The First Four Years

In this novel I feel like I’m reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pure voice for the first time.  This book, as is well known, was never edited by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane and is very different from the other Little House books.  The language is more plain, but the book feels more honest.

Rose Wilder Lane wanted to tell a story of self-reliant and successful pioneers, so one thing she did was to take out certain events, like the death of Laura’s baby brother, Charles Frederick.  (Events that she wanted to take out but Wilder insisted on keeping include Mary’s blindness and the laborers’ riot near the Silver Lake settlement).  By contrast, in “The First Four Years” we get a succession of setbacks and tragedies:  the Wilder crop is destroyed repeatedly, their house burns downs, and their infant son dies.  All this is reported without sentimentality or overt drama – and certainly without uplifting lessons.  There are hardly any episodes even of fun and laughter.

It’s not that Laura and Almanzo are made to seem dour here, but their life is revealed as harsh and uncertain, with little-to-no payback or progress.

It’s an unfinished work, of course, and merely a first draft.  We can never know what Wilder herself would have done with future drafts. 

But her voice is heavily reportorial, and intensely descriptive.  Much of the gift for storytelling that you see in the other books remains in this one, such as when Almanzo gets lost in a blizzard merely on his way from the barn to the house.  But there’s no overarching lesson of self-reliance that shapes this book.  It’s hard to see any overarching lesson at all, actually.  At the very end Laura does recommit to the life of a farming family and to the persistence that it requires, but it feels like she’s embracing this commitment not because it’s an overarching faith but simply because she can hardly do anything else except go on working and living.

This is very different from the other Little House books, and maybe this novel doesn’t come up to my favorites, but I appreciate the heck out of its simple honesty.

Incidentally it seems to me that Laura Ingalls Wilder is a fox, and Rose Wilder Lane a hedgehog, as Isaiah Berlin described those terms:

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defence. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle. These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.

Rose Wilder Lane wrote articles and books of her own, none of which I’ve read.  But my suggestion here is that her fierce commitment to libertarianism made her a hedgehog, and that Laura Ingalls Wilder, based on this book and her memoir, “Pioneer Girl,” is a fox who was compelled simply to describe life as it was, without attempting to shape her materials toward any single meaning or goal.

I’ve started Wilder’s autobiography, “Pioneer Girl,” and her voice is similar there. More on that book in a separate post.

Garth Williams

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