is 160 pages long and contains 62 songs. It is out of stock on Amazon, though you can get used copies from used booksellers.

The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook, by contrast, is an exhaustive and scholarly book edited by musicologist (music historian) Dale Cockrell. I heard Cockrell speak at the first LauraPalooza conference in 2010. He made a convincing argument—one that is given in the introduction of this book—that one of the ways that Wilder was able to include as many details in her books is that she used her memories of music to help her remember her childhood. The bulk of the book, however, is sheet music for the 127 songs that are mentioned in the eight Little House books. After each song, the book and chapter that the song is referenced in is provided, along with a brief description of the context.  As a result, the book is a whopping 425 oversize pages. It was a volume in two different series from the American Musicological Society: “Recent Researches in American Music” and “Music of the United States of America.” It also appears to be out of print on Amazon; the list price was $240, so few individuals would probably be in a position to buy it. I was fortunate to get the library at Trinity Christian College, where I work, to purchase one.

In his introduction, Cockrell describes the different roles that music played in the Little House books. Pa played his fiddle and the family sang both for entertainment and for community-building. The family was the primary community that music fostered, although the local, church, and national communities were also maintained by songs. Cockrell notes that the first time a formal church service is mentioned in the books (in On the Banks of Plum Creek), Wilder describes the congregation’s terrible rendition of the hymn “Jerusalem, the Golden.” Laura’s assessment of the church service is brief:

Pa turned on the seat and asked, “How do you girls like the first time you ever went to church?”

“They can’t sing,” said Laura. (xxxiv)

Cockrell classifies twenty-three of the 127 songs in the book as “Hymns or Sunday School songs.” So almost a fifth of the songs mentioned in the Little House books were used in Christian worship or educational settings. As I read through these songs, I divided them into eight different categories based on the content of the lyrics:

Song about being good and enjoying nature: “Gentle Words and Loving Smiles”

Songs about Christmas: “Merry, Merry Christmas,” “The Star of Bethlehem”

Songs for church services, Sunday School – “Doxology,” “My Sabbath Home”

Song about death: “When Jesus Holds My Hand”

Song about God’s protection: “A Shelter in the Time of Storm”

Songs about heaven: “Canaan,” “The Evergreen Shore,” “The Happy Land,” “The Home of the Soul,” “Jerusalem the Golden,” “The Mountain of the Lord,” “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” “Pull for the Shore,” “Sweet By and By,” “When I Can Read my Title Clear”

Songs about Jesus and Salvation: “The Ninety and Nine,” “Rock of Ages”

Songs about working for what is right: “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” “The Good Old Way,” “Lend a Helping Hand,” “What Shall the Harvest Be”

I was surprised by how this division came out. Given my previous observations in this blog about Wilder’s faith tending towards right behavior, I had assumed at the outset that most of the hymns would be about working for what is right. This is the second-largest category. However, the largest single category – ten out of the twenty-three songs – contains songs about heaven. I didn’t expect this.

I think that there are several possible reasons for this over-representation of songs about heaven. It may be that I should revise my ideas of Wilder’s faith to recognize a larger role for heaven in her thinking. On the other hand, seven of these ten songs are referenced in The Long Winter, which I have already noted as having many connections to Christianity. Many of the songs are sung while blizzards bear down on the family as a way of defying the storm. For instance, “The Evergreen Shore” has the chorus, “Then let the hurricane roar, / It will the sooner be o’er, / We will weather the blast, and will land at last, / Safe on the evergreen shore.” (187) So the songs about heaven are used for a particular reason in that particular book. Finally, it may just be that these songs have the most memorable lyrics for Wilder. In other words, the content of the entire hymn may be less important than how particular lyrics functioned in her upbringing and in her memory.

It is not surprising to me that only two of the twenty-three songs are specifically about salvation or Jesus’ sacrifice.

Clearly, Christian music had a great influence on Wilder’s life and upbringing. The type of Christianity that she experienced as a child—and later pursued and described as an adult—may have emphasized doing good works to please God (as opposed to a message of sin and salvation by Jesus’ blood). But it also emphasized singing.

Thanks for reading.

Page number references are from Dale Cockrell, ed. The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook (Middleton, WI: Published for the American Musicological Society by A-R Editions, Inc., 2011).

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)