Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Mother's little helper

The New Yorker looks at Laura Ingalls Wilder and her unacknowledged co-writer, her daughter Rose Lane. Fascinating stuff.

Rose's spiritual progression is a striking one:
Charles Ingalls’s granddaughter had inherited his wanderlust, and her career had given her a chance to indulge it. Much of her reporting had been filed from exotic places. She had lived among bohemians in Paris and Greenwich Village, Soviet peasants and revolutionaries, intellectuals in Weimar Berlin, survivors of the massacres in Armenia, Albanian rebels, and camel-drivers on the road to Baghdad. * * *

The transformation of a barefoot Cinderella from the Ozarks into a stylish cosmopolite who acquired several languages, enjoyed smoking and fornication, and dined at La Rotonde when she wasn’t motoring around Europe in her Model T is, like the Little House books themselves, an American saga. Rose’s published writing was sensationalist, if not trashy, but her letters and her conversation were prized for their acerbic sophistication by a diverse circle of friends which included Dorothy Thompson, a leading journalist of the day; Floyd Dell, the editor, with Max Eastman, of The Masses; Ahmet Zogu, who became King Zog of Albania; and Herbert Hoover, despite the fact that he had apparently tried to suppress an embarrassing hagiography that Rose and a collaborator had cobbled together in 1920. (He hadn’t yet entered electoral politics, but he was widely admired for his postwar relief work in Europe.) Hoover was not unique among Rose’s subjects in deploring her fabrications. Charlie Chaplin was so incensed by them that he threatened legal action, as did Jack London’s widow. Henry Ford repudiated a portrait of himself that he couldn’t recognize. Laura, who publicly (and disingenuously) insisted that her stories were pure autobiography, also sometimes balked at the liberties that her daughter took with factual detail. Fidelity to a subject, or to history, was of less importance to Rose, as she implied in a placating letter to Chaplin, than a “corking” tale. But perhaps she didn’t understand the principle at stake: she had reinvented herself just as brashly. * * *

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.)

The struggle against authority defined Rose’s life. She railed against a mother who had infantilized her (even though she returned the favor), and at a President who, she believed, was infantilizing a free republic. (“I hoped that Roosevelt would be killed in 1933,” she wrote to her agent, George Bye, who also represented Eleanor Roosevelt.) She fought a valiant losing battle for the psychic freedom necessary to write something authentic, yet she was beholden to her parents for her greatest literary successes. In 1938, Rose serialized “Free Land,” a novel set on the Dakota plains, whose central character was modelled on Almanzo. It reached the best-seller list, and a reviewer in the Times recommended it to the Pulitzer Prize committee. But, once Rose had exhausted her family history, her creative life was finished. Her last attempt at fiction, in 1939, “The Forgotten Man,” is the story of a working-class hero whose ingenuity has been thwarted by the New Deal. When it was rejected by an editor as artless propaganda, Rose, according to Holtz, argued that she “could not write it otherwise.” [So that's where Amity Shlaes got her title. --TBA]

By then, Lane had moved East. In 1938, at fifty-one, she bought three suburban acres near Danbury, Connecticut, and a clapboard farmhouse--her first real home. (Remodelling, she told a friend, was “my vice.”) As she aged, her inner and outer worlds both contracted. She abandoned her journal and, with it, Holtz concludes, her introspection. Old friends were alienated by her increasingly kooky and embattled militance. (One of them described her as “floating between sanity and a bedlam of hates.”) The F.B.I. took notice of her “subversive” actions to protest Social Security, and she made headlines by denouncing the agency’s “Gestapo” tactics.
Quite a sequel to the "Little House" books.


  1. Interesting story. I knew the anti-Roosevelt, libertarian crackpot stuff about Rose, but not that she'd once been a supporter of Eugene Debbs!

    I knew about this controversy when I toured the "homeplace" in Missouri where Wilder was living when she wrote the books; they're pretty sensitive about it there. I've never fully bought the version that the daughter wrote the books.

  2. Some people can only bounce from one extreme to the other.

    I doubt she "wrote" the books, but it's very plausible-sounding that she was effectively a collaborator. This stuff gets hard to classify after a while. Did Ezra Pound co-author "The Waste Land"? Too bad he didn't sue Eliot for royalties, that would've been a great case ....