‘Little House’ Books a Collaborative Effort?
Those of us over a certain age recall the “Little House on the Prairie” television series and many of us read several of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books upon which it was loosely based. An interesting New Yorker profile by Judith Thurman examines the story behind the story.
Wilder scholarship is a flourishing industry, particularly at universities in the Midwest, and much of it seeks to sift fiction from history. The best book among many good, if more pedestrian, ones, “The Ghost in the Little House,” by William Holtz, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Missouri, explores a controversy that first arose after Wilder bequeathed her original manuscripts to libraries in Detroit and California. It is the work of a fastidious stylist, and, in its way, a minor masterpiece of insight and research. Holtz’s subject, however, isn’t Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is her daughter and, he argues, her unacknowledged “ghost,” Rose Wilder Lane.
Rose saw her mother as a literary apprentice, not as an artist, even though she had always encouraged Wilder’s writing—first the journalism, then the juveniles; they were a less strenuous and more profitable source of income for an elderly woman than chicken farming. But, whatever art may be, the Little House books fulfill its purpose as defined by Horace: “to entertain and to inform.” Mother and daughter essentially divided that labor. One has to suspect that the delicious minutiae of the books’ famous how-to chapters on molding bullets, pressing cheese, digging a well, making a rag doll, drying plums, framing a house, and smoking a ham, among dozens of daily activities, were mostly Laura’s contribution. (In my favorite of many Christmas scenes, little Grace gets an elegant new coat and hood, trimmed in swan’s down; her father shot the bird, her mother cured the skin and did most of the sewing, and her older sisters pieced out the lining from scraps of blue silk.) It was what Laura knew, loved, and had proved, in her columns for the Ruralist, that she could write about.
Rose had proved that she could romanticize whatever material she was given. She did some minor tinkering with “Pioneer Girl,” but, once it was decided to fictionalize the memoir as a children’s story—the idea had come from an editor who rejected the memoir—she took a more aggressive role. It varied in intensity from book to book, but she dutifully typed up the manuscript pages, and, in the process, reshaped and heightened the dramatic structure. She also rewrote the prose so drastically that Laura sometimes felt usurped. “A good bit of the detail that I add to your copy is for pure sensory effect,” Rose explained in a letter.
John Miller, a thorough biographer and historian who, like Holtz, compared the manuscripts with the published texts, came to a different conclusion about the collaboration. In the introduction to his book “Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder,” he writes, “Wilder demonstrated a high degree of writing competence from the beginning, and her daughter’s contribution to the final products, while important, was less significant than has been asserted.” (The four pages of manuscript that he reproduces arouse more questions than they settle, however. In Laura’s scribbled margin notes to Rose—points of fact about geography—she misspells definite as “deffinite” and remarks that her husband “don’t remember” the distance between two towns.) A concise, recent biography by Pamela Smith Hill, “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life,” is more overtly partisan. Hill accuses Rose of insensitivity to her mother’s “imaginative vision,” and, at times, of arrogance, condescension, bullying, self-aggrandizement, and even plagiarism. (Rose secretly wrote an adult novella of her own, “Let the Hurricane Roar,” which was widely admired and sold briskly. The substance and characters were pillaged from “Pioneer Girl.” Laura apparently never read the book, and considered it a betrayal.)
The cumulative evidence suggests that sometimes Laura stood her ground and sometimes she was cowed into submission, but most often she solicited and welcomed Rose’s improvements. When Rose left the farm, in 1935, the editing of the five books yet to come was done by correspondence. “I have written you the whys of the story as I wrote it,” Laura told her in a letter that accompanied a draft of volume four, “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” “but you know your judgment is better than mine, so what you decide is the one that stands.” Rose, for her part, could be an insufferable didact. She played down her authority, even as she hammered it home: “I’m trying to train you as a writer for the big market,” she had told her mother in 1925. (Laura had written an article about her Ozark kitchen, which, heavily revised, had appeared in the magazine Country Gentleman.) “You must understand that what sold was your article, edited. You must study how it was edited, and why. . . . Above all, you must listen to me.”
Truth is both stranger and more interesting than fiction here. But rather more sad.
via Jason Kottke