The Story of the “Diggers”

I was dubious when Nancy Koupal invited me to contribute to Pioneer Girl Perspectives. What, I thought, could I possibly add? The comprehensive, incisive essays in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography ably tell the origins of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s apprenticeship manuscript.

Then Nancy gave me a pep talk. She has done this for lo, these past thirty years, during writing projects and sundry historical-literary affairs. She challenged me to consider the “first diggers”—the fraternity of people who started the initial research on Wilder. One enthusiastic old regular in early Wilder studies cheerily told me, “I hope our spades never get rusty.”

As a fledgling researcher in the 1960s and 1970s, I was welcomed into that coterie of folk dedicated to Wilder. The “diggers” were scattered throughout the Wilder country in America’s heartland and farther afield—even reaching to Japan and Australia. Many of them actively toiled to preserve Little House sites. Aubrey Sherwood, editor of the De Smet News and a friend of the Ingalls daughters, was among the most influential, a true mentor to me and countless others.

I had a brief brush with the great Rose Wilder Lane. She answered my letters, vetted my first writing, and lectured me on research technique. She autographed books for me and was incredulous that I had unearthed many of her early writings. She claimed she’d forgotten writing some of them.

How does all this connect with Pioneer Girl? Through ongoing involvement with Wilder people and places, some best-forgotten early writing of mine, and continuing research, I was cognizant of Pioneer Girl’s existence. The manuscript had its own surreptitious life, long before its 2014 appearance. I was charged to prepare a version for publication during the 1980s. I witnessed others using Pioneer Girl, all within an aura of secrecy. It was a dishy slice of literary lore, indeed.

I’ve told the story from my perspective in the chapter “Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print.” Writing this history was one more Wilder adventure, locating forgotten files of mine, drawing on long-held memories, and constructing a previously untold tale.

Yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder is still most relevant during this, her sesquicentennial year.

William Anderson, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

Perspectives of a Working Writer

Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder features the points of view of various writers working in the fields of history, literature, journalism, and children’s literature, but the single most important perspective is that of Wilder herself. She is the original pioneer girl who turned a memoir into seven bestselling novels; her thoughts about her achievement are crucial to any exploration of her literary works.

Wilder formally shared insights about her writing on two occasions in the mid-1930s. In 1936, she gave a speech to the Mountain Grove Sorosis Club entitled “My Work,” in which she talked about the importance of words and their meanings and about the problems of memory, among other things. She also told her audience about research she had done, such as checking the temperature at which grasshoppers lay the most eggs.1 In 1937, Wilder attended a book fair in Detroit, where she told her audience that as she wrote one book after another about her family she came to realize that she had lived on succeeding frontiers and that her books collectively told the story of that epic American adventure. She also shared her plans to carry that theme through future volumes, outlining the books she had yet to write. Between the two speeches, Wilder’s Detroit talk seemed the better fit for a book in which so many of the contributors referenced her life on the frontier. And while the document has been published before, the speech has never really been annotated or placed in the context that Pioneer Girl Perspectives provides.

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Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

We are fortunate to have Wilder’s Detroit speech to share with readers seventy years after she gave it. For that, we may have Rose Wilder Lane to thank. When Wilder wrote the speech, Lane was living in New York, where she had contact with Wilder’s editor, Ida Louise Raymond, who was also speaking at the book fair. From Raymond, Lane must have learned that the event had been a success, for she immediately began to insist that her mother send her a copy of her talk. When it finally arrived, Lane wrote back that the speech had arrived and “it is fine. No wonder you made a great hit.”2 The handwritten document has been preserved in the Lane Papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. To read more about it, see the opening chapter of Pioneer Girl Perspectives.

—Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Wilder, “My Work,” in Wilder and Lane, A Little House Sampler, ed. William T. Anderson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), pp. 174–80.
  2. Lane to Wilder, [late Oct. 1937], Box 13, file 193, Laura Ingalls Wilder Series, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

 

An Avid “Laura” Fan

Writing my book Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder in the 1990s was a wonderful and transformative experience for me. It allowed me to return fulltime to my favorite childhood books, made it possible for me to receive grants that paid for trips to the historic Wilder sites, and gave me permission to spend days poking through Wilder’s private papers and manuscripts. It gave my adult self—by then a middle-aged professor of American women’s writing—a chance to reconnect with her passionate, partisan childhood self: a girl who was an avid “Laura” fan.

Now that book, published in 1997, is twenty years behind me. I’m still a Little House fan, but as I have grown older and lived through the last years and deaths of my parents and other beloved elders and confronted some of the constraints of aging in my own life, I’ve begun to notice some details in the Little House books that I did not see earlier. Wilder continues to reveal new nuances for me. Like many mid-twentieth-century American children, I grew up with frequent access to elders, grandparents and others who told stories that transmitted history, culture, and values. Upon rereading the Wilder books, I realized that Laura, Mary, Carrie, and Grace had not—the only active storyteller of the Little House books is Pa Ingalls. In fact, once the fictional Ingalls family leaves the Big Woods of Wisconsin (and the vigorous Ingalls grandparents) behind, at the beginning of Little House on the Prairie, there are almost no old people in the Ingalls daughters’ world. And, despite the dangers and relatively high mortality rate of their frontier lifestyle, they have no direct confrontations with death.

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“Laura tried to comfort Jack.” Helen Sewell, 1935

As, the 2014 Pioneer Girl Project publication Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, confirms, however, Laura Ingalls did confront deaths in her childhood and adolescence. Most notably, she witnessed the death of her baby brother. In Pioneer Girl Perspectives, I explore the reasons why Laura Ingalls Wilder and her collaborating daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, created a “little house where nobody dies.”

Of course, as my fellow “Laura” fans will remember, one death does occur in the Little House books—the powerfully fictionalized death of Jack, the family bulldog.  That memorable and invaluable scene is at the center of my exploratory essay.

Ann Romines, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

A Midwestern Pioneer

When Nancy Tystad Koupal invited me to contribute an essay to Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, I felt honored. Then I wondered, “Is there something that I can contribute that hasn’t already been done?”

becoming-liw_illusNearly a quarter century ago, while researching my first book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, I, like every serious scholar working on her, visited the Hoover Presidential Library, which houses the major collections of papers on her and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. At that time, I photocopied the drafts of Pioneer Girl that Lane had typed and sent to her editors in 1930 and 1931 (she switched agents in the middle of the submission process). I culled information from Wilder’s memoir of her childhood and used what I found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town and then in the biography Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. The information contained in those manuscripts was gold for anyone who wanted to know “what really happened” in Wilder’s childhood, and those of us aware of the material treated it as the treasure it was. Pioneer Girl provided a more detailed, nuanced, and surprising picture of Wilder than we could find anywhere else.

But now is now, and I had to come up with a novel idea for Pioneer Girl Perspectives, or so I thought, but a subject rose to the surface that I had been considering for some time: the idea of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s identity as a midwesterner throughout her life. The places she lived in and wrote about are steeped in the identity of the Middle West, and it seemed to me that that fact alone had a significant impact on her life and writing.

Reinforcing this line of thinking was the 2014 publication of a book I had been working on for over a decade and a half, Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America. It contains twenty-two stories of small-town and farm boys who grew up in the Midwest and whose rural boyhoods significantly shaped their identities and success as adults. The men I wrote about range from Henry Ford, William Jennings Bryan, and Carl Sandburg to Ernie Pyle, Walt Disney, and Sam Walton. My interest in the subject also stems from the fact that I am a small-town boy from the Midwest myself. In addition, the brand-new Midwestern History Association, spearheaded by a former student of mine, is directing major attention to the region. So, I decided to look at Wilder as a midwestern pioneer girl.

My chapter studies midwestern places that shaped Wilder’s life, values, thoughts, and actions through her experiences and interactions with the people who lived there. It places Wilder alongside other important midwesterners—Harvey Dunn, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Willa Cather—to deal with concepts of the frontier, land, rural values, cultural patterns, and socio-economic realities that provided the context for her life and writing. In this way, I note the supreme importance of place, in terms of the Midwest as a region, in Wilder’s work.

John E. Miller, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

 

Bloody Benders

In 2011, when I was working on notes for the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, the one that was the most fun to write and research was about the Bloody Benders. These serial killers in Kansas played a starring role in the most important statement Wilder ever made about her work, the speech she gave at the Detroit book fair.  And no wonder:  the Benders had it all—murder, mystery, sex appeal.

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The illustration page from a feature on the Bender murders in Harper’s Weekly on June 7, 1873

When Pioneer Girl:  The Annotated Autobiography was published, I was thrilled to see that it included, among its other gorgeous accoutrements, a meaty little appendix about the Bloody Benders.  Then Nancy Tystad Koupal and Pioneer Girl Perspectives offered me the perfect excuse to indulge my morbid fascination with this killer family and to delve into the story of why the Benders became something of a touchstone for Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  Why were they always bringing up the Bender account—what did it mean to them?  And what does their adding the episode to the Pioneer Girl narrative say about their understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction?

My essay aims to provide some answers to those questions, but to give you a teaser:  Lane’s early journalism goes back to a lurid period in the history of newspapers—what used to be called “yellow journalism,” named for the “Yellow Kid” comic strip immortalized during the circulation battles between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.  Yellow journalists gave rise to both good and bad trends, to investigative journalism as well as tabloid fodder—they were the pioneers of “fake news.”

Lane cut her teeth in the “journalistic kindergarten” of yellow journalism in San Francisco, California.  Within weeks of being hired at the San Francisco Bulletin, she began churning out fake celebrity “autobiographies.” At the same moment, she was teaching her mother the tools of that strange trade.  It’s an astonishing chapter in their story. The saga of the Bloody Benders dramatizes the editorial struggle between them, a struggle over values represented by truth, on the one hand, and fiction on the other.  My essay features new information on the Bender-Ingalls connection and how Wilder and her daughter may have come across the salacious tale, as well as a long-lost letter of Lane’s, described for the first time.

Caroline Fraser, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

A Mother/Daughter Story

I have been a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder since I was a little girl. Like many, I received my first copy of Little House on the Prairie when I was five or six from my grandmother, Elsie Mattson, and I continued to receive all of the books, out of order, for varied birthdays and Christmases. Playing “Little House” was a favorite pastime; I lived in northern rural Wisconsin when I was small, and my cousins and I had no shortage of personal experiences to relate to our reading and playing of “Laura’s” story. Grandma Elsie was even friends with the real Laura’s cousins who lived in the area, and I knew early on that the fictional Laura had a real-life counterpart. That knowledge lent realism to my childhood experiences, and that connection fostered my adult interest in women’s history.

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Rose Wilder Lane in 1942. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

But as I grew up and uncovered the story of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, I discovered that I related much better to her than I did to Wilder. Lane was a “modern woman” who left rural America and built a career as a freelance writer in a time when that just wasn’t done. Lane defied convention and gained notoriety in a period when women were actively encouraged to stay home. She also faced significant hardships—a failed marriage, a lost child, and lifelong struggles with depression—and when it came to public opinion, her “give-a-darn” broke long before her divorce in 1918. Lane educated herself, and she valued intellectual thought. I admired her willingness to speak out for her beliefs. Her tenacity led her to carve out a career that allowed her to support herself, her parents, varied friends, and foster children throughout her life.

In the chapter I wrote for Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, I focus on Lane’s story, particularly her later career, her interactions with the FBI, and her less-than-subtle political commentary in the Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework. My essay reflects on the fact that this extraordinary person was every inch her mother’s daughter. The values that Wilder articulates in Pioneer Girl and her early journalistic writings clearly appear as a theme in Lane’s work and personal choices.

Rose Wilder Lane was not perfect; she made some poor choices that put her at odds with her mother and, later, with her mother’s fan base. Laura Ingalls Wilder was not perfect either, but the lessons each woman’s story holds for the contemporary reader remain valuable to women’s history in the United States.

We can learn a lot from Lane’s story.

Amy Mattson Lauters, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

Some things I learned while editing Pioneer Girl Perspectives:

  • Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about fairies and fairy tales at various times in her career, and her first book reads like a fairy tale.
  • The first illustrator of the Wilder books, Helen Sewell, also illustrated Cinderella.
  • Rose Wilder Lane had an FBI file.

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    Cinderella written and illustrated by Helen Sewell, 1934

  • When Lane left Missouri in 1937, she did not return until her father’s death in 1949.
  • Wilder’s Pioneer Girl was rejected many times, not only in the 1930s but also in the 1980s.
  • Wilder never supported the passage of woman suffrage and, after it became law, only urged women to vote so that politics would not become unbalanced.
  • Lane was a yellow journalist.
  • She taught her mother how to be one, too.
  • Nobody died in the Little Houses.
  • Wilder ended most of her books with song.
  • The Benders of Kansas were most likely never caught.
  • Wilder spent significant portions of her childhood working outside of the Little Houses in order to help support her family.
  • Caroline Ingalls also worked outside the home at times to increase family income.
  • The Little House narrative is one of interdependence.
  • Lane had visions of writing a multi-volume novel based on United States history.
  • After 1938, Lane wrote almost no fiction.
  • Lane’s best-known book is probably The Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework.
  • After Almanzo died, Wilder kept a gun close-by for protection in her farmhouse, where she lived alone.
  • Lane went to Vietnam in 1965 as a war correspondent.
  • Wilder spent most of her life in southern Missouri, but she immortalized the landscape and values of the upper Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota).
  • We can always return to the Little Houses where everyone is eternally young and adults behave as they are supposed to.

Nancy Tystad Koupal