In my last post, I looked behind the curtain to bust the myth of the mid-19th-century “independent pioneer” during the western expansion of the US. Today I uncover the myth of the lonely autobiographer, who delves deep into memories to provide historical insight for us mere readers. All thanks to Caroline Fraser’s book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I was young, no more than about 9 or 10, when I first read Wilder’s Little House series, and I can remember loving every book, finding it easy to imagine what Laura’s childhood had been like. Call this my unsophisticated phase as a reader. I never doubted the truth value of any sentence, never wondered how the events of nearly every book fell neatly and conveniently into a single year, never suspected Laura of wanting or needing help while creating the series. After all, who could have helped her write about her own life?
[I pause here to note the irony of how these two myths — the independent pioneer and the lonely writer — are essentially the same.]
I can happily say that, in various readings over the next 40 years or so, I began to recognize how Laura crafted dozens of memories into novels with dramatic highs and lows. In Farmer Boy, based on stories her husband had shared with her, Laura plotted events that no doubt occurred over several years into a neat coming-of-age tale. So what if Almanzo’s milk-fed pumpkin hadn’t won first prize at the state fair in the same year that he trained his own pair of oxen to pull logs through deep snow? Each of the episodes show the boy learning an important lesson such as honesty or perseverance, loyalty or patriotism. These lessons help us understand him as an adult trying to prosper on the prairie, making the novel fit neatly into the larger portrait of an era.
Then bigger cracks started to appear. I can remember learning in the early 2000s that Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane (herself a journalist and author) had provided initial encouragement — the necessary prod to do something with the pages of notes Laura had written after her father’s death. Laura’s “autobiography”, written on yellow tablet paper, was published just a few years ago, complete with scholarly annotations, maps, photographs, a 9-page bibliography, and a 20-page index. Careful reading shows a much closer link between Laura as author and Rose as editor, but I was caught up in the maps and photos and let this other detail slide by.
But now Fraser has forced the cracks wide open in Prairie Fires, showing the extent to which Rose went beyond encouragement, very likely writing (by my very rough estimate) at least as much as 40% of each book.*
There are two things about this that make me sad. One is that Laura, whom I had long admired as a great writer, needed help from her daughter — not just the encouragement of “Oooh, that’s good” or “I want to know more about how you ….”, but everything from shaping plots and adding dramatic elements to correcting her spelling and punctuation. Here’s an example: that death-defying ride that Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland made, in The Long Winter, to find wheat for the starving residents of De Smet. Laura’s original version has the two young men returning well ahead of the next blizzard, but in the novel, the night and blinding snow crash down just as they spot a light in the distance, arriving safely back in De Smet only by sheer luck and determination. That’s Rose’s doing.
Rose preferred a “cracking yarn,” and she provided these throughout. Knowing the truth about Almanzo’s and Cap’s search for the wheat lessens neither their bravery, nor the desperate hunger of the townspeople. As Picasso wrote, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” But my admiration for Laura’s skills as a writer is lessened. She wanted to honor her parents in her autobiography, but no publisher would take her work until Rose had added drama and, I hate to say it, emotion. The Pa in Laura’s autobiography is recognizable, but only in the books, after Rose has put her oar in, does he become the restless man who wants to keep moving westward. According to Fraser, Rose suggested adding the lyrics of Pa’s many songs, and these are as much a part of the scenery as the open skies and prairie grasses. I can’t imagine the books without them.
The second matter is more distressing, and I suppose this is because I hate learning that people I admire hold beliefs that I find despicable. Rose Wilder Lane, early libertarian and acolyte of Ayn Rand, used her mother’s books to promulgate her own political beliefs, and Laura didn’t mind at all. Fraser doesn’t make clear how much Rose may have influenced her mother’s own politics, but it is clear that Laura and Rose convinced themselves that the Ingalls and Wilder families had made it “on their own”.
Knowing Laura’s and Rose’s libertarian leanings has given me something new to note as I reread the series. Certain scenes are now uncomfortable to read, with Rose’s political agenda front and center, for anyone paying attention. In Farmer Boy, after an Independence Day celebration, Almanzo asks his father how farmers could have made the US, when everyone knows it was the people who fought during the Revolution. His father explains:
“We fought for Independence, son,” Father said. “But all the land our forefathers had was a strip of country, here between the mountains and the ocean. All the way from here west was Indian country, and Spanish and French and English country. It was farmers that took all that country and made it America…. The Spanish were soldiers, and high-and-mighty gentlemen that only wanted gold. And the French were fur-traders, wanting to make quick money. And England was busy fighting wars. But we were farmers, son; we wanted the land. It was farmers that went over the mountains, and cleared the land, and settled it, and farmed it, and hung on to their farms.” (pp. 188-189)
No recognition of the native populations who lived on the land, no recognition of the government’s role in clearing these native populations to make room for the white settlers, no recognition of the trains and forts and schools paid for by federal tax dollars. As Rose typed up her mother’s manuscripts before sending them to the publisher, she tinkered and tweaked and shifted things around. (Fraser reports that Laura’s editor, who didn’t know of Rose’s contributions, was amazed at how good the manuscripts were, claiming that only E. B. White had needed less editing.)
In an Epilogue, Fraser partially answers my concerns: “The books endure. The Little House world belongs to the readers.” And later,
[Laura’s voice] speaks not about policy or politics but about her parents, her sisters, her husband, and her love for them. It speaks of her delight in nature, those glorious moments on untouched open prairies, watching the geese fly overhead.
Laura’s voice, without Rose’s tinkering, is certainly there in the descriptions of the wide-open prairies; the holidays with cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents; the everyday tasks of churning, washing, cleaning, and cooking. Rose added energy, but I think the sweetness is all Laura’s.
Judith Thurman, in a 2009 article in The New Yorker, (“Wilder Women”, August 10 & 17, 2009; https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/08/10/wilder-women) refers to a 1993 study by William Holtz, who posits that Rose was Laura’s “ghost writer” (The Ghost in the Little House, University of Missouri Press).