Sunday, July 12, 2020

Caroline Fraser, "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder"

My wife, an amateur expert on all things related to Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books, recently pressed this book on me. She said it is so good that even I, hardly smitten by Little House mania, would love it. She was right. Prairie Fires (2017) is a remarkable work of history, fully deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. It uses the lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, to tell the story of the American prairie country from the Homestead Act to the Dust Bowl. It is humane, learned, graceful, evenhanded and insightful, everything a work of history should be, except maybe witty.

In Caroline Fraser's telling the Little House books sprang from two roots: Laura Ingalls Wilder's youth in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and South Dakota, and her twisted-like-an-ingrown hair relationship with her manic-depressive daughter. It is typical of Fraser's approach that she never actually says Lane was bipolar; she was never diagnosed as such, so that would be imposing her interpretation on the material in a way she scrupulously avoids. She just tells you about Lane's life until you have no doubt.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane

Mother and daughter were very different. Wilder was a poor pioneer girl who worked hard her whole life, did a pile of chores before going dutifully to school, married, founded churches, joined societies, and generally lived as a proper 19th-century woman ought. She got her start in journalism writing "Farm Wife" columns for agricultural magazines, full of tips about raising chickens and more efficient ways to clean house. Lane was a "modern" woman, with her own career as a yellow journalist at the height of yellow journalism, divorced, free-living, scandalous to the home folks of Mansfield, Missouri where she mostly grew up. Lane made a lot of money writing half-made up stories and books, for example hack biographies of Jack London and Henry Ford, but then spent it on grandiose schemes like building a villa on the coast of Albania. She was an inveterate liar.

Various people have claimed that Lane actually wrote the Little House books, or edited them so heavily that she might as well have. Lane was certainly capable of that level of mendacity, but really this is just another case of the cynicism for its own sake that bedevils our cynical age. It is perfectly clear that Wilder wrote the books, since dozens of manuscript versions of all the book survive in her hand. For some of them you can trace out line by line where Lane made editorial changes. The changes are significant to the tone of the books – my wife says Lane and the editors at Harper Collins were responsible for making the books "sweet" – but the events are all the way Wilder wrote them. Somehow the relationship between mother and daughter survived repeated betrayals and a constant battle over both how Wilder's story would be told and how much of it Lane could borrow for her own books. They were, it seems, one of those mother-daughter pairs inseparable in the misery they caused each other. From that relationship, though, sprang something amazing.

The really great part of Prairie Fires is the first 175 pages, which chronicle the pioneer life on which the books were based. (Honestly if you wanted to stop at that point, nobody could blame you.) As Fraser shows, the books are most accurate when they are least believable. The incredible story of the grasshoppers who drove the Ingalls away from their farm on Plum Creek, Minnesota was part of a catastrophe that enveloped the whole of the western plains. The year 1874 saw the largest and most destructive locust swarm in North American history, known as "Albert's Swarm" after a Nebraska meteorologist named Albert Child who tried to measure its scope. By Child's calculations it measured 180 miles wide, 1100 miles long, and covered 198,000 square miles, containing roughly 3.5 trillion insects. When they had done eating everything growing in their path they laid eggs, and the next spring an immense brood of wingless nymphs hatched and began walking across the land like a marching army, just as Wilder described. The Wilders were ruined along with thousands of others.

The thing that bothered me most in the books was the weird behavior of the Indians in The Little House on the Prairie. They hang around in a vaguely menacing way, their faces painted, but they never do anything. In one scene two Indians barge into the Ingalls house and demand that Ma feed them. In another the Indians camp nearby and spend all night whooping and shouting, making people fear they are about to go on the warpath, but then in the morning they just ride away. It turns out that the land Pa was squatting on belonged to the Osage. They were in treaty negotiations with the US government to sell this land and move to Oklahoma, but the deal was not yet sealed. They were trying to intimidate squatters into leaving what was still their land without doing any actual violence that might put the treaty negotiations at risk. Since 5-year-old Laura cannot possibly have understood this, the perfect fit between what she remembered and what was actually happening speaks strongly to the accuracy of her memory.

One of Fraser's sub-themes is the ideology of self reliance that animated the Wilders, and that passed from those pioneering farmers into American politics. From Fraser's point of view, the Wilders were repeatedly lied to and let down by those in power, and she wants her readers to understand that their own efforts played only a limited part in their successes and failures. Her strongest indictment is of the railroad men and real estate speculators who lured tens of thousands of homesteaders to claim land in the Dakota Territory. That land, as experts understood, was simply too dry for subsistence farming. Government scientists tried to warn that homesteading in the Dakotas was doomed and fought to limit land claims to those with enough capital to set up the large, irrigated farms that alone had a chance of succeeding. But the homesteaders pushed ahead, singing "Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm." More than 80 percent failed within a decade.

The Ingalls, though, did not see things that way. They thought they had failed because of bad luck and bad decisions on their own part, and when they left Dakota they immediately set off for Missouri in pursuit of another place where they could find cheap land and set up a farm. Nor did the plight of the homesteaders elicit much compassion from other Americans. In New York, failed homesteaders were bumpkin losers: "It is humiliating to have them so constantly before us, passing round the hat." (76). The governor of Minnesota was not even sympathetic to those ruined by the grasshopper plague, saying he would got give them charity and thereby "weaken the habits of self-reliance." The editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote, "If anybody chooses to lie down and be eaten up by grasshoppers, we don't care much if he is devoured body, boots, and breeches." (80) 

To Fraser this is all disgusting, and she wants to launch a moral indictment of those who lured homesteaders into the desert and then abandoned them to their suffering. I wonder if she is missing a deeper explanation of what was happening: simple demography.

What really happened in North America was that European settlers established themselves and then started to breed at a fantastic rate, rarely seen in human history. Especially in New England and Canada the first settlers averaged more than 7 children raised to adulthood per family. When Paul Revere died he had 148 living descendants. This fertility created a river of humanity that stormed across the continent like, well, a little like locusts. They ate up everything in their path: cutting down forests, plowing the land, eating the deer, killing or driving out the Indians. You can point to particular acts of villainy, like the Trail of Tears or the Yankton War, or luring those homesteaders to Dakota. But viewed from on high those individual acts were all but irrelevant. That river of people was not going to be stopped; no government in the world had the power to even slow it. There was always a huge surplus of people who were just extra mouths to feed at home, so they restlessly pushed into the woods or onto the plains. It's sad that Almonzo Wilder and so many others took homestead claims where there wasn't enough rain for wheat, but what would they have done instead? They left the east because there wasn't any work for them at home. 

Another excellent section traces the collision of the self-reliant attitude with the Dust Bowl, which was raging while Wilder was writing Little House on the Prairie. Farmers were screaming for help from Washington, but when they got it they hated it almost as much as dust and ruination. If the problem was that the prices for farm products were too low, said government experts, the solution was to reduce production. And the obvious way to reduce production was to stop farming marginal land that was blowing away in dust storms and turn it back into grass for grazing. If the problem was the low price of hogs, the long-term solution was to raise fewer hogs, and the short term solution was to slaughter a few hundred thousand surplus animals and bury their carcasses in the dust. If you watched Ken Burns' documentary you heard old people still traumatized by the government men who showed up at their farms to kill and bury their livestock, not even letting them eat what they could salvage. It never seems to have occurred to many farmers that what they were asking for – prices that would stay high no matter how much they raised – was mathematically impossible. But anyway the hatred of New Deal farm policies across the plains defined the politics of those states for generations to come.

I am left wondering what really makes for a good life. Pa Ingalls failed over and over again, but his daughter remembered her girlhood as a long adventure, and then she made it into stories that have brought joy to millions. If Pa had stayed in Wisconsin on his farm and never done anything else, Laura might have avoided a lot of hardship, but would that have been a better life? Does a good life mean a safe and prosperous one, or does it mean something else?


G. Verloren said...

"I am left wondering what really makes for a good life. Pa Ingalls failed over and over again, but his daughter remembered her girlhood as a long adventure, and then she made it into stories that have brought joy to millions. If Pa had stayed in Wisconsin on his farm and never done anything else, Laura might have avoided a lot of hardship, but would that have been a better life? Does a good life mean a safe and prosperous one, or does it mean something else?"

Beware falling prey to survivor bias. Wilder was lucky enough to not starve to death - others in her family's circumstances were not that fortunate. The eventual literary amusement of millions is no comfort to the forgotten dead.

And those very millions who enjoyed reading a work born from the deprivation and suffering of innocent others, were themselves "safe and prosperous". Secure in their own "good lives", they took satisfaction in reading the "adventure" of the difficult lives of others they would never meet, while remaining wholly ignorant of the countless anonymous deaths of those who were not fortunate enough to have the chance to write books about their experiences.

Everyone deserves a safe and prosperous life. If that isn't enough for them, they make choose to do without it, if they wish. But to celebrate adversity forced upon innocent people, and to glorify those fortunate enough to escape it and profit by it while consigning the forgotten victims of it to oblivion, is utterly reprehensible.

You too often sweep the victims of history under the rug, John. I would gladly erase Wilder's books from existence if it meant the innocents who didn't live to write their own books could have had safe and prosperous lives of their own. The amusement of millions of affluent readers does not compare to the suffering of a single starving child. And how many of those who didn't make it might have gone on to write their own books about something else, or otherwise contributed to society? We can never know.

David said...

"Does a good life mean a safe and prosperous one, or does it mean something else?"

I have to say, I'm pretty much with G. on this one. And, is it really so hard to accept that what a good life might be is pretty much determined by the makeup of the individual? LIW was clearly an extraordinary person. Most people aren't like that, and they're not going to be. I'm sure even a lot of the survivors got very little out of the prairie experience except exhaustion, disillusionment, bitterness, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and suicide. Some of those folks would doubtless have found the same misery living in modern suburbs, but others might find contentment and peace in a life of comfort and prosperity.

Lyndon Johnson grew up in very similar circumstances, and his conclusion was not, "I sure am glad I and everyone I know grew up with a lot of bracing, vivifying misery, so we could all be extraordinary!" His reaction was "Damn, we need electricity!"

ArEn said...

Hamlin Garland’s *A Son of the Middle Border* provides a nice contrast to the romance of Ingall’s stories of pioneer life.

John said...

If we assume that pioneer life was miserable, why did people keep going? It's not like they didn't know; the whole culture was saturated with lore about how hard pioneering was, from Indian massacres to crop failures. In 1890 a large percentage of Americans knew a failed pioneer. They went, I think, because 1) the only alternative they could see was unemployment and dependence at home, and 2) because they felt like giving it a try.

David and I have been arguing for decades now about how much longing for security and comfort there is among humans, and how much longing for heroic struggle. I see the longing for that struggle as a great driving force of human history. They had pioneers; we have people determined to create tech start-ups even if it means working 80 hours a week for years. And people who want to be astronauts or special forces snipers or whatever hard thing you can name. Many people want hard lives with the potential for big rewards, not middling ease. Yes, most of them fail, and many end up bitter, but even the failures among people of that mind-set still usually end up idolizing the heroic path. That is, to me, the most historically significant thing about the prairie pioneers, the way their cult of self-reliance was passed down to modern America. I think the collision of that mind-set with modern economics and modern government policy still defines politics from Texas to Montana.

You can say, they were lied to, they were victims, but most of them didn't see it that way and neither do their great-grandchildren.

A big part of American politics is a struggle between the (as I see it) myth of heroic self-reliance and (as I see it) a more realistic belief that nobody is self-reliant in our world, so we might as well work together to help all of us do better. But what seems realistic to me is bitterly resisted by millions of Americans (and others). They resist, I guess, because believing in self-reliance makes them feel better about themselves and helps them make sense of their world.

I think they are wrong, but I also think that life is hard and sad for everyone and I am reluctant to attack any set of beliefs that reconciles people to the sadness and hardship. The more experience I have of humanity the more I think that most people either can't face or are just not interested in a life without an overlay of myth, often heroic myth. We all use mythic models to understand our world. Self-reliance, if you ask me, is a myth. But that doesn't mean believing in it hasn't helped many people come to terms with existence, or that it isn't very important to understanding Americans.

John said...

Oh, I wanted to ad at some point that to Fraser the thing that made life endurable for both Ma Ingalls and Laura was a good marriage: whatever else happened, the couples had each other. The way they held each other up is quite impressive, and is, I think, another pointer toward what really makes for a good life.

David said...

I think a good marriage will contribute much to a good life in most any circumstances. If that's really the sort of point you were making--good marriage, a fertile imagination, a little resilience can make for a good life on the prairie or in the suburbs--then I'm all with with you.

I guess I'm just paranoid about "suffering builds character" cant.

I once read Mari Sandoz's "Old Jules," a memoir of her sodbuster father. It's been years, and all I really remember about it is the bizarre laudatory introduction by Linda Hasselstrom, which essentially said, "Both Mari and I had fathers much battered and beaten about by the prairie experience. Both were free with venting their hostility on their children. This made Mari and me strong. I (heart) my abusive father!"

An antidote is the underrated pop song "Wildfire," in which the singer tells us he longs to ride away to the great beyond with the girl and her pony, and never sodbust any more.