New Yorker Discovers the Little House Books' Libertarian Roots

Judith Thurman in the current New Yorker, in an article largely (and curiously) hooked off a now-16-year-old book, The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane, by William Holtz, uncovers what seemed (to anyone unfamiliar with modern libertarianism's history) like a fascinating and somewhat dark secret: that the hugely popular and influential Little House books were highly influenced, edited, maybe even "ghostwritten" to a significant extent, by Laura Ingalls Wilder's radical libertarian daughter and fellow novelist, Rose Wilder Lane.

Of their collaborative style, Thurman writes:

The cumulative evidence suggests that sometimes Laura stood her ground and sometimes she was cowed into submission, but most often she solicited and welcomed Rose’s improvements. When Rose left the farm, in 1935, the editing of the five books yet to come was done by correspondence. “I have written you the whys of the story as I wrote it,” Laura told her in a letter that accompanied a draft of volume four, “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” “but you know your judgment is better than mine, so what you decide is the one that stands.” Rose, for her part, could be an insufferable didact. She played down her authority, even as she hammered it home: “I’m trying to train you as a writer for the big market,” she had told her mother in 1925. (Laura had written an article about her Ozark kitchen, which, heavily revised, had appeared in the magazine Country Gentleman.) “You must understand that what sold was your article, edited. You must study how it was edited, and why. . . . Above all, you must listen to me.”

Of Rose's political work beyond working with her mother, Thurman writes:

In 1936, the Saturday Evening Post published Lane’s own “Credo,” an impassioned essay that was widely admired by conservatives. Her vision was of a quasi-anarchic democracy, with minimal taxes, limited government, and no entitlements, regulated only by the principle of personal responsibility. Its citizens would be equal in their absolute freedom to flourish or to fail.

Everything that Lane wrote after “Credo”—fiction or polemics—was an expression of that vision. She may have been the first to invoke the term “libertarian” (it dates to the eighteenth century) to describe the agenda of a nascent anti-statist movement of which she has been called, with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand, “a founding mother.” To the degree that she is still remembered for her own achievements, it is mainly by a few libertarian ultras for whom her tract of 1943, “The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority,” is a foundational work of political theory. (It was written “in a white heat,” she said.)

As far as that "may have been the first," such attempts to pin down "firsts" is a mug's game; she was certainly early in using that term in what has become its main modern use, and also helped define what the term would come to mean.

Of the dual philosophies detectable in the Little House books, Thurman writes:

Last June, Anita Clair Fellman, a professor emerita of history at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, published “Little House, Long Shadow,” a survey of the Wilders’ “core” beliefs, and of their influence on American political culture. Two streams of conservatism, she argues—not in themselves inherently compatible—converge in the series. One is Lane’s libertarianism, and the other is Wilder’s image of a poster family for Republican “value voters”: a devoted couple of Christian patriots and their unspoiled children; the father a heroic provider and benign disciplinarian, the mother a pious homemaker and an example of feminine self-sacrifice.....

Fellman concludes, “The popularity of the Little House books . . . helped create a constituency for politicians like Reagan who sought to unsettle the so-called liberal consensus established by New Deal politics.” Considering the outcome of the November election, and the present debacle of laissez-faire capitalism, that popularity may have peaked. On the other hand, it may not have. Hard times whet the appetite for survival stories. 

Rose Wilder Lane could certainly have set Ms. Thurman straight on her absurd assertion that the current crisis is one of laissez-faire capitalism. Kate Harding at Salon chimes in with comments on Thurman's article, with some requisite modern liberal distaste, yet a hat tip to the undeniable power of Rose Wilder Lane as both character and phenomenon:

Even if she is partially to blame for a political landscape that's made me despair for most of my adult life, there's no denying that Rose Wilder's life story is compelling stuff -- arguably far more compelling than her mother's nostalgic stories (and especially the Michael Landonized version of them). Given the mainstream American tastes that keep the Little House books perennially in print, perhaps it's not surprising that someone who simultaneously lived feminist ideals and righter-than-right politics has gone largely unnoticed, but it's a shame nonetheless.

Rose's story is also told at great length in my 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. She is also discussed in my review of a biography of Rose's good friend and ideological sister Isabel Paterson, from the February 2005 issue of Reason magazine.

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  • The Angry Optimist||

    Considering the outcome of the November election, and the present debacle of laissez-faire capitalism



    It is a never-ending lie parade with some people, isn't it?

  • ||

    So, Rose repeatedly told her mom "It has to be MY way to be successful, my way my way my way!"

    Yup she was libertarian.

  • ||

    For the record, My family loves the Little House books. When our kids were very young, we had reading time every nite. I read aloud to them for 30 minutes and then to the chapter end. The first series we read was the Little House series. Good stuff and good memories.

  • robc||

    brotherben,

    Considering their success, I think Rose was right.

  • ||

    robc, you and your silly facts again:}

  • ||

    Even if she is partially to blame for a political landscape that's made me despair for most of my adult life

    I... wha... what is she... WTF???

  • anarch||

    "...you know your judgment is better than mine, so what you decide is the one that stands."

    Now that's the way to talk to us.

  • ||

    Thank you for printing this. I was such a huge fan of the Little House books when I was a kid that my friends and I actually bought calico dresses, sun bonnets, and tin cups so we could play Laura Ingalls Wilder. Then I grew up to be a die hard libertarian. I have to wonder if there's some connection there!? Thank you, Rose! ;)

    -Anne

    National Tea Party March on Washington 9/12/09
    http://912dc.org/

  • ||

    Raimondo discussed her a good amount in his book, Reclaiming the Right, as well.

  • alan||

    you know your judgment is better than mine, so what you decide is the one that stands

    Considering the outcome of the November election, and the present debacle of laissez-faire capitalism, that popularity may have peaked.

    It is always silly season with the post-liberal communitarian left. Worried what their fellow fuzzy minded peers will think, they have to throw in a qualifier to let them know, 'yes, I too am a dumbass,' so, don't go writing e-mails screaming about my eeky, unabashed admiration for a libertarian icon.

  • alan||

    I copied and pasted Even if she is partially to blame for a political landscape that's made me despair for most of my adult life, for the first quote above. Whatever, I leave it to you to decide the one that stands.

  • </||

  • ||

    Even if she is partially to blame for a political landscape that's made me despair for most of my adult life

    Rose Wilder is history's greatest monster!

  • Hugh Akston||

    Episiarch for the win.

  • 24AheadDotCom||

    What is it that libertarians have about playing dress-up? Frilly calico dresses, tri-corner hats, teabags... is it a gene they have or something? Don't get me wrong: fly your freak flag high for all I care, I'm nearly as tolerant as the Dutch.

    Meanwhile, why isn't Reason helping me discredit the mainstream media?

    Those Beltway cocktail party invites must be worth their weight in gold!

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Wrong. They are worth their weight in fajitas.

    And shut the fuck up, Chris.

  • alan||

    Hugh Akston | August 4, 2009, 10:19pm | #
    Episiarch for the win.


    My very first post on this board something like two years ago or so someone declared me the thread winner. That was my moment in the sun; it has been down hill ever since.

  • alan||

    Those Beltway cocktail party invites must be worth their weight in gold!

    You live in DC, right? What is stopping you from holding parties to sway the Reason staff. Add some strychnine laced booze and poisonous snakes to the festivities, and shit, you might even get me to come.

  • Hugh Akston||

    alan, thread-winning around here is like baseball. We all have our streaks and slumps and cycles. I've been posting for years and I can only remember two wins distinctly. Your time will come again.

    And if not, people still love the Cubs.

  • Mike Laursen||

    Even if she is partially to blame for a political landscape that's made me despair for most of my adult life...

    I so desperately want to cause her more despair.

  • alan||

    No sweat, Hugh. I was just feeling a little whiny and attention whore seeking at the time I made that post like a kids who says his 'ABC's with the 'what do you think of me' tagged on the end.

  • JB||

    Given the present debacle of this cunt Judith Thurman's existence, it's no surprise she writes such trash.

    Please stop despairing and move to one of your socialist or communist paradises. Get the fuck out. You and cunts like you aren't wanted. Leave. While it's still an option.

  • Abdul||

    Living in the Minnesota wilderness of 1840, can you be anything but a libertarian?

    "Flooding, wildfires, crop failures? That's the government's job! I'll sit around waiting for FEMA to get invented. And guns? Heck no! Bear control is best left to professionals."

  • Warty||

    Shut the fuck up, Lonewacko.

  • Joel||

    You live in DC, right? What is stopping you from holding parties to sway the Reason staff. Add some strychnine laced booze and poisonous snakes to the festivities, and shit, you might even get me to come.

    LoneWhacko can't do that. He's afraid some of the hired catering help might be IllegalAliens.

  • Xeones||

    Add some strychnine laced booze and poisonous snakes to the festivities, and shit, you might even get me to come.

    I didn't realize you were so into the Church of God with Signs Following, alan.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    "Even if she is partially to blame for a political landscape that's made me despair for most of my adult life..."
    Jesus. How can you be so fucking stupid and still manage to hit your mouth with a fork every day?

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    I want an accounting of exactly how many hours of sleep Kate Harding has lost in her adult life because of her "despair" over the political landscape. But this phrase is interesting for its assumption by omission:



    someone who simultaneously lived feminist ideals and righter-than-right politics



    I guess I'm supposed to see a contradiction between libertarian politics and books written from a woman's point of view. But doesn't it make sense that the Little House books appeal to libertards specifically because they frame the pioneer days in terms of girly stuff? Family, community, negotiation, consensual exchange, willing business transactions, etc? As opposed to heroic lawmen, military campaigns against natives, constant violence, and all the other staples of mainstream frontier literature?

    I'd think the bigger story isn't that freedom-crazed libertarians viewed the frontier as a generally peaceful place, but that the liberal consensus produced an enduring version of the frontier in which you solve all problems by shooting people to death.

  • Lisa||

    I am very amused by the reactions to this. Anne suggests that the Little House books led to her current state of libertarianism.

    Time says "But doesn't it make sense that the Little House books appeal to libertards specifically because they frame the pioneer days in terms of girly stuff? "

    And then there's me - I read the books as a child, and Laura's independence and quiet rebellion to the status quo appealled to me while growing up in the 60s and 70s.

    Maybe she helped in my development as a populist feminist Democrat?

    I think it goes to show that we all end up taking away from various sources what we need and want.

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