By April of 1932, when Harper and Brothers released Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first children’s novel, Little House in the Big Woods, the United States was moving into the second year of the worst economic depression in its history. The year stands out—along with 1776, 1789, 1861, 1917, 1941, and 1968—as one of the most dramatic and significant in the nation’s history. Perhaps the most important single event was the nomination and subsequent election of New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt as President of the United States, after four years of a failed Hoover administration. With the ushering in of the New Deal, the public concluded that, indeed, the only thing they had to fear was fear itself, and prosperity gradually reestablished itself during the rest of the decade. While European nations succumbed to fascism and radical left‑wing ideologies during the 1930s, the United States pursued a middle‑of‑the‑road path that enabled it to muddle through the Depression, placing it in a position to rescue Europe and Asia from the threats of dictatorship and totalitarianism during World War II.
The publication of a children’s novel about family life on the post‑Civil War frontier by an unknown author from the Missouri Ozarks certainly did not rank as one of the year’s more noted events. But over the course of the next eleven years, this largely self‑taught author would pen—or, rather, pencil—seven more novels, setting aside a manuscript apparently aimed at a more mature audience that would later be published posthumously to complete her autobiographical series chronicling the life of the Ingalls family as it bounced around in Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Dakota Territory during the 1860s, ’70s, and ’80s. Right from the start, the books won popularity and acclaim from readers and reviewers, and they soon began garnering awards. Six decades later, they remain continuingly popular among new generations of readers, both young and old. Copies of them may be found on the shelves of libraries and almost anywhere that books are sold; many stores contain special sections devoted exclusively to Wilder’s books and ones written about her. Her works have been translated into more than forty languages and are especially popular in Japan, where, after World War II, occupation commander General Douglas MacArthur made them required reading as a means of inculcating solid American values in the defeated Japanese populace.
Much has been written about these books, their author, and the collaboration that occurred between her and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a celebrated writer in her own right, in the production of the Little House volumes. During the past several years, increasing numbers of books and articles have appeared.1Rather than attempting to set forth a general interpretation or synthesis of Wilder and her writings, my purpose here is simply to take the year when she first began publishing her books and use it as a jumping-off point for examining several aspects of Wilder’s life and career that might cast them in a somewhat different light and illuminate some things that ordinarily get overlooked.
Among the more notable developments punctuating the news in 1932 were the continuing slide of the country into the trough of economic depression; the emergence of the Farm Holiday movement in northwestern Iowa to try to boost farm prices and income; the landslide victory of the Democrats during the fall elections; Amelia Earhart’s transatlantic flight and the kidnapping of the golden‑locked baby son and only child of Anne Morrow and Charles Lindbergh, who just seven years earlier had stunned the world with the first solo flight across the Atlantic; the death of historian Frederic Jackson Turner, populizer of the frontier interpretation of American history; Babe Ruth’s “called shot” that fall in the World Series; and the publication of Frederic C. Bartlett’s path‑breaking book on the workings of memory. All of these events had a direct or indirect connection with the life of the “little old lady” who that year, at the age of sixty‑five, began publishing her “Little House” books about life on the late-nineteenth-century frontier.
Certainly the most important thing on people’s minds throughout the year was the economic disaster that had set in after the Stock Market Crash of October 1929. Like most of their neighbors and friends, Laura and Almanzo Wilder were slow to grasp the implications of what at first appeared to be just another periodic correction in stock prices. But by 1932 the evidence was compelling and worrisome everywhere they looked; in the throes of economic disaster, the country confronted its most difficult challenge since the Civil War. The question at hand was not merely when the economy would revive but whether the Republic would survive. Missouri farm prices dropped 55 percent between 1929 and 1932. Farm land values fell proportionately. Added to farmers’ woes were drought, beginning in 1930, and infestations of locusts and other pests. Heat waves drained people of energy and even the will to live. Value added by manufacturing in the state declined by over 50 percent, a loss somewhat smaller than the national average. Average unemployment in the state increased to 16 percent in 1930, 27 percent the following year, and 38 percent in 1932 and 1933.2
For a family that had never accumulated very much in the way of material possessions, the Great Depression was less traumatic than it was for those who had never known want. Laura and Almanzo Wilder had experienced adversity on the Dakota prairies during their early years of marriage in the 1880s and had been driven in desperation during the depression‑wracked and drought‑plagued year of 1894 to try their luck in the more hospitable climes of Missouri. But eeking out a living on their Rocky Ridge farm just outside of Mansfield and for a time in town with Almanzo’s draying business and Laura’s cooking, had not been easy. What modest prosperity the couple had come to enjoy by the late 1920s, as Laura entered her sixties and Almanzo his seventies, was due largely to the concern and solicitude of Rose, who provided them with an annual $500 income subsidy and who, in a not untypical spendthrift gesture, built them an $11,000 English‑style rock cottage across the hill from the sturdy two‑story white frame farmhouse that they had lovingly built and expanded over the years with their own hands and the assistance of some local carpenters. After they moved out of their old dwelling, Rose moved in, remaining at Rocky Ridge until 1935, when she moved back East, first to New York City and then to Danbury, Connecticut.
The Depression pinched the family’s finances. Earlier hopes that their money worries could be put behind them evaporated. The strain showed itself more in Rose than in her parents. They had always managed to live on little, although as old age descended upon them, they increasingly worried about how they would be able to take care of themselves. Rose, on the other hand, had acquired extravagant habits, chafing under the poverty‑stricken circumstances in which she had grown up. As paychecks for short stories, novels, and other writing assignments rolled in during the 1920s, she always found ways to spend them on clothes, apartments, cars, and travel. Her approach to money assumed that it was easier to earn more of it than it was to try to save it. So rather than attempting to cut back on expenditures, she pushed herself to churn out ever more material for the book publishers and magazine editors, frantically trying to keep her head above financial water.
The Depression forced Rose to become more realistic about her expectations. There were limits, she began to realize, to what she could do and accomplish. Having built up a substantial nest egg in a New York brokerage account, she received the devastating news in November 1931, that the entire investment had become worthless.3 During the next several years, while her mother’s writing career began to blossom (thanks in large part to the work that she herself put into editing and revising her mother’s handwritten manuscripts), her own writing career sputtered. She would experience more triumphs, such as the publication in 1932 of Let the Hurricane Roar and in 1938 of Free Land, but their frequency tapered off. Meanwhile, in addition to the financial losses she incurred, she grew increasingly depressed by the aging process, health problems, bad teeth, her realization that no more romances probably awaited her, lack of compatible companionship, and the growing awareness that she was running out of things to say as a fiction‑writer.4 In a journal entry on May 28, she wrote, “Nothing has changed in my circumstances. I am still deep in debt, held here where I hate to be, grown old, losing my teeth, all that—and never anyone knowing I am here, so that I feel forgotten in a living grave.”5 Rose’s biographer William Holtz notes that she recognized a connection between her own mental depression during the 1930s and the economic Depression that the country was suffering through.6
If Rose came to better understand her limits as a result of the Great Depression, her mother was just beginning to recognize her potential as an author. After much encouragement and cajoling, Rose had finally gotten her to sit down in 1930 and write an autobiographical account, titled “Prairie Girl,” which added up to about 200 double‑spaced, typewritten pages when Rose ran it through her typewriter. Although nobody was willing to publish the manuscript in that form, the first part of the manuscript became the basis for a fictionalized story that Laura wrote about her childhood in the Chippewa River logging region of western Wisconsin after the Civil War. After several fits and starts, a children’s book under the title of Little House in the Big Woods came out under the imprint on the New York firm of Harper and Brothers in early 1932.
The Depression certainly had some negative impacts on Wilder’s writing career: it depressed sales of her books, reduced the royalties she received, and forced the cancellation of her original contract with Alfred A. Knopf, leading to her later long‑term relationship with Harper. But the Depression also provided the psychological and intellectual backdrop for the books that she wrote about the frontier, emphasizing the individualistic virtues of hard work, perseverance, initiative, and industry as well as the communal values of patience, cooperation, sacrifice, and tolerance. For Wilder, as well as for her daughter, the same sorts of habits and values that had conquered the frontier were capable of pulling the country out of the Depression. They both worried that excessive government paternalism, which they associated with Roosevelt’s New Deal, would undermine the sense of sturdy individualism that had made the country strong and successful in the past. The Depression, thus, was a test, and both of them feared that the New Dealers were increasing the likelihood that the country would fail it. It did not take long at Rocky Ridge for “Roosevelt” to become a dirty word. In one memorable episode in family folklore, Almanzo Wilder ran a federal farm agent off his property when the man dropped by to talk about new production quotas that Congress had enacted. The 81‑year‑old farmer yelled at the government man to “get the hell” off his land “and if you’re on it when I get to my gun, by God I’ll fill you with buckshot.”7
The causes for the emergence—as well as the persistence—of the Great Depression during the 1930s invited a great deal of speculation at the time and in years since then. Among liberals and New Dealers, a large part of the explanation could be found in the disappearance of the frontier, which they connected with a decline in effective demand for the nation’s agricultural and industrial products. A young University of Wisconsin history professor named Frederick Jackson Turner had popularized the frontier thesis of American history in a paper delivered at a historical meeting during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. For the next four decades, the Turner Thesis held sway over historical interpretation, attributing the key characteristics of American social and economic life—individualism, democracy, nationalism, etc.—to the effects of the constantly westward‑moving landed frontier. The realization that a recognizable geographical frontier was no longer present by the early 1890s hit intellectuals like Turner with the force of a bludgeon, and more than one scholarly career was made in deducing and explaining all the implications that accompanied it.
Although I have come across nothing to indicate that Laura Ingalls Wilder knew about the Turner thesis or consciously tried to apply its concepts and findings in her own writing, Turner’s ideas were pervasive in the culture, and Wilder certainly was affected by the widespread fealty accorded to the importance of the frontier in American history. Rose was a prodigious reader of history, politics, current events, and other subjects and had to have been aware of Turner and his thesis. She shared in the assumption of the frontier’s central importance in American history and in the validity and significance of the attributes Turner associated with the frontier, such as democracy, individualism, self‑reliance, initiative, and industry. Turner’s death in March 1932, marked the end of an era, and his frontier thesis of American history would come under increasingly sharp criticism from scholars during the 1940s and 1950s. But average Americans, who were more interested in figures like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and who found Turner’s sanguine interpretation of frontier influences to their liking, demonstrated a continued interest in and liking for frontier heroes whom they could identify with and look up to. Turner, who was born in 1861 and grew up in Portage, Wisconsin, just six years before and 160 miles southeast of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Pepin, on the Mississippi River, was, like her, part of a frontier generation which venerated and viscerally identified with a way of life and the kind of people that stamped their character on American civilization.
New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, like many other progressive‑minded politicians in 1932, took it for granted that the closing of the frontier had played a major role in bringing on the economic catastrophe that the country was going through.8 Although the frontier phase had passed four decades earlier, the country was still feeling the long‑term consequences of that phenomenon in the form of reduced demand for agricultural and industrial products, overbuilt factories, excess production, and inadequate consumption. In a famous speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on September 23, six weeks before the election, Roosevelt expressed his belief that economic growth in the United States had largely come to a halt. “Our industrial plant is built,” he asserted, “the problem just now is whether under existing conditions it is not overbuilt. Our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land.” The conclusion to be drawn from this seemed obvious to the Democratic candidate. “Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, of seeking to reestablish foreign markets for our surplus production, of meeting the problem of underconsumption, of adjusting production to consumption, of distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organization to the service of the people.”9
This statement set the tone for the “scarcity economics” approach of the First New Deal during 1933 and 1934. Roosevelt and his team would later repudiate the pessimistic assumptions of the Commonwealth Club speech and opt instead for economic growth. If the Wilders and their daughter read Roosevelt’s remarks in San Francisco, it would have reinforced their suspicion that he and his advisors were on the wrong track. It did not take long for both generations of the family to start warning darkly about the wrong direction in which FDR was leading the country. For them, administration, redistribution, bigger government agencies, and planning were all anathema. They directly contradicted the frontier values and virtues they still thought relevant in a modern industrial society. To the degree that she was political at all, Laura had grown up as a Democrat, but by the 1930s she viewed the direction of the Democratic party with ever greater alarm and became an outspoken critic of Roosevelt and his minions. Her expressions of concern, however, paled in comparison to those of her daughter, who became apoplectic at the thought of where the New Dealers were leading the country. By mid‑decade, Rose had gravitated to an extreme right‑wing, anti‑New Deal position, and by the early 1940s she emerged as one of the conservative right’s most vociferous and effective opinion‑molders.10
Living in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, Laura and Almanzo found themselves in congenial company when it came to politics. While Missouri, as a border state, possessed strong Democratic leanings, the Ozarks region was relatively more Republican in orientation. Conservative ideological views thrived there. During the Democratic landslide of 1932, the town of Mansfield, traditionally Republican in its voting patterns, gave Roosevelt a slight margin over Herbert Hoover, 362 votes to 303 (54 percent to 46 percent). Democratic candidates for the governorship and lesser offices received similar margins over their Republican opponents. County‑wide, Roosevelt carried 56 percent of the major‑party vote; in the state as a whole, he obtained 64 percent.11 Mansfield city’s and Wright County’s deviation from the mean in 1932 presaged a quick shift back to Republican voting patterns in 1934 and 1936. Laura Ingalls Wilder was an admirer of the staunchly conservative Dewey Short, who bucked the liberal tide in 1934 and went to Congress as a Republican critic of Roosevelt and the New Deal. For the next two decades he consistently attacked New Deal and Fair Deal liberalism in terms virtually identical to those used by Wilder and Lane.12
By the end of the thirties, foreign policy issues began to dominate politics, and both Wilder and her daughter, not surprisingly, found themselves at odds once again with the man in the White House. They backed the America First Committee when it emerged in 1940 to organize the isolationists against the interventionist foreign policy of the administration. The year 1932, which had been such a good year for Franklin Roosevelt, struck tragically at the family of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. His 19‑month‑old son was kidnapped from the family’s home near Hopewell, New Jersey, on March 1, launching a round‑the‑clock media watch that almost eclipsed the coverage given to the photogenic pilot after his brave and dangerous flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
By 1939, Lindbergh, risking—but at the same time utilizing—the popularity that he had gained from his transoceanic adventure, emerged as the most popular spokesman in America for the isolationist cause. Having visited Germany more than a half‑dozen times during the 1930s, he had concluded that Hitler was unstoppable and that the United States should not waste its precious resources in bailing out what he considered to be the feeble and doomed democracies of Western Europe. In his insistence that we stay out of the political cockpit of Europe and in his denunciations of the drift of the administration’s foreign policy, Lindbergh was expressing Wilder and Lane’s opinions exactly.13 In this instance, foreign policy views reinforced domestic policy positions, increasing their opposition to the man in the White House. Wilder spent considerable energy in late 1938 campaigning for the Ludlow Amendment, a proposed Constitutional change which would have required a national referendum before war could be declared on another nation, except in the case of a direct attack on American soil. The effort failed, but the episode illustrated the continuing strength of isolationism at the time.14
Although Wilder had once run for public office (as an unsuccessful candidate for collector of Pleasant Valley Township in 1925), she was much less political in orientation than her daughter and got much more enjoyment out of working around the house, visiting with neighbors, and involving herself in various kinds of club activities. Before she began writing children’s novels, Wilder had joined or participated in many different clubs and had helped organize some of them. She was an active member of the Eastern Star, frequently attended meetings of the Methodist Ladies Aid, helped organize the annual Mansfield Agricultural and Stock Show, and participated during the First World War in the Red Cross. She enjoyed attending various bridge, sewing, and embroidery groups, and she played a very responsible role for a decade as secretary‑treasurer of the Mansfield branch of the National Farm Loan Association. Her favorite extracurricular activity, however, was participating in a variety of women’s study clubs, including the Athenian Club, the Interesting Hour Club, the Justamere Club, and the Friday Afternoon Book Club. While admittedly much of the reason for women getting together was simply to gossip and enjoy what the local newspaper referred to as “dainty refreshments,” there was a serious purpose to these groups too, and they provided the most significant intellectual outlet available to women at the time. Giving reports on and discussing subjects ranging from Egyptian art to highway funding and English Lake Poets to child discipline, these meetings no doubt were often perfunctory and tedious, but they also provided at least some opportunity for their members to range outside the normal cares and problems of family and town life and to consider questions and issues that had a broader impact.15
By 1932, Wilder’s name no longer graced the reports of the various secretaries or club officers who submitted them to the editor of the Mansfield Mirror for publication. Most of the clubs in operation at the time had a regular monthly meeting day, usually in the afternoon but sometimes in the evening. The Live Wire Club ordinarily met on Thursday evening, the Interesting Hour Club on Tuesday afternoon, the Modern Home Makers Club on Thursday afternoon, the Stitch and Chatter Club on Wednesday evening. The Baptist church, the Cumberland Presbyterian church, and Laura’s own Methodist Episcopal church also had monthly meetings of their ladies aids. In addition, the newspaper occasionally noted meetings of groups like the Thursday Afternoon Tea Club, the Bridge and Supper Club, the Busy Bees, and the Community Quilting Club.16 If Wilder attended any of these meetings, her name was not recorded. Since she often was noted on lists of attendees in previous years and sometimes later on, we can infer that her writing duties largely took her away from club activities during 1932, and if she was in attendance at any of the meetings, it could not have been very frequently.
But socializing was not completely bypassed. The Mirror ran a paragraph about a tea put on by Rose Wilder Lane on Monday, June 13, with guests being Mrs. C. H. Thompson, Mrs. Stella Adams of Kansas City, Mrs. J. A. Fuson, Mrs. George B. Freeman, and Mrs. A. J. Wilder.17 Rose received more mentions in the paper than her mother did in 1932. Later in June, Rose attended a party at Mrs. Freeman’s home, honoring the same visitor from Kansas City as well as Mrs. R. J. Freeman of Springfield.18
The weekly issues of the Mansfield Mirror consisted of only four pages in 1932. With local government, railroad, and church notices; many ads; and a number of filler stories from other papers and sources taking up space, not much room was left for straight news. Most of the local information consisted of short personal items or paragraphs like those that pervaded every local newspaper of its type. One kind of story that got fairly frequent mention was news of the progress of local road‑building programs. Considerable improvements were made on the highways during the 1920s, but much work remained to be done. Local town boosters pushed hard for increased state funding for roads, believing that increased mobility would mean more cars on Main Street and more customers in their stores. That was true, but only to a point. They could have detected a clue to the future in local paragraphs in the Mansfield Mirror under the heading “Terse and Not So Terse.” There, one could read about who had had a baby shower, who was entertaining whom in their homes, what young people were attending college in Columbia and Springfield, and how the latest revival meetings were going. Increasingly, however, local residents were going golfing or shopping or attending to business in Springfield, fifty miles to the west on Highway 60. A lot of the local items in the paper mentioned visits to or visitors from nearby towns such as Ava, Hartville (the country seat), Cedar Gap, and Mountain Grove, and more distant places such as Seymour, West Plains, Monett, and Joplin. Sometimes people even drove to or rode the train as far as Kansas City, St. Louis, and Memphis. The long‑range outcome of all of this mobility became apparent later on: the same cars that brought people in from the country and nearby towns to shop and go to movies in Mansfield could also take Mansfield’s residents to shop in Springfield and elsewhere. That was the long-term trend, but the portents were there already by 1932 for those able to read them.
Federal Highway 60 ran east and west through Mansfield, while Route 5 ran north and south through town. The federal numbering system had been put in place in 1926. Three years later, a Highway 60 Association emerged to organize efforts of businessmen and other supporters in towns along the route to advertise it, promote it, and put pressure on government officials to increase funding for it. Nearly one hundred members attended a meeting in April at Mountain Grove of the Missouri Highway 60 Association, where W. S. Candler of that city was reelected president.19 In September, the group celebrated the opening of a twenty‑mile extension of concrete surfacing from Springfield east to Rogersville, and plans were in the offing for extending the concrete slab further east through Mansfield and on to the eastern boundary of Wright County.20
In November, the Mirror ran for its readers a short word of advice similar to thousands of similar items published in small town newspapers all over America during the twenties and thirties and later:
“If you want to keep your town going there is no better argument in the world than to trade at home. It is the hometown merchant who helps to keep the schools, the churches, the streets and parks in condition for the enjoyment of all. We’ve heard of people right in our town, business men if you please, who buy out of our town, when the identical goods at just as good a price can be bought here. We do not deny the fact that persons can spend money where they please but by exercising that right to our mind displays poor business policy. Of course some will take the attitude that the other fellow does not buy from him. Perhaps if you try him first you both will profit.”21
“Buy at home” became the battle cry of small-town businessmen and newspaper in the decades after automobiles and better roads began to increase the range of American shoppers. The early 1930s witnessed a growing reaction against the chain-store “invasion” of small-town America, and it saw efforts by some state legislatures to tax them out of business or at least make them compete fairly with locally‑owned stores. In 1930, 33-year‑old Philip La Follette made his attack on chain stores and chain banks the central theme of his successful bid for the governorship of Wisconsin. The Great Depression heightened concerns of Main Street store owners that the unfair competition of the chains would put them out of business. In 1936, Congress passed the Robinson‑Patman Act, making it illegal for manufacturers or wholesalers to give preferential discounts or rebates to chain stores or other large buyers.22
If the full implications for small towns like Mansfield of industrial change, improved highways, and the chain store “menace” still lay several decades in the future, the rise of a media culture was making itself felt with increasing insistency by the early 1930s. Commercial radio, sound movies, and mass circulation print media had already begun to colonize people’s consciousness, diverting attention from traditional local subjects and concerns.23 In addition to the Lindbergh kidnapping, the year saw the publication of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, the introduction of the “Buck Rogers” program on CBS Radio, the opening of Radio City Music Hall, and Amelia Earhart’s becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Lindbergh, Earhart, FDR—all were part of a new celebrity culture that was growing up around the mass media. Radio programs, Time magazine, movie newsreels, and other media outlets were transforming celebrityhood into something larger, more pervasive, and more influential than it had ever been before.24 By the end of the decade, despite the fact that she was writing about her own and her family’s personal experiences on the prairie frontier—an obscure family whose only distinction was that its story was being read by thousands of eager readers—Laura Ingalls Wilder had become something of a celebrity herself. Unlike her daughter Rose, who didn’t mind the limelight being directed at her, Laura felt uncomfortable away from home and familiar surroundings and almost never strayed very far from Mansfield. Except for several visits back to De Smet (one by way of California) with her husband, the only major exception to this was her trip to Detroit in 1937 when she was one of several speakers spotlighted by the J. L. Hudson Department Store during a book fair it was sponsoring.
No single person probably did more to rev up the publicity machine and boost the rising celebrity culture than the incredible Babe Ruth, star outfielder for the New York Yankees. Entering the 1932 season, the 37‑year‑old “Sultan of Swat” had pounded out 611 home runs, far more than any other player who had ever played the game. The 41 that he tallied that year marked his lowest number in seven years (he had led the league in round‑trippers the previous six years and had set a new major-league record with 60 in 1927), but it was still a considerable feat for an aging player. The Yankee slugger saved the best for last that year, however, adding lustre to his legend in the Fall Classic when he allegedly “called his shot” against Chicago Cubs pitcher Charlie Root in game three of the Series.
The ’32 Yankees were one of the greatest teams of all time, winning 107 games against only 47 losses and finishing 13 games ahead of the Philadelphia Athletics in the American League pennant race. Their National League rivals were no slouches themselves, having won 90 games during the regular season, but the Yankee juggernaut swept all four games of the Series by a combined score of 37 to 19. No love was lost between the two teams, and the bench jockeying was ferocious throughout the Series. For the third game in Wrigley Field, with the Cubs down two games to none, an overflow crowd of almost 50,000, mostly partisan fans, jammed into every part of the field, yelling epithets at the pin‑striped invaders from the east and especially at their great, but now fat and aging, left‑fielder.
After blasting a three‑run homer into the right‑field bleachers in the first inning and later sending a long fly ball to the right center-field fence in the third, Ruth approached the batter’s box in the fifth inning to a chorus of boos and catcalls. Taking two pitches across the plate, he raised first one, then two, fingers to acknowledge the number of strikes against him. Ruth told the Cubs catcher that it only took one pitch to hit it, then yelled out to Root on the mound something like, “I’m going to knock the next pitch down your blankety‑blank throat.” He also, according to many in attendance at the game, made a grand gesture before stepping back in to face the next pitch. They swore that he pointed to the center-field bleachers, suggesting that he would park the next pitch there, and then he proceeded to do exactly that. Other observers believed he simply was signaling that he knew there were two strikes against him (the count was two balls and two strikes). In baseball lore the moment goes down as the time that Babe Ruth “called his shot” against the hapless Charlie Root (who, by the way, went on to compile an excellent career record of 201 victories against 160 losses, although he stood 0‑3 in World Series play).25
There is no evidence to indicate that Babe Ruth ever played an inning of baseball in Mansfield, Missouri, although he frequently went on barn‑storming tours around the country after the regular season ended. But there is a connection between him and the town: he played on two different teams with Carl Mays, a hard‑throwing right‑handed pitcher who compiled a 207‑126 lifetime record, making him one of the most effective pitchers in the majors during the late teens and early 1920s. Along with Babe Ruth and several other hurlers on the Boston Red Sox during the late teens, he was part of one of the best mound staffs of the era. Then, just one year before Ruth was traded over to New York, Mays was sent there himself, and from 1920 through 1923 they helped convert the hapless Yankees into one of the best teams in baseball.
Mays, tragically, is best remembered as the only major leaguer ever to kill another player in a game. In August 1920, with twilight descending, Mays hit the Indians’ Ray Chapman in the left temple with one of his deceptive underhanded curveballs, which were difficult enough for batters to pick up in broad daylight. Mays, a tough, hard‑nosed competitor who intimidated batters by brushing them back with pitches on their chin, was not well‑liked around the league either by the players or the fans. Although he was teammates with Mays for the better part of a decade, the Babe had a very different personality and never much cared for him.26
But in Mansfield, Missouri, Mays retained the status of a hero, being the only local player playing in the major leagues. He frequently returned home during the off season to hunt and to fish, and he built a lodge where he could bring some of his teammates and friends to relax before the next season began. He won special notice in the community when he brought some used Yankee uniforms that were worn by the Mansfield town team the following summer.27 Before Laura Ingalls Wilder emerged as Mansfield’s most famous personage, its best‑known personalities were her daughter Rose and Carl Mays. No one in the Wilder family seems to have paid much attention to baseball or other sports, and Mays probably never had the pleasure of meeting Laura Ingalls Wilder, but he knew and understood the pressures of celebrityhood and could have told how quickly one’s fame can come undone once the spotlight of publicity shifts away to someone else.
A baseball player, who has to depend on a strong arm or a sharp batting eye to break into the lineup, can have his day in the sun come and go overnight. Carl Mays threw his last big-league pitch in 1929 at the age of thirty‑seven. Laura Ingalls Wilder hadn’t even begun her writing career at that age; she wasn’t even “Laura Ingalls Wilder,” for that matter. Rather she would have been known as “Laura,” “Bess,” “Bessie,” or “Mrs. A. J. Wilder” to friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. Laura Ingalls Wilder was the pen name she began to use when she started writing magazine articles and books.28
Her first professional writing consisted of articles for farm newspapers, mainly for the Missouri Ruralist, which she contributed to from 1911 to 1924. In her twice‑a‑month columns in the Ruralist, Wilder gave helpful household hints, told stories about everyday life, provided advice about living with other people, commented on events in the news, and—every once in a while—hearkened back to her childhood and related stories about her and her family that she dredged up from her memory bank. By the time that she started writing her autobiography in 1930 and then autobiographical novels between 1932 and 1943, she was relying almost completely upon her memory of events that had occurred half a century earlier. While her ability to recall things that had happened so far in the past was better than average, Wilder frequently became frustrated over her inability to bring back to consciousness events that could have served as grist for her stories. In 1938, while working on her sixth book, The Long Winter, she complained in a letter to Rose, “Strange how my memory fails me on all but the high lights.”29
What becomes obvious in comparing Wilder’s description of the life she led as a child and young adult with what we are able to ascertain about what actually happened at the time is that her books, while drawing upon actual experience, were highly selective and creative in treatment and emphasis and frequently deviated from actual events.30 When we read between the lines of her original manuscripts, successive drafts (which Rose also had a lot of input into), and the final versions in book form, we are able to infer much about the process that went on in the production of the books. We can also make some conclusions about how memory operates when a person in her sixties and seventies sets out to recall her life as a child fifty or sixty years earlier.
Recent research on memory has greatly advanced our knowledge about its workings. Memory, we can postulate, is selective, creative, purposeful, and functional. Rather than operating like a mirror or a photographic film, it is active and creative, often distorting, omitting, combining, or reorganizing past events as it posits an interpretive screen on which our past experiences vaguely and fuzzily march before us. As Edmund Blair Bolles notes, “Emotions, perceptions, and reminders all stir the imagination, and imagination, not storage, is the basis of memory.”31
Interestingly, the year 1932 marked the publication of a breakthrough book in the scientific investigation of memory. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology, by Sir Frederic C. Bartlett of Cambridge University, was not the first study to suggest the heavily constructive nature of memory’s operation, but it was much more systematic than previous works and placed scientific investigation of the problem on a new level of sophistication. Bartlett took direct aim at the view that memory consisted simply of a process of calling up “traces” which are “made and stored up in the organism in the mind.” Utilizing, instead, the concept of “schema,” which refers to “an active organization of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operating in any well‑adapted organic response,” he fought the notion that memory was primarily or literally some kind of reduplication or reproduction of the experiences of a person. He argued, instead, that construction played much more of a role in memory than reproduction. In sum, “Remembering is not the re‑excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience, and to a little outstanding detail which commonly appears in image or in language form. It is thus hardly ever really exact, even in the most rudimentary case of rote recapitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be so.”32
Readers who take this insight into account when dealing with Wilder’s novels will be less likely to get concerned about questions regarding the literal accuracy of her work. Too much effort gets expended in trying to trace the real people, places, and events that are mentioned in the books. In the first place Wilder intentionally modified many facts to make a better story; she was, after all, writing fiction. (Unfortunately, she and Rose misled people by insisting long after the books were published that all of the facts in the books were literally true.) Beyond that, however, even if she had been trying to reduplicate the past, the workings of memory—as theorized by Bartlett and his followers—made it impossible to accomplish the task. As he wrote in his path‑breaking work in 1932, “But our studies have shown us that all manner of changes in detail constantly occur in instances which every normal person would admit to be genuine instances of remembering. There are changes in order of sequence, changes of direction, of complexity of structure, of significance, which are not only consistent with subjectively satisfactory recall, but are also perfectly able to meet the objective demands of the immediate situation.”33
Those lovely, evocative, and emotionally charged Little House stories that readers love so well and that Laura Ingalls Wilder began to publish in 1932, in other words, need to be understood in light of what scholars like Frederic Bartlett that same year were revealing in scientific studies like Remembering. The world that Wilder depicted in her novels was a relatively simple one. The world she actually lived in, on the other hand, was increasingly complex and problematical. It is ironic that the books that her readers came to love so well in large part denied the complexity of that world and offered compensations for the anxieties and tensions produced by it.
© John E. Miller