No Commie Freaks in The Little House on the Prairie!

David Savage on Little House on the Prairie

First published October 1999

Channel 4′s current repeat run of Little House on the Prairie offers an excellent lesson in American history. No, not of pioneer America, not that; I’m sure Little House resembles life as it was lived in pioneer America about as much as Astroturf resembles the genuine green writhing stuff; no, the historical insight we get from Little House is into the disturbing mindset of running scared mid-’70s conservative Middle America. Not that I’m especially down on the show itself, you understand. Little House was well put together, the best episodes were entertaining, the characters were all likeable – even the bad eggs like Nellie Oleson and her mother – and it had a good heart; why, even when little Albert burnt down the blind school, burning his best friend’s mother and sister’s baby alive, everyone had forgiven him by the end of the episode.

It’s just that …

Little House started in 1974 in an America that had just experienced and by no means got over the ’60s and all they entailed: drugs, hippies, rejection of religion, hell’s angels, radical politics, black power, gay lib, women’s rights and disturbing indications that even Our Honourable Fighting Men maybe weren’t quite so honourable after all, if the photos and reports of massacres in Vietnam with children being blown to pieces and citizens of all ages being lined up and shot were to be believed. The American Heartland felt like it was tottering on the precipice of a radical discontinuity with the past. It was quaking in its boots, paranoid of Communists, militant blacks and liberal whites.

Little House hearkens back to an idealised past of homespun values and God-Fearing Good Solid Americans, where everybody lived off the earth, and families stuck together and attended church together every Sunday. Whereas contemporary unruly adolescents were harbingers of a dark future too terrible to conceive, Little House children were polite and if they misbehaved not only would they take a whipping in the back yard but would insist on taking a whipping. Everyone worked an honest living for all the hours God gave, and there were no long-haired freaks with radical Commie politics to be seen.

This world was immensely appealing to hideously reactionary conservative America, the older alienated generation with a horror of change, who were terrified of the radical new youth cultures; whose fears about those long haired English weirdoes, the Beatles had been proven correct since John Lennon had started hanging around with the Black Panthers and New Left figureheads like Jerry Rubin – Power to the People, indeed! – and who were quaking at the rioting, racial upheaval, militancy in the suburbs, Vietnam War, breakdown of law and order, school dropouts, ever-widening generation gap, and corruption in government (the Supreme Court’s Judiciary Committee wanted Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon impeached for criminal acts around this time). The world was changing and what it was changing into was not particularly comforting to the old order.

But Middle America, the people who wanted dissent stifled, could relax and forget for an hour that, say, the antiwar movement was kicking in with more frenzied and despairing demonstrations than ever before, massing on the streets and fighting back fiercely against the police who tried to shift them, because in Walnut Grove things were “just as they used to be.” Simple and eternal truths prevailed. Black was black, white was white, right was right, wrong was wrong and common sense and decency won the day.

The first episode sets the tone with Charles Ingalls proving himself a shining example to the youth culture of the day. Working six hours a day for a lumber company, then another six hours stacking grain, then another few ploughing his farm – all to keep his family together and a roof over their heads. Shucks, even when the guy falls out of a tree after trying to dislodge his daughter’s kite from a branch and breaks his ribs, he still drags himself to work and carries on piling the cornsacks in writhing agony. If today’s workshy youth had this attitude we wouldn’t have any of this unemployment would we?

The past has a seductive appeal, and it’s a common idea that history itself is, in fact, a history of moral decline; that things are getting worse and all forms of traditional authority are weakening by the day, and previous eras were periods of stability, decency and moral order. It helps that people have short memories. Little House expertly tapped into this vein of cultural pessimism. Ignoring the stink of what was really going on, it hearkened instead back to an idealised mythical past of sane and simple, innocent, homespun family values where the people of the great American Heartland were rational, patriotic, decent and honourable. This was precisely what liberal-hating, Commie-fearing Middle America, in all its know-nothing provincialism, wanted to see.

Around the same time and throughout the same period, Happy Days ploughed a similar furrow – (in the ’50s you didn’t have to fear for your daughter; why, even that serial womaniser Fonzie never did anything more than kiss his conquests) – and, as with Little House, though it’s a nice enough series with likeable characters, behind that cute facade something dark is writhing.