About that Little House on the Prairie

Author Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867, the same year as economist Irving Fisher.  Between 1932 and 1943 she published eight books for children — Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of the Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years.

Told in the third person, those eight volumes loosely depict Wilder’s coming of age in the 1870s and early 1880s, as her pioneer family moved from Wisconsin through Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas to the Dakota Territories, just as railroads were beginning to open the Upper Midwest to settlement. Self-reliance, ingenuity and sturdy optimism were the rule. The books are highly evocative of a confident period of American history, the flip side of the cowboy era, a time when the weather, diseases, occasional encounters with native Americans, and, especially, animals (dogs, horses, chickens, cows), were more important to children’s lives than machines.  You can find the books on the fiction shelves of libraries and bookstores.

Wilder was pronounced “a literary Grandma Moses,” meaning a primitive with artistic flair, as opposed to, say, an adult novelist like Willa Cather.  She died in 1957, but her stories were amplified all over again from 1974 until 1983 by actor Michael Landon, who produced and starred (occasionally recycling scripts from his earlier appearances in Bonanza) in a long-running television series. Ronald Reagan at one point called it his favorite program. (The show retooled in 1984 as Little House: A New Beginning.)

We know more about this, thanks partly to an “adult” novel that Ingalls wrote and never published. The First Four Years picks up where Those Happy Golden Years leaves off, with her marriage to Almanzo Wilder.  She has agreed to leave teaching to spend three years as a farm wife, and, as a young mother, agrees to a provisional fourth.(Her daughter Rose was born in 1886).  It ends with the young family on the move again, this time on the road to southern Missouri.

The story is notable for what it leaves out. The “Dakota Boom” of 1878-85 is ending; beginning is a lengthy drought.  The Panic of 1893 and its ensuing depression are but a few years away. The Wilders are about the lose their farm and to migrate to the gentler and better-watered Ozark Mountains, where they will finally, at around the age of thirty, settle into a life of hardscrabble  farming in Mansfield, Mo.

We know all this and more thanks to The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane, by William Holtz (1993). (It is just this sort of thing that will be lost if the University of Missouri inists that its publishing arm go out of business.)

After a high school education, Rose left home at 18, to work as a telegrapher in Kanas City; as a land sales agent in California;  a newspaper editor in San Francisco; and, as a would-be biographer of Herbert Hoover (then directing the relief effort in the wake of World War I, as an American in Paris in the 1920s.  By the time she turned 40, she was roaming Europe as a writer for the “slicks” (magazines printed on more expensive coated paper), serving as a ghost writer for celebrity authors (Lowell Thomas in particular), and supplementing her parents’ meager income to enable them to live a more genteel life.

It turns out that it was Rose who marketed her mother’s story to a friendly publishing house editor, as a “juvenile” or children’s book, then ran her mother’s drafts through her own typewriter while she worked herself on adult fiction – all this  in response to the onset of the Great Depression, after October 1929.  By then she was again living at home.  And though fans of The Little House on the Prairie dispute it, biographer Holtz has little doubt that Rose effectively became her mother’s ghost.  That brought in plenty of money and fame – for her mother – but for the next few years it tied the daughter more closely than ever to the increasingly needy woman she called Mama Bess.

What merits a biography?  It turns out that, quite aside from her success as her mother’s ghost, Rose Wilder Lane (she married and remarried Claire Gillette Lane) had quite a career of her own as what we now call a public intellectual, one  of those whom historian George Nash labeled paleo-conservatives.  Having consorted with various radicals in Greenwich Village in the early 1920s – she counted Floyd Dell among her friends – she turned decisively to the right, despising all forms of collectivism and “the Marxist lie.”

The irony, according to biographer Holtz, was that after successfully escaping from financial dependence on her mother, Lane spent the rest of her life seeking to ratify, “in metaphysics, history, political theory and fiction” the values that her mother’s life had embodied in her books for children. This took many forms: boosting Herbert Hoover; testifying to Congress on the dangers of communism; writing a column (“Rose Lane Says”) for the Pittsburgh Courier, a small African-American weekly whose proprietor was an up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneur; replacing political theorist Albert Jay Nock as the book review editor of the National Economic Council’s monthly Review of Books.  It was in this capacity that she had one of  her greatest successes, campaigning successfully against the first Keynesian textbook to appear after World War II, that of Lorie Tarshis, who, by the time the gale hit, had left Tufts University for Stanford University. (She didn’t take on Paul Samuelson.) Laura Wilder finally died in 1957.  Her daughter died in 1968, not long after visiting South Vietnam for Woman’s Day.

As good (and thoroughly sympathetic) as is the Holtz account, omitted are many of the recondite details of Lane’s skirmishes with various fellow conservatives, including Ludwig von Mises, during her campaign against the Tarshis text.  That’s where David Levy, of George Mason University; Sandra Peart, of the University of Richmond;  and Margaret Albert, of the Colorado School of Mines, come into the picture. In Economic Liberals as Quasi-Public Intellectuals: The Democratic Dimension, appearing in one of the Emerald Group’s periodic volumes of Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, they argue that Lane attacked Tarshis  because something about his book – his “democratic reformism” – especially got under her skin, while Samuelson’s more technocratic position somehow rendered him immune to her ire.

You have to really love the ins and outs of libertarian thought (I don’t) and read the extensive documentation they supply (I did) to follow their argument: that a strange alliance between Tarshis and von Mises demonstrates how modesty distinguishes true experts, such as James Buchanan and John Rawls, in their role as public intellectuals, from more “aristocratic” experts, such as Lane and her strange bed-fellow Samuelson.

This much, however, is clear, and relevant.  In newspaperman Robert LeFevre, Rose Wilder Lane found a kindred spirit. In 1956 LeFevre founded the Freedom School in the mountains betweenDenver and Colorado Springs. It was later known as Rampart College.  At one point, when the school was about to go out of business, Lane emptied her bank account to pay a critical month’s rent. Lefevre later named his new “phrontistety” (from the Greek, a “place for thinking”) for her, Rose Wilder Lane Hall.

Among the summer phronistery professors were von Mises, Milton Friedman, G. Warren Nutter, Leonard Read and Gordon Tullock.  Among its graduates was Charles Koch, who, as a rich Wichita businessman, has come to exemplify a certain kind of ultra-individualistic philanthropist of the Little House on the Prairie school.

Which brings us back to the Kansas of the present day, once again baking amidst drought and the aftermath of financial panic. Will the outcome this time be different from what it was in the 1890s, a short-lived populist revolt giving way to the trust-busting Progressive Era, an outcome glossed over entirely when Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter came to write their books?  Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week (subscription required) that the Tea-Party-dominated Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, a big-money political advocacy group controlled by Charles Koch and his brother David, are seeking to defeat a dozen centrist Republicans in the forty-member state Senate.  The Koch brothers, Lane’s intellectual descendants, think they know what’s best for Kansas.

But with local farmers feeling the heat for themselves – and independently weighing the evidence for climate change – it will pay to inquire more deeply into the meaning of “conservative.”  The surprising provenance of Charles Koch’s brand of rugged individualism is not the only thing learned when the History of Economics Society met last month at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ontario, but it was the most interesting.

3 responses to “About that Little House on the Prairie”

  1. I read the Little House books as a child and again, aloud to my own children, and what struck me on my adult reading is that the series is a chronicle of almost unrelieved failure. Laura and her family are poor even by frontier standards. They suffer continuous privation, catch untreated illnesses, and at one point (in The Long Winter) totter on the edge of literal starvation. Their periodic moves are prompted by the inability of Pa to provide for his family (his crops are eaten by locusts or curl up in a drought, he fishes out the creek and hunts the local game to extinction, he is forced to move when he tries to homestead on Indian land, etc.)

    Eventually he settles his family in a town where he finds semi-skilled work building houses for railroad men, and Laura must work as a teacher, which she hates.

    There’s no doubt at all that the family would have been far better off if they had stayed in the “big woods” of Wisconsin, where they had a community of family and friends. The only reason that they moved was that Pa had a “wanderlust” that caused him to deprive his wife (who disliked the desolate life of the prairie and was terrified of Indians) and his children of stability and economic security.

    In real life, it’s worth pointing out, Laura’s only child, Rose, died without children, as did Laura’s sisters, Mary, Carrie, and Grace. Her brother Freddie, who died at 9 months, is not mentioned in the books.

    The fact that this family’s disastrous frontier experience is held up as a model of libertarian philosophy is the clearest example of cognitive dissonance that I know of.

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