Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Article abstract: As a newspaper columnist in the 1910’s and 1920’s, Wilder espoused traditional values. Through the widely acclaimed fictionalized account of her youth in the “Little House” novels, she presented a picture of pioneer and homesteading life from the 1860’s to the 1880’s.

Early Life

Laura Ingalls was born in Pepin, Wisconsin, the second of four daughters of Charles Phillip Ingalls and his wife, Caroline Quiner Ingalls. They moved around frequently before finally settling in De Smet, South Dakota, in 1879. Because of an economic depression, the Ingalls family moved to Missouri in 1868, which Laura’s father found too crowded, and then in 1869 to Osage Indian Territory in Kansas, as recounted in Little House on the Prairie (1935). Returning to the woods of Wisconsin, the family found that it had become too populous for good hunting, so in 1874 the family settled in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in a dugout house described in On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937). On November 1, 1875, a brother, Charles Frederick, was born. The family decided to move again, to Burr Oak, Iowa, where Charles and Caroline ran the Masters Hotel. Baby Freddie died, and in 1877, sister Grace Pearl was born. In the fictionalized account of her life, Laura omitted the two years at Burr Oak and, to compensate, placed the events of the first book, Little House in the Big Woods (1932), in 1870. After Burr Oak, the Ingalls returned to Walnut Grove, where the eldest daughter, Mary, became severely ill and lost her sight.

With sickness and debt haunting them, the Ingalls moved to the Dakota Territory in 1879, prompted by Charles’s brother-in-law, who worked for the railroad and who needed someone to help him take care of the books and payroll of the store. Though Charles filed a homestead claim, the family lived in the surveyor’s house at first and moved into town the next spring. Charles built a store there but soon moved the claim because of the threat of claim jumpers.

In De Smet, the Ingalls endured the hardships detailed in The Long Winter (1940). Laura met her husband, Almanzo Wilder, and earned her teacher’s certificate at the age of fifteen. Her first position was at the Bouchie school, called the Brewster school in These Happy Golden Years (1943). By then, Almanzo was courting her, and after she taught two more terms, they married on August 9, 1885. Almanzo filed a homestead claim and a tree claim. On December 9, 1886, daughter Rose was born. The young couple, however, had to endure many troubles. Almanzo contracted diphtheria, which left him with a permanent limp. A son died shortly after birth in 1889. They lost the homestead claim, their house on the tree claim burned down, crops failed, and the trees on the claim died. The family was deeply in debt.

Laura, Almanzo, and Rose left De Smet in 1890, spent a year in Spring Valley, Minnesota, with Almanzo’s parents, and then lived for two years in Florida. They returned to De Smet in 1892. Laura sewed to earn enough money for the family to leave Dakota. By covered wagon, they moved to Missouri, “The Land of the Big Red Apple,” and settled near Mansfield. Wilder’s diary of the trip was published in On The Way Home (1962). In Missouri they established Rocky Ridge Farm, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

Life’s Work

Wilder’s writing career began when she was in her forties. Until this point, she had been a farmer’s wife. As she had become an expert in raising chickens, agricultural groups occasionally...

(This entire section contains 1972 words.)

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invited her to speak. One time in 1911, she was unable to attend the meeting, so she had someone read her talk. It impressed the editor of the Missouri Ruralist, who was in the audience, and he invited her to submit essays for publication. With this invitation, the author Laura Ingalls Wilder was born. Her first article, “Favors the Small Farm Home,” appeared on February 18, 1911, and developed several themes often appearing in her work: the virtues of the rural life and small farm; the benefits of technological developments such as the telephone, news delivery, and transportation innovations; and the necessity of cooperation between husband and wife in farm management. From the beginning, detailed descriptions applied to broader lessons characterized her writings. Between 1911 and 1915, she wrote only nine articles, some of which were signed not with Mrs. A. J. Wilder, as was the first one, but with Almanzo Wilder, to give them more authority.

In 1915 she went to San Francisco, California, a trip detailed in letters in West From Home (1974), to visit her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, herself an experienced writer. Lane recognized that her mother was highly skilled in description and helped her with stylistic and organizational matters. With Lane’s encouragement, Wilder found other places to publish her farm articles, including the Missouri State Farmer and the St. Louis Star. She became a regular columnist for the Ruralist, with her column appearing in almost each of the bimonthly issues. These nonfiction articles focused on values that appeared later in her novels: hard work, thrift, honesty, and self-help, all within a balanced life. With Lane’s help, she published the article “Whom Will You Marry” in the June, 1919, issue of McCall’s magazine using the pen name Laura Ingalls Wilder.

In December, 1922, Lane arrived in Mansfield and again encouraged her mother to write for a larger audience. Wilder produced two pieces, which Lane edited, and sold them for $150 each to Country Gentleman. Wilder confessed that Lane’s emendations took some joy away from the achievement. Lane in turn assured her mother that the reworking was minimal and that she could teach her to write in a style suitable for national publication with six months of instruction. Part of Lane’s motive seems to have been to increase her parents’ income. Lane had a rock house built for her parents on the Mansfield farm, which they inhabited for eight years, while Lane settled down in the original farmhouse.

During the first half of 1930, Wilder finally wrote a two-hundred-page memoir, “Pioneer Girl,” which Lane sent to her agent. Of all the national publications, only The Saturday Evening Post expressed an interest in “Pioneer Girl,” though only if it was reworked in fictional form. Lane abstracted some early material and worked it into a twenty-page story called “When Grandma Was a Little Girl,” which a friend of Lane then sent to Alfred A. Knopf publishers. The editor observed that little in general, and almost nothing for children, had been written about that period in American history. Wilder was advised to expand the manuscript to 25,000 words and to write for children aged eight to twelve. She wrote the additional material in first person, and Lane spent a week reworking it into the third person and making other editorial changes. Knopf, meanwhile, had closed its children’s division, leaving the book without a publisher. At the end of 1931, Virginia Kirkus at Harper Brothers took on the project, and when Little House in the Big Woods was chosen as the Junior Literary Guild selection for April, 1932, Harper Brothers published it. Wilder was then sixty-five years old.

Wilder next took up her husband’s youth in Farmer Boy (1933). Midway through editing this book, Lane became acutely distressed over her own loneliness and frustrations at writing but recovered sufficiently to complete the task in August, 1932. Because the depression had affected book sales, Harper Brothers initially turned down the manuscript and suggested extensive revisions. Lane redid the manuscript in early 1933, and Harper Brothers published the book later that year.

The relationship between Lane and her mother was complex. On one hand, they helped each other, Lane by reworking Wilder’s manuscripts and Wilder by giving Lane details of her life, which Lane then used in works such as her successful Let the Hurricanes Roar (1933). However, Lane’s relationship with her mother during the collaborative years was often strained, and her own writing suffered. Wilder in turn was particularly upset by Lane’s critique of By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939). Nevertheless, the two continued to collaborate, and Wilder generally acquiesced to Lane’s suggestions. During Wilder’s lifetime, Harper Brothers published eight of her books; a ninth, The First Four Years (1971), was probably written during the 1930’s. Untouched by Lane, its style is quite different from the others, as it is mainly a bare narrative, adult fare realistically detailing the early years of Wilder’s marriage.


Little House in the Big Woods was an immediate success, and it and the subsequent books won wide praise. By the Shores of Silver Lake was a Newberry Honor Book and the Pacific Northwest Library Young Reader’s Choice Award in 1942. Four other books were also Newberry Honor Books: On the Banks of Plum Creek, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie (1941), and These Happy Golden Years. In 1954 the Association for Library Services created the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for authors who have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature and presented Wilder with the first award.

The Little House books are instructive from several viewpoints. They provide a sustained, though perhaps romanticized and sanitized, view of pioneer and homesteading life and provide a comparison with the works of such authors as Willa Cather. They also illustrate the process of women writing about girls. At first Pa was the dominant character, but as the series progressed, Wilder and Lane developed Laura’s voice. The books also illustrate the conflicts between independence and conformity to late nineteenth century gender roles that Laura experienced. Finally, the books may be seen as excellent historical fiction, for Wilder and Lane made every effort to ensure historical accuracy, resorting to research on events and places that Wilder could no longer clearly remember.


Anderson, William. Laura Ingalls Wilder Country. New York: Harper, 1990. A photographic essay, this attractive book illustrates the lives of the Ingalls and Wilder families and people they knew. Included are pictures of the places where the Ingalls lived during Wilder’s childhood, including markers and replicas of some of their cabins. Also contains a map and a chronology.

Holtz, William. The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. This 425-page biography of Wilder’s daughter contains extensive discussions on the relationship between the mother and daughter, including the collaborative effort involved in publishing the Little House books.

Miller, John E. Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998. A 306-page biography detailing the major periods of Wilder’s life. Personal events are placed within a historical and economic context, and the nature of the collaboration between Wilder and her daughter is examined.

Miller, John E. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994. A literary analysis of Wilder’s books as history, focusing on life in De Smet. The author examines themes such as place and community in De Smet and love and affection in the writing and life of Wilder, and compares the prairie depicted by Wilder and artist Harvey Dunn.

Romines, Ann. Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Written by an English professor interested in women’s writing and gendered culture, this 287-page book examines how Wilder and Lane overcame patriarchal commitments in the first two books and succeeded as women writing about girls. It also studies the problem of racial and ethnic discourse, the importance of material culture in Wilder’s youth, gendered roles in adolescence, and the expansion of female possibilities in a patriarchal culture.

Spaeth, Janet. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Spaeth’s book identifies themes in the Little House books such as family folklore, the woman’s role in the family, and the representation of Wilder’s growth through languages.


Critical Essays