Little House on the Prairie
The contested collaboration between Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane
Sixty-one years ago, Laura Ingalls Wilder, America’s most beloved pioneer and author of the Little House books, died at age 90, ending the long and prickly relationship with her daughter and literary collaborator, Rose Wilder Lane. That awkward relationship lives on in arguments among fans and scholars. A public battle over which of the two women wrote more of Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie and six other novels about the American frontier re-emerges periodically like a cloud of locusts.
Since their appearance in 1932, the Little House books have been celebrated for extolling values of courage, freedom, and exploration. Millions of copies have sold, and the books spawned a television show and spinoff book series. Perhaps explaining their special popularity, the stories embody some vital aspect of American identity and their wide influence helped form political culture, as I have argued in my book Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books and in POLITICO .
For years many Little House fans and a few scholars have disdained one English professor, William Holtz, because he publicized the collaboration between Wilder and her daughter directly in his book The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane, published in 1993 by the University of Missouri, earning the disdain of many who cherish the series and the persona of Wilder who embodies its pioneer spirit. Earlier researchers had also published articles suggesting that two women, not one, wrote the Little House books, but it has been Holtz who has received nearly all of the backlash. I believe readers took offense both because he presented the collaboration as mere background in his story of the daughter’s life and because this approach hit the airwaves of National Public Radio, while the earlier articles — some of them gently addressing themselves to children — had gone out to more selective audiences.
Though Holtz became the target for a disappointed public, all of us who have studied the curious dynamic that created the Little House pioneer story owe a huge debt to Holtz, who collected and presented data about the family that all of us have used in our work.
The giant community of Little House admirers loved the simple messages of courage, independence, and optimism in the Little House books. To hear in Holtz’s plain language that the fiercely independent pioneer girl was not the person they thought broke many a heart. That he was writing from Lane’s point of view also felt like a blow. People did not want to hear this version of the story, which cast Wilder a secondary character in the development of her own series. A contingent has held for years that Holtz was wrong because Lane’s own novels and stories did not remain popular as her mother’s stories did and because Wilder’s early drafts contained many beautiful sentences revealing her keen memory for details of pioneer life. Wilder, after all, was the authentic person on whom the series was based. Lane, on the other hand, had for years hated her farm roots and was therefore easy to mistrust. How could she have written so lovingly of pioneer life? Maddeningly, Laura Ingalls Wilder never kept a diary but her daughter had; the two women never discussed their collaboration with anyone; and Lane destroyed some of the manuscripts and letters after her mother died.
Now a new biography of Wilder, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder throws out another healthy set of cutting remarks at Holtz. Author Caroline Fraser, who earlier edited and annotated the Library of America edition of the Little House books, joined others in criticizing Holtz for emphasizing Wilder’s literary dependence upon Lane. What she does not acknowledge is her own dependence on Holtz’s scholarship. Fraser’s book, like so many, refers several times in her footnotes to papers in the William Holtz collection, a valuable resource along with the Wilder and Lane papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa.
In the early part of Prairie Fires, Fraser analyzes Laura Ingalls Wilder’s place in pioneer times deeply and broadly. As she moves into the 1930s and the Little House writing project, she argues that Wilder was in command of the writing, going so far as to suggest that she began sketching her memoir because her daughter Lane was too depressed to write. Evidence does strongly suggest that Lane asked her mother to write the memoir draft, but that does not undermine Holtz’s (and others’) findings about the division of labor between the two women.
Scholars will continue to debate the ways the two women collaborated. But the time has come to show William Holtz the honor he deserves for helping those who followed do better work. Fraser makes one statement in particular that seems especially intended to deligitimize Holtz’s analysis of the mother-daughter collaboration. She writes:
As if he had contracted a severe biographical strain of Stockholm syndrome, Holtz uncritically adopted Lane’s harsh view of her mother, treating Wilder with contempt throughout The Ghost in the Little House. He referred to her by Lane’s own nickname, ‘Mama Bess,’ in belittling references that grew more and more cutting. She was portrayed as shrill, grasping, and talentless, a ‘pedestrian’ parasite on her daughter’s far superior talents.
Fraser here is referring to Holtz’s mention of the discrepancy between Wilder’s writing style as represented in her drafts and the prose that made it to the publishing house and to the bookstores. Holtz wrote: “it would be many years before curious scholars would begin to compare the pedestrian efforts of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s manuscripts to the published versions that had passed through her daughter’s typewriter.” Fraser’s suggestion that Holtz is like a hostage who has taken on the attitude of his captor, Rose Wilder Lane, is intended to discredit his whole enterprise by delegitimizing Holtz and Rose in one fell swoop. Per Fraser’s cutting remark, Rose is not legitimate — hers is the skewed perspective of a resentful daughter, and Holtz her blind believer. For this reason, Fraser implies, nothing Rose claims to have done is to be taken at face value and nothing pertaining to her account, not even our own reason looking at the evidence, can be trusted.
For no good reason, Holtz has since 1993 borne the brunt of the disappointment that so many Little House readers suffered when they realized that Laura the beloved character in the books was not the same as Laura the real person. The idea of this collaboration, its mere possibility, seemed to shatter an important fantasy of frontier America’s rugged individualism.
And yet, scholarly evidence continues to disappoint the faithful. My own deep dive into the family papers also confirmed the collaboration. Laura had indeed been shaped by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who herself was not easy to love. Lane was a journalist, fiction writer, and world traveler who returned in middle age to her parents’ struggling farm in Missouri. After the 1929 stock market crash, Lane and her mother worked on Laura’s life story to make badly needed cash. Lane reshaped her mother’s chapters, at first without telling her, into a series of heroic tales that rebutted the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Looking at the frontier through a political lens came naturally to Lane, because she by 1930 had become a virulent anti-communist, and by the time the Little House project ended thirteen years later, this daughter of pioneers was deeply engaged in political writing that would launch the libertarian political movement.
Though Holtz was first to gain wide attention for the story, by now most historians, children’s literature scholars, and Little House readers accept that Lane worked secretly with her mother to transform the story of Wilder’s unusual frontier childhood into publishable form. The extent of Lane’s work still ignites debate, but the basic fact is established.
And yet I still hear, at conferences and in online forums, contempt for Holtz who presented Laura Ingalls Wilder as “Mama Bess,” as seen through the eyes of her daughter. That view wasn’t always very pretty. Holtz’s work coincided with that of other scholars, particularly William Anderson and Rosa Ann Moore, who also published pieces laying out the collaboration. Other scholars have argued that, even with all the evidence in diaries, letters, and surviving manuscripts, Holtz somehow went too far and failed to honor Wilder, the original pioneer. Holtz has long been the object of disdain, which has resurfaced yet again in Fraser’s biography.
I met and interviewed Holtz while working on my book about Wilder and her daughter: Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books, which came out two years ago. Holtz told me that, while writing The Ghost in the Little House, he had considered dealing with the question of “corporate authorship” of the Little House books, but that he had already committed to writing a biography of Lane — which is a much wider subject with important insights about the books in relation to political history. (I delved into that myself in my book, and my research has shown that Lane’s influence on political conservatism maintains its imprint to the present day.)
But back to Holtz. His research of the collaboration unearthed new documents. He wrote to surviving friends and colleagues of both Wilder and Lane. Those correspondences and documents make up the William Holtz papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, the same library where the Rose Wilder Lane papers and the bulk of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s papers reside.
Like all historians and writers who have studied Laura Ingalls Wilder, Holtz started out thinking he would write about her – why should he think otherwise? He realized along the way that it’s impossible to write only about Laura. In doing his research, Holtz unearthed the unsettling fact that Lane had tutored her mother in the art of writing for a mass audience, helped Wilder write the Little House books and was her secret editor. Prior to that, Lane had worked as a ghostwriter for travel writer Lowell Thomas and Frederick O’Brien, and others.
Holtz does try to imagine the daughter’s point of view in his biography of Rose Wilder Lane. He does this by looking carefully at the same documents that Fraser examined and that I have also read. We two, and another dozen or so journalists and scholars who have examined the same material, each observed the discrepancy between Laura’s private writing and the Little House books. This was not a wholesale diminishment of her authorial eye and role in the books, as Fraser seems to suggest. As Holtz wrote of Laura’s letters to her husband while visiting her daughter in 1915, they seemed to be of “a commonplace mind and a commonplace style, but also a temperament vigorously alert to the surface of the world and the economic realities beneath it.” Still if Laura had an eye and good ideas, Rose had the talent and the polish. Wilder’s article for a woman’s magazine, wrote Holtz, required Rose to take “the amateurish effort in hand and simply reconceived and rewrote it from beginning to end.”
In my past decade of researching, writing, and talking with Little House devotees about the collaboration between Wilder and her daughter, I have seen evidence that the millions of fans of the frontier stories are beginning to accept that the answer to the old question, “Who really wrote the books?” is “Two women.”
It is time for Laura Ingalls Wilder researchers, fans, and scholars to give William Holtz his due as a major figure in advancing scholarship about this powerful children’s book series that changed how Americans view the frontier. No one can take any author captive in the riddle of the Wilder-Lane partnership. They are both dead, and before they died they both kept mum on their partnership so effectively that even their editor didn’t know. Much of the evidence of the partnership Holtz himself dug up, standing for a long time alone against the loud cheering section that could not accept this unpleasant news that Laura was quietly relying on Rose to edit her drafts. Sure, Holtz told the story through Rose’s eyes; he was Rose’s biographer. Yet he was not taken in by this captor. He was guiding scholarship, giving a huge gift to history.
Christine Woodside is a Deep River, Connecticut writer. She edits Appalachia journal, has written hundreds of articles about the environment and American life, and is the author of Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books (Arcade, 2016). She is also a candidate for a master’s degree in history from Arizona State University.