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Nov 29, 2017

Big Mistakes about Little House

Skwire sets the record straight about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane.

The recent publication of Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder has led to another spate of critical interest in Wilder’s “Little House” series, a set of nine fictionalized autobiographies about Wilder’s years growing up on the American frontier. The books have been continuously in print since 1932 and inspired the long running Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert television series in the 1970s. Perhaps because of the novels’ endless popularity and their depiction on the small screen, Wilder has come to be treated like a frontier Jane Austen—a spokeswoman for the biases of critics rather than a proponent of her own ideas, and a writer whose work is often criticized as overly romantic by those who have not read it.

The latest such critical misrepresentation of Wilder’s work appears in the New Republic in an essay by Vivian Gornick titled “Little House, Small Government.” Gornick uses the publication of Fraser’s book, which she leaves mostly undiscussed, as an occasion to cursorily read the “Little House” series and to blame Wilder, her family, and the settlers of the American West for the election of Donald Trump.

Wilder’s libertarian leanings are well known. Her daughter and co-author/editor, Rose Wilder Lane, was quite a prominent libertarian—prominent enough to have been cast out of Ayn Rand’s circle for supporting mutual cooperation, a stance that Rand considered a collectivist heresy. Undoubtedly this political background inspired Gornick’s attempt to draw connections between Wilder and today’s Trump supporters.

But Gornick is sorely mistaken. She is not just mistaken in assuming that Wilder would have “almost certainly voted for Trump.” She is mistaken in nearly everything she has to say about Wilder’s novels and their representation of the frontier.

The First Mistake: The Pioneers Weren’t Uncivilized Fools

Gornick’s first mistake lies in her assumptions about the settlers of the American West. She begins by writing that people headed west “in search of a life free from the restraints of the socialized world, to a place where survival depended on the exercise of one’s own wit and strength and backbreaking labor.” Although the second half of that sentence is accurate—survival on the frontier did indeed require wit, strength, and work—the sentence’s opening simply assumes that settlers who headed west did so in search of freedom from social restraints. But Terry Anderson and PJ Hill have effectively argued that settlers of the American West rapidly developed social and legal institutions wherever they went in order to maintain the restraints of civilized life they valued while also protecting the freedom they sought.

We see examples of exactly this sort of creation of institutions and social restraints throughout the “Little House” books. The Ingalls family consistently works to replicate the civilized, socialized world that Gornick claims they are fleeing. They attend church when they can find one. They exchange labor, goods, and charity with neighbors. They provide entertainment and education in their communities—supporting local schools, performing in local theatrical shows, making music with and for new friends, holding dances, and observing Christmas and the Sabbath. The Ingalls children go to school and to religious school whenever there is an opportunity for them to attend, and the whole family becomes involved and invested in the life of every small community they encounter—despite Pa’s restless need to move along whenever a town seems to become too crowded for good game hunting. Perhaps the greatest evidence of this respect for civilization, for those who have read the books attentively, is Ma’s china shepherdess, a real artifact that Wilder used as a literary symbol of the beauties and luxuries of culture. It travels with the Ingalls family to every log cabin and dugout they inhabit.

Gornick also assumes that the settlers weren’t smart enough to separate their reasons for moving to the frontier from the government’s reasons for encouraging them to do so. She writes, “What the people in the covered wagons did not grasp was that to a large extent they were pawns in the hands of political and business interests.” Again, this runs directly counter to the evidence contained in Wilder’s own novels. She carefully records the moments when the family is kicked off one homestead because of broken promises of government support and protection, and just as carefully records the moment—both helpful and humiliating—when they are given a free homestead because the railroad companies need the territory to be settled. Wilder’s family and other settlers like them grasped their status as pawns more viscerally than anyone.

Gornick implies, more than once, that the settlers of the West had no consideration for the Native Americans who they displaced. While I want to be careful not to overstate Wilder’s sympathy for the Native Americans—her novels are not remotely 21st century in their approach to other cultures—there are several scenes in Wilder’s novel where Pa is shown trying to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers to communicate with the nearby Native Americans, objecting to the expression “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and critically discussing the government displacement of Native Americans from their lands. And it is her younger self whom Wilder depicts as asking whether white settlers moving into the territory won’t “make the Indians mad.” The topic would be a heavy one for a children’s book to explore in depth, but such moments at least imply that the Ingalls family were not at ease with what was done to Native Americans in the service of white settlement of the West.

But perhaps the greatest disservice Gornick’s does to the settlers is her assertion that they headed West with “no hard knowledge of what actually lay before them” and were thus taken completely by surprise by the “undreamt of horrors that were routine on the frontier: Indians who threatened, locusts that devoured, blizzards that blinded, crops that failed.” Much to the contrary, the Ingalls family seems to have been well-armed with knowledge and skills that allowed them to survive such horrors when others would have died or gone mad. Indeed, the Ingalls show contempt (and sympathy) for a family of “tenderfeet” they encounter who have overloaded their wagon and had their horses stolen because they neglected to bring a dog to guard them and because they tied their horses with rope rather than with chain. Such ignorance and poor preparation offends Pa, who argues that they, “Shouldn’t be allowed loose west of the Mississippi” before calling in some soldiers from a nearby town to help them.

Gornick’s depiction of settlers in general and of the Ingalls family in particular runs completely counter to the evidence in Wilder’s books and in the historical record.

The Second Mistake: The “Little House” Series is Not Romantic

While the courtship of Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder in These Happy Golden Years was a crucial factor in forming my earliest understandings of romance, Gornick’s insistence that Wilder’s “Little House” novels are too romantic has nothing to do with Wilder’s accounts of hand-holding buggy rides. She is, instead, referring to what she characterizes as the “rose-colored memories” and the “romantic view” of the “dubious glory of the frontier America that Wilder so passionately celebrated.”

Wilder does indeed love the frontier. She is sensitive to the stark beauties of plains landscapes, the coziness of small houses and small families surrounded by empty space and threatening weather, and the relief of luxuries after deprivation. Her books are full of detailed accounts of frontier celebrations, handmade gifts, and the exotic joys of rare trips into town, or mail from “back East.” Gornick is right to be entranced by the “extraordinary vividness” of the books’ descriptions and to be charmed by the “stir and liveliness” of the details of frontier life. That is why the books have endured. But she is wrong to see that great affection for frontier life as starry-eyed dismissal of its horrors.

Wilder’s novels recount fires, droughts, and blizzards. Crops are destroyed by grasshoppers. Chimneys catch fire. Bears, panthers, and wolves are common threats. Pa often is gone for days at a time as he travels into town to trade furs for goods. Every time he does so, he faces the choice of leaving his wife and daughters without a gun to protect themselves against wild animals or of spending days hiking in the woods without a gun for himself. Every time he leaves, the family knows he might not return. While the novels handle such topics gently—they are written for children after all—they do not pull any punches. Here are the young Laura’s  thoughts on a dangerous creek crossing that nearly destroyed the covered wagon and drowned the family:

If Pa had not known what to do, or if Ma had been too frightened to drive, or if Laura and Mary had been naughty and bothered her, then they would all have been lost. The river would have rolled them over and over and carried them away and drowned them, and nobody would ever have known what became of them. For weeks, perhaps, no other person would come along that road.

Even to a child, the constant dangers of frontier life are very clear.

Later books recount the family’s brush with death from malaria; the blinding of Laura’s sister Mary because of a fever; a neighbor who nearly dies from poison gas while digging a well; as well some carefully couched discussion of the “dangers” posed by “rough men” who work on the railroad. We hear of threatened murders by those driven mad by the isolation of prairie life. We see friends of Laura’s offer to buy her baby since they are unable to have one of their own. Laura loses a child. Her husband is crippled from diphtheria. None of this is left out. All of it is couched appropriately for children, but Wilder does not pull her punches.

Anyone who remains unconvinced is invited to read The Long Winter, which I think is Wilder’s masterpiece. The novel details the winter of 1880-81 in Minnesota during which there was so much snow that the trains didn’t run, supplies didn’t arrive, and the settlers nearly starved, burning hay for fuel and grinding wheat in their coffee grinders to make bread.

The grim chill of this book impressed me as a child and holds up upon adult reading. It is as dark a story as any told in Smedley’s Daughter of the Earth which Gornick praises for its realism. There is nothing romantic about it.

The Third Mistake: Wilder and Lane were Not Right Wing Nutcases

Gornick’s third mistake is to characterize both Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, as right wing nutcases. She claims that if Wilder were alive today she would be a member of the Tea Party and refers to her and her husband as “tight-lipped, small-town conservatives.”

To level such accusations Gornick must, again, misrepresent the books. Every novel in the series makes much of Laura’s feminism. While not interested in women’s suffrage, Laura is decidedly interested in living on equal terms with the men around her. She refuses to use the word “obey” in her wedding ceremony. At 14, she helps her father harvest and stack hay. She helps Almanzo break a team of horses, fights fires, twists hay into fuel during The Long Winter, works as a seamstress and a teacher to help send her sister to college, and generally serves as a role model for every independent-minded reader of the books.

Gornick pays no attention to this kind of feminism in the books. Instead, we are told that, “In Kansas where Pa builds the first house, we follow closely as he cuts down the trees, planes them into logs, and notches them so that they will fit tightly together. This alone takes months, during which Ma and the girls are happily keeping things tidy and cheering him on.” If one takes the time to read this scene from Little House on the Prairie however, one finds that Ma is not merely a domestic bystander. She is helping Pa heft the logs and build the house. Ma may prefer to be in the kitchen, but she is more than willing and able to help build it first. And Laura is happier working in the fields any day.

But Wilder must be made into a cartoon conservative—even to the point of ignoring the famously feminist qualities of her novels—because Gornick knows that in Wilder’s later life she was no fan of FDR and the New Deal, particularly its agricultural policies. Gornick writes of these policies that: “In short, famers would be paid to grow less, not more, and much would defend on their ability to adapt to a fundamental change in their way of life. The directive was hard for famers to wrap their heads around, and thousands could not, including the Wilders. They found the New Deal farm bills as traumatic as the conditions they were meant to alleviate. In fact, they looked upon these bills as the work of the devil.”

Given that these bills called for the wholesale destruction of food crops (oranges were soaked with kerosene; corn was burned) and animals (pigs were “plowed under” before they could reproduce) in a time when people were starving, it is easy to see why the Wilders objected. And it is not hard to understand why they couldn’t wrap their heads around such government logic.

That’s not conservative or liberal. It’s just humane.

Wilder’s daughter and co-author/editor Rose Wilder Lane comes in for the real invective, though. Traducing her character in terms familiar to every libertarian, Gornick calls her a “strident right-winger” who “approached an unhinged form of anarchism.” Adding in insults equally familiar to every writer who makes a living, Gornick also calls her a “hack journalist” and a writer of “commercial fiction.”

Leaving aside the assessment of the quality of Lane’s work (though it is worth noting that the “Little House” series is increasingly thought of as a shared literary project between Wilder and Lane), the political characterization must be addressed. Fortunately, Lane’s own work does that quite ably on its own. Her defense of Islam as a source of freedom and her weekly columns in support of laissez faire and against racism in the Pittsburgh Courier (the most widely read American black newspaper of the time) mark her out as a decidedly progressive libertarian rather than the Trump-voting redneck Gornick has in mind.

The Fourth Mistake: Trump is Not Wilder’s Fault

And that is Gornick’s fourth, and worst, mistake. All the errors and misrepresentations in her article seem to be there in order to support her greatest and most mistaken assertion that it is Wilder and Lane and their contemporary equivalents who elected Trump. She writes:

That same drive to be alone with the wilderness got converted to a founding myth of individualism, out of which emerged an ideology that visualized freedom from government as an equivalent of freedom itself. … If Laura Ingalls Wilder were alive today she would be a member of the Tea Party. She would almost certainly have voted for Donald Trump, many of whose followers yet believe that he will restore to them the dubious glory of the frontier America that Wilder so passionately celebrated in her books.

And she describes Lane as “familiar to us today as the avenging populists who put Donald Trump into the White House.”

The mistakes in this short passage are many, and each deserves a quick mention. First, the founding myth of individualism is equally strongly countered by a founding myth of small groups working together—much as the Ingalls family does among itself and as they do with the small towns and communities in which they find themselves. We should not forget that the Mayflower Covenant is a document that binds a small community together. Nor should we forget Benjamin Franklin’s classic observation that “If we do not hang together, we must surely all hang separately.”

Then, given the broken promises of the American government to both settlers and Native Americans (both of which are discussed in Wilder’s books) can Ingalls and other pioneers be blamed for being mistrustful of government? Shouldn’t Gornick—distrustful of the current administration as she justifiably is—be pleased to see that the Ingalls and other settlers share her skepticism?

Lastly, however, it is simply ludicrous to think of Wilder or Lane as a Trump voter. Donald Trump’s attitudes towards women, his worship of crony capitalism, his engagement in the worst kinds of business practices, his use of eminent domain, his excessive displays of wealth, and his braggadocio, would—I have to think—have disgusted Wilder thoroughly. She spent her life working as hard as any man. She had seen unfair business practices in some small town shopkeepers and contrasted them with the charitable and even heroic practices of others. She had seen Native Americans and her own family driven from home after home because of government demands. She had been mocked for her poverty throughout her childhood by Nellie Olson— the closest equivalent that her books have to a Donald Trump. The same things were true of Lane.

I do not think either one of them would have given Trump the time of day.

Gornick sees the problem of our contemporary politics as some sort of competition between evil people who hate government and good people who “greeted Roosevelt as a savior”. Today, she argues, “The Wilders among us now occupy a position so influential they have been able to elect someone of their own persuasion to the American presidency.” She’s wrong that the Wilders would have supported Trump. And she’s wrong not to see that the problem with Trump and his supporters is the same as the problem with Roosevelt and his supporters. That problem isn’t the dream of independence or freedom or “the miracle of one’s own endurance and ingenuity.” That problem is the base tendency to greet a politician—any politician from any party—as a savior rather than seeking to save oneself and ones neighbors through cooperation, mutual aid, hard work and smart thinking.

Wilder knew better. It’s right there in the books, placed fittingly after the description of a Fourth of July celebration:

She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa, he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

They’re worth re-reading.