Little Libertarians on the Prairie

By Christine Woodside

A beloved children’s book series helped sell libertarian values. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bo Insogna.

Simone Pathe: I had the entire set of “Little House” books. They came in an illustrated cardboard box that sat on a living room bookshelf well past the age that my parents read them to me and that I, as a novice reader, cracked them open myself. As one of the best-selling children’s series, the books captivated millions of American kids enthralled with narratives of homesteading in the Midwest and persevering through cold winters as a family. That the books might have been intentionally structured to convey a partisan message from the field of economics about the virtues of rugged individualism never occurred to me.

It did to Christine Woodside. The editor of Appalachia Journal, Woodside has been researching the papers of the Wilder family and is writing a book about Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Here she explains how Wilder’s daughter revised her mother’s manuscripts to sell the libertarian philosophy to which she — and to a lesser extent, her mother — ascribed. A version of this piece first appeared in the Boston Globe on Aug. 9.

Christine Woodside: A few months after the stock market crash, in the winter of 1930, Laura Ingalls Wilder sat at a small desk in Mansfield, Mo., and began scratching out her life story on a cheap yellow pad. That beginning would lead to a children’s book series that would inspire millions of people to follow its simple values of optimistic self-sufficiency in the face of danger and economic struggle.

Wilder was one of the authentic old pioneers who’d grown up rattling in a covered wagon from cabin to sod house to shanty around the upper Midwest. She was the sort of former frontierswoman who at age 63, looked in alarm at the desperate people out of work as the Great Depression settled like a cloud around the central states. There, farmers dealt with lost savings, the drought that would cause the Dust Bowl, and no capital to keep their farms running.

Wilder’s books, “Little House in the Big Woods,” “Little House on the Prairie,” and six additional volumes, would become some of the bestselling children’s books ever published. They would inspire generations of women and men to find courage in the tales of howling wolves, crop failures, tornadoes, blizzards and making pot-pie out of the blackbirds they shot in the cornfield.

Wilder was a farm columnist, mostly, when she started writing the books. But her collaborator and daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, 43, was a famous journalist, and she thought her mother’s story would sell.

The characters of Laura, her sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace, and their parents, Ma and Pa, managed subsistence farms in harsh climates. They started with nothing, put hands to the plows, and built lives out of strength and grit.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

From the publication of the first book in 1932, the series was immediately popular. And, at a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was introducing the major federal initiatives of the New Deal and Social Security as a way out of the Depression, the Little House books lulled children to sleep with the opposite message.

The books placed self-reliance at the heart of the American myth: If the pioneers wanted a farm, they found one; if they needed food, they killed it or grew it; if they needed shelter, they built it.

Although Wilder and Lane hid their partnership, preferring to keep Wilder in the spotlight as the homegrown author and heroine, scholars of children’s literature have long known that two women, not one, produced the Little House books. But less well understood has been how exactly they reshaped Wilder’s original story, and why.

Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, as the Little House fans clamored for more, Wilder and Lane transformed the unpredictable hardships of the American frontier experience into a testament to the virtues of independence and courage. In Wilder’s original drafts, the family withstood the frontier with their jaws set. After Lane revised them, the Ingallses managed the land and made it theirs, without leaning on anybody.

I have been studying the Wilder family papers for more than a decade. My analysis of these documents suggests that Wilder’s daughter was far more than an editor. Lane 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 anti-government, 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.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote because she needed the money. And the way she had survived the tough economic times in which she was then living showed that her instinct for pennypinching had served her and her husband, Almanzo, well. Lane, too, sought any new sources of income she could find. When the two began the Little House books, Lane recorded in her notebooks that she owed her parents money (probably because she was behind on annual subsidies she liked to give them). She also was struggling to pay hundreds of dollars a year on electricity, and she had a laundry bill that, adjusted for inflation, would be about $196 a month in today’s dollars. Those extravagances would fall away before things got better for the family, but the pioneer writing project did provide a ticket to economic stability.

Unlike her parents and grandparents, Lane turned up her nose at manual labor, and there’s little evidence to suggest she felt any reverence for the hardscrabble people of the plains — not, at least, until much later in her life, when she turned to subsistence gardening in Connecticut as a protest of federal taxes. In 1933, early in the Little House project with her mother, Lane sketched an outline, never finished, for a “big American novel.” One of the characters was the pioneer, whom she described as “a poor man, of obscure or debased birth, without ability to rise from the mass.” In a letter to her old boss in April 1929, six months before the stock market crash, she had written: “Personally, I believe what we need — what every social group needs — is a peasant class.”

When Black Tuesday did come, the Wilder- Lane households began a painful two-year downslide, as Lane’s savings deflated from $20,000 to almost nothing. Magazine work dried up. Wilder, too, lost some money but, characteristically, scraped together savings and paid off the farm. Lane fretted about money, missed rent payments to her parents, borrowed thousands from friends, and continued to call herself the head of the household. She also began to consider other possible writing projects.

After magazines rejected Wilder’s real-life account, Lane began reworking some of the memoir into what would become the first children’s book, “Little House in the Big Woods.” Published in 1932 by Harper & Brothers, the book was praised by book critics for its honesty and caught the interest of readers nationwide. The Junior Literary Guild, a national book club, paid them an additional fee to print its own run. The income crisis at the Wilders’ ended. In the shadow of the crash, tales of overcoming great adversity resonated, and the editors wanted more. Wilder and Lane responded with their now-famous sequels.

From the start, there was tension between their approaches. Wilder argued for strict accuracy, while Lane, the seasoned commercial writer, injected made-up dialogue,
took out stories about criminals and murder, and — most significant — recast the stoic,
sometimes confused pioneers as optimistic, capable people who achieved success without any government help.

Laura Ingalls Wilder never got used to Lane’s heavy rewrites, but the evidence suggests that on the main approach, playing up toughness in adversity, she agreed with her daughter. Both women believed fervently that the nation in the depths of the Depression had become too soft. In shaping the memoirs into novels, Lane consistently left out the kinds of setbacks and behavior that cast doubt on the pioneer enterprise; the family’s story became a testament to the possibilities of self-sufficiency rather than its limitations.
The last four books, which tell the story of the Ingalls family’s attempt to homestead in the future state of South Dakota, are particularly fired by Libertarian themes.

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.

The next book, “The Long Winter,” stops for a moment of free-market speechifying almost certainly added by Lane. When a storekeeper tries to overcharge starving neighbors who want to buy the last stock of wheat available, a riot seems imminent until the character based on Wilder’s father Pa, Charles Ingalls, brings him into line: “This is a free country and everyman’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property…. Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.”

It’s an appealing, if perhaps wishful, distillation of the idea that a free market can regulate itself perfectly well. Wilder rarely wrote extended dialogue in her own recollections, the manuscripts show; her daughter most likely invented this long exchange.

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 U.S. history. The homestead law remains a given in the later books, particularly in “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” but I believe its part in the stories remains in the background, even when Pa goes to file his claim, telling “Ma,” Laura and the rest that he’s bet Uncle Sam the filing fee that they can live on the land without starving.

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 and losing the homestead anyway — into another celebration of self-sufficiency.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.