Honors Seminar Review

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been teaching an Honors Seminar this semester on the Little House books. In fact, that course is one of the reasons that I have not had as much time as I would have liked to write for this blog. Teaching a class that I had never taught before required an extra amount of my time to prepare for the class, which met every Tuesday and Thursday. On the other hand, it was a real pleasure to read the books with an extremely sharp group of students.

The title of the course was “The Little House Books in the Twenty-First Century.” Trinity’s Honors program requires that honors students take at least one of these seminars during their college career. The courses are intentionally interdisciplinary; mine was especially investigating the books as both history and as literature. This semester, eight students took the course. Majors represented included Accounting, Art, Biology, Education, History, Nursing, and Math. Students came from Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin. It was a true cross section of Trinity’s Honors program, except for the fact that all of them were young women. This fact is probably not surprising to anyone.

After a brief introduction to the study of history and literature, the class read one of the Little House books every week. During class time, we discussed what we had read. When we were done with all eight books and The First Four Years, we read Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. At the start of the semester, students chose a theme that they were interested in tracing through the books. They journaled about those themes, and reported to the class regularly on what they had observed. At the end of the semester, they wrote research papers that made arguments about how the Little House books and Wilder’s other writings engage those themes.

Last week, the students handed in their final papers and presented their research. The director of Trinity’s Honors Program came to hear the presentations. I couldn’t have been prouder of how the students carried themselves and the conclusions they came to. Here are the topics of the research papers:

– Cultural difference – Argued that the description of non-white cultures (Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants) in the Little House books exhibited characteristics of late-nineteenth century understandings of cultures different than the majority.

– Economics – Argued that while Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane opposed government intervention in the economy, the Little House books themselves described situations that many have used to call for increased government involvement in business.

– Education – Argued that the depiction of education in the Little House books connects hard work and success.

– Family and Survival – Argued that the family was vital to survival on the frontier of the American West, using the analytical categories from an article by sociologist Mary Douglas.

– Family Roles – Argued that the Little House books presented the ideal family as one where all members fulfilled their traditional roles.

– Individualism and Community – Argued that Wilder’s experiences with the communities depicted in the Little House books prepared her for community involvement later in life.

– Love – Argued that all four types of love described in The Four Loves by author C. S. Lewis are represented in the Little House books: family love, friendship, romantic love, and love for God.

– Nature and the Environment – Argued that the environment in the Little House books is depicted either as a setting, focusing on the natural beauty of the Midwest and West, or as an actor, focusing on the unpredictability and destructive force of the natural world.

I have been trying to find out whether it would be possible to publish these essays in some way in order to attract more young people to read the Little House books. Stay tuned.

Finally, at the end of the semester, while the students were working on writing and revising their research papers, we used class time to watch some episodes from the Little House on the Prairie television show. We watched “A Harvest of Friends,” “Country Girls,” and “Town Party-Country Party.” All were from the first season and aired in 1974. I had never watched the TV show before, and I found it somewhat difficult going at times. The pacing is much slower than television today, and the spirit of the show is very different from the Little House books, even when it is portraying events related in the books. It is clearly the vision of Michael Landon and the show’s other directors and producers, not the vision of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I did discover that if I used my computer’s playback software to run the DVD at 1.1x speed, it made the show more watchable for twenty-first century viewers.

During the semester, I also shared what I’ve discovered about Wilder’s faith with the class – that was the theme I was tracing through the works we read. Students were receptive to my observations and kind in their criticisms. They also read and gave me comments on my book proposal (more about this in my next post).

All in all, I greatly appreciated the work that all of the students put into the course. I will miss it very much.

Thanks for reading.


Little House Manuscripts

Last week I promised that I would report on the archival research that I did at the archives of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. Here is the first installment of that report.

One of the reasons that I went to the Hoover Library was to look at a set of microfilm documents that included original manuscripts of several of the Little House books. The microfilm was made by the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri and the State Historical Society of Missouri. The actual documents are held by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association in Mansfield, Missouri. The collection includes Wilder’s original handwritten manuscripts of Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and By the Shores of Silver Lake. It also has later, typescript manuscripts of Pioneer Girl, Little House in the Big Woods, and Little House on the Prairie. I had thought that the collection had some kind of manuscript of all eight of the Little House books, but I was mistaken. However, I was glad to look at what was available.

I’ve worked on two books myself, so I understand how many times a text is revised before it is published. But it still struck me how many different versions there were of each Little House book. This is most clear for On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. It appears that for these books at least, Wilder wrote out two different drafts in longhand on yellow lined paper. Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane then typed a draft, changing the order of some stories and adding structure, pacing, action, and dialogue. Then Wilder read over the drafts and made corrections. At times she argued with Lane about changes. We have the letters Wilder and Lane sent to each other about these books because they were living in different parts of the country (and because Lane did not destroy them – see my post on Selected Letters). As a result, the original manuscript is often extremely different from the final, published versions of the stories.

I was also struck by how much of the material for the completed books, how much of the action and dialogue, actually was the work of Lane. It is clear that the books were a collaboration between mother and daughter, with each contributing what each was best at. Wilder excelled at description and she knew her characters and her audience. Lane provided overall structure, pacing, excitement, and dialogue. My apologies to Pamela Smith Hill, who I think has greatly influenced my understanding of this collaboration; she says something close to this in her biography, but I don’t have time to look it up right now.

I was especially interested in whether the depiction of the church and Christianity changed between the original handwritten manuscripts and later versions. It was my hypothesis that Wilder’s original drafts would have more positive descriptions of church people than eventually appeared in the published versions. I was guessing that Lane would have supplied the more negative comments. What I found supported this hypothesis. I can provide two striking examples, one from Farmer Boy and one from On the Banks of Plum Creek.

In my post on Farmer Boy, I related how God comes into the story of the strange dog who guarded Almanzo’s family’s house from thieves when they had been paid $200 cash for two horses and could not get to town to put it in the bank. Here is Wilder’s original manuscript:

          Father took the money to Mother. They didn’t like to keep $200 in the house overnight, but it was too late to take it to the bank at Malone. Mother put it away in the bureau drawer in her room. She said good Christians ought to feel that God would take care of them, but she’d rather the money were in the bank. (Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, Western Historical Manuscripts Collection C-3633, Folder 11)

This becomes, in the published book, the following exchange:

          “The Lord will take care of us,” Father said.

          “The Lord helps them that help themselves.” Mother replied. “I wish to goodness that money was safe in the bank.” (164)

Then, at the end of the chapter, Mother says the following in Wilder’s original:

          Father shook his head and said, “Well! Well! Well!” But Mother said she would always believe the strange dog had been sent by the Lord to watch over them and that he had kept the robbers away. (Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, Western Historical Manuscripts Collection C-3633, Folder 11)

The published book says the following:

          Mother said she would always believe that Providence had sent the strange dog to watch over them. Almanzo thought perhaps he stayed because Alice fed him.

          “Maybe he was sent to try us,” Mother said. “Maybe the Lord was merciful to us because we were merciful to him.” (167)

Both of the exchanges in the published version are more interesting and engaging since they are dialogue instead of narrative. This directness is one of the things that makes the Little House books memorable. But I believe that the original manuscript better expresses how Wilder understood God and His actions in the lives of His people. It expresses a more settled faith. Mother and Father agree that God is in control, even when they are anxious. They believe that it was God’s providence that sent the dog to be the means of their protection. The addition of the words from Aesop’s fables (which many believe are in the Bible) and the multiple interpretations given by Mother and Almanzo confuse this depiction of God’s work in the world. Lane must have been the source of these changes, and that confusion reminds me of Lane’s experience of religion. She rejected Christianity until late in her life, was drawn towards Islam when she visited the Middle East, and was a pretty confirmed agnostic if not an atheist during the 1930s.

Even more striking are the changes to the description of church in On the Banks of Plum Creek. In my post on that book, I noted that the treatment of her Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Tower, had a bit of a negative edge. Laura’s original draft is much more positive:

          “The lady told them her name was Mrs. Tower and learned all their names. Then she told a Bible story.

          It was one Ma had told Laura and Mary, so they knew it already, but they liked to hear Mrs. Tower tell it…

          After the story Mrs. Tower repeated a verse from the Bible to each little girl in turn and told her to remember it and tell it to her the next Sunday. That would be her Sunday school lesson.

          When Mrs. Tower came to Laura, she said, “My very littlest girl must have a small lesson. It will be just three words, ‘God is love.’ Can you remember that for a whole week?”

          Laura thought she was not so small as Mrs. Tower imagined. Why! She could remember long verses and whole songs. But she wouldn’t hurt Mrs. Tower’s feelings by telling her that so she answered, “Yes, Mam!” (Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, Western Historical Manuscripts Collection C-3633, Folder 22)

This becomes the following exchange in the published book:

          “When the others were settled on the square of benches, the lady said her name was Mrs. Tower, and she asked their names. Then she said, “Now, I’m going to tell you a story!”

          Laura was very pleased. But Mrs. Tower began, “It is all about a little baby, born long ago in Egypt. His name was Moses.”

          So Laura did not listen any more. She knew all about Moses in the bulrushes. Even Carrie knew that….

          [Mrs. Tower gives out Bible memory verses:] When it was Laura’s turn… she said, “My very littlest girl must have a very small lesson. It will be the shortest verse in the Bible!”

          Then Laura knew what it was. But Mrs. Tower’s eyes smiled and she said, “It is just three words!” She said them, and asked, “Now do you think you can remember that for a whole week?”

          Laura was surprised at Mrs. Tower. Why, she remembered long Bible verses and whole songs! But she did not want to hurt Mrs. Tower’s feelings. So she said, “Yes, ma’am.”

          “That’s my little girl!” Mrs. Tower said. But Laura was Ma’s little girl. “I’ll tell you again, to help you remember. Just three words,” said Mrs. Tower. “Now can you say them after me?”

          Laura squirmed.

          “Try,” Mrs. Tower urged her. Laura’s head bowed lower and she whispered the verse.

          “That’s right!” Mrs. Tower said. “Now will you do your best to remember, and tell me next Sunday?”

          Laura nodded. (505-506)

Like the alterations to the text of Farmer Boy, the changes to this account make it much more direct. One can feel what Laura felt. It’s much more effective storytelling. However, the tone of the writing and the feelings conveyed to the reader are completely different in the two versions. In Wilder’s original manuscript, Laura enjoys this new person and likes to hear her tell a story, even though she has heard it already. Later, Laura is a little surprised at Mrs. Tower’s notions, but doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. In the published book, which must be Lane’s retelling, Laura is offended that she would be told such a juvenile story and tormented by Mrs. Tower’s assumptions that she can’t memorize anything longer than several words. Add to this the fact that the shortest verse in the King James Bible (which was undoubtedly what was used) is only two words: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) “God is love” is actually part of a longer verse (I John 4:8) It appears that Lane did not know this, and it also appears that she deliberately avoided including the words “God is love” in the story.

I believe that these examples, and several others that I’ve not given here, show that it was Lane who changed Wilder’s straightforward and positive depictions of Christianity into the more mixed or even negative descriptions found in the published works. It is good to have some confirmation of something that I’ve long suspected.

However, Wilder did read Lane’s changes before they were finalized. She sometimes argued with Lane about keeping things the way she had written them, and at times she prevailed. But in none of the correspondence that I looked at does the depiction of Christianity come up. So it appears that Wilder accepted Lane’s changes. I think we might explain this acceptance in one of several ways. First, Wilder may have seen this as an acceptable shift in tone. Second, Wilder may not liked the changes, but she may have decided to choose her battles with Lane; she left these changes and concentrated on others. Third, Wilder might have objected to the changes in conversations or correspondence that we do not have, but ultimately lost the argument. I think one of the first two explanations is most likely.

The other reason I went to West Branch was to look at the correspondence the Hoover Library has between Wilder and Lane, which I will address in a separate post. Thanks for reading and I appreciate all comments.

(Page number references are from Volume 1 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

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).