Simplicity

Review: William Anderson (Editor), 'Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder'

The Ingalls family (Laura Ingalls third from left) / Wikimedia Commons

Simple is hard—more difficult than cutting diamonds, more back-breaking than mining coal. Of course, complicated is also hard. Nothing good in art comes easy. But we can be deceived by the simplicity of an artwork’s effect, tempted into believing that it must derive from a simplicity of effort. And to all such temptations, there’s really only one answer: an insistence that simple is hard. Harder than adamant. Tougher than steel.

Look, for example, at this pair of sentences: "I lay and looked through the opening in the wagon cover at the campfire and Ma and Pa sitting there. It was lonesome and so still with the stars shining down and the great, flat land where no one lived."

The empty prairie, a child watching her Ma and Pa from a covered wagon: The lines offer several clues about their author. But the simplicity of the tone also declares who wrote it. Only one American author was ever confident, capable, and comfortable enough to string together the simple elements of those sentences book after book.

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Her name, of course, was Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the lines come from Pioneer Girl—one of the few texts we have from Wilder that didn’t receive a hard edit from her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Published in an annotated edition from the South Dakota Historical Society, the book became a surprise bestseller in 2015. After almost two decades of writing newspaper columns about rural life (and facing a new financial catastrophe after the Wall Street Crash of 1929), Wilder thought she was ready to attempt an autobiographical tale of her girlhood in the 1870s homesteads of the West.

The book was rejected by her daughter’s publishers in 1930, and Wilder found something better to do with the manuscript, mining it for the volumes of fiction that began in 1932 with Little House in the Big Woods, a masterpiece of the simple voice. "Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs," it begins. "The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them."

The newly published Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder demonstrates that her skill at simplicity extended through all her prose. It’s something we could have known before. These Happy Golden Years, the eighth of Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books was published in 1943 with a note on the final page that read, "The end of the Little House books." But an unedited final volume, The First Four Years, was added in 1971 after Wilder’s death in 1957 and her daughter’s death in 1968. The First Four Years proved how well Wilder could write even without her daughter’s help. For that matter, South Dakota’s preeminent historian, John E. Miller, points out that much of even the final version first book, Little House in the Big Woods, repeats "largely intact" Wilder’s early drafts, indicating from the start her "talent for narrative description."

Wilder’s Selected Letters, however, show that her talents lay in more than description. Again, that’s something we could have gotten from the novels. The aging of the narrative voice, growing up in expression as the heroine grows up into an adult, is a sophisticated literary trick for Wilder to pull off in the Little House on the Prairie books. A sophisticated literary trick for any author, as far as that goes. Dickens demonstrates his effortless range when he does much the same thing in the early chapters of David Copperfield, just as James Joyce does in the beginning of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—pretty rarified company for a Missouri farm woman writing during the Depression of her childhood sixty years before.

But her letters show that she could address children, adult readers, and her business associates with the same simplicity of expression and clarity of meaning. Edited by the Wilder researcher William Anderson, Selected Letters includes some of the letters she received. "I enjoyed your books very much," a boy wrote her. "I liked the time when Charley got stung by the yellow jackets." The family had to install an oversized mailbox to hold all the letters she received, and Wilder thought it a duty to answer as many as she could.

Her exchanges with her editor—Ursula Nordstrom, nicknamed "Ursula Maelstrom," a legendary force in the New York literary world from 1940 to 1973—will fascinate anyone interested in the business of editing and publishing. So, too, will the occasional scraps of personal description, as when in 1944 she wryly admitted to an admirer that "I never smoked nor drank. … Do not paint my fingernails nor use rouge."

Her prairie stoicism—a mood and a morality nearly vanished even from the Western states—proves interesting, as well. "Though you are far away and speak a different language," she wrote in 1948 to a group of Japanese schoolchildren, "still the things worthwhile in life are the same for us all and the same as when I was a child so long ago. Things of real value do not change with the passing of years nor in going from one country to another. … It is always best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures, to be cheerful in adversity and have courage in danger."

However much she always described that stoicism as an eternal truth—separating her thought from her daughter’s libertarianism—she worried that the conditions for its flourishing were disappearing from the American landscape. "It was easier," she wrote in old age, "and we were happier fighting all the difficulties and dangers of our pioneer life, than anyone is fighting the complicated system of life that has been thrust upon us now." Selected Letters includes a speech she gave to teachers and librarians in 1937. "I realized that I had seen and lived it all," she told her audience. "I represented a whole period of American History, … the history of the whole frontier."

Indeed, she noted, "I wanted the children now to understand what made America. It seemed to me that my childhood had been much richer … than that of children today." And in 1944—in the midst of the deprivations of the Second World War—she added, "Children today have so much that they have lost the power to truly enjoy anything. They are poor little rich children."

Selected Letters is the valedictory volume of Wilder’s work. "There no longer remains a well of her words left to print," the editor observes sadly in his introduction—a sentence, we might note, that Wilder herself probably wouldn’t have written. The metaphor is inexact (since wells can continue to exist after the water in them is gone) and "left" does the same work as "remain." That’s not to fault William Anderson. The sentence seems clear enough and does the work of conveying meaning reasonably well. It’s just to point out, once again, that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s kind of simple is hard. Harder than adamant. Tougher than steel.