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

 

 

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A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada

Welcome to September. I just finished my first full week of classes and am looking forward to the long weekend.

I also just finished reading Mark A. Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. It is a textbook for courses in American Church History, published by Eerdmans Publishers in 1992. It traces an enormous number of churches, Christian leaders, and social movements that have shaped Christianity in the United Sates. Noll includes the history of Christianity in Canada so that he can compare the shape that Christianity has taken in the two countries.

Noll was for many years a history professor at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school in the western suburbs of Chicago. Wheaton is both a highly-regarded academic institution and a place where Evangelical Christianity is respected and believed. At the end of his career, Noll taught at Notre Dame. He retired from the University at the end of this year. I met him at a conference several years ago and have heard him speak several times. I should also note that he is one of the co-editors of the Eerdmans series that I am writing for, the Library of Religious Biography.

Since I am a devout Christian, I have long been interested in the history of the Christian Church. However, during graduate school, I decided to specialize in the history of the American West rather than American Church history. I am pretty sure that I read Noll’s book when I was writing my dissertation, because one chapter addressed the depictions of the rural church in Midwestern farm newspapers. But if I did, I can’t find my notes. Reading it now has strengthened my understanding of American church history in multiple ways, several of which clearly contribute to my project on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

First, the book provides a concise and helpful definition and description of Puritanism as it was manifested in New England during the 1600s. Noll describes Puritans as believing that 1) God alone saves, 2) the Bible is the authority for faith and practice, 3) society is a unified whole, so church and civil government work together, and 4) God works through covenants. He concludes that Puritan teachings were “constant for over 150 years: individuals are sinners who need divine salvation; God has provided that salvation by grace, from his mercy alone; saved sinners now have the right and privilege to serve God by following his law.” (46) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ancestors came to Massachusetts as part of the Puritan migration during the 1630s, and the Congregational Churches she was involved with in the upper Midwest were descended from Puritanism. So Noll’s definitions and descriptions provide welcome context.

Second, Noll characterizes the early nineteenth century as an age where Evangelical Protestant Christianity dominated American culture, society, and politics. Revivals in the early 1800s (the Second Great Awakening) caused hundreds of thousands of Americans to become Christians or to become more serious Christians. Reform movements such as abolition, temperance, and the women’s movement were national in scope. During the Civil War, leaders in both the North and South saw their causes as fully supported by the Bible. However, during the period between 1865 and 1920, a great transition occurred in American church history. Challenges from new intellectual movements, immigration, industrialization, urbanization, and commercialization led to a loss of Evangelical Protestant dominance. The Christian church since roughly the 1920s has existed in both a pluralistic and a secularizing context. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s long life (from 1867 to 1957) witnessed these upheavals.

Finally, Noll’s book provides several interesting specific observations about Christian Churches in the American West both before and after the Civil War. Noll describes how during the early nineteenth century, “earnest clergymen, Sunday School workers, and organizers of voluntary agencies (many of them women) cooperated with the settlers to impart the institutions and practices of Christian civilization” to new areas of the west. (223) Later, he provides a more melancholy meditation on life in rural areas:

Whatever their formal religious beliefs, ordinary Americans seemed to retain a generally sober, even Calvinistic, view of humanity, concerned much more with human limitations than with human potential. Ordinary people, in a life made difficult by unexpected death, families separated by vast distances, and the unpredictability of weather and crops, tended toward personal resignation. They were earnest, wary of pretension, and above all pessimistic about human nature. They were less concerned with controlling other people for their own ends than with controlling themselves and their immediate environments. Common people had a vital interest in order and a deep-seated fear of disorder. They dealt with these inner needs, it seems, with efforts to control the self, respond to God’s particular call for salvation, and accept the more general designs of Providence. Most common people worried about controlling themselves in the face of personal guilt, anxieties due to the vicissitudes of love and marriage, the uncertainties of birth, the unknown possibilities of the West, and the ever-present reality of death. These are generalizations that did not apply to many antebellum Americans, but for many others—perhaps even a majority—this vision of life shaped the daily round. (229)

Certain parts of this description seem to fit the mindset of Laura and the Ingalls family well. They certainly confronted their share of family separation, crop unpredictability, and anxieties about life passages. A tone of resignation or stoicism can be seen particularly in The First Four Years, but also in some of her correspondence, and at times in the Little House books themselves.

Finally, the book notes that churches in the West in the late nineteenth century confronted realities that made it impossible for Protestant churches to have the central role they did in the east or in earlier decades. Churches faced religious pluralism from the start, had no government support, and dealt with communities made up of many men without families and with little education. Noll argues that “These conditions… ensured that the role of the churches remained auxiliary rather than central to the new societies.” (328) He concludes:

The Civil War, in other words, marked a fresh opportunity for opening the West to settlement and for introducing Christianity. But conditions in the region combined with the instant pluralism of postbellum faiths to shape a context in which religion never meant the same thing, or perhaps as much, as its most earnest adherents had hoped when they contemplated the chance to fill the West with churches as well as settlers. (328)

These descriptions are applied to the years when Laura was growing up in Minnesota and South Dakota. I’m not sure how well they describe the situation in those states, being closer to the settled Midwest and further from regions characterized by mining booms and busts. But it is a place to start. During the next few months, I plan to read several more academic surveys of American Religious history.

So far this semester I have been successful in leaving my office on Thursday mornings to read and think and write. My wife and I have been reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and it has greatly helped my thinking about how to carve out time for important tasks. I highly recommend it.

I hope that everyone has a great Labor Day break. Thanks for reading.

(Page number references are from Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992].)

End of Summer

Thanks very much to everyone who reached out to me (via email, in person, via Facebook) after I announced two weeks ago that I had received a book contract. You all are the best.

Today all first year students will be moving into the dorms here at Trinity Christian College. There have been some students on campus for the last week or two, including fall athletes, student leaders, and some others. It’s been great to see more students around; they bring life back to a college campus. All the new freshman will be here by this evening. Returning resident students and new transfers arrive by the middle of next week to complete the student body. My daughter moves back to Trinity (she’s a sophomore) this Sunday. Regular courses begin next Wednesday. My three sons start school (two in high school and one in homeschool eighth grade) next Thursday morning. All of this means that the summer is just about over.

It’s been a productive summer:

– I finished my book review of Christine Woodside’s Libertarians on the Prairie for Fides et Historia (the journal of the Conference on Faith and History) in April. (I guess this wasn’t really summer, but I hadn’t mentioned it on the blog before.)

– I finalized my book proposal and sent it off to Eerdmans in May.

– I presented a paper at the Midwest History Conference in Grand Rapids in June.

– I spoke at LauraPalooza in July.

– I received a book contract from Eerdmans and signed it in July.

– Last week I completed a book review of Pioneer Girl Perspectives for The Annals of Iowa.

– This morning I wrote three and a half pages of a possible introduction to the book.

I hope to keep reading for the book project once school starts at least once a week. I got a list of books to read from Mark Noll, one of the editors of the Eerdmans series I’m writing for, about American religious history. I also hope to do more thinking and writing. I will try to keep up the blog as much as I can.

Thanks for following. Best wishes to all who has someone in their home who returns to school during the next several weeks.

Links:

Trinity Christian College

Fides et Historia and the Conference on Faith and History

My Libertarians on the Prairie blog post

My LauraPalooza post

My book contract post

My Pioneer Girl Perspectives post

The Annals of Iowa

Book Contract

It’s August.  The summer has gone by quickly.  Last week I was completely off the grid camping with my family in Western New York.  It was a great time.  Now I’m back and the countdown to the start of classes here at Trinity Christian College—three weeks from yesterday—has started.

I am happy to announce that last month I signed a book contract with Eerdmans Publishers.  The book is tentatively titled “On the Pilgrim Way:” The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The book will be a biography of Wilder that pays particular attention to her faith.  It will appear in Eerdmans’s series The Library of Religious Biography.  I am very thankful to David Bratt and Heath Carter for their efforts and encouragement.

I’ve projected ten chapters, and my current plan is to write two of them each summer between now and 2022.  I can get some work done during the school year, but I imagine that most of my writing will be done during the summer.  Eerdmans has graciously given me that much time to complete the manuscript.

Thanks to everyone who has given me encouragement throughout the project so far.  Now the real work begins…

Links from this post:

Trinity Christian College

Eerdmans Publishers

The Library of Religious Biography

Heath Carter’s Twitter Page: #ReligiousBio

LauraPalooza 2017

Last week I traveled to the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. I attended LauraPalooza 2017, and I visited Mansfield, the town where Laura and Almanzo Wilder spent most of their adult lives.

LauraPalooza is a conference sponsored every other year by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association.* The conference brings together scholars, authors, teachers, librarians, and other who love the Little House books in one location for several days of presentations, networking, and fun. In 2010 and 2012, the conference was held at Minnesota State University in Mankato. In 2015, it was held at South Dakota State University in Brookings. This year, it was held at a hotel in Springfield, Missouri. I met attendees from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and across the United States. I believe that there were somewhere around 130 people in attendance. Some women attended sessions in period clothing, including sunbonnets, calico dresses, and one on Friday in full hoopskirts.

I drove down last Tuesday morning. My plan was to stop in Mansfield to see the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum on my way to Springfield. Unfortunately, the rental car’s one front wheel started making a terrible screeching sound outside of St. Louis. I had to go to the St. Louis airport to return the car and get a different one. This put me several hours behind schedule, so when I reached Mansfield, everything was closed. I ate dinner at Ma and Pa’s Family Style Restaurant and then continued on to Springfield.

The top three presentations on Wednesday:

– Eddie Higgins and Sanne Jakobsen spoke about their research into the Ingalls’s family’s ancestors, including a trip they took to the parish in Skirbeck in eastern England from which Francis and Edmond Ingalls left for America in the late 1620s and early 1630s.

– Emily Anderson engaged the use of the Little House books by individuals from different ethnic groups to make sense of their experiences, including the Hmong who currently make up about a third of the population of Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

– Caroline Fraser addressed the U. S.-Dakota War of 1862, referred to as the “Minnesota Massacre” in Little House on the Prairie.

The top three presentations on Thursday:

– Bill Anderson described the individuals who interacted with Pioneer Girl before it was published and those who helped preserve the stories of Wilder’s life.

– Robynne Miller reported on the lives of the three individuals—Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert—who inspired the character of Nellie Oleson in the Little House books.

– Pamela Smith Hill spoke about Wilder’s experiences in and relationship with the Ozarks, where she (Hill) grew up.

Fry at LauraPalooza 1My presentation was on Friday morning. I was followed by an excellent talk by Kipton and Ethan Smilie about the ways that the Little House books show the formation of social capital in their depictions of late nineteenth century education, and by a fascinating demonstration by Rich Kurz about how he created a scale three-dimensional model of the Ingalls store in DeSmet, South Dakota, from extant pictures.

All in all, it was an eclectic conference. My talk was well-received, I enjoyed talking with many new contacts, and it was good to see a number of old friends, including Bill Anderson, Barb Bousted, Caroline Fraser, Sandra Hume, and Michelle McClellan.

Wilder Home for BlogI left a little early on Friday morning so that I could stop in Mansfield to see the Historic Home and Museum on my way home. I was able to tour both the farmhouse that Laura and Almanzo built between 1894 and the 1910s and the “rock house” that was built by their daughter Rose Wilder Lane for them during the late 1920s. Laura wrote Pioneer Girl and the first several Little House books while living in the rock house between 1828 and 1936. Both of the houses are amazingly well built and well kept. They are also quite small. I guess that’s appropriate for someone famous for writing about Little Houses. I had forgotten that Laura was only four feet, eleven inches tall. Since Wilder was famous when she died in 1957, the farmhouse immediately became a historic home, and almost everything inside it belonged to her and Almanzo. The rock house had been sold and was not reacquired until the late 1900s, but it has been restored. I was hoping to walk the path between the two houses that was used by Wilder and Lane to see each other when they were writing. Unfortunately, I was told that it was flooded.

Rock houseI also looked through the new Museum at the site, which was just finished last year. There is an 8-minute orientation film and a lot of artifacts from Laura and Almanzo’s lives on display. Several are related to my work on Wilder’s faith:

– Laura’s Bible, which she kept “on the table next to her favorite locker.”

– The Ingalls Family Bible

Persuasives to Early Piety by J. G. Pike, a book published by the American Tract Society –this was a gift from Charlotte Holbrook Quiner to her daughter Caroline Quiner Ingalls, or Ma. Ma passed it on to Laura.

– “Laura’s Sunday School Cards” – these are about 1 ½ by 2 inch cards with Bible memory verses from one of the churches in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in 1878. I’m guessing it was the Congregational Church. There are eight pasted on the first page of what looks like a book for them; verses are from First Corinthians, Hosea, Psalms (3), Isaiah (2), and Deuteronomy. There may be more on the following pages; there was no one to open the display case for me to take a look.

– A bread plate that says “Give us this day our daily bread” that was saved from the fire that destroyed Laura and Almanzo’s home in the late 1880s. This was described in The First Four Years.

I am very thankful to my family for allowing be to be gone four days. I was very happy to see them all when I got back Friday night.

Thanks for reading.

Links:

Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum

Ma and Pa’s Family Style Restaurant

Emily Anderson’s Little on Amazon

Walnut Grove Mural Bridges Cultures – about the Hmong in Walnut Grove

Caroline Fraser’s website

Bill Anderson’s website

Robynne Miller’s books on Amazon

Pamela Smith Hill’s website

My blog entry on The First Four Years

*(I recently finished reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I now believe that having hyperlinks in the text of my blog entries encourages people to read poorly. From here on out, all links will appear at the bottom of the page.)

Pioneer Girl Perspectives

At the end of last week, I was able to read the new book of essays from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book was edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, who organized the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls at the end of April. I bought the book at that conference. (All hyperlinks will be at the bottom of this post, with an explanation.)

The book is divided into four sections:

“Working Writers” – This section begins by reprinting the speech Wilder gave at the Detroit Book Fair in 1937. Then Wilder biographer Nancy Fraser links Rose Wilder Lane to the yellow journalism of the early twentieth century to explain Lane’s use of the “Bloody Benders” story in her attempts to get a publisher for Pioneer Girl. Finally, Lane biographer Amy Mattson Lauters reviews the many different types of prose that Rose published.

Beginnings and Misdirections” – Wilder expert William Anderson gives a brief history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript between Wilder’s death in 1957 and its publication in 2014. Literary scholar Michael Patrick Hearn engages how Pioneer Girl and the Little House books were written and compares them to other works of literature. Finally, Noel Silverman, counsel for the Little House Heritage Trust, in an interview with Koupal, provides what he believes are the reasons for the Little House books’ enduring popularity.

Wilder’s Place and time – Historian and Wilder biographer John E. Miller describes the Midwestern context of Wilder’s life and work, comparing it to works by Harvey Dunn, Willa Cather, and Frederick Jackson Turner. Then historian Paula Nelson places Wilder’s views on family, women’s roles, farming, and woman suffrage into historical context.

Enduring Tales and Childhood Myths – Wilder biographer Sallie Ketcham examines the different ways that Little House in the Big Woods displays the characteristics of a fairy tale. Historian Elizabeth Jameson considers how Wilder’s troubled and poverty-ridden childhood, as described in Pioneer Girl, was transformed into the happy childhood of the Little House books. Finally, literature scholar Ann Romines considers possible reasons there are no old people and why nobody dies in the Little House books.

Overall, it’s an excellent book. It’s slightly larger than a normal hardback, and the dust jacket is beautiful. It includes many illustrations from the original Helen Sewell editions of the Little House books, as well as historical photos of Wilder, Lane, and others. Many of the essays fill in gaps of Wilder scholarship or just bring together what we already know in helpful ways.

Like all books of essays, however, some chapters are more insightful than others. All of the authors of the book spoke at the 150-Year Legacy conference, and my blog post on the conference mentions what I found most memorable. After reading their work, I believe that Fraser, Anderson, and the historians (Miller, Nelson, and Armitage) have the strongest essays. Silverman’s observations are also quite helpful.

Two sections of the book provide food for thought for my project on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. First from Miller’s essay:

Wilder kept a list of favorite Bible verses close at hand and sometimes devoted all or part of her Missouri Ruralist column to the need for people to get and treat each other benevolently in a Christian fashion. Although her particular religious beliefs and doctrinal positions cannot be known, we can speculate that her high degree of religiosity placed her in conformity with the conservative religious and political views of the majority of her neighbors. Springfield, the largest city in southwestern Missouri and located just fifty miles west of Mansfield, was a hotbed of old-time religion. Among other things, it became a center of gospel and country music, served as worldwide headquarters for Assemblies of God churches, and housed the regional offices of several other denominations. (p. 155)

So Miller says that her exact beliefs cannot be known. It’s sometimes difficult to be working on a project that Wilder scholars say can’t be done. I guess that I may not be able to pinpoint particular doctrinal positions, but I believe that the available evidence points in some particular directions. I agree that Wilder’s faith was probably influenced by her living in Southwestern Missouri for most of her adult life.

Paula Nelson’s essay makes several observations about Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles, about her church life, and about Wilder’s childhood experience with God:

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life philosophy shines through her columns, no matter the specific topic, and her ideals sprang from her deep Christian faith, learned at her mother’s knee and practiced as a Congregationalist in her earlier life. She and Almanzo became Methodists in Mansfield, where there was no Congregational church, but she recalled a religious experience from her youth in her autobiography. The Ingalls family was in dire straits during their second stay in Minnesota, and the young Wilder was intensely worried. Her bedtime prayers were more fervent than usual, she said, when “gradually I had a feeling of a hovering, encompassing Presence of a Power, comforting and sustaining and thought in surprise ‘That is what men call God!’” Congregationalists required a testimony of religious awakening for full membership in the church in the nineteenth century, and this experience may have been hers. (p. 184)

Wilder’s religious experience in Pioneer Girl is central to any understanding of her faith. I appreciate Nelson’s suggestion that this testimony could have been used to gain full membership in the Congregational church in Missouri or Dakota. I need to track down if there are church records that place when she became a member. Unfortunately, the climax of the story is misquoted here: it’s actually “This is what men call God.” (Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 137, emphasis mine) It’s also important to note that the Wilders attended the Methodist Church in Mansfield but never became members.

Thanks again for sharing the journey with me. Comments are welcome.

(Page numbers are from Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nancy Tystad Koupal, ed. [Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2017].)

Links:

Laura Ingalls Wilder: a 150-Year Legacy Conference Site

My blog entry on the conference

Nancy Fraser’s forthcoming biography of Wilder: Prairie Fires

(Members of my family have been reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It has challenged me to consider whether having the hyperlinks in the text of my blog entries encourages people to read poorly. So I thought I’d see what things looked like if I put all the links at the bottom of the page.)

Libertarians on the Prairie

Now that I have the blog going at a more regular pace, I plan to post again about the books that I read and how much they shed light on my central research question: what is the best way to describe the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder? I actually read a brand new book about Wilder during the spring semester, but never was able to do a blog post about it.

The book is Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books by Christine Woodside. It was published last year by Arcade Books. Woodside is a writer and editor of journals and books about the nature and the wilderness. She lives in Connecticut, not the Midwest, but she has a lifelong fascination with the Little House books. She will be giving the keynote speech at LauraPalooza this July in Springfield.

An article in Politico last fall reveals quite a bit of her argument. Woodside recognizes that one reason for the Little House books’ popularity and staying power is their attractive presentation of American individualism. She argues that Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane was the source of this vision: she “transformed the whole of her mother’s life by removing many parts and changing details where necessary to suit an idealized version of the pioneer story.” (p. xvi) Furthermore, stories in the Little House books “outlined the basic tenets of libertarianism: freedom, property rights, ‘spontaneous order,’ (which means that left alone people make ethical chioices), limited government, and free markets.” (p. xix) Woodside argues that Lane was the one who was responsible for placing libertarian ideas into the fictional lives of the Ingalls family.

To do this, Libertarians on the Prairie traces the process by which the Little House books were written. As readers of this blog know, Wilder wrote first drafts in longhand on lined paper and gave them to Lane. Lane then typed them, editing, making changes, providing plot and narrative structure, and adding dialogue. Wilder reviewed the typed drafts, making additional changes and at times overruling Lane’s alterations. For the first several Little House books, Wilder and Lane lived on the same farm property in Missouri, but for the final five books their residences were distant, so there is correspondence that can be used to track changes. Lane also poured out her thoughts and feelings into diaries and long letters to friends, so that Woodside can narrate the development of her political ideals during the time that the books were written.

The book ends by describing Lane’s connections to other Libertarian leaders. Lane became one of the founders of this movement in political philosophy during the middle of the twentieth century, along with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand. Roger Lea MacBride was Lane’s adoptive grandson and heir; he cast an electoral vote for the Libertarian candidate for President in 1972 and ran for President on the Libertarian ticket in 1976. Rose also donated to Robert LeFevre’s libertarian “Freedom School” north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, which later named a building after her. Charles Koch attended that school during the 1960s; he went on to become co-founder of the Cato Institute and Americans for Prosperity.

Libertarians on the Prairie should succeed in bringing its argument about the Little House books to a popular audience. Previous scholarly books about Rose’s contributions—William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane—and the books’ political ideas—Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture—are longer, denser books. Woodside’s book is much more lively and readable. Furthermore, to my knowledge Libertarians on the Prairie breaks new ground in several areas. The book is the first to link the Little House books and Lane to the Freedom School and thereby to the Koch brothers. Woodside also does a good job considering the impact that keeping the secret of Rose’s contributions to the books may have had on Rose and her relationship with her mother.

However, The Ghost in the Little House and Little House, Long Shadow also provide more nuanced arguments. I think that several of Woodside’s arguments ultimately fail to convince. First, her assertion that Rose did more editing and shaping on the final two books than the earlier ones is disputed by John E. Miller, author of the most scholarly biography of Wilder (<a href="/2016/04/26/becoming-laura-ingalls-wilder/"Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend). That book suggests that Rose did less on those books. While Miller’s work appears in Woodside’s bibliography, it is not engaged in the text.

In addition, while Libertarians on the Prairie is meant to be about both Wilder and Lane, it’s mainly about Lane. Lane’s life drives the narrative, and Lane’s point of view dominates the book. I think this is somewhat understandable since Lane left many more sources. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the book ever seriously considers Wilder’s political ideas; Woodside at times seems to deny that Wilder had political ideas of her own. I also don’t think that the book engages the Wilder’s reasons for writing the books.

Finally, it may be that the libertarian, individualist side of the Little House books is overemphasized in the book. Woodside does at times recognize that there are other things that draw readers to the series, especially the books’ loving descriptions of nature and wilderness which first attracted her. I think that there is also a countercurrent of interdependence running through the books as well.

There is one passage in the book that particularly interested me in terms of Wilder’s faith. It is a description of life at Rocky Ridge Farm in the late 1920s when both Wilder and Lane lived there: “Saturdays and Sundays were like any other days; they seemed to hold no special purpose for either. I see little evidence that they were going to church.” (p. 47) Apparently, Lane mentioned a conversation with Wilder on Easter Sunday, 1928 in a letter Lane wrote to a friend. So on Easter Sunday, Lane was writing a letter and Wilder was reading her mail, and this may mean that Easter Sunday was not treated as particularly special. I emailed Woodside about this passage, and she was very gracious in her reply. This reminds me that I will probably have to do at least some work in Lane’s papers to find what I might turn up about family religious practices while Rose lived with her parents.

At any rate, I think that Libertarians on the Prairie mostly provides new insights about Lane’s life, not about Wilder’s. I think that anyone interested in understanding the collaboration between Wilder and Lane in the writing of the Little House books should probably not read Woodside’s book without also reading Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, which provides an alternative to Woodside’s assertions and a deeper understanding of Wilder and her contributions to the novels.

On the other hand, it is always fascinating to see what different readers bring to and see in the Little House books. I’m glad that I read Woodside’s book, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak in Springfield this summer. And I’m open for comments.

(All page numbers are from Christine Woodside, Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2016.)