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The complicated legacy of American author and pioneer Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Time has tarnished the reputation of best-selling American author Laura Ingalls Wilder but, writes 2018 Katherine Mansfield Fellow Paula Morris, her legacy is undiminished.

In June last year, the American Library Association decided to remove the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from its award for lifetime achievement. The award, which had been known as the Wilder Medal, recognises “a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature” and Wilder was its first recipient, in 1954, when she was 87 years old and one of the most celebrated children’s writers in the world.

By the mid 1950s, her Little House books, a semi-autobiographical series based on her pioneer childhood, had sold around a million copies and been translated into many languages. Today, 60 years after Wilder’s death, that figure is many millions of books and more than 40 languages, and the phrase “Little House” is a registered trademark of HarperCollins.

In announcing its decision, the library association said Wilder’s works “reflect dated cultural attitudes toward indigenous people and people of colour that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities”. The Wilder Medal would be renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

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But charges of racism against Wilder were already circulating in the 1950s, as Caroline Fraser details in her compelling, wide-ranging new biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The eight Little House books, accounts of growing up in the 1870s and 1880s in covered wagons and log cabins across the American Midwest, were originally published during the Depression and war years. In 1953, when a new series was prepared with illustrations by Garth Williams – also the designer of the Wilder Medal – readers were raising concerns about specific passages and incidents.

In the opening chapter of Little House on the Prairie, Wilder wrote that in the West “there were no trees … and there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” In 1953, when the books were reissued, the word “people” was changed to “settlers”, and Wilder called it “a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not mean to imply they were not.”

Wilder’s editor also asked her to reconsider the blackface minstrel scene in Little Town on the Prairie. “Do as you think best,” Wilder told her editor, suggesting cutting a song using the word “coons”. Times had changed since her 19th-century childhood, though it seems hypocritical to judge Wilder so harshly when in New Zealand we were happily watching the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show well into the 1970s. 

Laura Ingalls Wilder as a 17-year-old schoolteacher in 1884. Photo/Getty

War in the West

Fraser offers us the bigger picture of Wilder’s life and work – beyond the provincial racism of a white woman born into rural poverty in 1867 – that explores in vivid detail frontier history and geography, the roots of the Civil War, the American philosophy of Manifest Destiny, the rise of the railroad and the closing of the frontier, and the ramifications of political decisions made by Lincoln, Hoover, Theodore Roosevelt and the Dakota leader Little Crow.

Everything is connected, as Fraser makes clear. Against the wishes of Southern politicians, Lincoln signed the first Homestead Act in 1862 to enable farmers to colonise new lands and keep new states slavery-free. Homesteading – filing a claim on “free land” – was the dream of two generations of Wilder’s family, and it took them from Wisconsin to Kansas (then part of “Indian Territory”) and on to Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakota Territory, in search of the American dream of self-sufficiency and prosperity.

But the cost was enormous. Native Americans were dispossessed, their lands overtaken by squatters and burgeoning towns, and hunting grounds were depleted or destroyed. In 1862, around New Ulm, Minnesota, Little Crow led a historic rebellion that lasted several months. As many as 800 white settlers died, and 40,000 fled as refugees north or to other states.

The “Minnesota massacre” was a sensationalist hit with national newspapers; Lincoln’s pardon of hundreds of Dakota prisoners of war drew public outrage. The hangings of 38 Dakota on December 26 in 1862, in front of a baying crowd of thousands, was the largest mass execution in American history. All remaining Dakota were driven from the state – marched west, imprisoned, or killed. Little Crow was shot in the back in 1863 and his scalp was displayed in the state capitol building.

Native Americans were displaced by squatters and settlers. Photo/Getty Images

In 1862, Wilder’s parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, were newlyweds living in Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of white refugees fled, and terror of another uprising created state-wide panic. This is the context for the racism of Wilder’s mother’s (“Ma hated Indians” we’re told in more than one Little House book) and comments from white neighbours that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian”. In Little House on the Prairie, the character Mrs Scott says: “I can’t forget the Minnesota massacre.” With this line, Fraser contends, “the novel has continued to keep before the public, perhaps more than any other single work, one of the most haunting chapters of the Plains Indian wars”.

By the time Wilder was writing that book, in the 1930s, the settler land boom had led to the destruction of the grassy plains stretching west. Unsuitable for Eastern-style farming, the region was beset by drought, windstorms and invading insects and earned the name the Dust Bowl. Fraser calls it “one of the worst man-made ecological disasters of all time” because intensive cultivation by legions of small farmers had caused erosion on a massive scale and “transformed the southern plains into a desert”. In a radio address in 1935, President Franklin D Roosevelt declared the homesteading dream over.

Wilder and her husband Almanzo, driven from Dakota Territory after years of drought and crop failures during the depression years of the 1890s, had seen the rise and fall of the pioneer dream. “I had seen the whole frontier,” she said in a speech in Detroit in 1937, the only major public address she ever gave, “the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of railroads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading … [In] my own life I represented a whole period of American history.” The Wilders had ended up in Mansfield, in southern Missouri, today one of the poorest towns in the US. After years of a hardscrabble life they owned a small farm called Rocky Ridge and a house of their own; they were self-sufficient, not wealthy, until the success of the Little House series.

Laura’s parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls. Photo/Supplied

What lies beneath

Conflict and loss, hubris and ignorance, economic crashes and natural disasters: all this simmers beneath the Little House stories of the plucky Ingalls family living in shanties, surviving blizzards and listening to Pa play the fiddle by firelight. Even more deeply hidden: the fractious relationship between Wilder and her only surviving child, Rose Wilder Lane, a writing partnership that propelled the books into being.

Lane, obscure now apart from her association with her mother’s Little House books, is unknown to the millions of children who read the series, and respected only by extreme libertarians for whom she became a political mentor in her old age. But she stalks all accounts of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In Fraser’s telling, Lane was a self-destructive bully, subject to long periods of depression and rage, and, in politically extreme old age, flirting with fascism. Unlike Wilder, Lane had no nostalgia for her barefoot childhood: she recalled only humiliation and despair, and felt excluded from her parents’ close relationship.

Fraser presents Lane as accomplished as a writer and editor but with nothing like the natural writing talent or imaginative lyricism of her mother. She dismisses the argument advanced by Lane’s biographer, William Holtz, that Wilder’s daughter was the “ghost in the Little House” and the true writer of the series. Certainly, by 1930, when Wilder finished the manuscript for her memoir, Pioneer Girl, her chief experience as a writer was her folksy columns for the Missouri Ruralist. Lane was a middle-aged professional with extensive contacts in the New York publishing world. She’d made a living as a hack writer of serialised stories, and as the author of slapdash celebrity biographies – of Jack London and Charlie Chaplin, among others – who had no scruples about fictionalising the truth.

Wilder had written stories and collected family memories before, but her completion of the long Pioneer Girl manuscript was informed by the deaths of Caroline, her mother, and her sister Mary. She hadn’t seen either since Charles Ingalls’ funeral more than two decades earlier. Loss “was the engine that set Wilder’s fiction in motion”, Fraser writes.

Wilder's daughter, Rose, at 19 in 1906. Photo/Supplied

The crash of 1929, in which the Wilders had lost their scant savings, was another catalyst. The financial insecurity of her youth had made Wilder careful with money. She formed the local National Farm Loan Association and served as its secretary and treasurer. Her daughter’s response to her own penurious childhood was crash-and-burn. Lane borrowed, spent and dispensed money in lavish quantities, planning grand houses, plotting great fortunes, and hectoring her mother to earn money from writing rather than farming.

Though she warned Wilder that there was “no opportunity to make a name with children’s stories”, Lane took it on herself to “train” her mother “as a writer for the big market”. In 1930, this meant taking the Pioneer Girl manuscript and inserting the story of the Bloody Benders, a notorious family of serial killers who’d lived in Kansas around 1870 in “glancing proximity” to the Ingalls family. It was, Fraser observes, “as if Louisa May Alcott had decided to drop Jack the Ripper into the domestic circle of Little Women”. This early intrusion, she writes, set the stage for a clash between mother and daughter over the next decade. More and more, their literary collaboration would become a competition between highly varied styles: Wilder’s plain, unadorned, fact-based approach versus Lane’s polished, dramatic, and fictionalised one. In Wilder’s autobiographical work, “truth” would become a battlefield.

Pioneer Girl was turned down by New York publishers, and Lane was desperate. She’d lost all her savings after the 1929 crash and was doing no writing herself. (“Expenses far more than I can carry and I cannot work”, she wrote in her diary.) Marion Fiery, the pioneering children’s editor at Knopf, wrote to Wilder expressing interest in the stories of her early childhood in Wisconsin, but, hobbled by the financial crisis, Knopf closed its children department. The manuscript resurfaced at Harper & Brothers, attracting the attention of the legendary Virginia Kirkus. In 1932, the stories of Wilder’s early childhood were published as Little House in the Big Woods, the first in a series of eight books published over 11 years to increasing acclaim.

Laura with Almanzo Wilder, Florida, 1892. Photo/Supplied

Corrupted legacy

Whatever Lane’s lack of faith in children’s stories – “that little juvenile”, she called the book, in a letter to her agent – she spent a week editing and retyping the manuscript. This role, as editor and “polisher”, was one she maintained for much of the series, “paring away grimmer incidents” from Wilder’s past and “seeking to impose a narrative arc” onto each book. (“All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth,” Wilder said in her Detroit address.)

Meanwhile, Lane was writing her own novels, based on exactly the same material: the protagonists of Let the Hurricane Roar, published in 1933, are Caroline and Charles, homesteaders in the Dakota Territory. Fraser questions why Lane chose “to trespass on her mother’s sacred ground” at the precise time Wilder was shaping her life story into books.

In that light, Lane’s theft appears all the more transgressive, an expression of raw rivalry and jealousy. For both women, it was yet another outbreak of the consuming fires – abandonment, blame, and disappointment – that had been burning through their lives since their earliest days together.

Lane compared her novel to Little Women, but, Fraser contends, it “carried the unconvincing air of something heard second-hand” and describes its overwrought language as “the stuff of commercial magazine fare”. Like all Lane’s fiction, it has not endured. Wilder was dismissive of the novel, annoyed by Lane’s incursions into her own material, but their collaboration continued – even while Lane planned her own (never realised) multi-novel series, epic and cross-continental in scale, about Americans of all classes.

The mother and daughter’s “editorially incestuous” relationship had dire consequences, Fraser believes, for their personal relationship. When Wilder considered writing an “adult” novel – the manuscript was published many years later as The First Four Years – Lane counselled against it. There was “much more money in juveniles”, Lane told her, contradicting her own earlier advice.

Lane herself was working on an adult novel, Free Land, another “homesteading soap opera” this time based on the early years of her parents’ marriage. Fraser characterises this novel – Lane’s last – as political propaganda, more concerned with ideology than in exploring the litany of failures experienced by her parents. It lacked the heart of her mother’s work. “Exile propelled the powerful emotional undercurrent of the Little House books,” Fraser writes, “an intensely felt nostalgia for people and places lost to her.” The corrupted legacy of the series – royalties diverted to a libertarian politician Wilder never met; a TV series that drew plotlines from Bonanza; last year’s racism accusations – don’t detract from the impact of the books, their quiet pleasures, their historical resonance.

PRAIRIE FIRES: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser (Metropolitan Books, $40.95)

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.