THE LITTLE HOUSE BOOKS, eight novels published between 1932 and 1943, are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tribute to the great plains and her homesteading family. “I realized that I had seen and lived it all,” she wrote later, “all the successive phases of the frontier […] a whole period of American history.” Written during the depression, when the author was in her sixties and seventies, these autobiographical narratives of enduring wildfire, drought, locusts, tornadoes, and blizzards have sold tens of millions of copies.
Beloved though they may be, however, the books are in danger of being politicized, having already acquired a certain conservative aura. Much of it emanated from the 1970s-era television caricature, “Little House on the Prairie,” which leached the books of their rich specificity while displaying an often shirtless Michael Landon, chest shaved, addressing concerns never mentioned in the originals, including drug addiction, rape, and menopause. Ronald Reagan reportedly called it his favorite television show (Landon campaigned for him), watching it in the White House while he and his wife dined off TV trays. In a 2008 profile of the Republican vice-presidential nominee, the New York Times cited one of Sarah Palin’s sisters remembering that her sibling read “a lot” as a child. The only specific title she could recall was Little House on the Prairie.
The impression has lately been reinforced by the books’ adoption into Tea Party circles as ideal teachers of “lived liberty.” That’s a phrase that occurs in “Lessons in Liberty from Laura Ingalls Wilder,” an essay in the summer issue of National Affairs, the reboot of Irving Kristol’s quarterly The Public Interest. Dedicated to helping Americans “rise a little more ably to the challenge of self-government,” National Affairs features the work of Charles Murray, George Will, and David Brooks, who hailed it as “the bloody crossroads where social science and public policy meet matters of morality, culture and virtue.”
Wilder is now detained at those crossroads by Meghan Clyne, managing editor of National Affairs, former speechwriter for Laura and George W. Bush and contributor to the New York Post (where she worried that an Obama nominee might introduce sharia law). Clyne calls for building an “historical-appreciation movement” around Wilder, who is to model self-reliance for millions of less worthy Americans currently receiving Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and “food stamps or other nutrition benefits.” Citing Jefferson, Clyne warns against “degeneracy” in the dependent, commending Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 paper for its depiction of “the conquest of this last unsettled frontier,” without remarking on the removal of natives that made it possible, paid for by the federal government and intended as the type of benefit she condemns. She takes no notice of the fact that Indians occupy a great deal of real estate in Little House on the Prairie, with its references to the 1862 “Minnesota massacre,” when Sioux warriors angered by treaty violations killed hundreds of soldiers and settlers and were then captured, tried, and hung in the largest mass execution in our history. Or that the little house in question was built illegally on an Osage reserve, which may explain why the Ingallses relinquished it.
Condemning “welfare-state redistribution,” Clyne embraces the 1862 Homestead Act, central to the later Little House books. Yet it was one of the biggest federal handouts in American history. Clyne praises it as policy that “encouraged habits of self-reliance rather than undermining them,” but it sought to give away a trillion acres of “free land,” as it was called, in 160-acre parcels to those over twenty-one if they could live on it and improve it over five years. Homesteading was no picnic, as Wilder makes clear, but everyone at the time knew it was a giveaway. Wilder remembers her father singing, “Uncle Sam is rich enough / To give us all a farm!” a popular ditty that hardly comports with Clyne’s contempt for “the crutch of government support.” The Homestead Act was not a particularly succesful incubator of self-reliance, as only a fifth of the land went to small farmers, and less than half of all homesteaders managed to make the necessary improvements to keep it. The Act was also undermined by fraud and land speculation: Much of the property was acquired by railroads and large ranching interests.
Clyne recently wrote an appreciative review in the Wall Street Journal of the Library of America edition of the Little House books (which I edited), welcoming the opportunity to consider Wilder’s work “as serious literature for adults.” But she could not resist interpreting them as a critique of the New Deal and the nation’s “unhealthy dependency on government.” Nor is this the first such reductive view. Wilder’s life and work have long been appropriated by the improving and pious, eager to seize on her faith or patriotism to promote their own agendas. In the post-war years, she was taken up by General Douglas MacArthur, who distributed a translation of The Long Winter, her autobiographical novel of surviving blizzards on the Dakota prairies, in Japan, to buck up a populace struggling without adequate food, shelter, or electricity. Thomas Nelson, the Christian publisher, doubtless hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the TV show, came out in the 1990s with a bizarrely spurious eight-volume series inspired by Wilder’s life, in which Laura battles the Ku Klux Klan in comic-book style heroics. Others cast her as a model of wifely subordination: In an introduction to Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist, a 2007 collection of Wilder’s early newspaper columns published by the University of Missouri Press, editor Stephen W. Hines goes so far as to suggest that she urged readers “not to forget that homemaking is a woman’s sacred task, her primary task.” Wilder was a Christian, keeping next to her rocking chair a list of Bible passages appropriate for various trials (“Sick or in pain read 91 Psalm”), but her columns are largely free of cant.
The Little House books occasionally reflect on god and country in passages about the Declaration of Independence and the Fourth of July. But taken as a whole, more attention is paid to the countryside, to the joy of open places, than to cannons or firecrackers. Wilder’s work seems closer to that of Emerson, who interrogated the notion of self-reliance in his essay of the same name, than to current conservative ideas about its virtue. She wrote and lived the Emersonian ideal of the individual uncowed by dogma or conformity: “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” She was not “ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose,” and her books more often summon silence, the individual experience of “the whole great plain of the earth,” than partisan debate.
Attacks on her authorship seem aimed at infusing her books with ideological passions they just don’t have. In 1993, William Holtz, a professor at the University of Missouri, published The Ghost in the Little House, a biography of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a successful journalist and author, who used her professional connections to secure publishing deals for her mother’s work, which she helped to edit and revise. Lane wrote two novels based on her mother’s material, Let the Hurricane Roar and Free Land, which were commercial, if melodramatic, bestsellers in the 1930s. (Her biographer can never quite explain how Lane could make “shining fiction” from her mother’s dross while producing potboilers herself.) Later, Lane became a founder of the Libertarian movement and something of a political crank, denouncing Social Security.
Holtz’s book claims that Lane was the “ghostwriter” of her mother’s work, despite documentary evidence to the contrary. As reviewers noted at the time (myself included, in The New York Review of Books), he quotes selectively from one of Wilder’s manuscripts, ignoring others that weaken his conclusion. He accepts Lane’s tortured view of her mother as grasping and manipulative, referring to Wilder throughout by her daughter’s pet name, “Mama Bess.” His tone has a nasty edge, as of a man relishing a good catfight.
Less salacious but insistent on Wilder’s sentimental appeal is Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture. A professor of women’s studies at Old Dominion University, Fellman argues that the “covert message” of the Little House books — absorbed in classrooms, public libraries, and fan sites — has influenced impressionable American voters, making them “comfortable” with conservative ideas and anti-regulatory policies. Her argument is subtler than Holtz’s, unpacking the relationship between Wilder and Lane and picking away at the cultural accretions that have attached themselves, like barnacles, to the books. But in this era of sophisticated analyses of the American electorate, with polls and breakdowns of every precinct and county, the notion that people adopt political positions based on the influence of children’s literature — as opposed to what they hear on Fox News — seems not wholly convincing.
Nonetheless, progressive writers were quick to spot the company the Little House books had been keeping: In The New Yorker in 2009, Judith Thurman served up helpings of Holtz (“a minor masterpiece”) and Fellman, slyly linking Wilder to Sarah Palin. The association was reinforced in Thurman’s recent blog post, “A Libertarian House on the Prairie,” adding topical references to Ayn Rand (who corresponded with Lane), The Hunger Games, and Paul Ryan, who, she suggested, may well “revisit the ‘Little House’ books.”
But Ryan and other conservatives might grasp with alarm what these critics have missed. There is much to offend right-wing thinkers in Wilder’s work, perhaps as much as there is to comfort them. For instance, Wilder repeatedly declared her adoration of the wild and her dismay at its ruin; she was what the Fox News Channel would label a radical environmentalist. Her love of wilderness and her taste for solitude border on the misanthropic. Wolves appear in every book that she wrote about her life, a symbol of what Thoreau called “absolute freedom and wildness.” Her response to a species loathed as much today as it was then is notably empathetic and evolving: She feared them, admired them, envied them, and yearned to emulate them.
Wolves figured among Wilder’s earliest memories. At three, she and her parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, and older sister Mary, traveled to a remote spot in southeastern Kansas, following a wave of illegal settlement (Kansas was then known as “the Squatter State”), building a cabin on Osage land. There, another sister, Carrie, was born and the family coped with malaria, prairie fires, and intense if mystifying encounters with both wolves and Indians. The subject of her third and perhaps finest work, Little House on the Prairie, the meetings establish a motif that runs throughout the series, a melancholy nostalgia for a wilderness glimpsed, only to be eradicated as settlement takes hold.
In “The Wolf-Pack,” an early chapter of Little House on the Prairie, Laura’s father, riding one of his mustang ponies alone across the plains, is surrounded by 50 buffalo wolves, “‘the biggest wolves I ever saw in my life,’” he says. The wolves appear out of a draw, surround him and his terrified pony, and trot alongside them, enveloping them in their pack. He struggles to rein in his horse, holding her to a walk, realizing that he can never prevail against such numbers, even with his rifle. He marvels at the animals’ casual playfulness and the sense that they are going somewhere, purposefully:
I never saw such wolves. One big fellow trotted along, right by my stirrup. I could have kicked him in the ribs. They didn’t pay any attention to me at all. They must have just made a kill and eaten all they could. […] For all the world like a pack of dogs going along with a horse. They were all around us, trotting along, and jumping and playing and snapping at each other, just like dogs.
When Laura asks why the wolves didn’t attack, he describes them as reasonable fellow creatures, comparing them to his daughters: “Perhaps they were out playing on the prairie, and not paying any attention to anything but their play, like little girls do sometimes.”
Later, the pack appears in the night, surrounding the family’s cabin. In her bed, Laura hears noses sniffing through the chinks in the wall, paws padding around the perimeter. The wolves circle the cabin, sit, and howl. Her father holds her up to the window, a rough hole cut in the wall. His rifle at the ready, he tells her not to be afraid. She studies the leader:
Everything about him was big — his pointed ears, and his pointed mouth with the tongue hanging out, and his strong shoulders and legs, and his two paws side by side, and his tail curled around the squatting haunch. […] She looked and looked at that wolf.
The animal is backlit by a nimbus of light: “‘See how his coat shines,’” her father whispers in her ear. It is a trancelike moment of fear supplanted by admiration: “The moonlight made little glitters in the edges of the shaggy fur, all around the big wolf.”
The scene is matched by another at the novel’s close, a significant encounter in American frontier literature. In the chapter “Indians Ride Away,” the family “looked and looked” again as a seemingly endless single file of Osage Indians rides by. Earlier, the Ingalls girls have been terrified of “naked wild men,” witnessing their mother’s fear as “fierce-looking men” clothed in skunk skins and armed with hatchets and knives arrive at their cabin while her father is away, demanding food. But watching the Osage file away, Laura’s response is immediate, unfiltered. Entranced by the ponies and ornaments — blankets, beads, fringe, eagle feathers — Laura looks into the eyes of an Indian papoose, “black as a night when no stars shine,” and pleads with her father: “‘get me that little Indian baby!’” Pa tells her to hush, but to her parents’ dismay she begs — “‘Oh, I want it! I want it!’” — as “that long line of Indians slowly pulled itself over the western edge of the world.” It is a singular moment of pure naivete in the literature of the American west, capturing the primitive attitude of white settlers toward Indians: their fears, simplistic admiration, and essential acquisitiveness toward everything possessed by the people they are displacing. While Indians are largely absent from the books that follow, Laura’s cry is the childlike echo of her parents’ appropriation of land from its original owners, human and wild. It becomes her own such act, when Wilder describes her fictional self — casting off her sunbonnet with her mother’s strictures — as “brown as an Indian.”
Pa presents an unlikely fit with conservative ethics. In life, Charles Ingalls was a Populist, a party which opposed railroad interests and promoted those of wheat farmers. In fiction, with his tan skin and unruly brown hair and whiskers, he is a wild man himself: He plays “mad dog” with his daughters, growling on all fours. He tells tales of hunting bears and panthers but sometimes becomes lost in admiration at his prey: At the end of Little House in the Big Woods he returns empty-handed from a hunting trip, telling his daughters that he lured a bear and a family of deer to a salt lick but couldn’t bring himself to shoot them, they were so “‘strong and free and wild.’” This is a very different vision of freedom than that of the Tea Party, at least its hunting wing. Laura listens carefully and says, “‘I’m glad you didn’t shoot them!’” Wilder, who later described the novels as “a memorial for my father,” sees him as the quintessential human animal, forever longing to lose himself in an idealized, depopulated west: “Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid.”
While Clyne emphasizes “community,” Laura rebels against it, as the family retreats from Kansas to relatively settled Minnesota in On the Banks of Plum Creek. As they prepare to move into their new home, a dugout carved into a riverbank, Ma says, “‘It is all so tame and peaceful. […] There will be no wolves or Indians howling tonight. I haven’t felt so safe and at rest since I don’t know when.’” Her husband’s reply is ambiguous: “‘We’re safe enough, all right. Nothing can happen here.’” Their daughter is disappointed: “Laura lay in bed and listened to the water talking and the willows whispering. She would rather sleep outdoors, even if she heard wolves, than be so safe in this house dug under the ground.”
Crops, cattle, and profits, central to conservative notions of the frontier, are portrayed as false promises. Locust swarms consume the wheat. A pair of oxen runs away with the wagon bearing Laura’s mother and baby sister, threatening to dash them against a bluff. Her father heads them off and later comforts his daughters with hoarhound candy. Savoring it, Laura tells him, “‘I think I like wolves better than cattle.’” In a 1936 letter to her daughter, Wilder describes her emphasis on her mother’s search for a safe harbor as an explicit narrative choice: “The idea is that […] [Plum Creek] was safety and then look what happened. Laura preferred wolves.”
Preference becomes apotheosis in “Wings Over Silver Lake,” Wilder’s manuscript version of a chapter in By the Shores of Silver Lake, a description of migratory birds stopping at the slough in Dakota Territory, near what will become the town of De Smet, the Ingallses’ home in later years. Laura identifies with the birds, feeling a familiar, almost ecstatic urgency to be away:
All those golden, autumn days, the sky was full of wings. Wings beating low over the blue water of Silver Lake! Wings beating high in the blue sky above it! Wings of geese, of ducks, of brant and swan and pel[l]ican and gulls […] bearing them all away to the green fields of the south.
Sometimes Laura dreamed that great wings lifted her and she flew with them.
The novel builds to the moment when Laura takes Carrie to slide on the ice of the frozen lake, following “the glittering moonpath into the light from the silver moon,” feeling herself “a part of the wide land.” The girls “fly” across the ice until they come to the opposite bank, when “something made Laura look up. […] And there, dark against the moonlight, stood a great wolf! He was looking toward her. The wind stirred his fur and the moonlight seemed to run in and out of it.” Laura whirls and flees, protecting her sister. But once home, where her father vows to hunt the wolves, she hopes he won’t find them. Asked why, she says, “‘Because he didn’t chase us.’” The next morning, Pa’s fruitless search for the animals, who have moved on, leads him to the land he chooses as the family’s homestead.
The wild prairie is consistently described as open, fresh, and fragrant, in contrast to town, dirty and noisy. Laura prevails in clashes with a proud, disdainful classmate and a teacher who puts on airs but feels uncomfortable in society: “She could not like strange people. She knew how animals would act, she understood what animals thought, but you could never be sure about people.” Even in adolescence, as she gradually becomes attuned to academic and domestic pursuits — her last novels are animated by parties, new frocks and hats, and courtship — her love of the landscape breaks through. In These Happy Golden Years, in an exchange with her beau Almanzo, who has taken her on a buggy ride to Lakes Henry and Thompson, Laura calls up a primordial vision:
Laura thought how wild and beautiful it must have been when the twin lakes were one, when buffalo and antelope roamed the prairie around the great lake and came there to drink, when wolves and coyotes and foxes lived on the banks and wild geese, swans, herons, cranes, ducks, and gulls nested and fished and flew there in countless numbers.
“Why did you sigh?” Almanzo asked.
“Did I?” said Laura. “I was thinking that wild things leave when people come. I wish they wouldn’t.”
“Most people kill them,” he said.
“I know,” Laura said. “I can’t understand why.”
Lost in the discussion of whether she was a libertarian or a mere purveyor of liberty is the Wilder who rejoiced in wilderness. “She loved the beautiful world,” she says of herself in The Long Winter. Like those praised by the Sage of Concord, her books “smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects.” They do not celebrate the exploitation of nature, as conservative pundits do, but mourn it. They do not promote anything like the shooting wolves from helicopters, a right cherished by those Emerson called “parlour soldiers” and supported by Sarah Palin. Last year, the governor of Idaho, C. L. “Butch” Otter, declared wolves a “Disaster Emergency,” expressing his desire to “bid for the first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.” By this spring, Idahoans had killed some 500, around half the state’s population. Wyoming is poised to do the same. With taxpayer funds, a host of state and federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture’s “Wildlife Services” — created in 1915 to exterminate wolves — still seeks to “control” the species and eliminate animals the federal government has spent millions to reintroduce, by poisoning, trapping, and aerial gunning. (For more on this federal program, see the three-part series, “The Killing Agency: Wildlife Services’ Brutal Methods Leave a Trail of Animal Death,” Sacramento Bee, April 29, April 30, and May 6, 2012.)
Wilder was a practical farm woman protective of her life and livelihood, but it is impossible to imagine her supporting such wasteful savagery. Indeed, her shift from Democrat to Republican was sparked by a disgust with New Deal policies after she heard that crops were to be plowed under to stabilize agricultural prices. This was an outrage to a woman who had lived with hunger and been forced by debt and crop failures to leave the Dakota prairies and her beloved parents.
The Little House books have always been stranger, deeper, and darker than any ideology. While celebrating family life and domesticity, they undercut those cozy values at every turn, contrasting the pleasures of home (firelight, companionship, song) with the immensity of the wilderness, its nobility and its power to resist cultivation and civilization. In her hymn to the American west, Wilder treasures forest, grasslands, wetlands, and wildlife in terms that verge on the transcendental. Alive in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memory of it, the wilderness she knew — now lost — continues to reflect her longing for a vanishing world, a rough paradise from which we are excluded by a helpless devotion to our own survival.