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. 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. 28
Laura Ingalls Wilder was the pen name she began to use when she started writing magazine articles and books
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. 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, chappy mobile perceptions, and reminders all stir the imagination, and imagination, not storage, is the basis of memory.” 31
Memory, we can postulate, is selective, creative, purposeful, and functional
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