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



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.)

“This is What Men Call God”

Greetings. I’ve been working on my paper for the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) Biennial Meeting next week. It is titled “‘This is What Men Call God:’ The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I sent it off to the respondent for our panel last week. I thought I’d give an overview of the paper this week and then report about what happened after the CFH Meeting.

The paper opens with a brief description of the problems confronting someone trying to consider Wilder’s faith: conflicting evidence and the role of Rose Wilder Lane. The conflict is mainly that there is evidence that she believed in Christianity, but 1) there are negative depictions of the church and Christianity in the Little House books and 2) Wilder never formally became a member of a church. Then there is the question of what in the Little House books was written by Wilder and what was contributed by Lane.

I then describe what I found when I looked at the manuscripts of the early Little House books. Basically, it appears that Wilder wrote a pretty straightforward and conventional description of the church and Christianity. Rose took what Wilder wrote and made it more direct, engaging, and memorable, but she also complicated the simple descriptions Wilder wrote. For more, see my blog entry on the Manuscripts.

Finally, I consider several things that I believe that we can say about Wilder’s faith from all of the works Wilder wrote. First, she seems to have been a believer in God, His word, and His work in the world. Both Pioneer Girl and By the Shores of Silver Lake describe an experience with God. The title of the paper comes from the Pioneer Girl account. Her Missouri Ruralist articles give much evidence of her Biblical worldview. However, her Christianity emphasized moral action in the world and love for one’s neighbor. She very rarely mentioned sin and salvation, and almost never mentioned Jesus Christ. Second, there is good evidence that she participated in the most important Christian practices: Bible reading, prayer, and Sunday worship. Finally, she was active in the Congregationalist Church as a child and young adult in Minnesota and Dakota. She attended the Methodist Church in Missouri for most of her adult life. But there is no evidence that she ever formally became a member of any church.

I’m hoping that those who come to the session will help me with several questions. First, what historical contexts should I be trying to fit this in? Congregationalism? Women’s history? Rural religion? Second, who should I think about in terms of audience. Academics have not been all that interested in Wilder, but there seems to be a large number of people in the general public who read and love Wilder and her works, and they buy books.

We’ll see what people think. Thanks for reading.

“I Remember Laura”

Last week, when I would normally have tried to read a Laura Ingalls Wilder book and write a blog entry, I was working on the draft of my article “The Faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I actually succeeded in writing an additional seven pages (I now have twenty-one pages written.) I’m hoping to finish the article next week so that I can circulate it to some of my colleagues here at Trinity Christian College. We have a reading group of scholars from several disciplines—history, English, music history, theology—who read each other’s work and share comments and suggestions.

This week, I was able to work through I Remember Laura”: Laura Ingalls Wilder, a book edited by Stephen W. Hines and published in 1994. The book’s dust jacket has this additional subtitle (though the title page does not): “America’s favorite storyteller as remembered by her family, friends, and neighbors.” The book is a collection of a number of different types of materials, including some of Wilder’s columns from the Missouri Ruralist, some articles in other publications about Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and some first-hand reminiscences gathered by Hines from people who knew Wilder at the end of her life.

I used the verb “work through” at the beginning of the previous paragraph because there is much material here that is also published in other books. Almost three entire chapters are Missouri Ruralist pieces that I had already read. Other chapters republish articles from a variety of sources that are available elsewhere. There is also much material here that does not bear on Wilder’s faith. For instance, one chapter reproduces recipes from people who knew Wilder.

The unique material the book provides is in Hines’s interviews with people from Mansfield, Missouri who knew Laura, Almanzo, and Rose. Most knew them during the 1940s and 1950s, when the Wilders were in their eighties. In addition, the interviewees were quite advanced in years when Hines met with them during the early 1990s. Still, there is some new information here.

As far as material that bears on Wilder’s faith, there are several new revelations and several that connect to other bits of information I turned up previously. One thing I did not know was that her parents had given her a family Bible when she got married to Almanzo. She gave that Bible to Nava Austin, a friend, before she died:

She gave me her family Bible, the one her mother and father gave her when she and Almanzo were married. The family Bible had clippings and obituaries in it, including one for their boy. I thought Rose was the only child they ever had because Mrs. Wilder herself never mentioned anything about a son.

It was a huge Bible, and there were obituaries for both her mother and father. I’d never seen a Bible like it before, and she had pictures tucked away in it. If I am not mistaken, there was a paper clipping of when she and Almanzo got married. (117-119)

This Bible was never mentioned in either of the books that describe her wedding: Pioneer Girl or These Happy Golden Years. It is also not mentioned in The First Four Years.

“I Remember Laura” also includes an account from Carleton Knight, the pastor of the Methodist Church in Mansfield from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s. He and his wife visited the Wilders at their home a number of times. Almanzo often was working in his workshop or somewhere outside on the farm. Laura would take graham crackers and put powdered sugar icing on them to serve to her guests. Otherwise, the pastor didn’t remember much about their meetings.  However,

One thing I do remember so much is that when she came to church, even in the summer, she nearly always wore a red velvet dress, a dark maroon red, with a lace collar. Her black shoes had a big old silver buckle on them. That was her Sunday outfit. Her hair was beautiful and white and done up in a knot on the back of her head.

By that time she wasn’t terribly active. I never heard anyone say that she taught Sunday school, though she might have done before we came.” (225)

The one bit of information about Wilder’s faith that connects to another book is provided by Iola Jones. Jones spoke of taking Wilder to the Methodist Church for worship services after Almanzo’s death:

Mrs. Wilder had a good sense of humor and lots of wisdom, really; and she put it across in such an interesting way. She had been quite active in her church. In fact, she went to church with me quite a lot, which was a pickup in her activity because before that she hadn’t been going. You see, I don’t think she ever drove, so I think Almanzo’s death kept her in.

She did talk about spiritual things, and we went together to the Methodist Church where she had always gone. I can remember her telling me one time that she had memorized a book of the Bible, but I don’t remember which one. She just didn’t talk about herself a lot.  (136)

 The idea that Wilder had told someone that she had memorized a book of the Bible is striking. This connects to a letter to a Suzanna that I noted in my blog entry on William Anderson’s book, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder: “The whole book of Psalms is a favorite of mine and I can repeat all. Can you?” (Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson [New York: HarperCollins, 2016], 342). Can it be that she told multiple people that she had memorized all 150 Psalms? Fascinating.

It’s late Friday afternoon and I must post this. Thanks for reading.

(All page numbers are from Stephen W. Hines, ed., “I Remember Laura:” Laura Ingalls Wilder [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994].)

Correspondence at the Hoover Library

Earlier this week I posted the first of two entries about the research I did last week at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. This is the second. (I’m feeling pretty good about two posts in the same week; I haven’t done that since January…)

The Rose Wilder Lane Papers at the Hoover Library include six boxes that are categorized the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Series.” These boxes contain correspondence, some typescript drafts of several of the Little House books, the original manuscript of The First Four Years, some clippings, and hardcover copies of the books. I was able to look through all of these materials. What I found most enlightening, however, were the letters in the collection from Laura to Rose. Many of these are reproduced in The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson. However, some are not included. I found three that shed light on Wilder’s faith.

The first is from Wilder to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on August 19, 1937. Actually, it is a series of “character sketches” that Wilder had written roughly twenty years earlier, “when Wilson was president.” Laura had meant to give these notes to her daughter so that Rose could use them in a short story. The letter is reproduced in Selected Letters, but the character sketches are not. Thankfully, the Hoover Library houses them.

The sketches are of Christians who were part of the Mount Zion church in rural Wright County. Uncle Alf Mingus and Brother Frank Ellis were pastors there, and the pillars of the church were Aunt Julie Mingus, Eppie Mingus, Aunt Anne Bradshaw, and “Aunty Pickle” (yes, really). All the families in the church were farmers, including the pastors. They were all good farmers. The women of the church got together to spin and sew and gossip, but the gossip was edifying, not negative. The church community cared for those who were less fortunate, supported formal education and music instruction for their children, and inculcated good morals: “In all the hunt for illicit liquor no still has ever been found in the neighborhood.” The church building was the center of community entertainment. At the end of her descriptions, Wilder draws this contrast: “Not all communities are like the ones I have described. There are three not far away where the churches declined, were allowed to go into decay, and the wholesome life of the community and the value of its property declined with them.” (Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, Box 13, Folder 193)

Wilder’s depictions are of a church that served as the social center of its community, which was a popular idea among many mainline churches in the early twentieth century, because Social Gospel pastors argued that the church should be just that. Wilder’s descriptions are heartfelt. She argues forcefully that an active church community can make a great difference in the life of a rural neighborhood. It’s interesting that she wrote these for Rose, who had rejected the church. Perhaps this was a way to introduce the topic of Christianity into their correspondence.

The second letter is from Laura to Rose on February 20, 1939. Much of this letter is also reproduced in Selected Letters (192-193). About a page and a half is not reproduced. The excised material is the revelation that several of Laura and Rose’s acquaintances had begun attending the Roman Catholic Church. Wilder is incredulous; she could not understand why they would have done so.  Their decision caused troubles for one of the families, and in fact one member had decided to move to a different part of town. This kind of genteel anti-Catholic sentiment was also widespread among Protestants during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it’s not surprising that Wilder was susceptible to it. I don’t believe that this is a breakthrough discovery, but it is another reference point for constructing Wilder’s adult religious beliefs.

The final letter is one Laura wrote a month after the previous one. It was written on March 17, 1939, and it appears on pages 193-196 in Selected Letters. However, there is a section of news about women in the Mansfield community that was omitted from the book. It contains this account concerning the Methodist church:

          The leaders in the Methodist Aid have told Mrs. Hoover that they don’t need her help any more when they serve dinners. Mrs. Davis said Mrs. Hoover was heart broken over it because she always had helped. “But you know she is 74 years old and not much help any more.”

          A picture of me two years from now! I told the bunch talking about it that Mrs. H. ought to have done as I did – ‘quit while the quitting was good’ and Mrs. Craig said, ‘You and me both.” (Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, Box 13, Folder 195)

I’m working to fit all of this in with what I’ve already put together about Wilder’s faith in previous posts. It seems that she was a committed Protestant Congregationalist, but willing to worship in a Methodist church when a Congregationalist church was not available. She was not a Presbyterian, as multiple times she criticized predestination and strict Sabbath-keeping. She worshiped regularly at the church in her community, but it appears not so much when she was out of town. Her faith was important to her, but she also was pretty private about it. Her expression of Christianity in her Missouri Ruralist articles tended towards moral injunctions, not a celebration of God’s forgiveness through Christ. She had good memories of growing up in the church, though those memories as presented in the Little House books are distorted by her daughter’s influence.

I have a couple more books to read through (including A Little House Sampler and A Little House Reader), and then I need to put together an outline and start writing my paper for the Conference on Faith and History this fall. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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

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.)