Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Little House on the Prairie and the Prairie Sublime - a Burkean interpretation

Laura Ingalls Wilder writes under the sway of the aesthetic ideas of Edmund Burke. No, not kidding - she may not have known it, but it's true.  She continually differentiates between the picturesque and the sublime.  Little House on the Prairie is an investigation of the Prairie Sublime, closely related to Mountain Sublime, Ocean Sublime, and Desert Sublime.  It has something to do with the prairie sky.

The wind made a lonely sound in the grass.  The camp fire was small and lost in so much space.  But large stars hung from the sky, glittering so near that Laura felt she could almost touch them. (Ch 1, 13)

Thickly in front of the open wagon-top hung the large, glittering stars.  Pa could reach them, Laura thought.  She wished he would pick the largest one from the thread on which I hung from the sky, and give it to her.  She was wide awake, she was not sleepy at all, but suddenly she was very much surprised.  The large star winked at her! (3, 37)

The large, bright stars hung down from the sky.  Lower and lower they came, quivering with music.  “What is it, Laura?” she asked, and Laura whispered, “The stars were singing”…  But the fiddle was till singing in the starlight.  The night was full of music, and Laura was sure that part of it came from the great, bright stars swinging so low above the prairie. (4, 50-1)

Laura is not actually carried off into the stars in every chapter, although it can seem like it, and the theme returns at the novel’s climax, and again at its very end, where the stars, curiously, have lost their power and are now “safe and comfortable” (334-5).  The word "glittering" turns out to be a leitmotif.

When I look into Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), just at the chapter titles, I am amazed by how many of Burke’s examples of the sublime are employed by Wilder.  Obscurity, Vastness, Difficulty, Suddenness, The cries of Animals, Bitters and Stenches.  “Such sounds as imitate the natural inarticulate voices of men, or any animals in pain or danger, are capable of conveying great ideas” (Burke, 2, XX).  I’m not sure what “great ideas” the wolf pack of Chapter 7 suggests to little Laura, but the ring of wolves around the house has the right combination of beauty and terror.

Laura could hear their breathing.  When they saw Pa and Laura looking out, the middle of the circle moved back a little way. (7, 97)

Laura and her father are watching the wolves from the house.  The wolves are terrifying in some sense, yet Laura is actually perfectly safe.  Thus, the aesthetic sublime.

The emotional base of the sublime – I’m following, and agree with, Burke – is fear, “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (2, I).  As we aestheticize the sublime we somehow tame it.  We even seek out the sublime and find pleasure in its thrill.  The sense of threat rarely eases in Little House on the Prairie.  The threats are often real, of course – I count four episodes where the entire family nearly dies - but Laura, the child, also has a series of powerful emotional responses to them.  It is perhaps key that the child does not always consciously recognize the threat.

Laura’s parents embody contrary responses to the Prairie Sublime.  Ma is more open about her fear, and struggles to control it, while Pa, like his daughter Laura, is attracted to the big sublime experiences. It's Pa and Laura who want to see those wolves, not Ma or sister Mary.  A theme of the entire series, at least as I remember it, is The Taming of Pa, as setbacks and responsibilities break him of his taste for risk and solitude.  Ma wins.  That family should not be out on that prairie.

Page numbers are from the 1953 uniform edition.


  1. When I was discussing this the other day, the subject came up of why in fact the family migrates. We didn't remember economic concerns being made explicit, but I did recall in later books that Laura relates closely to Pa in that they both have "wandering feet." Once they've got their house in town, they're stable, but he still wants to keep going—they both do, want to keep wandering to the West. Laura goes elsewhere of course but Pa I think is, if not tamed...what's a nicer word than hobbled?

  2. I have yet to read any of Laura Wilder's work-I have immense respect for Edmund Burke based in part on his repudiation of the idea that England ought to rule Indian because it was an "immature" civilization-Burke pointed out the roots of Indian culture predate those of English by some 2000 years or so-even if you totally oppose the political views of Burke expressed in his work on the French Revolution it is the very model of rhetoric.

  3. The reason for moving (p. 1): "Pa said there were too many people in the Big Woods now." Although Pa said a lot of things. There's also a subtext about degraded hunting. The family income in Big Woods seems to be based on hunting as much as farming.

    Restlessness, wandering feet, absolutely. This is part of my argument today, if I bothered to write it out, that Pa and Laura's attraction to the sublime is part of their restlessness. Cause or effect? I don't know.

    Is there more or less pathos if Pa is not tamed but hobbled?

    Burke's book on the sublime is almost, can you believe it, 35 years before Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke was a young punk, not even thirty, who was going to conquer the world with an aesthetic treatise. And it worked!

  4. I could never get into Laura Wilder in the same way I could never get into Willa Cather (I thought that would change with Death Comes To The Archbishop...but no). It must be the setting. But isn't it wonderful that there is so much out there for every taste? In any event, I love your blog because you write so well and your reviews are always worth the time.

  5. Gee, how nice. Thanks a lot.

    What do you think it is about the prairie setting that does not interest you (although that Cather novel is set in New Mexico!)?

    Before I saw an ocean in person, age 10 or so, I remember reading novels - kid's books - about the sea with bewildered fascination. Even with the assistance of television, much of it was so hard to imagine or understand. Sounds and smells and weather, expecially - images of the sea were no help there.