‘Farmer Boy’: A Literary Overview (Part One)

When we last left Wilder and Lane, they were both at Rocky Ridge Farm, working through the crisis over the publication of ‘Let the Hurricane Roar,’ which borrowed heavily, as we’ve just seen, from ‘Pioneer Girl.’ Wilder was working on a revision for ‘Farmer Boy,’ her second novel for young readers, after it had been rejected by Harper & Brothers, just as ‘Let the Hurricane Roar’ made its first appearance in the ‘Saturday Evening Post.’ Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 1932, Lane left for another trip to New York to meet with her literary agent George Bye, magazine editors, and her publisher. Was this trip to New York also an escape, a way to leave the crisis at Rocky Ridge Farm behind? Perhaps. The pages in Lane’s five-year diary are virtually empty from September 1932 to the beginning of 1933. But while she was in New York, Lane visited Malone, New York, where her father grew up, and where ‘Farmer Boy’ takes place. She sent her mother descriptions of the Wilder’s farm and the surrounding countryside. Lane wrote that Wilder’s family’s old house was still painted white and looked very much as her father remembered it. “There are old lilac bushes in the yard, and I send you this with a twig from the balsam tree.” Lane’s postcards and letters home from Malone made it a more real and tangible place for her mother as she worked on revisions for ‘Farmer Boy.’ Perhaps it was kind of like a peace offering, those descriptions of Malone. When Lane returned to Rocky Ridge Farm for Christmas 1932, the tension between mother and daughter remained, but they fell into their old routine. On January 19, 1933, Wilder finished her revised manuscript of ‘Farmer Boy,’ and Lane began editing it two days later. She finished what she called her “pen revise” on line edits on ‘Farmer Boy’ in early February, then began typing the manuscript. Later that month, Wilder and Lane resubmitted the manuscript to Harper & Brothers. On March 19, 1933, Lane wrote this in her journal: “‘Farmer Boy’ sold at 5% royalty.” More about the royalty issue in a minute. But first, a comment about that initial rejection of ‘Farmer Boy,’ and its later acceptance. It’s not unusual, even today, for children’s book editors to initially reject a manuscript from an established writer and ask for revisions, and a subsequent submission. Wilder and Lane may not have known in late 1932 and early 1933, that this was a common practice. Remember, Lane had minimal experience in children’s publishing, and this was only Wilder’s second book. Furthermore, Wilder had a new editor at Harper’s, Louise Raymond, and here again, this situation isn’t unusual. Editors come and go at publishing houses, and when an editor inherits a new writer, even one with a publishing history, the editor may wait to make an offer until after she’s seen how willing and how thoroughly a writer can revise. Raymond herself had this to say about the initial rejection: “‘Little House in the Big Woods’ had set a very, very high standard, quite enough to have reached once in a lifetime.” In other words, Wilder’s second book for children had to be worthy of her first. Now, back to the royalty issue. Why was it significant? Lane noted in her diary on the day after news arrived that Harper’s had made an offer on ‘Farmer Boy’ that “mother was here for dinner all night”– presumably to discuss the contract and what to do about it. That proposed 5% royalty deal was half of what Wilder had received for ‘ Little House in the Big Woods.’ Raymond later explained that Harper’s had much less money to manufacture the second book, and then reassured Wilder and Lane that other authors had accepted similar terms. The 50% cut in royalties was a reflection of the realities of the Great Depression, not the quality of ‘Farmer Boy’ itself. Raymond told Lane that “‘Farmer Boy’ is excellent, different, sincere, authentic.” Still, Raymond also confessed that ‘Farmer Boy” “is not quite another ‘Little House.'” True, the book is different than ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’ It deals with different characters in a very different setting, and most readers today also feel that ‘Farmer Boy’ strikes a different tone, and deals with a different set of themes than in the rest of the ‘Little House’ books. When I first read the ‘Little House’ books as a kid in the Ozarks, I assumed Wilder wrote ‘Farmer Boy’ later, after she’d finished the Ingalls’ frontier story. But if you read the ‘Little House’ series in context, it’s very clear that ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ and ‘Farmer Boy’ are companion books. ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ is about a frontier family living in the West; ‘Farmer Boy’ is about a farming family living on a farm back east, and how both families live their everyday lives during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Remember this opening line from ‘Little House in the Big Woods’? “Once upon a time, 60 years ago, a little girl lived in the big woods of Wisconsin in a little gray house made of logs.” Now, the opening line from ‘Farmer Boy.’ It echoes ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’ “It was January in Northern New York State, 67 years ago.” There’s that parallel in time, a specific reference to a real time and a real place, just like the opening of ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’ And like ‘Little House in the Big Woods,’ ‘Farmer Boy’ focuses on a family’s unique way of life, and a description of their everyday chores and pleasures: popping corn, taking Sunday night baths, breaking the calves, shearing sheep. But the novel is of course distinctly different. It’s a boy’s book with a very clear main character: young Almanzo Wilder. His family is more settled and prosperous than the Ingalls clan of ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’ “Father was an important man. He had a good farm. He drove the best horses in that county. His word was as good as his bond, and every year he put money in the bank. When father drove into Malone, all the townspeople spoke to him respectfully.” The Wilders of Malone aren’t an archetypal family, as are the Ingalls of ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’ Almanzo and his family don’t possess the mythical qualities that Wilder and gave the Ingalls clan and then dramatized so well in the first novel. This could be in part because the Wilders lived in a more settled part of the world. There was very little danger in their everyday life; no panthers or wolves, for example. Instead, ‘Farmer Boy’ features episodes about horseracing the County fair, a big schoolhouse. The world of ‘Farmer Boy’ is civilized and settled. True, even the prosperous Wilder family is very frugal; the girls were ripping their old dresses and bonnets, sponging and pressing them and sewing them together again–the other side out–to look new. But, the Wilders are not as fiercely independent or even as self-reliant as the Ingalls are in ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’ Yet, ‘Farmer Boy’ provided a new creative challenge for Wilder, and it marks her growth as a novelist.

2 Replies to “‘Farmer Boy’: A Literary Overview (Part One)

  1. Pamela,
    Very informative video on the comparison between Farmer Boy and Little House in the Big Woods.  Thank you for bringing attention to the wonderful Wilder children's books.  We obtained copies of the post cards that Rose Wilder Lane sent back from Malone to her parents at Rocky Ridge Farm and have them displayed here the Wilder Homestead.  Just a comment about the absence of entries in her diary.  She was en route to Malone and NYC from mid Sept to the end of the year, 1932, and perhaps did not take her diary with her. 
     More importantly, the picture of the home that you included in the Part I of Farmer Boy is actually a picture of the home owned by the Wilder's when they lived in Spring Valley, Minnesota, after their left their home in Malone NY..  You might want to change that picture for future use. You may see a copy of their Malone home on our website www.almanzowilderfarm.com.
    Thanks for your interest in this great subject.  Did you see that the Parade magazine insert for all newspapers on May 31, 2015 listed "Little House on the Prairie" books as one of the National Treasures? 
    Jim and Marilyn Lusk, Volunteers at the Wilder Homestead in Malone, NY.

  2. I really enjoy these literary overviews from Pamela Smith Hill. I, too, noticed the farmhouse shown at the beginning of the video is actually the one in Spring Valley, MN., not the Malone farmhouse, as has been already noted by Marilyn Lusk (below).

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