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.)

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy

Well, it’s May. It’s somewhat embarrassing that I haven’t posted anything since the middle of March. I could give some excuses. I could describe how in the last two months I’ve traveled to Pennsylvania (twice), Wisconsin, and South Dakota. But instead, I will try to make up for my lack of action by posting to the blog several times this week and next. (It’s finals week here at Trinity Christian College, so I have high hopes.) This post will report on the conference I attended in South Dakota at the end of last week. Lord-willing I will next put up a final report on the Honors Seminar I taught this term, and then an update on where the project is.

Last Friday and Saturday, the South Dakota State Historical Society (SDSHS) hosted the Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy conference in Sioux Falls. It was an incredibly good event. I think that there were over 200 people in attendance. The SDSHS Press published Wilder’s previously unpublished memoir Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography several years ago. It was a beautiful book, and as I mentioned in my blog entry on the book, it became a surprise best-seller.  The Press has followed up that volume with a book of essays released this year titled Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. The conference speakers had all written an essay in that book. Nancy Tystad Koupal, the director of the Press and editor of the book presided over the conference. Pioneer Girl Perspectives will not be available to the public until the end of May, but it was for sale at the conference. I sold two copies of my last book, Almost Pioneers, so I was able to buy a copy.

As far as the presentations went, there were several that were especially insightful. One was by Caroline Fraser, who edited the two-volume Library of America edition of the Little House books and who has a new biography of Wilder coming out in November: Prairie Fires: The Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fraser placed Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane’s career in context of Yellow Journalism during the early 20th century, where “fake news” was used to attract readers. Fraser uses that context to explain why Lane included the story of the “bloody Benders” in some of the manuscripts of Pioneer Girl, and why Wilder mentioned them in her Detroit Book Fair Speech. Bill Anderson’s talk about what happened to the Pioneer Girl manuscripts between 1957 and the 1970s had some great stories and filled in many gaps in my knowledge of the manuscripts. And Sallie Ketcham described some ways that the Little House books, and especially Little House in the Big Woods, have characteristics of fairy tales.

Several historians presented, and they were excellent. Paula Nelson mined Wilder’s Missouri Ruralist articles to describe Wilder’s relationship to her time, especially Wilder’s ideas about women’s suffrage. Wilder’s pioneering was physical and geographical; she was not a pathbreaking feminist. Her ideas were shaped by the nineteenth century, and she believed in family, church, authority, self-control, and tradition. John Miller uncovered ways that Wilder was a Midwestern girl. Finally, Elizabeth Jameson outlined some of the reasons why the Little House books may be excellent literature, but they’re not representative of childhood on the late nineteenth century frontier. Wilder’s actual experiences, as outlined in Pioneer Girl, were in many ways not happy. She worked for wages to support the family, often had to live away from home, and was nearly sexually assaulted. But Wilder transformed her experiences into the happy childhood presented in the Little House books, and that may mislead people as they think about families in the past. I believe that it is important to have novels like the Little House books that put forth ideals of love and support for families to emulate. But I do understand Jameson’s critique. I would also feel better if Wilder and Lane had not told many people that the books described exactly what happened.

In addition to presentations, there were also panels of authors who discussed major controversies concerning Pioneer Girl and the Little House books. These included the roles of Wilder and Lane in their composition, and the political ideas presented in them. The panelists agreed that Lane acted as an editor and an agent for the books, but not as a ghostwriter. There was disagreement over whether Lane should be called a collaborator. Fraser and Miller argued that she was a collaborator, Koupal and Michael Patrick Hearn (a children’s literature scholar) asserted that she was not. The consensus about political ideas is that while there are some libertarian ideas in the Little House books (watch for a blog post about Christine Woodside’s Libertarians on the Prairie in a week or two), some arguments about the books’ political nature are overblown.

The conference was also great for networking. I was fortunate to meet Jameson (I had read two books she edited on women in the west when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa), Fraser, and Koupal for the first time. I also really enjoyed catching up with friends who attended, including Anderson, Miller, Nelson (she and I both had Malcolm Rohrbough as our dissertation advisor at Iowa), and Michelle McClellan, who teaches at the University of Michigan and is working on a book about the Little House historical sites. I also saw Sarah Uthoff from Trundlebed Tales, who live tweeted the conference (see her day 1 and day 2 compilations), and Sandra Hume from Little House Travel and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association (organizers of LauraPalooza – more on this in later blog entries). I also spoke briefly with Jon Lauck, who started the Midwestern History Association several years ago. It was also neat to talk to some women who just love the Little House books, especially Kasey and Alice, who bought the copies of Almost Pioneers.

All in all, this conference has given me new energy for getting back to work on the Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. So Lord-willing there will be more material on the blog in the near future. Thanks for reading.