In 1942, literary agent George Bye received the final manuscript from a client he had reluctantly decided to represent twelve years earlier, an author whose first work, a memoir for adults, had left him uninspired. But she had found her voice as a children’s book writer, and Bye felt deeply moved and stirred by her eighth and final novel. He predicted her books would “become an American fixture, something like Little Women and Little Men, but with sounder inspiration….”1
Comparing Laura Ingalls Wilder to Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women and Little Men, may seem inevitable now, but when These Happy Golden Years was published in 1943, Wilder’s reputation as a writer of American children’s classics was far from assured. Although the last five titles in her Little House series had been named Newbery Honor Books, none had won the coveted medal itself. Ursula Nordstrom, Wilder’s editor at Harper & Brothers, maintained that the American Library Association’s Newbery Committee was prejudiced against all “series books,” and were blind to their literary merit.2
Yet almost from the moment Wilder’s first Little House book was published (Little House in the Big Woods), young readers responded enthusiastically to her characters and their stories. As one fourth grader wrote in 1933, “I enjoyed the book very much. I wish it would never come to a[n] end for it was so good.”3
Throughout her lifetime, Wilder seemed surprised by her readers’ admiration because, as she told reporters, “I didn’t know how to write. I went to little red schoolhouses all over the West and I was never graduated from anything.”4
Yet Wilder came from a family that valued learning—books, poetry, music, and storytelling. Her mother Caroline Quiner Ingalls had been a schoolteacher, and insisted that her girls—Mary Amelia, Laura Elizabeth, Caroline Celestia, and Grace Pearl—needed a proper education, even on the frontier. Wilder became an avid reader, the first and perhaps most essential step in becoming a writer. In Wilder’s memoir Pioneer Girl, she described how she and Mary read aloud from the Independent Fifth Reader as a crowd gathered outside their window to listen.5
From her father Charles Ingalls, Wilder learned the lyricism and pacing of storytelling. “Pa was no business man,” she explained to her daughter, author Rose Wilder Lane. “He was a hunter and trapper, a musician and poet.”6 He dreamed of moving west, of building a better life for his family. His pioneer aspirations gave Wilder’s fiction its shape and thematic focus as well as much of its content.
Her ambition to write professionally may have taken root in Dakota Territory when she was a teenager. She began writing poetry and in 1883, at the age of sixteen, completed her first composition. Entitled “Ambition,” it won praise from her favorite schoolteacher, who encouraged her to write more. Wilder treasured this early work; she kept her adolescent poems and the original draft of “Ambition” all her life.
Perhaps because Wilder’s interest in writing began when she was young, she seemed instinctively to know the kinds of characters and situations that would appeal to young readers. When her daughter, who edited the Little House books, advised against including Mary’s blindness in the series, Wilder disagreed. “A touch of tragedy makes the story truer to life and showing the way we took it illustrates the spirit of the times and the frontier.” She added, “I don’t see how we can spare what you call adult stuff for that makes the story.”7
In the years that followed the publication of These Happy Golden Years, sales for Wilder’s books remained strong. A second generation of young readers fell under her spell. By the 1950s, it was still too early to declare Wilder a literary legend, but her impact on children’s literature was undeniable. Her books were translated into multiple languages; her publisher released a new edition of her books featuring illustrations by Garth Williams; and in 1954, the American Library Association unveiled its Wilder Medal. As Ursula Nordstrom wrote, the medal would honor writers or illustrators who made “a distinguished, creative, sustained contribution to children’s books.”8 Wilder herself was its first recipient.
Her reputation continued to gain momentum after her death in 1957. Organizations sprang up across the country to preserve and commemorate sites that had been important to Wilder and her family. “Little House on the Prairie,” an NBC television series that originally aired from 1974 to 1982, brought a new audience to Wilder’s work, and by the 1980s, her influence had moved well beyond children’s literature.
Wilder’s work has historical, cultural, educational, and social significance. This web site has been designed to showcase her evolving legacy across multiple subjects and audiences. You’ll find a range of information here focused on Wilder’s work, life, significance, and meaning. Wilder has indeed become an American fixture, a literary legend. She merits a multi-faceted Web site for all her followers.
- George Bye to Laura Ingalls Wilder, May 5, 1943, James Oliver Brown Collection, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York.
- Ursula Nordstrom to Ethel Heins, June 16, 1975, in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, ed. Leonard S. Marcus (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 365.
- Marjorie Vitense to Laura Ingalls Wilder, February 22, 1933, Folder 14, Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association, Mansfield, MO, Microfilm ed., Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, 1894-1943.
- Quoted in Fred Kiewit, “Stories That Had To Be Told,” Kansas City Star, n.d. , clipping, Laura Ingalls Wilder Folder, Archives Collection, South Dakota State Historical Society, Pierre.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Edition, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre, SD: The South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 106.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, March 23, 1937, Box 13, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, IA.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, January 26, 1938, Box 13, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, IA.
- Ursula Nordstrom to Garth Williams, February 11, 1954, in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, ed. Leonard S. Marcus (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), pp. 74-75.
To learn more about Laura Ingalls Wilder and how she became a writer, check out Dean Butler’s documentary, Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. To purchase the DVD, click here.
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Pamela Smith Hill is the author of Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life and the editor of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. She has taught writing and literature classes at several universities, including a massive open online course on Wilder for Missouri State University. She is also the author of three Young Adult novels.
I grew up on a farm and I still remember one of my brothers friends telling me that “Farmer Boy” was about my brother, I believed them! LOL
My fifth grade teacher read the books to our after lunch and recess. She would have us lay our heads down and close our eyes to listen, she wanted us to picture the stories in our heads. It was a great way to calm us down, but she really got us interested I reading books especially the Laura Ingals Wilder books. That experience has created a reader that can actually see the characters and I started out my children the same way. Now they are readers and their children will be reader as well.
I just retired this spring( against my will) and watching ” Little House” on the Hallmark channel has lifted my spirits better than any SSRI drug ! I’m 64 and can’t believe a man my age can cry so much! I watched the show 40 years ago but only because I was a Bonanza devotee. Being an English major in college didn’t teach me anything about LIW’s great children’s books, only Mark Twain’s classics. I never took the T V series seriously,but I CERTAINLY DO NOW!!!
I too just discover this Blog. Living in Austria , never real got the Hype like in the USA. I discovered LHOTP 4 months ago, ever
since am a huge fan of Laura Ingalls , her books. I think they show you the value of family . Besides I love
the sweet and chaste lovestory between Almanzo and Laura.
I could write more, never have seen the early seasons of LHOTP in TV, I did bought DVDS from season 6 to 9.
I love them especially when Dean BUtler appears.
I loved. These books as a child, growing up in the city. I once had the ambition to visit all the houses, maybe with my granddaughter
I watched that show every week; also have the boxed set of “Little House On the Prairie”! I wish they would bring it back; I loved “Half-Pint”, Mary, Grace, Ma & Pa, and all the other actors, including “Nellie”, who was most certainly a piece of work and a spoiled brat, but after a while, she kind of grew on you! One of my favourite male characters was her future husband! Even I had a bit of a crush on him when I watched him!
Love watch little house relax calm me. Love them speciality Laura. Laura there HeLP alots . Matthew wild boy. They understand each others. Matthew not wild boy. The man trychanges him to be wild boy. When he out cave not wild boy any more Mr Edward lives Matthew he try help Matthew . Matthew father don’t raise him and his father took Matthew Mr Edward get upset. He help him be calm not be wild.
I have always been a huge fan of Little House On The Prairie and I still watch it to this day.
I’ve been a fan of Little House since I was a teenager. I’ve never read the books, but I hope to do so someday. Learning about the real Laura Ingalls Wilder is fascinating. I’ll be coming back to this site more often.
I just happened upon your post. I too was a great fan of the tv show for years, since it started until now. I’ve had a set of her books since 1970s. It was until about 2010 that I decided to read them. Oh my word, they are amazing. I was so enamored by them that I got in my car from New England and drove right to Missouri to see the home where Laura and Almanzo settled. Please read the books, they are a great blessing and will open your mind and heart to a whole to way to look at Little House.
I never read the books but watch the Little House series regularly. Someday I hope to read them. And some day I hope to visit one of the Little House museums.
A friend and I just finished visiting the sites for ” Little House in the Big Woods”, Burr Oak, Spring Valley, “On the Banks of Plum Creek”, and De Smet, SD. It was amazing. I have now visited all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites and would do it all over again. ?
I loved the books and read them over and over. My children and grandchildren are amazed I can quote the books, whole chapters. We visited all the LH sites in the 70’s before the TV show, (which I never really liked, especially Mary’s character). I pretended Pa was my father. He was loving and strong. I am reading Pioneer Girl. I’m rather amazed that Rose’s two most notable books these days are Laura’s stories. I wish I could have known Laura. I gave a book report on Little House in the Big Woods when I was in grade school. I happened to have a deep pink flannel nightgown and my own rag doll my mom had made as my prop. I make sure my grandkids read them.
I’m a little fan an the ingalls family an
There believe an there up bringing
I read all the little house books multiple times when I was young….loved them all……I named my only daughter , Laura Elizabeth
I Love Little House I Still Watch It To This Day I Enjoy Learning How It Was Back Then , I Only Wish There Were More Show’s Like This That Have A Meaning To Them Thank You For Sharing This
Loved her stories