Dr. John J. Fry chairs the history department at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL, and is the author of The Farm Press, Reform and Rural Change, 1895-1920.
Dr. Paul Kengor: Dr. John Fry, welcome to our Q&A.
Dr. John J. Fry: Thanks, I’m very glad to visit with you.
Kengor: How did you first get interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder?
Fry: Well, I hadn’t read the Little House books as a child, but my wife Paula got me to read the books with her after we were married. So, my first time reading the books was her fifth or sixth time. Several months after I finished, I began graduate work in History at Duquesne University and had to begin writing research papers based on primary sources. Most of the other graduate students in Pittsburgh were doing urban history or labor history of some type, but that didn’t interest me at all. It was Paula who suggested that I write about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I ended up writing several papers on Laura. I also discussed her in my book, The Farm Press, Reform and Rural Change, 1895-1920 .
Kengor: So, who was Laura Ingalls Wilder, where and when was she born, where was she raised, who were her parents?
Fry: Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born on February 7, 1867 to Charles and Caroline Ingalls in western Wisconsin. Her early childhood was spent in a log cabin in Wisconsin, except for one year that her family spent in Kansas where they squatted on land in the Osage Indian Reserve. When Laura was six, the Ingalls moved about 200 miles west to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where she spent her middle childhood, again with a one-year sojourn in another state, in Burr Oak, Iowa. Then, in 1879, the family moved to a homestead near DeSmet in South Dakota, where she finished school and taught in several one-room schoolhouses. In 1885, she married Almanzo Wilder, a homesteader originally from New York.
Laura and Almanzo struggled for four years against bad weather, poor crops, and debt, but eventually lost their homestead to the bank and moved to town. During those years, they had a daughter they named Rose and a son that died in infancy. In 1894, they moved to a farm in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri near Mansfield, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Almanzo died in 1949 at age 92. Laura died in 1957, three days past her 90th birthday.
Kengor: Laura Ingalls Wilder is famous because of her Little House books. Describe those books, and when they were written.
Fry: Laura was first published in 1911, when she started writing for the Missouri Ruralist , a regional farm newspaper. She wrote for the paper until 1924. In the late 1920s, Laura sat down to write her autobiography. Her daughter Rose, who by this time was a fairly well-known journalist and author of magazine fiction, typed the manuscript and sent it to her agent in 1930. Rose also separated out some of the stories from Laura’s childhood and sent them separately to a friend in children’s publishing. Her agent couldn’t get any magazines interested, but one publisher’s children’s department asked for the stories to be expanded into a book for beginning readers. The resulting Little House in the Big Woods was published in April 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, and received glowing reviews.
During the next 11 years, Laura wrote the other seven Little House books, with assistance from Rose. On average, a book appeared every other year. Farmer Boy , published in 1933, described Almanzo’s boyhood in upstate New York. Little House on the Prairie chronicled the Ingalls’s sojourn in Kansas. On the Banks of Plum Creek described life on the farm outside of Walnut Grove. By the Shores of Silver Lake told of their move to the homestead outside DeSmet. The struggle to survive the hard winter of 1880-1881 took center stage in The Long Winter . Little Town on the Prairie described how Laura became a teacher. Finally, These Happy Golden Years , published in 1943, told of Almanzo and Laura’s courtship and marriage.
Kengor: Now, here’s where this gets especially interesting: Why did Laura Ingalls Wilder write and publish these books? Did she have a political motivation?
Fry: Well, primarily she published these books because she wanted to tell the stories of her and Almanzo’s childhoods. And she wrote them to help make ends meet during the Depression. But the books constantly emphasize the self-reliance of the Ingalls family through the hardships they faced: wild animals, locusts, blizzards, and crop failures. The books also consistently criticize the federal government for interfering in the lives of Westerners. It’s pretty clear that Laura wrote this way because she was a vocal opponent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Kengor: You’ve mentioned Rose a number of times already. Haven’t I heard somewhere that Rose should be credited with the best parts of the books? Or that she was in some way a ghost-writer?
Fry: That idea has been around since the early 1990s, when William Holtz, a literature professor at the University of Missouri, published a biography of Rose titled The Ghost in the Little House . He argued that Laura remained an amateurish writer to the end and that the best elements of the books came from Rose’s efforts with them. It’s true that Laura and Rose collaborated on the books. Rose typed the manuscripts and edited them. But several other scholars have looked at the evidence and concluded that Holtz went too far in his assessment. The idea of Rose as the real brains behind the books returns periodically, however, most recently in a New Yorker article from August of this year.
If Rose had been the driving force behind the books, they might have been even more anti-government. By the 1930s she had become a radical individualist or libertarian. By the end of her life, she was corresponding with Herbert Hoover, Ayn Rand, and Hans Sennholz, an economics professor at Grove City College. She was also a mother-figure of sorts to Roger Lea MacBride, the Libertarian candidate for President in 1976.
Kengor: Hans Sennholz? That’s really interesting. We should note that Laura started in politics as a Democrat. I assume she believed that the New Deal was pushing Americans away from self-reliance; that it encouraged people to look to the federal government instead of to themselves, their families, their faith, as she and her family had always done? She saw a long-term danger to the country in this?
Fry: Exactly. Laura and Almanzo both felt that New Deal programs that gave money to individuals and expanded federal control were bad for the country and especially bad for rural areas. In 1938, an agent from the USDA stopped to talk to Almanzo and inform him of some new federal regulations. Almanzo told him to get off his land or he would get his shotgun. Laura believed that New Deal work-relief programs had made farm labor scarce and called first term Democratic Senator Harry Truman “a liar” in 1939. As one biographer put it, “Laura ultimately believed that anyone with gumption and wit and a little persistence could make it without having to take government charity.”
Kengor: Would we today consider her a “conservative?” Was she a social conservative, a religious conservative, an economic conservative?
Fry: I think that we should see her as a conservative. Even when she was a Democrat, it was mainly because the Democratic Party was the party of limited government at the turn of the 20th century. She didn’t have a major problem with government having a role in encouraging people to do the right thing. That changed with the New Deal, which she saw as the government going way too far. Then her concern for limited government really took over. She was certainly an economic conservative.
I think that a lot more attention might be given in the literature to the exact nature of her religious beliefs. She grew up in Congregationalist churches and was always active in a local church. But when she moved to Missouri and there was no Congregationalist church, she and Almanzo attended a Methodist church in Mansfield but never became members. Her description of organized religion in the Little House books sounds pretty critical to me, though other scholars haven’t really picked up on it.
Kengor: What really made her famous in recent times was the decision to turn her books into an extremely successful TV series in the 1970s. Whose decision was that? Was this the effort of the star of the series, the late Michael Landon?
Fry: Little House on the Prairie , the television series, was set in Walnut Grove, Minnesota (in the series, the family never moved), and ran for over 200 episodes between 1974 and 1983. It was indeed the brainchild of Michael Landon, who directed most of the episodes and wrote about a quarter of them, as well as starring as Laura’s “Pa.” However, one should note that the Little House books had already become incredibly popular in their own right by the 1970s. They were translated into Japanese and German by the U.S. government after World War II to spread American values to the people of those countries. Public schools used excerpts from the books in reading texts, and teachers fashioned entire units around the books. And historic sites in seven different states had already become pilgrimage destinations for those who loved the books.
Kengor: Michael Landon was a conservative, wasn’t he? And, if so, did he, like Laura Ingalls Wilder a generation earlier, have a political motivation? Perhaps Landon was fighting LBJ’s 1960s Great Society, as Laura had battled FDR’s 1930s New Deal ?
Fry: Yes, it’s my understanding that Landon was a conservative. It may be that he was politically motivated like Laura, that he was reacting to the Great Society like she was to the New Deal. My expertise is in the books themselves; I’ve actually never watched an episode of the television series. But it’s also my understanding that there was a broader movement in American culture during the 1970s and 1980s that called for a return to simpler times that both capitalized on and was encouraged by television shows like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons . Colonial furniture for your home was very popular, and one could even buy lumber to make the facade of your home a log cabin.
Kengor: Do Laura and Almanzo have any heirs alive today?
Fry: In fact, no. I mentioned earlier that they had a son who died in infancy. Their daughter Rose was married to Gilette Lane for several years during the 1910s and also had a son who died in infancy. After their divorce she never remarried or had more children.
Kengor: Finally, what’s the political relevance of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series right now, especially if we’re seeing under President Obama and the Pelosi-Reid Congress a third great thrust by the big-government/progressive left, a picking up of the torch from FDR and LBJ?
Fry: I think that conservatives who seek to oppose this latest round of government expansion can turn to Wilder’s books to provide cultural and narrative support for their views. The books certainly encourage individual and family self-reliance and a skepticism of government solutions to people’s problems.
Kengor: Dr. John Fry, your research is fascinating. Thank you very much for talking to us.
Fry: Thanks very much for inviting me.