- Wilder and Lane Revisited
"Each of us who has studied the Little House books has chosen to tell one particular story about them, and not another, hooked as we are by different aspects of [these] books." Anita Clair Fellman's statement in Little House, Long Shadow (82) not only encapsulates these two major monographs (published six months apart by University of Missouri Press), but also the larger field of Ingalls-Wilder-Lane studies to which they contribute so much. To date, this field includes biographies for adults and children, book-length studies from feminist, historical, and material cultures perspectives, and numerous journal articles, as well as endless volumes of rediscovered writings and spinoffs, the most recent of which extend the Little House narrative through alternate viewpoints, such as Heather Williams's Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls (2007) and Elizabeth Kimmel Willard's Mary Ingalls on Her Own (2008). Although academic scholarship has only gradually embraced the popular books attributed to Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867–1957), these two studies by Fellman and by John E. Miller are the latest benchmarks of what has become a respectable and established field. As Miller notes, any Little House scholar must now acknowledge the contributions of Wilder's daughter, the undervalued modernist/regionalist writer Rose Wilder Lane (1886–1968), who researched, edited, pruned, rewrote, and typed her mother's manuscripts while frequently acting as mediator between Wilder and agents, editors, and readers. What these two books also establish is that future scholarship in the field will need to take into account the persuasive arguments made in these two monographs about the political undertones throughout Wilder's autofiction and life writing.
While there is some overlap between the two studies, each scholar uses a specific paratextual source as a framework for analysis: in Fellman's case, Wilder's still unpublished first-person memoir, "Pioneer Girl," which she then expanded into eight novels published between [End Page 271] 1932 and 1943; in Miller's, a collection of newspaper pieces published in the Missouri Ruralist and elsewhere between 1911 and 1924. Little House, Long Shadow grows out of Fellman's attempt to link the function of children's texts to normalize political assumptions about the US with two discoveries she made while rooting through the Wilder-Lane papers at libraries in Missouri and Iowa: one, that Lane had been a libertarian thinker; and two, that she and Wilder had a complicated and charged relationship, which led to them setting up "an elaborate dance in which Wilder both sought Lane's help with her writing and resisted it, and Lane helped with increasing ambivalence, trying to induce gratitude and guilt for the time and effort she expended" (44). As Fellman notes, this complicated mother–daughter dance, which she reads carefully within the historical context of shifting perceptions of motherhood and normative femininity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has led to a cultural phenomenon that far exceeds the eight specific books that Wilder published. Wilder's name, the dominant signifier of the Little House, and the particular vision of an idealized frontier experience have permeated a number of locations in US culture, including the classroom (with specific chapters reprinted in basal readers that have been part of core primary school curricula across the country), the home (in terms of cooking and crafts), the public sphere (pageants, festivals, tourist sites, and websites), and American politics. In pointed contrast with Miller's concluding statement—that "readers need to take care to avoid trying to read too much political significance into many of the stories, references, and language contained in the books" (208)—Fellman argues quite persuasively that the ideological underpinnings of the Little House saga became appealing to American citizens when they were recycled for Ronald Reagan's successful presidential campaign, which fueled a conservative backlash in the US and elsewhere in the 1980s and beyond.
To me, the most fascinating contribution to...