Thursday, February 27, 2014

The World in the 19th Century

Here's a link to some wonderful photographs of Paris in the mid-19th century (1860-1870s).

This is interesting to me not just because the photographs are cool, but because of something I read recently in Ann Romines' book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Constructing The Little House (which is excellent, by the way).

Romines notes that although Wilder writes of a primitive, low-tech world, the time in which Wilder's books are set (1870-1880's) is in fact a relatively advanced world.  She notes, for example, that De Smet in the time Wilder is writing about had a roller-skating rink and an opera house.  This Paris is contemporary to Wilder's novels.

Romines is arguing that Wilder's texts deliberately present the world as more primitive than it was, for political reasons.  The world of Wilder's books is closer to the world of (say 1780) than 1880: Almanzo's mother still makes all of her own cloth, from the shearing of the sheep to the spinning and weaving; Pa still makes his own bullets; visits to stores and towns are presented as being rare and exotic; the world of the forest and prairie is presented as being almost wholly empty of people.

In fact, the actual Big Woods were filled with Ma and Pa's relatives -- some living literally next door -- as well as other families.  And the intense isolation of the prairies (only the Scotts, miles away; the Ingalls being wholly alone during the winter of Silver Lake) is just not factual.

It's often noted that Wilder erases the Indians from her landscape, and that's true.  But she also erases most of the white community as well.  It's a move that allows her to stress the overarching message of the series: that American families were and should be self-sufficient, that we don't need community, that the ideal world is one (white) patriarchal father, working for and protecting his family, alone and entirely independent and without any aid from the community, and especially without any aid from the government.


Bardiac said...

That's so interesting! I've been to the supposed little House in the Big Woods site, but having not reread the books as an adult, I really hadn't put together how relatively populated with settlers the area must have already been by the time that book takes place.

But given how very many people were around here in the upper midwest logging and farming in the 1850s, it makes sense!

Historiann said...

I love that you're geeking out on Wilder & the LH books.

However, I would just point out that Charles Ingalls is far from the ideal patriarchal father figure. The guy is a loveable loser. We can't help liking him as we know him only through the scrim of Laura's love for him, but it's just one big failure after another for old Pa Ingalls, especially the ventures in self-sufficiency that he attempts.

The family finally finds some economic stability when they settle in De Smet. Yes, a TOWN!!!

delagar said...

I totally agree about Charles Ingalls' character. I don't think *Laura* (and Rose) meant to present him as a loser, though. Ann Romines is good on this.

Was it you who recommended Romines' book to me, BTW? If so, thank you 1000X!