Monday, November 8, 2010

Think of having a whole penny for your very own. - Laura Ingalls Wilder ruins Christmas (kidding! kidding!) - memories of Little House on the Prairie

I recently read the two early Laura Ingalls Wilder novels, Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and Little House on the Prairie (1935), a child’s view of life on the Midwestern frontier during the early 1870s.  No children were involved in the reading of these novels – I read them for my own pleasure.

They’re both excellent, as I assume everyone knows.  Little House on the Prairie is better, by which I mean nothing more than “more complex.”  It might even be one of the 50 Greatest English-language Novels Written Since 1880, why not?

I want to write a post or two or three about these books, and for some reason I feel the need to reassure readers that I am not trying to damage their childhood memories.  On the one hand, this is absurd. They’re fine books and I’m a gentle Appreciationist, and we are all adults.  On the other hand, poking around Ye Olde Internet a bit for other blog writing about Wilder, I have discovered that those warm childhood feelings can be delicate, lacey things, torn to shreds by the slightest pressure.  I encountered a surprising resentment of anything that made the novels interesting.

Those are the parts I want to write about, the interesting parts!  I should stop here.  Anything else I have to say will sound insulting.  A warning, then: I am going to write about these novels as conscious works of art that employ concepts like irony and ambiguity.  Anyone who fears for their childhood should rejoin Wuthering Expectations next week, when I will discuss – no, sorry, that’ll probably be John Henry Newman, so skip that.  Coming up, maybe: a Thackeray novel few people should read.  I mean, it’s brilliant, but who are we kidding?  So that’s useless.  Emily Dickinson, maybe come back for Emily Dickinson.

Should I reveal my own crushed memory?  Actually, it was just slightly bent.  Little House on the Prairie has a Christmas scene which had a powerful effect on me.  On the Kansas prairie, forty miles from the nearest town, Laura and her sister Mary receive identical presents: a peppermint stick, a tin cup, a little heart-shaped cake made of white flour, and, what abundance, a penny!

They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny.  Think of having a whole penny for your very own.  Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny. (Ch. 19)

Oh, I thought about it all right.  I thought and thought, enough to memorize the list of gifts, although for some reason I had forgotten the cake (that's the bent memory).  My conclusion, after all of that thought, was that regardless of virtues the author is trying to inculcate, that was a horrible Christmas.  Laura Ingalls Wilder confirmed me in my selfish materialism.  That penny was the crowning insult.

But Mary and Laura looked at their beautiful cakes and played with their pennies and drank water out of their new cups.

Drank – water.  Played with their – pennies.  Oh, no no no.  At this point in my life, I have no interest whatsoever in receiving Christmas presents, and would be delighted to receive nothing more than, say, a single square of dark chocolate.  Or two, so I can share.  Perhaps this is the long-delayed influence of the asceticism of Laura Ingalls Wilder!  Still, any kid who gets presents from me will be sure to receive at least two pennies and two tin cups and two peppermint sticks (and two cakes - forgot 'em again), for which he can thank Little House on the Prairie.

I think everything I just wrote is more or less true, except the word “asceticism” is a joke.  To Laura, in the novel, that Christmas really is abundant.  That might even be a theme of these wonderfully material books.  Maybe I should write about that.  There’s a lot a person could write about.  These are complex books.


  1. Oh boy! I am so excited about this. I love the Little House books, but I'm also fascinated by the idea that there's a whole subtext there that kids would miss.

    And oh yes, I remember that Christmas well. I too was obsessed with those gifts--most especially with the idea that Laura and Mary each had a cup of her very own and no longer had to share. And that is all of a piece with the individualistic ideals that show up in the books.

    As I think about it, I think all the "stuff" was what fascinated me most about these books. Detailed descriptions of every meal, every dress, every single item. Having stuff is good!

  2. My dad, who grew up "poor" and didn't know it, once told me about the ecstasy of getting an orange for X-mas. An orange! Next several years were tough, so no gifts. But then there was an unexpected windfall, and he got a spinning-top for X-mas, which is like an orange that never rots.

  3. That might even be a theme of these wonderfully material books.

    This is just the aspect of the books that came up when I was talking about them with the consumption partner the other day. Ma and Pa know how to make anything. They know how to do anything. They know how to turn a piece of empty prairie into a farm with a farmhouse on it. And it's all so tangible and, I think, joyful.

  4. Yes, the personal tin cups, the end to the sharing, are crucial. Their use comments on the squatting theme, the Native American rights theme, which is treated quite seriously.

    The materiality, the stuff, is part of what I wanted to revisit in this book. If I value the concrete world of Flaubert or Dickens or Melville, why not here? What does Wilder do differently? A lot, obviously, but we're in the same literary universe. And it's not just the stuff - it's the sensory detail. She's quite good with sounds.

    nicole - joyful, absolutely. Pa is building an entire house using nothing but an axe partly because he loves doing it. Or, what else, grandma's mable sugar treats in Big Woods. What fun. Any number of other things. Some of that omniscience is, of course, filtered through Laura. To the five year old, the parents seem like they know how to do everything. That's a place where Prairie takes an idea from Big Woods and makes it a lot more complex.

    Ah, a Christmas orange. Every Christmas of my childhood, someone - let's call her Santa - put an orange in my stocking. Every Christmas I would take it upstairs and put it in the refrigerator with the other oranges, where it came from. The orange was a symbolic gift, a reminder to "Santa", if not to me, of a past where an orange was something extraordinary.

  5. Oh how fun! I liked them as a kid but the thought that there are subtexts in them makes me really want to revisit these books as an adult.

  6. I look forward to your (and your readers) thoughts on the Little House books.
    Did the apple that went with the orange have any significance?

  7. The apple kept the doctor away. Part of an essential health regimen.

    Rebecca - I don't want to underestimate the perceptiveness of the kiddies, but there are some nice surprises waiting for the adult reader.

  8. As a chronicler of women on the prairie a little later than those referred to here, I have to warm to your description of yourself as a warm Appreciationist.

    Let there be more.

  9. Back again, still haven't read the Hawthorne posts. Would like to think I'm about to, but you never know. Pushed to comment by a couple of things.

    First, I read good kids books for ten years while my kids were reading them. Now they're older, and reading Shakespeare/Chaucer and The Scarlet Letter, respectively. I didn't read a whole lot of the classic kids books as a child, just a few of them. I know that I read Little House more recently, that it was good, but I must say I don't remember much about it.

    Esmond a book not very many people need to read. Interesting, and probably true. Woolf thought it was Thackeray's best novel, if I recall correctly. And how does it match up with the other more famous Victorian historical novels, one wonders. Waiting to hear your thoughts.

  10. Shelley, you ought to like what I wrote today. Or you ought to know what I'm taling about, at least.

    Trollope thought Esmond was Thackeray's best, too. I can see why. But it's a "writer's novel" - writer's will be amazed by what Thackeray is doing, while unprepared readers will be baffled. Conceptually, it is perhaps too pure. I'll just repeat this when and if I write about it.

  11. Dianthus would like the cakes, if someone were so inclined (but he's more excited about his second birthday when he receives a badger from his uncle!).

    Oranges are still essential in stockings.

  12. I remember with much fondness the occasion (was it a different Christmas?) when the Ingalls girls got a cake/candy made of maple sugar (I think?) and it was so special that they sucked on it, like, a molecule at a time. I always aspired to such willpower. Alas!

  13. The maple sugar candy is from Little House in the Big Woods. That Christmas, Laura gets a rag doll - a real Christmas present!

    A birthday badger, that's a good choice.

  14. It's years since I first read these posts, the only published acknowledgement of Laura Ingalls Wilder's real stature. Of course her reputation as a children's author continues to grow but I'm still disappointed your insights haven't prompted more discussion of her serious side.

    I think the reasons go deep. It is not that the sublime things in her novels haven't been noticed. They are hard to miss even if not usually linked to Burke or St Augustine. The difficulty is that her art is less about telling a tale and more about the experiencing of things and that makes her easy to read but hard to think about.

    Throughout the novels, Laura's story is supported by small events, often perceptible only to her yet of a familiar and highly assimilable kind. This somehow merges her awareness with the reader's so that we cannot judge how much our responses to Ma and Pa (for example) have been borrowed from similar feelings in our own lives. Or when some event stirs our emotions we are not quite sure whether it is because Laura has felt it or because we have interpreted it for her. It is all done using a method that is complex but wouldn't work if it seemed so and has thus been well camouflaged - so well that some have paid Wilder the tribute of boasting they could have written the novels themselves.

    In spite of this rather double-edged success I suspect she will in time be accorded a high place in the literary pantheon. It's just that her course towards it is hard to predict. Her use of ordinary experience in the perspective of an ordinary person has challenging implications, for it is neither the ordinariness of a banal world transfigured by an exceptional consciousness as in Madame Bovary nor that of a commonplace mind acting as the vehicle of extraordinary events as in much of Dickens. It is the real thing. She has placed an unexceptional mind at the centre of her story, not as its backdrop and has thereby made it rather difficult to grasp what she's about.

    All the same, here's a try:

    The choice of someone who thinks and feels normally as the vehicle for her narrative produces a view of the world to which two elements are key. The first, a consequence of being ordinary (one of many), is a sense of the improbability of unusual events, a sense rooted in emotional security and optimism. This restricts the play of fear and suspense in the narrative and opens up more subtle and immediate experience.

    The second element is her presentism, the Augustinian view of Time as you have called it. This is not a single or even occasional insight. It is structural, a consequence of her method. Her use of familiar experiences she reckons also to be universal to construct Laura's inner world draws us into lending it the immediacy of our own present, the time in which we are reading. The result is that we treat it as our own, working through and throwing off its events and finding the activity of experiencing more absorbing than the developments of the narrative, just like Laura herself.

    Subjective awareness - not ours, not Laura's, but the thing itself - thus becomes the central interest. Functional and impersonal, allowing the reader to slip effortlessly in and out of identification with it and illuminating indifferently the universal stages of life from infancy to adulthood, this awareness belongs to everyone and no-one and accordingly has no stake in spatial reality and exists at only one point in Time. To have captured it reflected in the events of her seven novels is Wilder's notable achievement.

    That's my view anyway, and even if it is only partly true it surely raises interesting questions about some of the elaborate structures literature has erected to lesser ends. Perhaps it is no wonder it is taking time to be recognised.

  15. Will, thanks for this long comment. I have been thinking a little more about subjectivity, and this is genuinely helpful.

    I was hoping that the publication of the Wilder autobiography, Pioneer Girl, would spark some of the conversations you have suggested - would if nothing else help people realize the extent to which Wilder's novels are fiction! - but if that has happened at all, I missed it. But it is early.