What Is It About Laura Ingalls Wilder?

Originally posted August 4, 2014

At last count, over three thousand people have enrolled in “Laura Ingalls Wilder: Exploring Her Work and Writing Life,” my massive open online class through Missouri State University (www.outreach.missouristate.edu/180450.htm) .  It debuts online in September.  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine so many people would want to read and study Wilder’s work together.   I would have considered the class extraordinarily successful if a hundred people had enrolled. 

Since the news leaked out about the class, I’ve been asked why Wilder’s work is so popular and why it appears to cross social, cultural, regional, and even political boundaries.  Why have her Little House books endured?    Is it because the books seem to embrace what we now call old fashioned family values?   Is it because they explore an inherently dramatic period of American history?  Is it because Laura Ingalls is a strong and appealing young heroine?  Is it because the American West itself is so mythic?  Or is it because the novels feel real and true?

Yes—to all those questions.

But I’ve also come to believe that what makes Wilder’s Little House series so enduring is its unique and intimate narrative voice.  Almost all readers who fall under Wilder’s spell feel as if her writing speaks directly and personally to them.   At conferences, workshops, and book signings, people often tell me they’ve experienced a uniquely personal bond not only with Laura the fictional character, but with Laura the author herself.  Her work seems to invite readers into her life; she seems more like an old friend than a successful, important, and enduring author.

Not many writers accomplish this sense of intimacy with their readers.  Jane Austen does this, of course.  Think of all the Austen spin-off mysteries and romances still being published today.  Yet those spin-offs never achieve Austen’s unique and very personal narrative voice.  And despite the intimacy Austen creates between her readers and the characters in her books, she herself remains something of an enigma.   Readers feel they know her—and yet whole chunks of Austen’s life remain a mystery to her biographers.   

Wilder too remains an enigma, despite her popularity and the warm, personal voice she achieves in the Little House books.   She didn’t leave a clear paper trail for those of us who yearn to know more about the real Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Other than the occasional travel diary (think, On The Way Home), she didn’t keep regular diaries or journals, as did her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.    Dozens of Wilder’s letters survive, but most of those that haven’t already been published relate to the writing process itself.  Those letters are a treasure trove for researchers like me, who are fascinated with the creative process and how writers work.  But for the most part, her editorial correspondence reveals more about Wilder the writer and less about Wilder the woman. 

Pioneer Girl, her autobiography which will be published for the first time later this year, gives readers new insights into the real Ingalls family, but whole decades of Wilder’s adult life remain something of a mystery.   What was daily life like for Laura, Almanzo, and Rose during those first years when they lived in town in Mansfield, Missouri?  What exactly prompted the Wilders to allow Rose to live with her Aunt E.J. and finish high school in Louisiana?   How did Wilder feel when she began writing for the Missouri Ruralist?  Had she always wanted to be a writer or did this ambition develop later in life?    

Despite the warmth and intimacy of the voice Wilder creates in her novels, she herself appears to have been a private woman, emotionally reserved and restrained.  A line from one of her editorial letters to her daughter reinforces this idea.  The real Ingalls family, Wilder wrote was “rather inclined to be fatalistic—to just take things as they came.  I know we all hated a fuss, as I still do.”1 

Perhaps this inherent contradiction—the warmth and intimacy of her fiction balanced against the reserve and mystery surrounding much of her personal life—is one reason why over three thousand people want to study Wilder’s life and work online.   Wilder certainly didn’t envision that her Little House books would spark so much lasting discussion, scrutiny, and even controversy.  But I suspect she would have been pleased that all these years later, so many readers have been inspired by her books and are eager now to read them more closely.   


Notes

1.  Laura Ingalls Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, n.d. [1932], Box 13, LIW Series, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

Holly Atkinson