A Prairie Girl’s Faith

At the beginning of 2018, I mentioned at the end of my post on Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires that I might be posting less often this semester because I hoped to be writing the first chapter of my book. When I looked at the blog and saw that the last entry was uploaded on February 23, I realized that the first part of that statement was true. Unfortunately, the second part is not – I have been swamped by grading and administrative work here at Trinity Christian College this semester. It’s good work, but it’s not work on the book.

However, lately I was able to read Stephen Hines’s A Prairie Girl’s Faith: The Spiritual Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I learned last summer that this book was coming out, and it made me nervous. This was right when I was hoping to get a book contract from Eerdmans. Would his project steal my thunder? Would Hines say everything I had to say? I believed at the time that I would approach the subject of Wilder’s faith in a much different way than Hines would, but I was not sure. As it turns out, I did not need to be anxious. A Prairie Girl’s Faith is not the book that I would write or that I hope to write.

Stephen Hines has described himself as a “literary prospector” who looks for unpublished works by famous writers that are not under copyright and therefore can be collected and republished. Hines has been editing books of Wilder’s writing since the early 1990s. Most of these book have reprinted collections of Wilder’s articles in the Missouri Ruralist. The most complete of these books is Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist, from 2007. He also published Saving Graces: The Inspirational Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1997. I have written blog posts on both of these books.

A Prairie Girl’s Faith is not a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is not a scholarly examination of the nature of Wilder’s faith either. It is more a collection of Hines’s reflections and observations about aspects of Wilders’ life and writings. Most of these reflections have to do with Wilder’s faith, though he also engages the relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane and their literary collaboration on the Little House books. Since I hope to write a scholarly biography that examines the nature of Wilder’s faith, I was relieved to discover this. This also means that I should judge the book that Hines wrote, not the book that he didn’t write.

On these terms, the book includes some good insights. Hines has read the Little House books many times. He details how he first found them as a child in rural Kansas and also how he read them aloud to his wife in the kitchen during their early marriage. He knows the Little House books inside and out. He has also read Wilder’s recently published memoir Pioneer Girl and other important works about Wilder and Rose by William Anderson, John Miller, Pamela Smith Hill, William Holtz, and Dale Cockrell. He engages the many ways that the Little House books mention faith, especially descriptions of Sunday School, church worship services, and hymns sung by the Ingalls family. Hines’s extensive familiarity with Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles is also clear throughout the book.

Several chapters treat Wilder’s childhood, as described in the Little House books. Several chapters engage the relationship between Laura and Rose and the writing of the books. There is a chapter on the hymns referenced in the Little House books. And there is a chapter of recipes from Caroline Ingalls and other women from De Smet taken from a cookbook published in 1915.

The book also provides some background information about the Congregational Churches in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and De Smet, South Dakota. An Appendix on De Smet reproduces some articles from the De Smet News and the Kingsbury County News about churches in De Smet. I had never seen these articles before, so they were very helpful.

Hines correctly notes that the central values of Laura and Rose were not the same, and he understands that Rose’s collaboration in the publishing of the Little House books may have shaped how those works depict Christianity. He writes in one chapter,

In fact, it is possible that Rose may have tried to downplay her mother’s faith in the Little House books. For example, in Laura’s original Pioneer Girl manuscript she spoke several times about asking for forgiveness for wrongdoing. But this act of contrition did not show up as many times in the Little House series. However, admittedly, that subtle difference may provide scant actual proof. (62)

As I have written in other blog posts, I believe that Rose did shape the depictions of Christianity in the Little House books. However, the evidence I use is the comparison of Laura’s original manuscripts of Farmer Boy and On the Banks of Plum Creek and the final published works. So I think that there is more evidence (I prefer using “evidence” to “proof”) for these changes than Hines does. But I think his observation is insightful, especially since he is just comparing Pioneer Girl to the Little House books.

The concluding chapter is titled “What Laura Means to Us.” Hines’s summary reads, “I like to think we can still learn lessons from Laura’s accumulated experience and reflection, among which is tolerance for other’s failings, courage to start all over again after disaster strikes, and a belief that God holds the future in his hands and intends no ill will for his children.” (158) I agree that these are lessons that one can learn from the Little House books, and I appreciate this clear and pithy assessment of some aspects of their abiding value.

Unfortunately, at times the book presents accounts from the Little House books as if they are literal descriptions of what happened during Wilder’s childhood, the same as accounts from Pioneer Girl. But it seems clear to me that the descriptions and narratives in the Little House books were formed and shaped in a multitude of ways for a number of different reasons. Some of the shaping is for narrative purposes. Some of the shaping has to do with audience. Some of the shaping, I believe, was done by Rose and not by Laura. So I would find Pioneer Girl to be a much more reliable source than the Little House books for how Laura experienced faith.

I also find it striking that the book does not mention Laura’s most clear description of an experience of God’s presence. As a child in Walnut Grove, she describes “One night while saying my prayers, as I always did before going to bed, this feeling of homesickness and worry was worse than usual, but gradually I had a feeling of a hovering, encompassing Presence of a Power, comforting and sustaining and thought in surprise ‘This is what men call God!’” (Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. by Pamela Smith Hill, [Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014], 137) Hines mentioned this account in the introduction of Saving Graces. I was shocked that it is not included in this volume.

Finally, the book often presents Christianity as “Christian values” or the “values of hearth and home.” For instance, when arguing that Laura should be credited with supplying the central themes of the books, not Rose, Hines asserts “And whatever else they are, Laura’s books are a story about building a home in the wilderness; they are not about raw nature itself, however raw that nature can be. No, the Christian family values of the books are overwhelming. The sacredness of home and hearth are everywhere present.” (69) Admittedly, in other parts of the book Hines does assert that Laura did have a personal relationship with God through Christ. In my work on Wilder, I hope to press more consistently beyond vaguer notions of values Wilder’s relationship to the gospel of sin and salvation in Christ.

Still, I’m grateful to Hines for raising some of the issues I hope to address in my book, and for pointing me in some new directions in terms of sources. Thanks for reading.

(Quotes are from Stephen W. Hines, A Prairie Girl’s Faith: The Spiritual Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder [New York: Waterbrook, 2018].)

Links:

Doing fewer blog posts this semester

Trinity Christian College

Book contract from Eerdmans

Hines as Literary Prospector; also here

Post on Saving Graces: The Inspirational Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Post on Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist

Post on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography

Post on Rose’s shaping of the depiction of Christianity in the Little House books

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The Last Puritans

During the last several weeks, I have been able to read historian Margaret Bendroth’s The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past. Bendroth is the director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston. I have heard her speak at events sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History. She is a careful historian and an eloquent speaker. The Last Puritans is a history of Congregational Churches in the U. S. A. during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I wanted to read it because Laura Ingalls Wilder attended Congregational Churches in Walnut Grove, Minnesota and De Smet, South Dakota. Her parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, were also lifelong members of Congregational Churches.

I am a member and a Ruling Elder in a small Presbyterian denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). The OPC is a confessional church, holding to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as doctrinal statements that accurately explain what the Bible says on most questions of faith and life. I also see myself as an Evangelical, sharing characteristics with many other contemporary Christians who believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word, that Jesus Christ is God come to earth to die for the sins of His people, and that Christians’ responsibility in the world is to preach the gospel and lead a life in accordance with God’s word. As a result, I admit that it is difficult for me to understand the approach of most liberal, mainline Protestant churches, including the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A., the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ (UCC). Since 1957, the UCC is one of the successor denominations to the Congregational Church associations described in Bendroth’s book; the UCC is the subject of its last chapter. It seems to me that these churches downplay Biblical doctrines and historic confessions in order to pursue progressive social causes. I see them as rejecting the historic Christian faith. This means that it can be difficult for me to appreciate the decisions made by the leaders and members of those churches in the past, and it can be hard for me to understand the Christianity experienced by people in those churches today. Bendroth’s book is a help in this area.

The Last Puritans describes the leaders and members of American Congregational Churches during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as being extremely interested in their history. Congregationalists trace their roots to the Pilgrims and Puritans who migrated to New England during the early 1600s. However, the way that they remembered their Pilgrim ancestors changed over time. By the 1800s, they mainly remembered the independent, liberty-loving side of the Pilgrims, and their establishment of churches where local autonomy was fiercely defended. Nineteenth Century Congregationalists also told stories about the Pilgrims and Puritans that emphasized their toleration of other Christians. The result was that for many, their vision of their history led to downplaying of doctrinal distinctives, including the Calvinism that animated their Pilgrim and Puritan forebears. At the turn of the twentieth century, Congregationalists also began to historicize their ancestors, viewing them not as kindred spirits but as strikingly different. Twentieth century churchgoers emphasized the spirit of their forebears while rejecting many of their beliefs. This led them to support union with other churches and an embrace of the Social Gospel and Progressivism.

Bendroth concludes that while Congregationalists came to doubt many stories in the Bible were factually true, they decided to remain in the church anyway. “Protestant Liberalism is… about people who learned to live with ambiguities, who chose to believe without demanding certainties.” (194) She gives examples from both church leaders and ordinary church members who exemplify this willingness to let go of the factual nature of the Bible but remain in the church. This would not be the choice that I would make, but I think that I understand a little better why they made it.

Does this understanding of the history of Congregationalism contribute to a better understanding of Laura Ingalls Wilder? Perhaps. Perhaps Wilder’s upbringing in Congregational Churches shaped her understanding of what church should be. Assuming that a Methodist Church in the border south was more Evangelical than a Congregational Church in the upper Midwest, perhaps that is why she never joined the Methodist Church in Mansfield, Missouri, even though she attended there for over sixty years. There also may be some connections between Congregationalists’ memory of the Pilgrims’ love of liberty and Wilder’s devotion to liberty, as well as that of her father and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. I’m going to continue to ruminate on this as I start writing soon.

Thanks for reading.

(Quote is from The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015].)

Links:

The Last Puritans

Congregational Library and Archives

The Conference on Faith and History

 

 

Pioneer Girl Perspectives Review

Well, last Friday I was mentioned that I might not blog as much this semester, and here I am posting a week later. . .

Last year I wrote a review of Pioneer Girl Perspectives, a book of essays from the South Dakota State Historical Society (SDSHS), for The Annals of Iowa, a historical journal published by the Iowa State Historical Society.  The Annals gave permission to the Pioneer Girl Project of the SDSHS to reproduce that review on their website:  https://pioneergirlproject.org/2018/01/25/a-worthy-companion-review-of-pioneer-girl-perspectives/

It’s slightly briefer than my blog post on the book.  Thought you might be interested.  Best wishes.

Other links:

My blog post on Pioneer Girl Perspectives

The Annals of Iowa

 

Prairie Fires

Happy 2018. I hope that everyone’s year has begun well.

This week I finished Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I had started in the middle of December, but Christmas intervened. It is an excellent book. Fraser has read just about everything there is to read by and about Wilder, and she provides an interpretation of all of it. She has read Wilder’s published works, all the extant manuscripts of the Little House books, and pretty much all of the books that have been written about Wilder. She also appears to have read all of Rose Wilder Lane’s materials as well, which is quite a feat—Lane often kept a detailed diary, and she typed reams of letters to friends, published dozens of articles in newspapers and magazines, and wrote a number of books. Eighty of the Prairie Fires’s six hundred pages are footnotes. It is clearly the most up to date and exhaustively researched biography of Wilder published.

But the book strives to do more than just chronicle the lives and works of Laura and Rose. It sets those lives in the contexts of American national history. Fraser provides detailed descriptions of the Dakota War of 1862, the Homestead Act, and the settlement of the upper Midwest by white Americans. She argues that these events both shaped and were reflected in Wilder’s life and works. The book also considers how World War I, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II impacted Wilder’s writing of the Little House books (they were published between 1932 and 1943). John Miller’s book Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder does some of this contextualization, but Fraser’s work is more comprehensive.

In a nutshell, Fraser’s interpretation of the settlement of the upper Midwest and Great Plains is that thousands of families created an environmental catastrophe. The land and climate in many places could not sustain small farmers, but they attempted to make a go of it anyway, spurred on by advertising and scientific ideas (like “rain follows the plow”) that led to marginal existence and misery for many. Many were forced to take jobs in town or rely on the support of others, including church, the local community, and the state and federal government. But government leaders often withheld support, and those who took it were often ashamed. The Ingalls and Wilder families were two of those families.

Fraser also attempts to understand how both Laura and Rose thought. She both allows their own words to speak for themselves and provides her own views of their actions. Laura is depicted as a woman hardened by misfortune but determined to provide for her family. She loved nature and everything in it, and she who ultimately created a literary masterpiece for children. Her detailed descriptions, her understanding of her own life and the characters she interacted with, and her love for her father all make the Little House books juvenile classics. By hard work she secured her family’s economic security.

The book’s depiction of Rose is much less positive. Throughout she is described as mixing the truth and fiction: in her articles for “yellow” newspapers during the 1910s and 1920s, in her fictional “biographies” of great men, in her work with her mother’s life story, and in her personal correspondence. She was never able to manage money, and she suffered from depression and perhaps deeper mental illness. By the end of her life she had let her libertarian ideology take over her understanding of reality. Fraser gives Lane credit for editing and improving the Little House books, making them possible to publish and memorable, but Wilder’s writing is seen as driving the books’ popularity and staying power.

Overall, Prairie Fires is a super book. Fraser’s writing is simple but powerful. She evokes the past well and sets Wilder and Lane in that past for us to consider. Its scope is encyclopedic. I am happy that it appeared while I am beginning to write my book so that I can use it in that effort.

As far as Wilder’s faith is concerned, the book focuses most on religion in the early chapters where Charles Ingalls’s ancestors are described. They were Puritans; one had come to Massachusetts Bay with John Endecott in 1629, one was executed during the witch craze in Salem in 1692 (Martha Ingalls Allen Carrier), and one wrote poetry that was published locally in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Of the latter, Samuel Ingalls, the self-described “unlearned poet,” the book says that he “was a Puritan and may have been a Congregationalist.” (32) I am not sure that Fraser understands the relationship between Puritans and Congregationalists. In terms of church governance, all Puritans were Congregationalists. By the late 1700s, I believe that the term Congregationalist was used for most of the the churches in New England founded by the Puritans of the 1600s. I have a book on Congregationalism by Margaret Bendroth (The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past, [University of North Carolina, 2015]) that I hope will help me get everything straight.

Beyond that, there is not a lot of attention to Laura and Rose’s faith in the body of the book. This is probably partially because Wilder says little about her Christian beliefs in her writings. In addition, Laura and Rose’s religious outlook is not really primary to Fraser’s understanding of the two women. She considers their economic situation, their physical health, and their relationships with each other in much more detail (and again, they have the benefit of greater documentation, especially in Rose’s writings). Interestingly, Fraser returns to Puritanism at the end of the book to help explain why Laura firmly believed that individuals and families could make it without government assistance, even though her parents’ family and her own family were not able to:

Wilder wrote that her mother was fond of a saying: “What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.” If anything was bred in her family’s Congregationalist bones, it was their exemplary devotion to self-sufficiency… Puritan identity was based on redemption through mastery of self, and the rigid application of principles including frugality, diligence, and, above all, independence. (455)

I’m pretty sure that Seventeenth Century Puritans and Eighteenth Century Congregationalists would not have agreed with this description. They believed in redemption on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ alone. They taught that those who repent and trust in Christ for salvation must also work to discipline their bodies by cultivating these virtues. But those virtues were not the basis of their salvation.

I relate these disagreements with Fraser’s interpretations not because I think that they mar the book as a whole. Indeed, I think that Fraser understands Laura better than many other writers. Prairie Fires is a monument to years of work in the archives, thousands of hours of thinking about how best to understand the sources, and writing ability that I know that I can’t match. I am glad that I am not setting out to write a book of this scope. In the book that I am setting out to write, however, I hope to provide a better understanding of this one aspect of Laura’s life—her faith—and to explain what it might tell us about the history of American Christianity. In some ways, I think that all scholars are comforted when they find that they disagree in some way with other authors, because disagreements show that there is still something that can be added to the conversation.

I may not be writing very much for the blog this spring. It is my hope to write a chapter of the book, and I think that staying off of the blog may assist me in doing this. (See Cal Newport’s book Deep Work for an explanation of why I believe that this may be the case.) I am also teaching two sections of Western Civilization, which means I have 75 students’ papers to grade when they start coming in at the end of next week. I will see if I am able to give reports perhaps once a month.

Thanks again for reading.

(Quotations are from Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder [New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017].)

Link: Prairie Fires

 

Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her

I’m back from Iowa. I had a great time at the 25th Anniversary Celebration for the Iowa Women’s Archives last weekend. While I am not a feminist nor a women’s historian, my talk about Laura Gibson Smith and her memoir Almost Pioneers was well received by the feminist women’s historians who made up most of those assembled for the celebration.

This week I was able to read Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her by Dan L. White. White lives with his family on a farm in the Ozarks near where Laura and Almanzo lived from 1894 to their deaths in 1949 and 1957. White has written a series of books on the Wilders and the Little House books, including:

  • Big Bible Lessons From Laura Ingalls’ Little Books
  • Devotionals With Laura: Laura Ingalls’ Favorite Bible Selections, What they Meant in Her Life, What they Might Mean in Yours
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Most Inspiring Writings
  • Laura’s Love Story: The Lifetime Love of Laura and Almanzo Wilder
  • The Long, Hard Winter of 1880-1881: What was it Really Like?
  • The Real Laura Ingalls: Who was Real, What was Real on her Prairie TV Show

White has also put out four volumes of Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles with his own introductions and comments (much like Stephen Hines’s many books). All of White’s books were originally published by a small press in Hartville, Missouri, named Ashley Preston Publishing. I believe this must be White’s own operation. They are now all available–with several other books he wrote about Christian living and family finances–as Kindle books on Amazon.com. Since they engage Christianity, I may have to check out the first three books on this list for my project.

Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her is an fascinating collection of materials. Six of the chapters are transcripts from interviews White conducted with Ozark residents who knew Laura and Almanzo when they were living: Nava Austin, Erman and Peggy Dennis, Emogene Fuge, Neta Seal, Anna Gutschke, and Carl Hartley. Other chapters give White’s opinions on some of the premier topics in Wilder scholarship, including Wilder’s political views, the relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane and the contributions of each to the Little House books, and why the books have become so beloved. Most chapters include extensive quotes from Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles; some include lengthy quotes from White’s other books.

White argues that since he lives in the Ozarks and is not a scholar or historian, he can give a perspective on the Wilders that is missing from other books about their lives:

Generally the people who write about Laura and the Little House books are not Ozarkers. They have chosen to be someplace else where life is fast and crowded and bustling. They usually don’t want the simple Ozark life of a homestead and chickens and horses and cows and goats.

Therefore, when these writers pontificate about Laura, they write from quite a different view than she had. When you read writings about Laura, you are reading just as much about the writer as you are about Laura. (22-23)

This hit home somewhat. I live one half block from the city of Chicago. I work at a college that has around 1200 students, which is about the current population of Mansfield, Missouri. But I did notice that this description might also be applied to White’s writing. When one reads the portions he has written, one does learn quite a bit about White’s life. One learns that he raised his family on a nearly self-sufficient farm in the Ozarks, that he and his wife homeschooled their children, that and all of them enjoyed the Little House books immensely. Strikingly, the end of the book includes a comparison between the Rocky Ridge farmhouse, which sits empty every night and has occupants only when a tour guide leads a group of tourists through it, to his own farmhouse, where a happy couple continues to live snugly.

White’s chapter on Laura and Almanzo’s political views does include an extended consideration of Laura’s faith. First, White argues that perhaps it was their shared commitment to limited government that kept them from joining the Methodist Church in Mansfield. “Congregationalists believed in small church government, not big. Surely Laura would have formally joined the Mansfield Methodist or Presbyterian Church had there not been something holding her back. That something may well have been that they were overgoverned for her tastes.” (76) I think that this is unlikely, but it is an interesting perspective. He also asserts that Laura and Almanzo can be seen as “typical conservative Christians,” which seems anachronistic to me. A different chapter does note Laura’s knowledge of the Bible and suggests that is why the books are happy despite the hardships the family faced.

It is the interviews with neighbors who knew Laura and Almanzo which are especially helpful. The portrait that emerges of Almanzo is a witty, funny, fun person to be around, even though his one foot was crippled and he walked with a cane. Laura comes across as a prim, proper, and refined old lady in velvet, always wearing a hat, even when it was no longer in style. They clearly loved one another very much. There are touching stories of Almanzo’s death from Neta Seal and Laura’s death from Carl Hartley. Seal’s interview also notes Laura’s deep knowledge of the Bible.

In some ways, this book is not the right time period for me to be reading right now. I am making plans to begin writing my biography’s first chapter, which is about Laura’s ancestors and early childhood. This book is about Laura and Almanzo’s life when they were in their sixties through eighties. But I needed to read the book so it could be returned to the library, so this week I got it done.

Thanks for reading.

Quotes are from Dan L. White, Laura Ingalls’ Friends Remember Her: Memories from Laura’s Ozark Home (Hartville, Mo.: Ashley Preston Publishing, 2013).

Links:

Iowa Women’s Archives 25th Anniversary Celebration

Dan White’s books at Amazon

Articles and Anticipation

It has now been almost a month since I last posted here. My attention and time have been taken in several directions, including teaching, grading papers and exams, committee meetings, and my work as an Academic Dean. In addition, I have been asked to speak about my last book, Almost Pioneers, at a 25th Anniversary celebration for the Iowa Women’s Archives in Iowa City next weekend. Almost Pioneers is the memoir of Laura Gibson Smith, a woman from Iowa who homesteaded in Wyoming during the 1910s; I edited it and got it published in 2013. I’m glad to be part of the celebration, but it has taken me out of my pattern of reading for the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder project.

However, I have spent some time each week with Laura Ingalls Wilder materials. I’ve been able to read four articles that concern Wilder, the Little House books, and history. I also stand in anticipation of the next book-length biography of Wilder which is due to be released this month.

Articles: “Little House, Big Lessons” is actually a conference paper presented by historian Pamela Riney-Kehrberg at an agricultural history conference this fall in Belgium. Pam and I have known each other since I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa in the late 1990s and she was teaching at Illinois State University. She now teaches at Iowa State, one of the flagship schools for the study of rural and agricultural history. We see each other every couple of years at a conference. She reached out to me last summer for help with how Europeans responded to the Little House books; I was able to connect her with several Wilder scholars who provided a lot of leads. The paper is both about European reception of the Little House books and what they teach about everyday life in late-nineteenth century American rural areas. She concludes that the books are useful in enabling students to better understand “the environment of the American Great Plains, and the complexities of gender ideals versus gender realities.” Fascinating stuff.

The second article was “Re-examining the American Pioneer Spirit: The Extended Family of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” It was published in the Wisconsin Magazine of History last March and uses materials at the Wisconsin Historical Society to fill in some information about the families of Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner, Laura’s parents. It’s pretty interesting. I fed some biographical information from this article into the timeline of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life that I am constructing for the book project.

I also read “American Indians in the Fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by John Miller. I had previously read the three books that Miller has written about Wilder (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane), but I had never read this article, published in South Dakota History in 2000. Miller provides a nuanced consideration of the depiction of Native Peoples in the Little House books and Wilder’s other published work. Clearly there are multiple voices in the books: Ma and others are very anti-Indian, but Pa and Laura are not unremittingly so. Pa respects the Native Americans that he encounters, but assumes that they will be moving on so that whites can have their land. Laura is more like Pa than Ma, and Laura identifies with Indians at times. Miller argues that Americans in 2000 might see the depictions of Native Peoples in the books as problematic, but that Wilder’s views were probably more open than those of most others who lived in the Ozarks during the 1920s and 1930s. I know that I will have to engage this issue in some way in my biography of Wilder.

Finally, I was able to read “Homesteading Remembered: A Sesquicentennial Perspective” by Brian Cannon, published in Agricultural History in 2013. 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, and Cannon investigates how homesteading was depicted in popular culture—both books and movies—during the twentieth century. Major literary works examined include the last three Little House books, Rose Wilder Lane’s Free Land, Elinore Stewart’s Letters of a Woman Homesteader, and O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. The article engages movies from The Homesteader in 1919 to Shane in 1953, Heartland in 1979, and Far and Away in 1992. Cannon points out that “The most pointed criticism of the government’s administration of homesteading in these works is actually the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Without exception these works valorize the homesteaders’ tenacity, work ethic, and family values. Only one, Giants in the Earth, seriously questions the prudence of homestaders’ decisions although many show the travails of homesteading.” He concludes that scholars’ assessment of homesteading have rarely been taken up in popular culture, and that some works reveal more about the time that they were produced than the time that they depict.

Anticipation: Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is set to be released on November 21. Advance copies have been reviewed by major library outlets, and there are already 10 customer reviews on Amazon.com. At 640 pages, it promises to be a nearly comprehensive biography setting Wilder’s life and writings in historical context. I hope to get a copy as soon as it’s released.

Thanks for reading.

Links:

My Almost Pioneers blog

Almost Pioneers at Globe-Pequot Press

Iowa Women’s Archives 25th Anniversary Celebration

Pamela Riney Kehrberg at Iowa State University

John Miller’s books at Amazon

Caroline Fraser’s website

Religion and American Culture

During the last several weeks I had the opportunity to read Religion and American Culture by George M. Marsden. This will be the third time that I’ve read the book. I read it while I was in graduate school, and then I read it again in cooperation with my department at Trinity Christian College during the summer of 2005. I have found it incredibly insightful every time that I have read it.

Along with Mark Noll, Marsden is a historian of American Christianity and has led the late twentieth century revival of interest in the history of American religion. This is a textbook drawn from secondary sources and his own research, especially in the development of Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism during the 1900s. However, instead just being a history of American Religion or American Christianity, Marsden’s book tries to answer two questions:  1) What does American religion tell us about American culture? and 2) What does American culture tell us about American religion?  If there is a thesis to the book, I think that it is that the United States is both incredibly religious and incredibly secular at the same time. Marsden finds this an incredibly powerful way of engaging the influence that religion has had on American culture and vice versa. He also finds that this reality has caused American history to be different from the history of modern Europe, and that it has created a multitude of ironies in American history itself.

I appreciate Marsden’s emphasis on the dual character of American culture itself, not just Americans. It is easier to admit that some Americans have been more Christian than others. For instance, some Europeans came to America during the 1600s for economic reasons, such as to get land and grow cash crops, while others came for religious reasons, for religious freedom or to set up an ideal Christian community. But Marsden argues that American culture is simultaneously very religious and very secular at just about every point in American history. Some examples:

  • The Constitution is based on a Christian understanding of human nature – that people are sinful and need government, but that since sinners will be the ones governing that government should have built-in limitations. Federalist 51 discusses this at length. But the Constitution itself does not mention God at all, unless one counts the date at the end which includes “in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven.”
  • The development of European transatlantic slavery between the 1400s and 1700s was driven by economic considerations. The emancipation of slaves in northern states after the American Revolution was eased by the fact that their economies were not built on slavery the way that southern states’ economies were. But many Europeans and Americans used Christian arguments for the perpetuation of slavery. Southern culture before the Civil War was deeply Christian and deeply tied to slavery. Abolitionists also used Christian arguments for the elimination of slavery.
  • During the industrialization of the late 1800s, business leaders created and greatly expanded corporations. American jurisprudence treated corporations as persons before the law. But those corporations acted at times in ways that their Christian founders and directors would have found morally unacceptable for an individual.
  • American participation in both World War I and World War II had widespread support from Christians for moral reasons. But during World War II, the United States participated in the firebombing of both German and Japanese population centers, killing tens of thousands of civilian men, women, and children, and then dropped atomic weapons on two Japanese cities.
  • Finally, during the late twentieth century, religious Americans faced a reality where “many Americans are strongly committed to traditional or semitraditional religious and moral values; yet in an era of the vast expansion of government control and regulation, the necessities of public neutrality toward religion seem increasingly to limit areas where distinctive religious views can be freely exercised… Probably the key issue is whether governmental neutrality toward religion will be essentially hostile to all religion by attempting to exclude as much of it as possible from the public sphere, or whether the neutrality will take the form of truly encouraging religious pluralism whenever that is compatible with equity.” (276) Even though Marsden wrote this in 1990, I think that it is incredibly appropriate for today.

I think that Marsden’s formulation – that American culture is simultaneously very Christian and very secular – could be a possible way of viewing aspects of the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. As I wrote in my entries on the Little House books almost two years ago (whoa), the profile of Christianity in the Little House books seems low for a person who was a lifelong church attender. It may help to explain why religious worship is not mentioned in Little House books until Chapter 21 of On the Banks of Plum Creek, the third book of the chronicle of the Ingalls family life. I have wondered if it is because Laura or Rose were thinking about what their audience might want or whether it was how they viewed the world. As readers of this blog know, I’m still working through all of this.

Thanks for listening.

(The page number reference is from George M. Marsden, Religion and American Culture [San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990].)

Links:

Religion and American Culture

Amazon’s George Marsden Page