'Little House' Is Not a Big Libertarian Conspiracy
Did Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, turn the "Little House on the Prairie" stories into libertarian propaganda? That’s the argument of a long article in the Boston Globe this week.
Rose Wilder Lane, the only child of Laura and Almanzo Wilder to survive into adulthood, was a well-known author long before her mother set pen to paper. (I highly recommend "Old Home Town," her collection of short stories that seem to be loosely based on her own childhood in Missouri and Louisiana. Don’t be fooled by the title, however; they’re not sweet nostalgia, but brutal portraits of people coping with the privations and strictures of small-town life at the turn of the 20th century.) "Little House" buffs, of which I am one, have long known that Lane was actually her mother’s co-author, or at least a heavy editor. By the time the first books were published, Lane was also a fervent opponent of the New Deal; she is known in the American libertarian movement as one of its founding figures. Christine Woodside, the author of the Boston Globe piece, argues that Lane imposed her own politics on her mother’s narrative, turning it from a story of deprivation into a mythical fable about self-sufficiency:
A close examination of the Wilder family papers suggests that Wilder’s daughter did far more than transcribe her mother’s pioneer tales: She shaped them and turned them from recollections into American fables, changing details where necessary to suit her version of the story. And if those fables sound like a perfect expression of Libertarian ideas -- maximum personal freedom and limited need for the government -- that’s no accident. Lane, and to an extent her mother, were affronted by taxes, the New Deal, and what they saw as Americans’ growing reliance on Washington. Eventually, as Lane became increasingly antigovernment, she would pursue her politics more openly, writing a strident political treatise and playing an important if little-known role inspiring the movement that eventually coalesced into the Libertarian Party.
Today, as Libertarian values move back into the mainstream of American politics, few citizens think to link them to a series of beloved childhood books. But the Little House books have done more than connect generations of Americans to the nation’s pioneer history: They have promoted a particular version of that history. The enduring appeal of the books tells us something about how deep the romance with self-reliance runs through American history, and the gaps between the Little House narrative and Wilder’s real life say a lot about the government help and interdependence that we sometimes find more convenient to leave out of that tale.
Bold claims! Unfortunately, they are not bold claims backed up by excellent evidence. Woodside seems to be writing a book on the topic, so perhaps she reserved her “A” game for a space where she could present her arguments at greater length and detail. But the stuff in the article doesn’t really live up to the promise of those intriguing opening paragraphs. As an amateur "Little House" hobbyist, and a semi-professional practitioner of libertarian policy writing, I found the thesis largely unconvincing.
For example, here’s one of the most damning bits of evidence that Woodside offers:
Comparing Wilder’s original memoirs to the contents of the published books, it’s possible to see a pattern of strategic omissions and additions. In the fifth book, for example, “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Laura promises to become a teacher to pay for her older sister Mary to attend a college for the blind. Wilder’s own account of her life reveals that although Wilder’s sister did attend a college for the blind, in reality it was the government of Dakota Territory -- and not the family’s hard work -- that covered the bills.
This is probably something of a bombshell to folks who knew and loved the original books; Laura working hard to keep Mary in college is one of the main themes of the last three books. But it’s not quite as devastating as all that. That the Dakota Territory government paid Mary’s tuition at the Vinton, Iowa, college for the blind has been well known to Ingallsologists for some time; it’s mentioned in Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, by Pamela Smith Hill. However, here’s the full passage:
Of course, the family needed much more than Wilder’s earnings -- or even her father’s -- to finance her sister’s education. Certainly the family made sacrifices during the seven years Mary Ingalls was in school, a reflection of their consistent commitment to education, but, in fact, they also received government assistance, something that Wilder mentioned in neither her autobiography nor her fiction. Dakota Territory actually paid for Mary’s tuition; the family paid for her room and board, books and supplies, and clothing.
Woodside’s passage implies that Wilder basically lied about having to work hard to keep her in college, but unless Pamela Smith Hill is in error, she didn’t make up the bit where she worked long hours to help keep her sister in college; she just didn’t explain what, exactly, she was paying for. You can argue that she should have included it to give an accurate portrait of Mary’s years in Iowa. But it’s not nearly as misleading as what Woodside wrote, if Smith Hill has the right of it. And she doesn’t offer any proof that this was politically motivated. It could have just been a simplification to improve the readability of what was, after all, a short book for children. Wilder and Lane may have decided that it was easier to focus on the efforts of the family to pay Mary’s expenses, rather than explaining that the Dakota Territory paid for this, but not for that, and who wrote what letter to whom … because in fact, no one but Christine Woodside probably cared.
It’s not as if either Laura Ingalls Wilder or her daughter were anarchists who deliberately omitted the mention of the government’s role in offering them land and services. Woodside implies that they somehow conspired to conceal the rigors of prairie life, or the extent of government intervention in the prairies, which is really just not so. There’s quite a bit about the Homestead Act, which Pa Ingalls describes as the government “betting a man that he can’t live on the land for five years,” and the attempts to reforest the prairies via tree claims.
Yet somehow, Woodside complains that they don’t spend enough time talking about this:
The Little House books barely mention the obvious, which is that the impoverished Ingallses never could have gone to Dakota Territory without a government grant: Like most pioneers, their livelihoods relied on the federal Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres for the cost of a $14 filing fee -- one of the largest acts of federal largesse in US history.
This is frankly bizarre, and made me wonder if she’d read the books as an adult. As it happens, I did just re-read the books, for a project I’m working on, and there are many lengthy passages explaining the Homestead Act, and how it works, including the granting of the land to the family by the government. Much of the dramatic action of "By the Shores of Silver Lake" consists of Pa filing a claim with the government for the land on which Laura spent her teen-age years, which hardly seems to qualify as “barely mentions.” It’s also pretty clear that the government is the source of the land for the schools where Laura teaches in "These Happy Golden Years," and the paychecks that she is paid for teaching in them.
Clearly, these are the sorts of government programs that Wilder and her daughter approved of. One could argue that they shouldn’t have -- that a true libertarian should have been horrified by the practice of taking the plains from the Indians and giving it to white farmers to plow. This is an argument I’d be very sympathetic to, but it is not the one that Woodside makes. Instead, she makes the strange claim that Wilder and Lane conspired to hide the role of the government in doling out that land, and the even stranger complaint that the books are insufficiently grim.
Wilder’s memoirs offer a picture of the costs and risks of isolation that never made it into the book series: A baby brother who died at 9 months. A miserable year working and living in an Iowa tavern. A pair of innkeepers who murdered guests and buried them out back. Another pioneer couple who boarded with them during the Long Winter whose attitudes were far more whining than stoic.
Perhaps the most telling omission is the book that almost never was. Wilder wrote one final volume, never revised by Lane, and not published until after they’d both died. “The First Four Years,” the ninth book, told of the drought that led to the failure of the Wilders’ first homestead after they were married in 1885. No one is sure why Lane did not revise that book, but it’s no stretch to imagine that she found herself at a loss to mold its dire underlying story -- struggling, borrowing more and more money, losing the homestead anyway -- into another celebration of self-sufficiency.
I’ve read the story of those innkeepers, as told by Lane. But it never occurred to me that Wilder and Lane might have put it in a children’s book, because it was one of the most chilling stories I’ve ever heard, and used to wake me up at nights. Only a lunatic would put a story like that in a book for children … at least, in a book for children that they wanted to sell. And it seems to me that you’d have to be nearly as crazy to regard the omission of the grisliest stories, in a work of commercial fiction aimed at young children, as some sort of conspiracy against the New Deal. It’s not as if Rose Wilder Lane was opposed to police, or laws against murder.
Even without these particular horror stories, there is plenty of evidence that life on the prairies was really, really hard. Mary goes blind. The family spends a winter without enough to eat, and sister Carrie never really recovers from the resulting malnutrition. Laura ends up boarding with a hysterical woman, and one night wakes up to find her brandishing a knife at her husband. Wilder and Lane do file down the rough edges of the experience, but, to once again state the obvious, this is a book for children.
And a book that they wanted to sell well. Woodside implies that Wilder and Lane’s approach -- “playing up toughness in adversity” -- was some kind of secret strategy to portray the pioneers as tough when they were really hapless and in need of government help. But “toughness in adversity” is the theme of virtually every mass-market book of the last century. It’s like trying to figure out the secret ideological motives behind the proliferation of sex and violence in Hollywood movies. You’re trying too hard.
Moreover, even if they had included all the misery Woodside wants, Woodside is confused about what this would have proven. It wouldn’t have told us much of anything one way or another about the New Deal, which did not fix the problems of serial murder, infant mortality, unpleasant jobs or distinctly uncongenial roommates. With the exception of serial murder, most of the improvements on these fronts have come from technological progress and economic growth, not the sort of government safety-net programs that Lane opposed. (Yes, even infant mortality has mostly declined because of economic growth, which is not to say that the government can’t play a role in the hardest cases.)
If the government of 1880 had enacted the New Deal 50 years early, the Ingalls would still have been dirt poor, and their son would still have died, the town would still have been cut off from the rest of the rail line during the long hard winter, and serial killers would still have been able to operate in isolated places (as indeed they do today). As Woodside no doubt knows, because she seems to be writing a book on the pioneer era, the fundamental problem of 1880 was not a lack of government programs, but a lack of resources and knowledge to make people healthier and richer; and the specific problem on the prairies was very low population and a lack of infrastructure. Families actually did mostly rely on their own resources, because there weren’t any others close at hand. Elaborating the travails of life in the late Victorian era would have provided a nice tribute to the strong growth of the intervening 50 years, not an argument for FDR.
Unfortunately, it also would have been a drag on their book sales. Woodside is a writer. And like every other writer on the planet, she probably knows that sometimes, you have to leave out interesting details because they bog you down in five paragraphs of explaining a fact that, ultimately, your readers don’t care about that much. There’s ample evidence that Lane did a lot of this sort of editing, on things that obviously have no political implications. Because it’s fiction, she and Wilder could even create new people and dialogue -- the character of Nellie Oleson, for example, was actually three different real-life people that she rolled into one for the sake of narrative clarity. Taking the handful of these edits that arguably have some political implication, and weaving them into a tale of ideological myth-making -- well, Woodside is doing exactly what she accuses Rose Wilder Lane of having done. Except not very convincingly.
To be sure, Woodside may have loads of evidence that she doesn’t present that Lane viewed her edits as a way to further her political views. In the actual magazine piece, however, she mostly manages to prove that: 1) Rose Wilder Lane was a libertarian 2) She and her mother edited out some of the most awful bits of her life on the prairies and 3) Christine Woodside would probably have preferred an account of prairie life that better validated her own ideological priorities. Only the last is really new information.