Pulitzer Prize Awarded to Caroline Fraser

Author Caroline Fraser, who contributed an essay to Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, has won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for her 2017 book Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Many congratulations to Caroline from everyone at the Pioneer Girl Project!

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Read more about the Pulitzer Prize here.

“A Worthy Companion”: Review of “Pioneer Girl Perspectives”

When reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, one is led to believe that things happened exactly as they were written. In addition, at a speech at a book fair in Detroit in 1937, Wilder said, in reference to the most recent book published, that “every story in this novel, all the circumstances, each incident are true. All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth.” After Wilder’s death in 1957, however, readers and researchers began to discover many ways that the books were not historically accurate. That process accelerated when it was revealed that Wilder had previously written an adult memoir she called “Pioneer Girl” that publishers had rejected. The memoir was first made widely available to the public by the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, during the 1980s. The South Dakota Historical Society (SDHS) Press published Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography in 2014, and it quickly became a best-seller. It is now in its ninth printing; more than 165,000 copies have been sold.9781941813089

Pioneer Girl Perspectives is a collection of essays edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the Pioneer Girl Project, and published by the SDHS Press. The volume was originally meant to address how the publication of Pioneer Girl shapes our understanding of Wilder and her work. However, contributors take their considerations in a number of new directions, including the life and works of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, the popularity of the Little House books, and the books’ literary value.

The book is divided into four sections. “Working Writers” begins by reprinting Wilder’s Detroit Book Fair speech, and then biographers of Wilder and Lane engage the different types of writing each published. In “Beginnings and Misdirections,” authors consider the history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript and the Little House books compared to other early twentieth-century children’s literature. Historians writing in the third section, “Wilder’s Place and Time,” situate Wilder in regional and historical context. The essays in the final section, “Enduring Tales and Childhood Myths,” explore a variety of literary features of the books.

As in all books of essays, some chapters are more insightful than others. Readers of this journal will be especially interested in John E. Miller’s essay describing the midwestern context of Wilder’s life and work. He argues that the Midwest is depicted in the following characteristics of the Little House books: “(1) the prominence of the land in its residents’ thinking and the centrality of agriculture in its way of life; (2) the Homestead Act and the frontier process as integral parts of its historical experience; (3) the crucial role that small towns played in its culture; and (4) the development and nurturing of specific values as a result of those cultural experiences that helped shape residents’ special identities as Midwesterners.” Paula Nelson does a thorough job placing Wilder’s views on family, women’s roles, farming, and woman suffrage into the multiple contexts of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. [Caroline] Fraser examines the use of the tale of the “Bloody Benders” in some Pioneer Girl manuscripts in order to assess Wilder and Lane’s relationship to the “yellow journalism” of the early twentieth century. Elizabeth Jameson considers how Wilder’s troubled and poverty-ridden childhood was transformed into the happy childhood of the Little House books. Finally, William Anderson gives a fascinating brief history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript between Wilder’s death in 1957 and its publication in 2014.

Overall, Pioneer Girl Perspectives is an excellent book. It’s slightly larger than a normal hardback, and the dust jacket art is beautiful. It includes many illustrations from the original Helen Sewell editions of the Little House books as well as historical photos of Wilder, Lane and others. Many essays fill gaps in Wilder scholarship or bring together what is already known in helpful ways. It is a worthy companion to Pioneer Girl on the shelves of anyone interested in the Little House books and the way that they depict the West—and the Midwest.

John Fry, Annals of Iowa

Reprinted with permission

Prairie Fires

Congratulations to Caroline Fraser on her new book Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which received a great review from historian Patricia Nelson Limerick.

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Earlier this year, Fraser contributed to the South Dakota Historical Society Press book Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder with her essay “The Strange Case of the Bloody Benders: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and Yellow Journalism.” In Prairie Fires, Fraser looks further at the questions she brought up in this essay and at much more.

One-hundred and fifty years after Wilder’s birth, the Little House series continues to shape ideas of the historical United States—its settlement, its literature, and the roles of women, among other things. Laura Ingalls Wilder is and always will be an important voice of American heritage.

—Jennifer McIntyre

C-SPAN Stops by the Pioneer Girl Project

Earlier this fall, C-SPAN correspondents stopped by the Pioneer Girl Project office to speak with Nancy Tystad Koupal during BookTV’s City Tour of Pierre, South Dakota. From discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself to why Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is such a big book, Koupal outlined the Project’s early beginnings, current research, and overall goals as it continues down the path of research into the life and legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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Below are a few excerpts from the program. You can watch the entire episode online at c-span.org.

“We decided to go with the handwritten original because that was the closest to Wilder’s original voice,” says Koupal. (However, as detailed in a previous post, once that decision was made, the work did not end there.)

“I was in New York and my staff called me and said, “We’re on the New York Times Best Seller list!” We were pretty excited. . . . It opened up a whole new world of conversations.”

“One of the things that the Annotated Autobiography did was it allowed us to think more comprehensively about what the Pioneer Girl Project was doing. And what we decided we wanted to do was really look at those [other Pioneer Girl] texts and start to answer some of those questions . . . what kind of an editor was Rose Wilder Lane? What kind of a memory did Laura Ingalls Wilder have? To what extent was that memory supplemented by her daughter’s work? And this is just on the nonfiction aspects of it. . . . Then you move into fiction, and how did that daughter/editor/agent lead her mother into fiction, and what were the roles of the two women?”

“We don’t understand, as a reading public, . . . the role of authors and editors—that most good authors have good editors. . . . We don’t talk to enough editors, we don’t know what it is that they really do, and I think we should rectify that.”

Two other South Dakota Historical Society Press authors were interviewed during the Pierre City Tour, Cathie Draine, author of Cowboy Life: The Letters of George Phillip, and Nathan Sanderson, author of Controlled Recklessness: Ed Lemmon and the Open Range. Find more information about both books at sdhspress.com.

 

Past and Future Projects

In 2010, the South Dakota Historical Society Press set up the Pioneer Girl Project as a research and publishing program to create a comprehensive edition of Wilder’s autobiography, as well as to create books dedicated to exploring Wilder’s life and works. We had just earned the privilege of publishing Wilder’s memoir from the Little House Heritage Trust, and we were determined to do a thorough and professional job of it. We modeled the project loosely on the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library/University of California Press, which was then publishing Twain’s multi-volume autobiography. Since 2010, we have had a dedicated team working in period newspapers, census and land records, archival collections in five or more states, and other primary and secondary materials to research the life and times of the original pioneer girl and her manuscripts. In 2012, we began this website as a way to share our research with those who were interested in Wilder’s life and legacy.

PG cover 72dpi 220pxThe first phase of our project came to fruition in 2014, with the publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. And, as you all know, that book found both a national and international audience and went on to become another bestselling volume by author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Moreover, its financial success gave the Pioneer Girl Project team the resources to plan three additional books. The second is Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in May 2017.

The idea for the additional books began as the research for and editing of Wilder’s 9781941813089original handwritten autobiography was drawing to a close in 2014.  The project team could see that many questions remained unanswered about Wilder as a person and about Wilder as a writer—and especially about the relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Because we had been studying the text of the handwritten Pioneer Girl so meticulously and comparing it to the typed and edited versions, it became clear that there was indeed something special about that mother/daughter, writer/editor relationship. This complex relationship reveals itself more fully as we examine Lane’s edits to her mother’s writing and then evaluate the evolution in Wilder’s response. Clues about this process abound in both the nonfiction and fiction texts, drafts, discarded pages, and other materials held at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and elsewhere.

In the upcoming books, we plan to address nonfiction and fiction processes separately. Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts will concentrate on Wilder’s and Lane’s interaction in the creation of the nonfiction autobiography. The book will contain the text of the three surviving typescript versions of Wilder’s autobiography in a side-by-side format. This presentation will facilitate intertextual comparison among the Brandt, Brandt Revised, and Bye manuscripts. The book will also contain annotations that highlight differences among the manuscripts and provide an analysis of Wilder’s and Lane’s working relationship as revealed in those manuscripts and elsewhere. The annotations will not repeat material published in the first volume, offering instead new information about Wilder’s life and its historical context where relevant. The Revised Texts will focus on the editorial work that Rose Wilder Lane performed on these adult, nonfiction manuscripts and the revisions or additions that Wilder herself made to them.

By contrast, the fourth book will analyze Wilder’s transition from nonfiction to fiction writer. In Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, we will take a closer look at Lane’s role as her mother’s editor and agent in the field of children’s literature and at Wilder’s initial attempts at writing fiction. While the overarching purpose of both books will be to study the relationship between Wilder and Lane, the fourth book will examine the fiction writing/editorial process itself, a process in which both women took active roles. Other books have discussed this process, but The Path into Fiction will be the first to explore it completely within the context of the most critical piece of evidence—the draft manuscripts themselves.

We are excited about these forthcoming books, and we think that the study of the texts themselves will tell us much about the creative and editorial processes as well as about Wilder and Lane as working writers.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

“HOWDY” Mrs. A. J. Wilder

As we continue to study Laura Ingalls Wilder, one of my favorite parts is the artifacts. In Pioneer Girl Perspectives, many of the authors looked at the early career of the now famous American author, reminding me that Wilder’s literary start was in chickens, which delighted me to no end, as I myself am a fan of the feathered fowl, and it got me interested in her early works. My favorite artifact from this period of Wilder’s life is a button from her time at the Missouri Ruralist that says, “‘HOWDY’ Mrs. A. J. Wilder, Farm Home Editor, Missouri Ruralist.” I can imagine Wilder struggling not to poke herself or tear her dress with its straight pin. But perhaps she had a better grasp of using pins than I do.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum

It can sometimes feel sacrilegious to dive deeply into our favorite authors’ lives, especially when their lives are the basis of the tales they created, but when I stumble across an artifact like a button or a photograph, I just have to know more. These artifacts supplement our research and give life to our publications, bringing literary heroines closer to us as human beings. It reminds me that though the real Laura’s life may have been darker than her fictional counterpart, her character grows with these remnants from the past. I, for one, am looking forward to finding more artifacts as we go forward, as well as continuing to revisit these known trinkets from the past.

Jennifer McIntyre

You are still in Kansas, Laura

Reading or re-reading a work as iconic as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series is like a dialogue with entire generations of readers who have gone before. I realized that while browsing through scholar William Anderson’s fine essay in Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. Anderson’s “Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print” is one of eleven essays in the book and examines Wilder’s first efforts at getting her pioneering experiences into print. It appears in the section that editor Nancy Tystad Koupal called “Beginnings and Misdirections,” which is fitting in more ways than one—maybe the “misdirections” part in particular.

Anderson deals with the questions that began around 1963 about actual dates and places in the Ingallses’ story. For example, a Colorado woman questioned whether the family had really lived in Kansas at all, and she convinced publisher Harper & Row that the Ingalls family had actually settled in Oklahoma (sort of a Dorothy moment for Laura? You’re not in Kansas anymore).

Anderson goes on to tell how Eileen Charbo, who worked at the Kansas State Historical Society library in Topeka, did her own investigation, trying to save one of Kansas’s favorite regional books for Kansas. And she did. She contacted Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s daughter, who sent her a typewritten copy of the births and deaths as recorded in the Ingalls family Bible, including a reference to “Caroline Celestia Ingalls born Wednesday, Aug. 3, 1870, Montgomery Co. Kansas.”1 Charbo then found the Ingalls family—incorrectly listed as “Ingles”—in the Ninth United States Census of 1870 in Rutland Township of Montgomery County, Kansas. True, Montgomery County is in southeast Kansas, smack up against the Oklahoma border, but it is still in Kansas. After reading this passage in Anderson’s essay, I vaguely remembered hearing a teacher discussing this issue with the class when I was in elementary school, and I asked my wife if she remembered any uncertainty about where the Ingalls homestead was. She said no.

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Back cover of Little House on the Prairie, First Harper Trophy Book printing, 1971

That wasn’t quite the end of the discussion, however. The next day, my daughter, who has grown up reading her mother’s old boxed paperback set of the Little House books, brought me that copy of Little House on the Prairie. There, on the back of the Harper Trophy Book from 1971, are these words: “The Big Woods was getting too crowded. So Pa sold the little log house and built a covered wagon. They were moving to Indian country! They traveled all the way from Wisconsin to Oklahoma, and there Pa built the little house on the prairie.”

Clearly, Harper & Row thought that the Ingalls family had gone to Oklahoma. But perhaps that is not so surprising. Wilder herself originally wrote that the family lived forty miles from Independence, Kansas, and, as a result, she and Lane had searched for the homesite in Oklahoma. But it was actually only about thirteen miles from Independence—and still in Kansas.2

Lance Nixon


1 Quoted in William Anderson, “Pioneer Girl: Its Roundabout Path into Print,” in Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2017), p. 86.

2 John E. Miller, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), p. 266n27. See also Fred Kiewit, “Stories That Had to Be Told,” Kansas City Star, May 22, 1955.