March 1, 2014 essays

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Rose Wilder Lane

A short biography of Rose Wilder Lane, one of three women who launched the modern American libertarian movement.

Readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved “Little House” children’s books already know crusading libertarian writer Rose Wilder Lane as “baby Rose,” whose birth and early years are chronicled in The First Four Years.

Born on the frontier, in America’s Dakota Territory, Rose Wilder’s family left the Territory for Florida after surviving diphtheria, crop failure, and even the loss of their house to fire. They soon returned, staying in a rented house for two years, during which time Rose learned to read in a matter of months at a small town schoolhouse, before leaving for Mansfield, Missouri by covered wagon. There, the Wilder family bought a plot of land dubbed Rocky Ridge by Laura, and built the home in which the “Little House” stories would later be written.

Finding the school in Mansfield insufficiently challenging, Wilder, with her mother’s consent, stayed home to educate herself. She returned to school for only a few months in 1903–04, earning her high school degree while staying with her aunt in Louisiana.

The adult Rose’s life, while less well known, is at least as exciting as the adventures related in any of her mother’s books. In an autobiographical piece for the Federal Writers Project, Lane described her varied experiences:

I have been office clerk, telegrapher, newspaper reporter, feature writer, advertising writer, farmland salesman. I have seen all the United States and something of Canada and the Caribbean; all of Europe except Spain; Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq as far east as Baghdad, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan.

She omits from the list her nine year marriage to Claire Gillette Lane, which lasted from 1909 to 1918, and during which Lane gave birth to a son who died shortly thereafter. Lane traveled the United States extensively with her husband, and worked as a reporer for the San Francisco Bulletin. Her first novel, Diverging Roads, was serialized in Sunset Magazine and then published in book form in 1919. She also authored several biographies — her first book was a life of Henry Ford — including the first ever written about Herbert Hoover, in 1920. Her work researching that book led to a friendship with Hoover which lasted for over 40 years.

The extensive travels to which she refers included stints as a reporter in San Francisco and as a Red Cross publicist in Washington, D.C., as well as several months in New York’s Greenwich Village, where she became involved in radical socialist politics. After the end of World War I, she was sent to the Balkans by the Red Cross to investigate conditions there; her reports were published in the Red Cross Bulletin. Crucially, Lane also stayed for a time in the newly formed Soviet Union, an experience that would shake and, ultimately, destroy her sympathy for communism. Finishing her work for the Red Cross in 1922, she toured Europe and the Middle East, with an interlude back at the family farm in Missouri in 1924–25 to write several stories about the Ozarks, including the successful Hill Billy. She repeatedly visited Albania, where she witnessed a revolution and refused a proposal of marriage from Ahmet Zogu, the future King Zog I.

Returning more permanently to the United States at decade’s end, Lane became a prolific author of short stories, novels, and magazine articles, writing for such publications as Harper’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post. During this time, she also began a longstanding collaboration with her mother, whom she had encouraged to write children’s stories about her childhood in the old West. How much Lane had to do with the writing of these stories, which would become the “Little House” series, is a matter of some dispute. It is generally agreed that she edited her mother’s notes and diaries at length, and in his controversial biography of Lane, Ghost in the Little House William V. Holtz argues that Lane’s revisions were so extensive that she ought to be considered not merely editor but co-author of the Little House series.

Lane publicly disavowed her youthful socialism in a long 1936 article in the Saturday Evening Post titled “Credo,” which was later reprinted as the pamphlet Give Me Liberty. She related her disillusionment — and that of her Russian friends — with the new Soviet regime, as well as anecdotes about the bureaucratic red tape she encountered in Parisian markets, and the behavior of police in Budapest sent to enforce mandatory work rules. Economic central planning, her experiences and travels had taught her, was incompatible with both prosperity and individual liberty. In her autobiographical essay for the FWP, she said this about her change of heart:

In 1917 I became a convinced, though not practicing communist. In Russia, for some reason, I wasn’t and I said so, but my understanding of Bolshevism made everything pleasant when the Cheka arrested me a few times.


I am now a fundamentalist American; give me time and I will tell you why individualism, laissez faire and the slightly restrained anarchy of capitalism offer the best opportunities for the development of the human spirit. Also I will tell you why the relative freedom of human spirit is better — and more productive, even in material ways — than the communist, Fascist, or any other rigidity organized for material ends.

Rose’s writing reflected her growing concern with government encroachment on individual liberties. Her 1938 pioneer novel Free Land, the royalties from which financed Lane’s purchase of a home in Connecticut, would be her last published fiction. During the early 40’s, she wrote articles focusing on individualism, needlework, and sometimes both at once for Woman’s Day and other magazines. She also began work on The Discovery of Freedom, which by her own account was written in a “white heat.” In 1945, she began writing for the National Economic Council’s Review of Books. A correspondence with Ayn Rand that lasted several years began when Rand sent Lane a letter of thanks for her favorable review of The Fountainhead in that publication.

Lane was not merely a theorist, but an activist as well. In 1945–46, she led a campaign against the introduction of zoning, which she saw as a violation of individual property rights, in her town. She also grew her own food to avoid wartime rationing, and later quit her editorial job with the National Economic Council so as not to pay Social Security taxes. Her prescience regarding the instability of that system was astonishing: throughout the 1950s she would describe it as unstable and a “Ponzi fraud.” Lane told friends that it would be immoral of her to take part in a system that would predictably collapse so catastrophically, as the example of Weimar Germany convinced her that it would.

In 1958, a man named Robert Le Fevre who had been strongly influenced by Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom asked her to come visit his “Freedom School,” which he had founded to promote the individualist principles he said Lane had taught him. She would become a regular lecturer there for several years thereafter.

At the age of 78, Lane worked as a war correspondent in South Vietnam for Woman’s Day. When she died in 1968, she was planning another three-year world tour.

The direct influence of The Discovery of Freedom was lessened by its unavailability for many years — Lane refused to allow it to be reprinted until she was able to revise and correct it extensively, an unfinished project that occupied much of her time in later life. Yet her effect on a generation of proponents of liberty was profound. Her attorney Roger Lea MacBride, who she called her “adopted grandson,” was inspired by her to write a series of sequels to the “Little House” books, “The Rose Years,” about Lane.

Lane’s extensive correspondence also had its impact, though often even Lane herself did not see the extent of it until much later. In 1958 she wrote to a longtime correspondent, businessman Jasper Crane:

Twenty one years ago… I used to spend all my time, every day, at my typewriter following up every least “lead” that I could find. Example: I heard a high-school “debate” among all pro-New Dealers on the radio, and wrote to each of them. One replied, with all the Welfare State collectivist notions that had been put into his head, but he didn’t seem wholly unintelligent, so I kept on writing to him for some months, apparently with no effect, finally getting no answer. Now he turns up as publisher of National Review, telling people that I — i.e., my letters — changed his whole life.

Lane changed many lives, both through her writing and her personal example. If it turns out to be true that, as she wrote in Give Me Liberty, “individualism has the strength to resist all attacks,” Rose Wilder Lane will have helped to make it true by lending so much of her own strength to individualists everywhere.

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