Commentary Magazine


Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder by John E. Miller

Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend
by John E. Miller
Missouri. 306 pp. $29.95

Perhaps it is impossible to assess children’s authors with any precision. Literary taste gets tangled up with childhood memories. The simplicity of the genre tempts us both to overpraise its purity and to overmock its feeble-mindedness. Critical judgment invariably fails to bridge the gap between the adult who is reading for the second time and the child who is reading for the first.

Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), the chronicler of pioneer girlhood, seems to have suffered especially from this general difficulty, for almost no one has managed to take her at her true worth. Publishing her first book at age sixty-five, she produced over the next eleven years eight enormously popular tales of growing up on the Western frontier, from Little House in the Big Woods in 1932 to These Happy Golden Years in 1943. But the cult that almost immediately began to form around her—making shrines of her parents’ clapboard house in De Smet, South Dakota, and her own farm in Mansfield, Missouri—valued her too much and for the wrong reasons, at once mistaking her easy sentimentality for deep feeling and her complex fictional techniques for artless autobiography.

The worst fate she has had to undergo at the hands of admirers may be the simpering television version of Little House on the Prairie, a series starring Michael Landon that ran on NBC from 1974 to 1982 and pared her stories to their sappiest and most inane for the video generation. But her more recent celebration by feminist writers has hardly improved matters. Simultaneously blaming Wilder for accepting the evils of frontier patriarchy and lauding her for demonstrating the self-reliance of frontier matriarchy, studies like Ann Romines’s Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder have served mostly to reduce her fiction to social criticism.

On the other side, a severe blow to the reputation of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a writer came in 1993 with the publication of William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House, a biography of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Fleeing her parents’ farm at an early age for the excitements of the city, Rose became a fascinating minor figure in the literary and journalistic worlds of San Francisco and New York. She tried her hand at ghostwriting for the likes of Herbert Hoover and Lowell Thomas, made a stab at travel writing with newspaper features and books about Albania or bouncing across Europe in the early days of automobile travel, and even published some fiction. In the 1940′s, she began to write wild-eyed libertarian tracts, out-Randing even her mentor, Ayn Rand, and achieving national publicity with a pamphlet, What Is This—the Gestapo?, written after FBI agents came to question her about a newspaper column she had written criticizing Social Security.

Along the way, whenever her money ran out or she began to suffer one of her many debilitating bouts of depression, Rose would return to the family farm in Missouri. In fact, it was at her daughter’s encouragement that Laura herself began to write newspaper columns for the Mansfield Mirror and the Missouri Ruralist, a bimonthly farm paper. And, according to Holtz, it was with Rose’s strong pushing and sometimes intrusive editing that Laura, between 1930 and 1932, turned a much-rejected first-person memoir for adults called “Pioneer Girl” into an acclaimed series of third-person novels for children. “Everything that makes the Little House books stand up and sing,” Holtz declared, derives from the daughter’s rewriting of her mother’s hopelessly lackluster prose.

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It is in part to rescue Wilder from these various diminishments that her latest biographer, John E. Miller, a historian at South Dakota State University in Brookings, has written Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend. In answer to the cultists and sentimentalists, he emphasizes the actual facts of Wilder’s life—showing, in their very inconsistencies with the account given in her stories, the extent to which the hand of the artist has intruded in her books. In answer to the feminists, Miller poses the kind of facts genuine historians like himself gather—demonstrating, for example, how the harshness of pioneer life derived not from patriarchy but from droughts, floods, and locusts. And in answer to Holtz, he reminds us of the dangers of relying on the journals and letters of Rose—a self-declared manic-depressive whose testimony about her mother is neither fully consistent nor fully trustworthy.

What Miller does not offer, however, is any convincing literary judgment. His biography is worthy, well-researched, judicious—and unhelpful. Though he aims to explain how she “became” the writer Laura Ingalls Wilder in the years between her marriage at eighteen and her publication at sixty-five and on to her death in 1957 at the age of ninety, it is the writer who never really appears in the somewhat superior type of rawboned, stern farmer’s wife and daughter he presents as his subject.

This is unfortunate, for in eight thin volumes of children’s fiction written over eleven years, that elderly farm woman managed to accomplish an astonishing literary feat. The feat itself has something to do with her ability to pull off a set of third-person stories in which the narrating voice matures as the heroine herself grows older—age five in a log cabin in Wisconsin in Little House in the Big Woods, six on the plains of southern Kansas in Little House on the Prairie, eight in a sod dugout in Minnesota in On the Banks of Plum Creek, and eleven to eighteen in the four Dakota volumes: By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years. (The eighth of Wilder’s books, Farmer Boy, tells the story of her husband’s childhood in upstate New York.)

A posthumously published manuscript about her early married life, The First Four Years, suggests in its unimpressiveness that there were real limits to Wilder’s ability to carry that narrative growth into adulthood. But among writers in English, the technique itself has been managed with so high a degree of success only by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield and James Joyce, in conscious imitation of Dickens, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. That is awfully rarefied company for a literary novice.

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One reason for the instant acclaim that greeted Wilder was that her books appeared in the first wave of sentimental memoirs of childhood that dominated the best-seller lists in the 1930′s and 40′s (I Remember Mama, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Life with Father, Cheaper By the Dozen.) But where those books were typically written by thirty-year-olds remembering the 1910′s and 20′s, Wilder was in her sixties and seventies remembering the 1870′s and 80′s. The story she told, moreover, amounted to the mythopoetic linking of a young girl’s growing-up to the uniquely American movement farther and farther west in search of paradise and open land.

“Pa did not like a country so old and worn out that the hunting was poor,” she wrote in By the Shores of Silver Lake. As the Wisconsin woods fill up, the family flees to the open plains of the Indian Territory. When the Army chases them out, they load up the wagon and traipse up to the farmland of Minnesota. When the Norwegian settlers grow too thick and the grasshoppers eat the crops too many years in a row, they head on to Dakota and the land around De Smet and Silver Lake.

As the adult Laura realized, what her father and mother were seeking in all their migration was some little prosperity on land rich enough to be farmed with a family of four daughters and no sons. (A boy, Charles, unmentioned in the novels, died as an infant.) But prosperity never came to her parents—never came, in fact, to anyone in the family before Laura began to write. And by the time the family had settled in South Dakota, the frontier was closing faster than they could keep up with it. When an old neighbor from the Kansas plains drops by on his way to Montana, the teen-aged Laura cries that they should be moving, too. “ ‘I know, little Half-Pint,’ said Pa, and his voice was very kind. ‘You and I want to fly like the birds.’ ”

But the homesteading farmland of the plains had mostly vanished by the 1880′s, and the family had nowhere better to go. Thus, the second and even more important mythopoetic turn that Wilder manages in her books: her linking of the end of childhood to the closing of the American frontier, and the surrender to the harsh adult life of the subsistence, hardscrabble farmer.

An accurate measure of the worth of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a children’s writer would begin with the fact that she somehow, through it all, never became embittered. After the range fires and the flash floods, the crop-destroying plagues of grasshoppers and blackbirds, the starvation winter that kept the trains away for seven months and forced the family at last to eat the grain they had kept for seed, she could still sit down and begin her first and best book:

The great, dark trees of the Big Wood stood all around. . . . As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.

She could still remember America and childhood as Eden.

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