Extrapolation and Imagination

Why do national literature critics grossly underestimate the creative genius of great writers?

Why do national literature critics grossly underestimate the creative genius of great writers?

• Topics: Leisure,

In On the Banks of Plum Creek, the Ingalls are living in a sod/cave house near a small stream. There is a powerful rainstorm, and after it, Laura goes out to play. She goes onto the plank bridge that spans the creek, which is now swollen and rapid. She begins to play, lying on the bridge and pretending to fall off, rolling back up, etc. She thinks the water is playing with her. Suddenly, she loses her grip and the powerful surge of water nearly sweeps her away, but she clings desperately to the bridge and manages to save herself. And she realizes: the water was not playing with her; it was not her friend; the rushing waters did not even know she was there, and they would kill her if she did not treat them with respect.

We see from this that, had Laura Ingalls Wilder been alive today, she would have been an ecology activist and a recycler.

In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura loves to go help Pa get up hay in the Big Slough. She always loves to be outdoors, but there is an additional reason, because she knows she can ditch her corset, which she hates bitterly. We see from this that had Wilder been alive in the 20th century, she would have burned her bra.

Again, in Little Town on the Prairie, Pa takes part in a minstrel show. In blackface. We can assume from this that Wilder would be a racist if alive today.

Do these things sound stupid? That’s kind of the point. But even so, they are not as stupid as “Little House, Small Government” by Vivian Gornick. Extrapolation of an author’s fiction into his/her life is always dangerous, and hideously prone to an imaginative “insight” into how this person would have thought. We do not know how they would have thought. Time travelling and mind reading are not qualities that people possess.

In addition, the article contains a howling mistake: “Because so much of Rose’s editing helped shape the final manuscripts it is often claimed that, in effect, she wrote them.” I have a good friend here, the Children’s Librarian for our county-wide library system.. She’s from Nebraska, went to the U. of Nebraska; how they wound up with Wilder’s papers I will never know, but: this woman (I fell at her feet when she told me this) was able to see, and read, Wilder’s original manuscripts, written in “5 cent notebooks” (much like the spiral-bound notebooks students use to this day). She told me that Little House in the Big Woods has many corrections and additions in a handwriting different from Wilder’s (most Wilder scholars assume that these were Rose’s); Little House on the Prairie has some, but fewer. The rest bear none. Wilder evidently was not exactly thrilled at her daughter’s (admittedly expert) editing and wanted to write the rest of the series on her own.

On a seemingly (but not) unrelated note: reading a biography of the Brontë family. The author nearly ruptures herself trying to ascertain where the characters of Jane Eyre, Shirley, The Professor, and Wuthering Heights “came from,” examining various family members and denizens of their village. The idea that a person might have such a rich imagination as to make creating entire personalities possible, and even easy; this is evidently a closed door to many critics. It stems from a very imperfect grasp of genius.

And Laura Ingalls Wilder was a genius. I believe her to be one of the greatest American writers, never granted any recognition (aside from a rather embarrassing tv series) because she was 1) a woman and 2) wrote for children. And children don’t count. (Another example is Sarah Orne Jewett, virtually unknown because she not only wrote only about women but about—gasp! old women!).

Maybe my literary acumen would be a bit clearer if I listed my (other) favorite authors: Proust (always first and foremost), Colette, Thomas Mann, Melville, Atwood, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, Isaac Singer, and Henry James.

Other writers have suffered from this. How many hours have been wasted trying to “identify” Proust’s characters from 1890’s Parisian society? And, yes, Thomas Mann did visit his wife in an Alpine TB sanatorium, and was diagnosed and exhorted to stay (however, unlike his hero of The Magic Mountain, he left).

In his old age, one of Jane Austen’s nephews wrote down his memories of her when he was a small boy. As an adult, he read all her novels, and stated categorically that no one in them resembled any of the Austen family members or friends and then says, “And there were some corkers among them, too.”

Laura herself says, “I told the truth, but not the whole truth.” A vastly intriguing statement…you can find the left-out parts easily online (such as the time the family had to sneak out of town in the middle of the night because of all the back-rent they owed).

But basically I’m saying: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Was it Carole King? I think so; who, besieged by interviewers and fans, simply said, “I had hoped it could all be said in my music.”

It seems to me that this mania for “identifying” characters and events from an author’s actual life is a fruitless and sterile endeavor.

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About Elizabeth Soderberg

Citizen Journalist • North Carolina • Member since Apr 08, 2017

Born, lived, educated in North Carolina. Left as soon as I had a college degree and a car. First California for a year, then Washington state for 15 years: Bellingham, Fishtown. [...]

Comments by Readers

Kit Muehlman

Dec 07, 2017

Elizabeth, how wonderful to find your essay here!

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