Does a reader need Edmund Burke to truly understand Little House on the Prairie? Not exactly, no. Not exactly. Wilder is trying to recreate an experience she had as a child, her deep unconscious response to the wildness and immensity of the prairie. She needs a language to do this, a literary language. Some of this literary language comes from a tradition that begins in the mid-18th century, partly with Burke. That's all.
I was just leafing through a copy of a manuscript Wilder titled Pioneer Girl, a memoir written before the Little House books. Non-fiction. The constant communion with the stars was not there, nor was much of the matter I am labeling “sublime.” That was all added later, an integral part of what makes Wilder’s books literature. The sublime is not an important theme of Little House in the Big Woods, although there are hints. But it provides a thematic frame that runs all the way through Little House on the Prairie and is an essential part of understanding the characters – how Ma, tough and self-reliant as she is, is a different kind of pioneer than her husband (she’s saner, for example), or how Laura differs from her sister Mary.
The climax of Little House on the Prairie is actually about the sublime, or whatever word one might want to substitute – the uncontrollable emotional response that is too big to understand. Chapter 23, “Indian War-Cry,” is tense, and genuinely threatening. The war cries and drums of the Osage Indians invade the little house. The dog growls, Pa can’t whistle (and then can), an Indian rides by – “the lonely sound of the rider’s galloping” (294). The chapter is written in sounds.
The next one begins with sounds, too, safe ones, from an owl and frogs, but ends in silence. A line of migrating Osage ride by the cabin. Laura and her family watch them go by, for hours.
As far as she could see to the west and as far as she could see to the east there were Indians. There was no end to that long, long line. (310)
Look, it’s the sublime again, more sections of Burke’s book – Infinity (2.VIII), and Succession and Uniformity (2.IX). Something begins to happen to Laura – to the whole family, actually, but particularly to Laura. Since the first chapter, Laura has wanted to see a papoose. She finally does.
Laura looked straight into the bright eyes of the little baby nearer her. Only its small head showed above the basket’s rim. Its hair was a black as a crow and its eyes were black as a night when no stars shine.
Those black eyes looked deep into Laura’s eyes and she looked deep down into the blackness of that little baby’s eyes, and she wanted that one little baby.
“Pa,” she said, “get me that little Indian baby!” (308)
Laura has a hysterical fit. I really wonder what I saw in this as a young reader. Wanting something I couldn’t have, and screaming about it, that I understood. This is not exactly a toy, though. What is it? Why does she want it?
“It’s eyes are so black,” Laura sobbed. She could not say what she meant. (309)
Throughout the novel, the stars are always “glittering,” as are the black eyes of Indians, adults who wander by the cabin. Wilder does not need that word here, since she has already established a close link between stars and the eyes of the Indians, so she does it differently. Those black eyes also, like the stars, offer a path to – no one knows where.
The passage of the Indians is the emotional high point of the novel. Nothing has happened, and there was no danger at all, but the family is shattered, exhausted.
And nothing was left but silence and emptiness. All the world seemed very quiet and lonely. (311)
This chapter of Little House on the Prairie is itself sublime. Or so I found it as an adult reader.