Lane, Rose Wilder (1886-1968)
Rose Wilder Lane was born in 1886, the first child of Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder; the latter was the author of the Little House on the Prairie series. Her parents would later become famous thanks to the book series, originally written by her mother and vastly reworked and edited by Lane herself. Whereas her mother was known for provincial tales of wilderness family life, Lane became famous as a sophisticated world traveler and outspoken divorcée. As a reporter, columnist, and author, Lane became interested in the issues of free trade and individual rights, especially as viewed against the backdrop of world events. She was one of several highly visible libertarian women writing in the first half of the 20th century.
After a pioneer upbringing that included a cross-country trip in a horse-drawn hack from Dakota Territory to the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Rose Wilder moved to California and began writing for the San Francisco Bulletin. There she met and married Claire Gillette Lane, whom she divorced 9 years later. By then she had published short stories and nonfiction articles in such magazines as The Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s Monthly, and The Saturday Evening Post. She ghostwrote White Shadows on the South Seas for Frederick O’Brien, and penned the novel Diverging Roads and the book The Making of Herbert Hoover under her own name.
It was her work as a reporter for the American Red Cross that introduced Lane to the world beyond the United States. Following World War I, she visited the war-torn countries of Europe and wrote about the conditions she found there; her works from this era include The Peaks of Shala and Travels with Zenobia, about her experiences in Albania. Her beliefs about individual rights and limited government found full voice in her reports from overseas. Her political themes became more subtle and her subject far less exotic when she returned to the United States and helped her mother with Little House in the Big Woods and the resulting Little House series. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder sometimes chafed at her daughter’s hands-on approach to editing, which included adding completely new passages at will, Lane midwifed the books to best-seller status. Today, the series is considered a children’s classic as well as a clever study on the ideas of frontier individualism, morality, and liberty. Lane followed these books with her own novels such as Free Land.
Lane’s personal manifesto, The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle against Authority, appeared in 1943. The year was a noteworthy one, as it also heralded the publication of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Isabel Paterson’s God of the Machine. Together, Lane, Rand, and Paterson formed the first wave of libertarian women writing in the 20th century.
In The Discovery of Freedom, Lane sketched a historical and geographic overview of the cause of liberty from “The Old World” through “the third attempt” at freedom, namely the American experiment after the War of Independence. After indicting the communistic and feudal systems of the past, Lane explored the meaning of constitutionalism and republicanism, often returning to what she viewed as the fundamental right of property. “It is a legal right,” Lane wrote of property, “absolutely essential to an individual’s exercise of his natural rights.” Lane argued that, in the “daring aim of the Revolution” or the defense of property rights, the colonials hit on the cornerstone of the later U.S. system and the reason for its success. Her views on the crucial importance of private property and a government circumscribed by strict limits were underscored by her visit to the Soviet Union, where, unlike so many writers of the period, she was appalled. She ended her passionate volume on a positive note, saying, “Americans are fighting a World War now because the Revolution is a World Revolution. Freedom creates this new world, that cannot exist half slave and half free. It will be free.”
Lane not only touched the public with her writing, but she also cultivated minds with her friendship. For the 25 years following The Discovery of Freedom, Lane tested and expanded her political and economic thought through long correspondences with Ludwig von Mises, Robert LeFevre, Hans Sennholz, and Frank Meyer. In addition, Jasper Crane, the eminent businessman, also enjoyed a robust correspondence with Lane, and these letters were eventually published in 1973 under the title The Lady and the Tycoon.
Lane’s political involvement continued throughout her life, from protests against the social security system to reports from Vietnam as a war correspondent. She died on October 30, 1968, while planning yet another trip to Europe. HarperCollins Publishers has immortalized her childhood in a spin off series of Little House books. Those interested in libertarian ideas best remember her, however, as the author of The Discovery of Freedom. Scholar and author Albert Jay Nock attested to Lane’s influence when he said of her most powerful work, “When it comes to anything fundamental, Mrs. Lane never makes a mistake. She is always right. In this respect her book is really remarkable.”
Holtz, William V. The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Lane, Rose Wilder. The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle against Authority. 50th anniversary ed. San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1993.
MacBride, Roger Lea, ed. The Lady and the Tycoon: The Best of Letters between Rose Wilder Lane and Jasper Crane. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1973.
Originally published .