In 1995 the University of Missouri Press published The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane by William Holtz, who made a small sensation by contending that everything that makes the famous “Little House” books remarkable and memorable was actually the work not of Laura Ingalls Wilder but of her daughter. Rose Lane—the novelist, magazine author, and libertarian pamphleteer—who took what were originally disorganized and amateurish effusions by her mother and reorganized, expanded, rewrote, and polished them to create what for nearly 70 years have been recognized as classics of American children’s literature. Holtz’s claim that Lane functioned as Wilder’s ghostwriter made him a minor literary celebrity overnight—especially in his home state of Missouri—but, while some readers enthusiastically accepted his conclusions, others (including long-standing Wilder scholars like William T. Anderson) demurred. Five years later, the same press has published a full-fledged rebuttal to Holtz’s work, in the form of a biography of Mrs. Wilder by John E. Miller, a professor of history at South Dakota State University at Brookings and author of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House: Where History and Literature Meet. While the central aim of Miller’s book is to delineate the personal and artistic development that transformed a pioneer girl and Missouri matron best known for her success at raising chickens into an internationally acclaimed author, a secondary agendum is the refutation of the overweening claims of The Ghost in the Little House in favor of what was—until William Holtz came along—the obvious.
Miller’s work is competent and interesting; a well-researched, well-written, and sensible book. A major obstacle to Wilder studies has always been Laura’s neglect in retaining letters and other useful documents, but Miller has done his best to fill the gaps in the record—frequently resorting to Rose Lane’s letters and journals. The early chapters lay out the historical narrative serving as backdrop with which what Miller insists on calling the “novels” —in spite of the fact that a considerable portion of his biographical information derives from the “fictional” account of Mrs. Wilder’s life they provide—may be compared. The rest of the book attempts, plausibly and with considerable success, the delicate and difficult task of accounting for the making of a genius. Genius is perhaps the most egalitarian term in the English language, all geniuses, however different, being equal, and Laura Ingalls Wilder was one, her taste for Zane Grey and Luke Short novels notwithstanding. (“People probably wonder why this is my type of reading, but they are easy to hold, and I just enjoy them.”) The essence of genius is simplicity, elevating it to the status of a miracle which by definition can never be adequately explained or accounted for. To the extent that explanation is possible John Miller has done an excellent job, from scanty resources.
William Holtz’s task, given his exaggerated claim, was to demonstrate how Rose Wilder Lane, whose own novels are at best pedestrian and today almost unreadable, managed to “ghost” eight others exhibiting such warm humanity, deep insight, narrative and dramatic power, and poetic luminosity. He failed at this, as almost anyone not subject to his own peculiar idée fixe could have told he must. Holtz, it seems fair to say, was blinded by an uncritical affection for Rose Wilder Lane and a dislike of her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Rose and Laura’s relationship was one of love-hate, or love-resentment, not uncommon between mothers and daughters—strong mothers and strong daughters, in particular. Holtz, like Miller, understood that, in the case of Wilder and Lane, the tension arose from a power conflict, the desire on the part of each woman to control the other. “[My mother] made me so miserable when I was a child that I’ve never got over it,” Rose, an only child, wrote. “I’m morbid. I’m all nerves. I know I should be more robust. I shouldn’t let her torture me this way, and always gain her own ends, through implications that she hardly knows she’s using. But I can’t help it.”
Unlike Miller, Holtz accepted this self-pitying view at face value. Actually, Rose was a not very talented bitch and neurotic who by her own admission was also a “monster,” incapable of normal human affection. Since an attractive personality has little or nothing to do with creative genius (except, usually, in an inverse way), one may ask what the subject has to do with the authorship of the Little House. The answer, of course, is, “Nothing,” except for Mr. Holtz’s attempt at making it everything—the mainspring of his misguided and foolish literary theory. Miller, like Bill Anderson, Rosa Ann Moore, and Caroline Eraser before him, has surveyed the same evidence available to Holtz and arrived at conclusions quite different from his. Skeptics considering The Ghost in the Little House wondered at the time why Mr. Holtz had not considered the possibility of intermediate drafts between Laura’s famous holographs, handwritten on lined yellow tablets, and the final typescripts prepared by Rose for the publisher. It appears now that these in-between drafts really are crucial to an accurate evaluation of their collaboration—assuming common sense requires sophisticated literary detective work to confirm the books’ authorship.
Miller’s own investigations reveal that
Little House in the Big Woods and These Happy Golden Years [the first and last volumes in the series] received the lightest editing from Rose; The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie probably were edited the most. Significantly, Rose spent less than a week on the first book. The first pages that Wilder wrote, and other large sections of the book, stand largely intact, indicating that from the start she possessed a talent for narrative description. What is most surprising in considering the work that Rose did on her mother’s manuscripts is not that she had to do so much to get them into shape but that she had to do so little.
Her daughter’s hand in encouraging her [mother] and collaborating with her on the preparation of [the] manuscripts was demonstrably crucial to the success of the books. Ultimately, the genius of the novels lay in their author’s powers of perception as a girl, in her detached insight into human nature including her own, and in her ability as a mature woman to sift the memories of her childhood through a dramatic lens that chose what was illuminating and interesting to people and discarded what was dull and uninspiring.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was already in her 60’s when she began to write the novelistic memoirs that made her famous; she was not quite 44 when, invited to speak on chicken-raising, she wrote out her speech to be read at an agricultural meeting attended by, among others, the editor of the Missouri Ruralist.
In between she persevered in her long literary apprenticeship, certain of the powers she discerned within herself and determined, as she put it, “to try to do some writing that will count.” She got the job done, of course, and the great virtue of John Miller’s book is to help us to see how she did that.
[Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend, by John E. Miller (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 320 pp., $29.95]