Big Little House in American LiteraturenF . Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler wrote, “is ansubject no one has a right to mess up. Nothing but thenbest will do for him”; and that is how I feel about LauranIngalls Wilder, who deserves to be ranked with Fitzgeraldnand Hemingway, Twain and O’Connor and Dickinson asnone of the geniuses of American letters, though she hasnbeen regarded for sixty years as a “children’s writer,”nhowever fine a one, and for the past ten as the “inspiration”nfor the television show Little House on the Prairie. (MichaelnLandon is probably in Hell for his part in that trivializationnof a work of high literary art, with Melissa Gilbert andncompany likely to follow him in due course; while, as far asnchildren’s writers go, these are a relatively recent addition tonthe literary scene as “authors” like Stephen King, JackienCollins, and Robert Ludlum scribble diligently to providenbrain fodder for brutish and lascivious post-adolescents.)nThirty-four years after her death at the age of 90 on RockynRidge Farm near the town of Mansfield, Missouri, Mrs.nWilder has still to receive the critical recognition due her,nalthough the estate itself has accrued millions. If, on thenother hand, she ever does receive it, the result will probablynbe a mere upgrade in her literary status from “children’snwriter” to “Western writer,” since — to paraphrase H.L.nMencken — critics must have categories, as a dog must havenfleas.nAs even television audiences know, Laura Ingalls wasnborn near the town of Pepin in west-central Wisconsin onnFebruary 7, 1867, second child and daughter of CharlesnPhillip and Caroline Quiner Ingalls. Her father had beennborn in Cuba, New York, and taken by his parents first tonChilton Williamson, Jr. is senior editor for books atnChronicles.n20/CHRONICLESnby Chilton Williamson, Jr.nnnIllinois, then to southeastern Wisconsin, where in 1860 henmarried one of several daughters of a neighboring familynwho had come west from Connecticut. The young couplenmoved with the husband’s family to the vicinity of LakenPepin, a bulge in the Mississippi River, where in Septembern1863 he bought a farm and built a house out of logs cutnfrom the surrounding forest. Their first child, Mary Amelia,nwas born January 10, 1865; Laura Elizabeth followed twonyears later. In 1870, the Ingalls traveled by covered wagonnfrom Wisconsin to Montgomery County, Kansas, wherenCharles built a second log house near the Verdigris Rivernand Carrie Ingalls was born August 3. The family remainednin Kansas a year, before abandoning their homestead innadvance of federal troops ordered by Washington to removenall the white settlers from Indian territory. From Kansas theyntraveled, again by wagon, to Plum Creek near WalnutnGrove, Minnesota, where drought and grasshoppers ruinedntheir attempts at farming and where the Ingalls’ only son,nCharles Frederick, was born November 1, 1875, only to diena few months later. The family moved again to Burr Oak,nIowa, where they lived two years before returning to WalnutnGrove to spend two more years, this time in town. In 1879,nCaroline, Mary, Carrie, and Grace (born 1877) became illnwith scariet fever, and Mary was left blind. In the spring ofnthe same year, Charles’ sister Docia offered him a job asntimekeeper and paymaster in the construction camps of thenChicago and Northwestern Railway, so he took the familynwest again, into Dakota Territory, where he staked a claimnnear the nascent town of De Smet. Later, he built a housenin town and worked as a carpenter and finally as anninsurance salesman.nDe Smet proved to be the settling place for Charles andnCaroline, Mary, and Grace, but Laura, having married an