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Jul 4, 2000

Buoyant Optimism: A Biography of Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane, journalist and author, was one of the founding mothers of modern American libertarianism.

Liberty hit an all-time low during the early 1940s. Tyrants oppressed or threatened people on every continent. Western intellectuals whitewashed mass murderers like Joseph Stalin, and Western governments expanded their power with Soviet‑style central planning. Fifty million people were killed during the war which raged in Europe, Africa and Asia. America, seemingly the last hope for liberty, was drawn into it.

Established American authors who defended liberty were a dying breed. Literary critic H.L. Mencken had turned away from bitter politics to write his memoirs, while others like author Albert Jay Nock and journalist Garet Garrett were mired in pessimism.

Amidst the worst of times, Rose Wilder Lane dared to declare collectivism evil. She stood up for natural rights, the only philosophy which provided a moral basis for opposing tyranny everywhere. She celebrated old‑fashioned rugged individualism. She envisioned a future when people could again be free. She expressed a buoyant optimism.

Lane was an outsider who came from territory that wasn’t part of the United States, and she started her career before many women enjoyed equal rights, but she just lived her own life. She made herself into one of the most successful freelance writers of her day. She traveled on assignment throughout Eastern Europe, and at age 78 she became a war correspondent in Vietnam. Her work appeared in American Mercury, Cosmopolitan, Country Gentleman, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, Redbook, Saturday Evening Post, Sunset, Woman’s Day and other magazines. She produced scripts for radio broadcaster Lowell Thomas, whose specialty was exotic travel adventures. She wrote biographies of Charlie Chaplin, Henry Ford and Jack London. Her novel Let the Hurricane Roar (1933) was a bestseller which remained in print for four decades and was dramatized on television as Young Pioneers. Her book The Discovery of Freedom (1943), still available, helped inspire the modern libertarian movement. She achieved her greatest impact when she turned her mother’s story outlines into the beloved “Little House” books about individual responsibility, self reliance, courtesy, courage and love. Many people consider this the greatest series of children’s books ever written.

Referring to Lane and her compatriots, the journalist Isabel Paterson and novelist Ayn Rand, Fortune editor John Chamberlain wrote admiringly that “with scornful side glances at the male business community, they had decided to rekindle a faith in an older American philosophy. There wasn’t an economist among them. And none of them was a Ph.D.” Albert Jay Nock declared that “They make all of us male writers look like Confederate money. They don’t fumble and fiddle around—every shot goes straight to the center.”

Biographer William Holtz noted that political philosophy was Lane’s “consuming interest for over half of her adult life. She was an important figure in the transmission of that persistent strand of libertarian thought in our country, and many of those who respected and loved her were in fact a kind of comradeship of happy warriors against the state…Largely self-educated, always a voracious and wide-ranging reader, and by temperament an independent thinker, she took little on faith and tested ideas instinctively against her own experience…”

Lane once described herself by saying “I’m a plump, Middle western, middle class, middle-aged woman, with white hair and simple tastes. I like buttered popcorn, salted peanuts, bread and milk.” She had bad teeth, her marriage failed, she worked to support her aging parents, and at one point during the 1930s she was so hard up for cash that her electricity was cut off. Yet she soared with great eloquence as she helped revive the libertarian principles of the American Revolution, and she inspired millions of adults and children alike.

She was born Rose Wilder on December 5, 1886 near De Smet, Dakota Territory. Her father Almanzo Wilder and her mother Laura Ingalls were poor farmers, devastated by drought, hailstorms and other calamities. For years, the family lived in a windowless cabin. They missed many meals. Their daughter was named after wild roses which bloomed on the prairie.

“We did not like discipline,” Rose recalled, “so we suffered until we disciplined ourselves. We saw many things and many opportunities that we ardently wanted and could not pay for, so we did not get them, or got them only after stupendous, heartbreaking effort and self-denial, for debt was much harder to bear than deprivations. We were honest, not because sinful human nature wanted to be, but because the consequences of dishonesty were excessively painful. It was clear that if your word were not as good as your bond, your bond was no good and you were worthless…we learned that it is impossible to get something for nothing…”

When Rose was four, the family gave up on Dakota and moved to Mansfield, Missouri where they could grow apples. She attended a four-room, red brick school which had two shelves of books, and she discovered the wonders of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Edward Gibbon. Her mainstay: the famous Readers compiled by Cincinnati College President William Holmes McGuffey who imparted moral lessons as he taught the fundamentals of reading and exposed young minds to many great authors of Western civilization.

She quit school after the ninth grade and determined that somehow she would see the world beyond rural Missouri. She took a train to Kansas City and got a job as a Western Union telegraph clerk on the night shift. She spent most of her spare time reading. By 1908, she was off to San Francisco for another Western Union job and romance with advertising salesman Gillette Lane. They married in March 1909. She became pregnant but had either a miscarriage or stillbirth. It became impossible for her to conceive again.

By 1915, the marriage had broken up, but through Gillette’s newspaper connections Rose got her start as a journalist. For the San Francisco Bulletin, a radical labor paper, she began writing a women’s column, then a series of daily 1,500-word personality profiles. She wrote an autobiographical novel serialized in Sunset magazine.

Somehow or other, she became a Christian Socialist and a fan of Socialist Eugene Debs. Then the Bolshevik Revolution captured her imagination, and she embraced communism. While staying in New York, where she hoped to launch a career as a freelance writer, she met communist promoter John Reed and then-communist author Max Eastman.

In March 1920, the Red Cross invited her to travel around Europe and report on their relief efforts, so that prospective donors—on whose support they depended—would know about the good they were doing. Based in Paris, she traveled to Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Rome, Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Tirana, Trieste, Athens, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Constantinople. Lane had imagined that Europe was the great hope for civilization, but instead she eluded bandits, encountered bureaucratic corruption, endured runaway inflation, witnessed civil war horrors and the darkening shadows of ruthless tyranny.

Lane visited the Soviet Union four years after the Bolsheviks seized power. She met peasants whom she expected to be rapturous about communism, but as she reported later, “My host astounded me by the force with which he said that he did not like the new government…His complaint was government interference with village affairs. He protested against the growing bureaucracy that was taking more and more men from productive work. He predicted chaos and suffering from the centralizing of economic power in Moscow…”

“I came out of the Soviet Union no longer a communist,” she continued, “because I believed in personal freedom. Like all Americans, I took for granted the individual liberty to which I had been born. It seemed as necessary and as inevitable as the air I breathed; it seemed the natural element in which human beings lived. The thought that I might lose it had never remotely occurred to me. And I could not conceive that multitudes of human beings would ever willingly live without it.”

After returning to America in November 1923, her career blossomed as she wrote for popular magazines. She wrote novels about pioneer life. Famed actress Helen Hayes dramatized one of Lane’s novels, Let the Hurricane Roar, on the radio. But Lane was financially devastated during the Great Depression. In 1931, she wailed, “I am forty-five. Owe $8,000. Have in bank $502.70…Nothing that I have intended has ever been realized.”

In 1936, Lane wrote “Credo,” an 18,000-word article for the Saturday Evening Post. Three years later Leonard Read, General Manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, helped establish a publishing firm called Pamphleteers which reprinted Lane’s article as Give Me Liberty. “I began slowly to understand,” she wrote, “that I am endowed by the Creator with inalienable liberty as I am endowed with life; that my freedom is inseparable from my life…”

In 1942, an editor of John Day Company asked Lane to write a book about liberty. She began work in a McAllen, Texas trailer park, amidst a tour of the Southwest. She went through at least two drafts at her home on 23 King Street, Danbury, Connecticut. Her book, The Discovery of Freedom, Man’s Struggle Against Authority, was published January 1943.

While most historians focused on what rulers did, Lane chronicled the epic struggle of ordinary people who defy rulers to raise their families, produce food, build industries, trade and in countless ways improve human life. She was lyrical about the American Revolution which helped secure liberty and unleashed phenomenal energy for human progress.

“Why did men die of hunger, for six thousand years?” she asked. “Why did they walk, and carry goods and other men on their backs, for six thousand years, and suddenly, in one century, only on a sixth of this earth’s surface, they make steamships, railroads, motors, airplanes, and now are flying around the earth in its utmost heights of air? Why did families live thousands of years in floorless hovels, without windows or chimneys, then, in eighty years and only in these United States, they are taking floors, chimneys, glass windows for granted, and regarding electric lights, porcelain toilets, and window screens as minimum necessities?”

She attributed these dramatic developments to liberty. She hailed constitutional protections “forbidding American Government to seize or search an American’s person without due process of law; to imprison him without trial; to try him in secret or without letting him call witness in his defense; to try him twice on the same charge; to punish him for a crime that someone else committed; to refuse him a jury trial or to deny his right of appeal; to torture him; or to deny his right of assembly, or his right to petition the Government, or his right to bear arms, or his right to own property.”

Lane was dissatisfied with it and refused permission to reprint it. She never got around to completing another edition. Only a thousand copies of the book were printed during her lifetime.

Nonetheless, The Discovery of Freedom had a big impact, circulating as an underground classic. It helped inspire the launching of several organizations to promote liberty during the 1940s and 1950s. Among them, Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education, F.A. Harper’s Institute for Humane Studies and Robert M. Lefevre’s Freedom School.

Although The Discovery of Freedom was a founding document of the modern libertarian movement, Lane had perhaps a greater calling behind the scenes. In 1930, Laura Ingalls Wilder gave Lane a manuscript about her early life from Wisconsin to Kansas and Dakota. Lane deleted the material about Wisconsin, then went through two drafts of the rest, fleshing out the story and characters. This became a 100-page manuscript tentatively called Pioneer Girl, and she sent it to her literary agent Carl Brandt. The Wisconsin material became a 20-page story, “When Grandma Was a Little Girl,” a possible text for a children’s picture book. One publisher suggested that the story be expanded to a 25,000‑word book for younger readers.

Lane conveyed the news to her mother, and since the original manuscript had been rewritten beyond recognition, she explained, “It is your father’s stories, taken out of the long PIONEER GIRL manuscript, and strung together, as you will see.” Lane specified the kind of additional material needed, adding “If you find it easier to write in the first person, write that way. I will change it into the third person, later.” Lane reassured her mother that the collaboration remained a family secret: “I have said nothing about having run the manuscript through my own typewriter…” By May 27, 1931, the “juvenile” was done, and Lane sent it off to publishers. Harper Brothers issued it in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods, and it became a landmark in children’s literature.

In January 1933, Wilder gave Lane Farmer Boy, a manuscript about Almanzo’s childhood recollections. Publishers had rejected it, presumably because it was mainly a chronicle of farm work. Lane spent a month turning it into a flesh-and-blood story, and Harper’s bought it. The following year, Wilder gave Lane a manuscript about her life in Kansas, and she spent five weeks rewriting it into Little House on the Prairie.

The “Little House” books began generating significant income for the Wilders, a relief to Lane whose aim was to help provide their financial security. Wilder expanded part of Pioneer Girl into another manuscript and gave it to Lane in 1936. “I have written you the whys of the story as I wrote it,” Wilder explained. “But you know your judgement is better than mine, so what you decide is the one that stands.” Lane spent two months rewriting it and drafted a letter for their literary agent, asking better terms. This became On the Banks of Plum Creek. Lane spent most of 1939 rewriting the manuscript for By the Shores of Silver Lake. In 1940, The Long Winter. In 1941, Little Town on the Prairie. In 1942, These Happy Golden Years.

The books portrayed a close family on the American frontier during the 1870s and 1880s. There was quietly courageous Pa (Charles Ingalls) who did stupendous amounts of work building homes, raising crops, tending farm animals and helping neighbors; Ma (Caroline Ingalls) who took care of the children and maintained civilized life even in the most primitive conditions; and the children Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace. The family endured one hardship after another. They were menaced by hungry wolves, the winters were brutal, there were hostile Indians, crops were destroyed by locusts, the family fought ferocious prairie fires, they suffered scarlet fever, and the disease blinded Mary. The family never had much money, but they enjoyed a wonderful life together.

Pa was the great hero of the stories. For example, On the Banks of Plum Creek told how, after locusts devoured the wheat and hay which he had grown in Minnesota, he twice walked more than 200 miles east in his old patched boots, to earn money harvesting other people’s crops. On another occasion, walking home from town, he was caught in sudden blizzard and lost his way, but he survived three days in a hole until the blizzard was over. Again and again, Pa renewed everybody’s spirits when he picked up his fiddle and filled their home with music.

Readers could behold the wonders of creative imagination. By the Shores of Silver Lake: “First, someone had thought of a railroad. Then the surveyors had come out to that empty country, and they had marked and measured a railroad that was not there at all; it was only a railroad that someone had thought of. Then the plowmen came to tear up the prairie grass, and the scraper-men to dig up the dirt, and the teamsters with their wagons to haul it. And all of them said they were working on the railroad, but still the railroad wasn’t there. Nothing was there yet but cuts through the prairie swells, pieces of the railroad grade that were really only narrow, short ridges of earth, all pointing westward across the enormous grassy land.”

Individualism came across loud and clear. For instance, this passage from The Long Winter: “Anybody knew that no two men were alike. You could measure cloth with a yardstick, or distance by miles, but you could not lump men together and measure them by any rule. Brains and character did not depend on anything but the man himself. Some men did not have the sense at sixty that some had at sixteen.”

The books displayed the spirit of liberty. Again, from The Long Winter: “The politicians are a-swarming in already, and ma’am, if’n there’s any worst pest than grasshoppers it surely is politicians.” In Little Town on the Prairie, Rose described her mother’s thoughts this way: “Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.”

Intensely loyal to her mother, Lane wanted no credit for the “Little House” books. Her role wasn’t documented until University of Missouri English professor William Holtz produced his biography, The Ghost in the Little House (1993). “In 1972,” he recalled, “my wife and I began to read Little House in the Big Woods to our daughters. The appeal of the book was immediate, and we went on to other books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. They were that rare accomplishment in children’s literature, books for children that could at the same time hold an adult’s interest; and we found vivid and persuasive their images of family devotion, disciplined hard work, and optimistic struggle against adversity…

“As a literary scholar, I found myself more and more interested in the configuration of an entire set of circumstances…[Laura was] in her sixties before her books appeared, and with no previous literary distinction before this sudden efflorescence, she struck the imagination as a literary Grandma Moses, an untutored talent springing to life after years of obscurity in the Missouri Ozarks…The story told, of Laura Ingalls from childhood to marriage, was…presented for the most part with such a high degree of literary finish—in pacing, balance, structure, characterization, dialogue, dramatic impact, all within the confines of a deceptively simple style and point-of-view—as to achieve a portrait of a fictional character and a realized world of singular power. The impression of the author Laura Ingalls Wilder as a naive genius was very strong…”

“To appreciate Rose Wilder Lane’s contribution to her mother’s books,” Holtz explained, “one must simply read her mother’s fair-copy manuscripts in comparison with the final published versions. What Rose accomplished was nothing less than a line-by-line rewriting of labored and underdeveloped narratives.” Holtz observed that despite hardships, a cheerful spirit pervades all the “Little House” books except the posthumously-published First Four Years (1971)—”the only book by Laura Ingalls Wilder that did not pass under the shaping hand of Rose Wilder Lane.”

Meanwhile, in 1974, NBC began adapting the books for Little House on the Prairie, a hugely popular television series which ran nine years and resulted in more than 200 programs. President Ronald Reagan remarked that Little House was his favorite TV program. A syndication agreement assured that the programs will be run again and again for at least the next quarter-century. Time-Life Video now markets the 48 most popular programs. Michael Landon wrote and directed many programs and starred as Laura’s father Charles Ingalls.

Lane’s last blast was Woman’s Day Book of American Needlework (1963), which she turned into a hymn for liberty. “American needlework tells you,” she wrote, “that Americans live in the only classless society. This republic is the only country that has no peasant needlework…American women…discarded backgrounds, they discarded borders and frames. They made the details create the whole, and they set each detail in boundless space, alone, independent, complete…Laces were in every home, no lower classes wore their lives away making laces for superior classes. Those Americans were free people, imaginative, creative, and daring; they liked swiftness and change. American lace shows you that they were the people who would develop the clipper ships and the ocean steamers and the airplanes.”

Talking about patchwork: “Let us remember, too, that ‘when Freedom from her mountain-height unfurled her standard to the air,’ that standard was a patchwork pattern of thirteen stripes, red and white, and a blue patch that once held thirteen stars and now holds fifty. That standard was raised by poor and hungry people who had come, or been shipped like cattle, from all the lands of the Old World to live in the edge of a wilderness if they could. Let us remember that they found freedom here and fought to defend and preserve it, and that in freedom they made our country from nothing at all but bare hands and unconquerable spirit.”

Although Lane remained active throughout her life—Woman’s Day sent her to Vietnam as their correspondent in 1965 — she cherished country living at her Danbury, Connecticut home. On November 29, 1966, she baked several days’ worth of bread and went upstairs to sleep. She never awoke. She was 79. Her close friend and literary heir Roger MacBride, co-creator of the Little House TV series, brought her ashes to Mansfield, Missouri and had them buried next to her mother and father. Her simple gravestone was engraved with some words by Thomas Paine: “An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot. Neither the channel nor the Rhine will arrest its progress. It will march on the horizon of the world and it will conquer.”

MacBride did much to preserve Lane’s legacy. He authorized a new edition of The Discovery of Freedom in 1972. The following year, he edited The Lady and the Tycoon, The Best of Letters Between Rose Wilder Lane and Jasper Crane. For young adults, he brought out Rose Wilder Lane, Her Story (1977). Then in 1993, Little House on Rocky Ridge, the first of his stories about how she grew up, very much in the style and spirit of the “Little House” books. Little Farm in the Ozarks appeared in 1994. In the Land of the Big Red Apple, 1995. Miami-based MacBride suffered a fatal heart attack on March 5, 1995, at age 65, but his daughter Abigail MacBride Allen has overseen the publication of her father’s unpublished manuscripts, starting with The Other Side of the Hill (1995), Little Town in the Ozarks (1996), New Dawn on Rocky Ridge (1997) and On the Banks of the Bayou (1998). The books take Rose up to age 17 when she’s off to follow her dreams.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.