At the Hoover

Earlier this month, I cleared my schedule so that I could spend five uninterrupted days researching Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. It was my second trip to this amazing repository in a lovely little Iowa town of about twenty-five hundred people just outside of Iowa City. Although the leaves carried a tinge of yellow, signaling the onset of autumn, the weather had turned summery, and people were enjoying the Hoover park and museum. As an added bonus, on Friday, September 15, the grounds were a sea of bright colors as friends and relatives came to watch more than seventy immigrants become proud United States citizens. On that same day, I was privileged to see the original manuscript of Wilder’s “The First Three Years,” another highlight of the trip.

Archivists Spencer Howard and Matt Schaefer brought the manuscript from the vault, laid it on a research table in the reading room, and ordered me to “glove up.” Pulling on white cotton gloves, I gingerly touched the manuscript just as I had carefully explored the Pioneer Girl manuscript six years earlier. As with her autobiography, Wilder had written this adult novel of the first years of her marriage in pencil on cheap, wide-lined school tablets. Overall, however, the manuscript, and especially the first tablet, is in much rougher shape than the original Pioneer Girl manuscript, with strike-overs and eraser holes rubbed into the cheap paper. In a seemingly helter-skelter fashion, Wilder had appended text, crossed it out, and covered it over with scraps of paper, leaving a puzzle for researchers to decipher. In contrast, the extant tablets of Pioneer Girl are clean, with almost no strike outs or false starts and clear instructions for following the author’s intentions. Wilder’s care with that manuscript compared to the haphazard nature of this one confirms my speculation that the original Pioneer Girl is a fair copy prepared for her typist. It is not a first or working draft as “The First Three Years” manuscript clearly is.

Through special fundraising efforts, the Hoover library staff has had “The First Three Years” treated for acidity and stored in acid-free wrappers. Damaged pages have been stabilized, and the three tablets of the manuscript are housed in a specially made case. It is a beautiful presentation. Congratulations to the staff at the library for their foresight in preserving this important manuscript for future generations of Wilder scholars.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

 


 

1. Nancy Tystad Koupal and Rodger Hartley, “Editorial Procedures,” in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. lxv. Some of Wilder’s other remaining manuscripts, especially those of Little House on the Prairie, are clearly first or working drafts as well, showing the same characteristics as “The First Three Years.” Others, like Pioneer Girl, are fair copies prepared for the typist.

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Real People

Who’s real? How real?

We know that many of the characters in the Little House novels are based on real people—and sometimes in interesting ways. Take, for example, the notorious Nellie Oleson, a girl so persistently odious that you just know (or hope) that she cannot have been “real” in quite that way. As it turns out, this character is an amalgam of no less than three unpleasant people of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood acquaintance; Nellie as we know her combines all of their unpleasantnesses into a perfect triune arch-nasty.

The example of Nellie Oleson is well known, but the research and editorial team for the Pioneer Girl Project are probing the real basis of even the most occasional characters in Laura’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl. Historians wonder about any good story: Who’s real? How real? The answers are frequently gratifying, sometimes puzzling, and occasionally—well, occasionally, there’s no answer at all. That, too, is part of the practice of history.

Census records are the first tool in our box, an easy way to establish the basic fact of reality. Sometimes. Cap Garland, for example. Real? Yes. “Garland, Edmund”—for such was the lad’s given name—was enumerated outside De Smet in the 1880 census, living with his mother and two sisters, whom Laura mentions by name in Pioneer Girl.

Occasionally, the census has its little quirks that make the research all the more interesting. What about the Heath boys?

Wait, the Heath boys? you ask. Who are they?

Nobody crucial. Their story didn’t make it into the published novels. “The youngest Wilder boy and two other boys, Homer and Horace Heath, from near De Smet, were in the railroad camp when all this happened,” Laura wrote in Pioneer Girl. Well, I’m very much mistaken if you don’t know who the youngest Wilder boy is. But these Heath boys: real? Yes. So real that they were counted twice.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from ancestrylibrary.com.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from ancestrylibrary.com.

On 24 June 1880, a census taker enumerated a “Heath, Horice S.” and his brother, “Heath, Homer N.” on a farm just across the line in Brookings County. They were respectively twenty-five and twenty years old and were born, respectively, in New York and Wisconsin to parents who were also born in New York. They were listed as laborers.

Now, at some point in June—we don’t know exactly when—the following two laborers were enumerated in Beadle County, to the west of De Smet, boarding with thirty-two other laborers (smells like a railroad camp to me): “Heath, Horace” and “Heath, N. H.,” twenty-four and nineteen years old, born in New York and Wisconsin to parents born in New York. The first thing you learn in dealing with nineteenth-century census records is that the transposition of someone’s initials, or a year’s discrepancy in age, are commonplace. These were the same guys, counted twice in the 1880 census. I suspect that railroad camps—and other places using a seasonal workforce—were fertile ground for errors of this kind.

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy ancestrylibrary.com

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy ancestrylibrary.com

Oh, and look who appears on the same manuscript page, between Horace and Homer:

Wilder, A. J., twenty-two years old, laborer, born in New York to parents born in New York and Vermont. (Almanzo Wilder, too, was counted twice in 1880: once in this railroad camp in Beadle County and again outside De Smet with his brother Royal and sister Eliza.)

Real people.

Rodger Hartley

The Sources

Today a copy of Barnaby Rudge arrived for me at the South Dakota Historical Society Press offices through interlibrary loan. No, it’s not my light reading for the morning coffee break. It’s for the Pioneer Girl Project. But what, you may ask, do Laura Ingalls Wilder and Charles Dickens have to do with each other? Other than their mutual status as classic authors?

(If you can guess why this book is on my desk, you’re good.)

As we research, edit, and write annotations for Wilder’s Pioneer Girl, I am impressed by the breadth and depth of background it takes to understand a life. Even a normal person’s life. For isn’t that what makes Laura Ingalls Wilder special: that for most of her life, she was not a celebrity? To her contemporaries, she was literally the girl next door (or on the next quarter section), yet as an author, she makes her readers see what is extraordinary and worth telling in the everyday lives of everyday people.

And how many details make up such a life! All the source materials for the annotations come across my desk. For the first quarter of the manuscript, I have several articles on the Osage Indians, a book on medicine during the Civil War era. Another on women’s hair ornaments, a pamphlet on public-land laws, and a serious tome on the history of Redwood County, Minnesota. And a Dickens novel.

Image from Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

An image from an early Barnaby Rudge

We don’t know if Wilder read Barnaby Rudge, but we do know that Dickens and his work had a far-reaching effect on the popular culture of the time. In the original, unedited Pioneer Girl manuscript, Wilder says about one of her cousins: “Edith was to [sic] small to know us but she laughed at me and held out her little hands. They all called her Dolly Varden because she had a pretty dress of calico that was called that.” Not being an English major, I had no clue what this passage might mean. But Dolly Varden, it turns out, was a character from Barnaby Rudge, a flirtatious beauty who inspired a style of dress in the late nineteenth century. So even this unlikely source provides a little more insight into Wilder’s world.

Imagine writing about your own childhood. How many of the details would be obscure or incomprehensible to a reader eighty years hence? When I visited my own cousins earlier this year, I teased one of them about his Justin Bieber haircut. Someday, a remark like that will require annotation. One of the greatest values of the Pioneer Girl Project is the way in which it enriches our experience of the things that Wilder and her family, friends, and neighbors knew on a day-to-day basis.

Rodger Hartley

Transcribing the Original

Many months ago I began transcribing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript into MS-Word format. It was my first contact with this historic document, and I rejoiced that Wilder had such clean handwriting, so unlike my own.

Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl as a remembrance of her childhood. It is a remarkable account in its own right, but what gives it special significance is its place in literary history, for this is the account that Wilder later spun out into the world-famous “Little House” series.

World famous those books may be, but I have a shocking confession to make: I have not read them. [Editor’s note: All these months later, Rodger has in fact at least perused some of the famous books!] That’s right; I am probably the first person since the 1930s to read her autobiographical manuscript before reading the books that it spawned. Those who have sought Pioneer Girl out before have done so because they loved the books and wanted to get closer to the truth of the story—whereas I read it because it was my job. Here am I, a newcomer to the world of Wilder, suddenly wrapped up in the Pioneer Girl Project, the most exciting development for fans and scholars of this author in years.

I feel like a bit of an outsider, but in a way, I think that my unfamiliarity made me a better transcriber, because every word was new to me. Now, of course, we’re well past the transcription stage. Now we’re deep in to research, gathering photographs, and so on, and I frequently have to refer to the published books. And when I read something that I remember from the Pioneer Girl manuscript, I get a little thrill of recognition. I’m interested to see how the story grew and, sometimes, changed. It gives me a hint, I think, of the excitement that confirmed fans of Wilder’s work will feel when they read Pioneer Girl—but in reverse.

Working on this project has definitely put the “Little House” series on my reading list. By the time Pioneer Girl goes to press, I will probably have read most of those books—just not in the right order. After that, it’ll be catch-up time.

Rodger Hartley