Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of our best-known children's authors, her "Little House" books about pioneer life having been read and reread by four generations of Americans. Yet precisely because she is beloved as a storyteller for the young, her work's artistry and seriousness of purpose are underappreciated. The new Library of America edition, which packages her nine books of fiction into two volumes with helpful supplemental texts, is thus doubly welcome, both for its timeliness and for presenting her stories as literature worthy of adult readers.
Wilder wrote the series, as she noted in 1937, to show children who had grown up in a post-frontier age "what it is that made America as they know it." Her books are a magnificent historical chronicle, offering both a detailed record of how the pioneers lived and a testament to the values that built America. As Wilder saw it, in her own life she "represented a whole period of American history"—and it was through the details of her own life that she wanted to tell the story of the frontier experience.
Laura Ingalls was born in Wisconsin in 1867. Her father had what she called in her books a "wandering foot": In late 1869 or early 1870, Charles and Caroline Ingalls moved the family to the Osage Diminished Reserve in Kansas by covered wagon, only to return to Wisconsin in May 1871. In 1874, the family crossed the frozen Mississippi River into Minnesota to try farming, only to fail after a plague of locusts—which consumed half the nation's agricultural output—destroyed their crops. Next it was Iowa, and by 1880 the Ingallses were working to "prove up" on a homestead in De Smet, S.D. There Laura would become a teacher and meet and marry her husband, Almanzo Wilder.
It was around these major life events that Wilder structured the "Little House" series. "Little House in the Big Woods" (1932), about her Wisconsin childhood, follows a calendar year of frontier life in the upper Midwest. "Farmer Boy" (1933), about Almanzo's childhood in upstate New York, emphasizes the freedom and independence of the agrarian life. In "Little House on the Prairie" (1935), the Ingallses brave flooded rivers, malaria and tensions with Indians to set up a home in Kansas. "On the Banks of Plum Creek" (1937) covers the family's efforts to build a farm in Minnesota and is the first time the Ingalls girls experience town life and school. "By the Shores of Silver Lake" (1939) chronicles the family's move to Dakota Territory by train and their claiming of a homestead, and "The Long Winter" (1940) tells the story of their survival there amid the epic blizzards of 1880-81. In "Little Town on the Prairie" (1941) and "These Happy Golden Years" (1943), Laura blossoms into a young woman—working for pay to help her parents, developing mature friendships and being courted. (A ninth book, the novella "The First Four Years," was posthumously published in 1971 and covers the beginning of her married life.)
The lively characters who populate these books are drawn from Wilder's own family and neighbors, including her sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace, the beloved pastor Rev. Alden, and the detested schoolmate Nellie Oleson.
Though rooted in Wilder's lived experience, the books are not strict autobiography. The series leaves out the family's time in Burr Oak, Iowa, for instance, and never mentions Wilder's brother, who died when he was only 9 months old. They are literature and consciously crafted as such, with the aim of (as she put it in a 1938 letter to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane) providing a "true picture of the times and the place and the people."
The fictionalized account of a girl's transformation into a young woman is also the story of America's growth and maturation. Wilder's stories for children document the Westward Expansion and explore surprisingly grown-up themes—the nature of self-government, the responsibilities that go along with freedom and what it means to be an American.
Essential to understanding those themes is the fact that Wilder wrote the "Little House" books during the Depression and New Deal, at a time when she saw the nation sliding into an unhealthy dependency on government. In addition to educating American children about a crucial period of their history, Wilder wanted to show them a freer way of life. "Self reliance," she explained in a speech in the winter of 1935-36, is one of the "values of life" that "run[s] through all the stories, like a golden thread."
The "Little House" books are virtual manuals of self-provision, with exhaustive descriptions of how the Ingalls and Wilder families secured their own food, shelter, clothing, education and entertainment through the work of their own hands. In "Little Town on the Prairie," for instance, a flock of blackbirds destroys the crops that the family is relying on to make ends meet, but the setback is no match for Ingalls ingenuity. Pa kills the blackbirds and Ma uses them to feed the family, even turning them into a pot pie. "The underside was steamed and fluffy," Wilder wrote. "Over it [Pa] poured spoonfuls of thin brown gravy, and beside it he laid half a blackbird, browned, and so tender that the meat was slipping from the bones." " 'It takes you to think up a chicken pie, a year before there's chickens to make it with,' Pa said."
If Wilder's pioneer families are resourceful, government is depicted as meddling and incompetent—a contrast that emphasizes the importance of providing for oneself. Indeed, Washington's bungling is blamed for the Ingallses' forced departure from Indian Territory in "Little House on the Prairie," and in "The Long Winter" a family friend denounces politicians who "tax the lining out'n a man's pockets" and "take pleasure a-prying into a man's affairs." Fear of debt hangs over these stories like a dark cloud; to be "beholden" to anyone is a mark of shame. The only respectable path to subsistence—let alone comfort—is hard work. "Neither [my parents] nor their neighbors begged for help," Wilder explained in a 1937 speech. "No other person, nor the government, owed them a living."
But no man in Wilder's stories is an island. When people fall on desperate times—and they do constantly—Wilder's pioneers exhibit one of those other "values of life": "helpfulness." There is a sacred code of neighborliness, and Wilder's heroes are those who forgo their own safety to the benefit of others. In "The Long Winter," for instance, Almanzo and a friend make a near-suicidal trip to find wheat for the starving residents of De Smet. In "On the Banks of Plum Creek," a prairie fire threatens to destroy the family's home. Knowing Pa is away, a neighbor, Mr. Nelson, rides to the farm to help Ma, beating back the fire with wet sacks. After he leaves, Ma remarks: "There is nothing in the world so good as good neighbours."
Wilder told these stories because she thought New Deal-era America needed the pioneers' "old-fashioned character values . . . to help us over the rough places." These values are timeless and highly relevant today, when questions of dependency and self-reliance have become urgent in American political life.
If Laura Ingalls Wilder can be a modern-day teacher of liberty, the Library of America edition of her work is an excellent textbook. The volumes' editor, Caroline Fraser, has helpfully anchored Wilder's remembrances in the broader context of frontier history. She is good at sorting out where Wilder's life diverges from her fiction and at filling out the stories of her family, friends and neighbors. The real Rev. Alden, it turns out, abandoned his wife and children and "ran away with a girl." Nellie Oleson was actually a composite of three girls: Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters and Estella Gilbert. Wilder's shy and frail sister Carrie grew up to manage several newspapers in South Dakota. When Almanzo Wilder died at age 92, in 1949, neighbors found Laura embracing him in his chair.
Much of the "Little House" series is built around the family's favorite hymns and songs—from "The Big Sunflower" and "Highland Mary" to "Captain Jinks"—and Ms. Fraser has ferreted out dates, proper titles, corrected and alternative lyrics, composers, and noteworthy performers. Her notes are right to emphasize the music, as Pa's fiddle is one of the central symbols of the series—its tunes rising and falling with the family's fortunes. After her father's death, Wilder credited "whatever religion, romance and patriotism I have . . . to the violin and my Father playing in the twilight." (The fiddle is now in the collection of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Mo.)
Beyond paying tribute to Wilder's work with critical annotation, the Library of America edition showcases the maturity of her writing through the new experience it offers to readers. The "Little House" series was written for a picture-book format, designed to reach 8- to 12-year-old readers and include frequent illustration. The Library of America has stripped the pictures away, leaving only Wilder's words to re-create a world long gone. The result highlights her magnificent gift for description, which grows more evident as her heroine matures. Indeed, Wilder closes the series by setting the scene for the first night of her married life:
Twilight faded as the little stars went out and the moon rose and floated upward. Its silvery light flooded the sky and the prairie. The winds that had blown whispering over the grasses all the summer day now lay sleeping, and quietness brooded over the moon-drenched land.
Ultimately, this is the greatest contribution of the new edition—to present Wilder's work as serious literature for adults.
The release coincides with other signs of grown-up interest in Wilder: Earlier this year, PBS released "Pa's Fiddle: The Music of America," featuring country-music stars performing "Little House" songs. Next year, "Pioneer Girl"—the autobiographical manuscript that Wilder wrote with adult readers in mind and that served as a sort of rough draft for the "Little House" books—will be published for the first time by the South Dakota State Historical Society.
America isn't reverting to the pioneer days, nor would most Americans want to. But we would benefit from rekindling some of the pioneer spirit. In "Little House on the Prairie," Pa and Ma fret over borrowing a few building supplies from their neighbor Mr. Edwards, vowing to "pay him back every nail." Today our national debt stands at $16 trillion. What ails us is much broader and deeper than mere policy or law: It is a matter of culture, and it is in the culture that our ailments must be tended to. The stories we tell and honor have enormous value in shaping a culture. At this moment, Wilder's stories deserve a closer reading.
—Miss Clyne is the managing editor of National Affairs. A version of this article appeared September 22, 2012, on page C5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Songs of the Free and the Brave.