Rose Wilder Lane (December 5, 1886 – October 30, 1968) was an American journalist, travel writer, novelist, and political theorist. She is noted – with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson – as one of the founding mothers of the American libertarian movement. Lane’s mother, Little House author Laura Ingalls Wilder, had been a farm girl born and bred who believed a farm was the one place where a man and woman could work in equal partnership. But her daughter, Rose, abandoned that life. She left the land at 17, found work as a telegrapher, then become a reporter in San Francisco. Eventually she traveled to Europe, writing for the American Red Cross. During the roaring 1920s, growing ever more successful as a writer of magazine fiction, she lived the high life and even had a big house and servants in Albania for a time. She made enough money to renovate the Wilders’ old farmhouse in Missouri—where she then returned to live—and built her parents a retirement cottage nearby. In the farmhouse, she entertained cadres of writers from New York who arrived by steam train. She hired a cook, housekeeper, and farm hands.
Lane was the first child of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder (and their only one to survive into adulthood), who had moved from the Great Lakes region into the Dakota Territory in the late 1870s, determined to homestead “free land” offered to new settlers who would work it and live on it for a minimum period of time. Lane was born in the Dakota Territory in 1886. She grew up there and in rural southern Missouri, on a farm her parents bought in the Ozarks after the climate of the Dakota Territory proved too much for them. Her early years were difficult ones for her parents, the result of successive crop failures, illnesses and chronic economic hardships. During her childhood, she moved with her family several times, living with relatives in Minnesota and then Florida, briefly returning to De Smet, South Dakota, before they finally settled in Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894, where her parents eventually established a dairy and fruit farm. Lane attended high schools in Mansfield and Crowley, Louisiana, (where her father’s sister, Eliza Jane Wilder Thayer, had settled), graduating in 1904 (there were seven graduates in total that year).
The young Rose Wilder was a star student in the small-town schools she attended in Missouri and in the cajun country of southwestern Louisiana, but there was no money for her to attend college. Her intellect and ambition were demonstrated by her ability to compress three years of Latin into one, and by graduating at the top of her high school class in Crowley. Despite her academic success, she was unable to attend college due to her parents’ financial situation. Keenly aware of her lack of a formal education, during this time Lane read voraciously and taught herself several languages. Her writing career began around 1910, with occasional freelance newspaper jobs that earned much needed extra cash.
So in the summer of 1904, just after her graduation from high school, she studied telegraphy informally at the local railroad station, under the tutelage of the station master, who was the father of a school friend. By fall, still not yet 18 years old, she was living on her own in Kansas City, working for Western Union. For the next five years, Rose operated telegraphs in Missouri, Indiana, and California.
Then, at the age of 22, in 1909, she met and married Gillette Lane, a young man who traveled around the country having a good time, supporting himself as he went by his gift of gab and his flair for the written word. Later that year she gave birth prematurely to a stillborn son. Complications from subsequent surgery appear to have left her unable to bear any more children. The details of her son’s death remain vague; the topic is mentioned only briefly in a handful of existing letters, written years later to express sympathy and understanding to close friends who were also dealing with the loss of a child.
Sometimes Gillette took writing or editing jobs on newspapers. Sometimes he sold ads for newspapers. Sometimes he sold real estate; sometimes he wrote brochure and display ad copy for real estate developers. Whatever you needed done, if being glib would answer your needs, Gillette Lane was your man. Rose followed him around the country for several years, learning a lot in the process — acquiring, for example, some useful familiarity with newspaper offices. Letters to her parents described a happy-go-lucky existence with both she and Gillette traversing the US several times and working a variety of jobs, both together and separately.
Between 1912 and 1914, she – one of the earliest female real estate agents in California – and Gillette sold farm land in what is now the San Jose/Silicon Valley area of northern California. It made sense for them to work separately to earn separate commissions, and she turned out to be the better salesperson of the two of them. The marriage foundered; there were several periods of separation, and eventually an amicable divorce. Her diaries reveal subsequent romantic involvements with several men in the years after her divorce, but she never remarried.
However, in diary entries and subsequent published autobiographical pieces concerning this time, she described herself as depressed and disillusioned with her marriage, caught in the tension arising from the recognition that her intelligence and interests did not mesh with the life she was living with Gillette. One account even had her attempting suicide by drugging herself with chloroform, only to awake with a headache and a renewed sense of purpose in life. About six years after their romance began, it was over. In 1915, Lane’s mother visited for several months. Together they attended the Panama-Pacific International Exposition; many details of this visit and Lane’s daily life in 1915 are preserved in Wilder’s letters to Almanzo and are available in West from Home, published by Lane’s heir in 1974. Although Lane’s diaries indicate she was separated from Gillette in 1915, Laura’s letters do not indicate this. Gillette was recorded as living with Lane, although unemployed and looking for work during Laura’s two month visit. It seems the separation was either covered up for it, or had not yet involved separate households.
The threat of America’s entry into World War I had seriously weakened the real estate market, so in early 1915 Lane accepted a friend’s offer of a stopgap job as an editorial assistant on the staff of the San Francisco Bulletin and quickly progressed from editing other people’s copy to writing her own and seeing it published under her byline, not infrequently with a photo. In those days, big city newspapers ran fiction as well as non-fiction, and Rose wrote it all — novels for serialization, short stories, profiles of famous men based on extensive interviews with those men and with those who had known them and worked with them, feature articles, you name it. Her articles and stories were often picked up for syndication to other papers around the country. The stopgap turned into a watershed. She immediately caught the attention of her editors not only through her talents as a writer in her own right, but also as a highly skilled editor for other writers. Before long, her photo and byline were running in the Bulletin daily. She easily churned out formulaic romantic fiction serials (she was an early Armistead Maupin) that would run for weeks at a time. Her first-hand accounts of the lives of Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin, and Jack London, were published in book form. Lane was also the first biographer of Herbert Hoover, writing The Making of Herbert Hoover in 1920 in collaboration with Charles K. Field, editor of Sunset magazine. She was a friend and defender of his for the remainder of her life, and many of her personal papers are now in the Rose Wilder Lane Collection at the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa. Her papers contain little actual correspondence between him and her, but the Hoover Post-Presidential Individual series contains a file of Lane correspondence that spans from 1936–1963.
By 1918, Rose had decided that her talent was larger than the San Francisco Bulletin. She would freelance, write articles and books for a national audience. And so she would, for the next 25 years. Throughout the ’20s and ’30s her byline would be everywhere — in the newspapers, in magazines as diverse as Harper’s, the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, and the Ladies’ Home Journal. Her books would be in all the bookstores and sometimes on the bestseller lists. Several of her short stories were nominated for O. Henry Prizes and a few novels became top sellers.
In the late 1920s, Lane was reputed to be one of the highest-paid female writers in America, and counted among her friends figures such as Herbert Hoover, Sinclair Lewis,Isabel Paterson, Dorothy Thompson, and Lowell Thomas. Despite this success, her compulsive generosity with her family and friends often found her strapped for cash and forced to work on material that paid well, but did not engage her growing interests in political theory and world history. She suffered from periodic bouts of self-doubt and depression in mid-life, diagnosing herself as manic-depressive (now more commonly known as bipolar disorder). During these times of depression, when she was unable to move ahead with her own writing, she would easily find work as a ghostwriter or “silent” editor for other well-known writers.
But all that was in the future — the fairly near future, but still the future. For now, it was 1918. She was 31 years old, a local success with a local reputation. She believed she had it in her to do more, to make it bigger. But she wasn’t sure. How could she be sure? She hadn’t tried yet.
In the early 1940s, despite continuing requests from editors for both fiction and non-fiction material, other than helping Wilder produce the final volumes of the Little House series, Lane turned away from commercial fiction writing and became known as one of the most influential American libertarians of the middle 20th century. She vehemently opposed the New Deal, perceived “creeping socialism,” Social Security, wartime rationing and all forms of taxation, claiming she ceased writing highly paid commercial fiction to protest payingincome taxes. Living on her small salary from her newspaper column, and no longer needing to support her parents or adopted sons, she cut expenses to the bare minimum, and lived a modern-day version of her ancestors’ pioneer life on her rural land near Danbury. She gained some media attention for her refusal to accept a ration card, instead working cooperatively with her rural neighbors to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables, and to raise chickens and pigs for meat. Literary critic and political writer Isabel Paterson had urged the move to Connecticut, where she would be only “up country a few miles” from Paterson, who had been a friend for many years.
During the ’30s Rose Wilder Lane also became a leading opponent of the New Deal. The “real political question” of the ’30s, Lane wrote, was “the choice between American individualism and European national socialism.”
Unfortunately, as Lane saw it, there was no American political party committed to individualism. “In 1933,” she wrote, “a group of sincere and ardent collectivists seized control of the Democratic Party, used it as a means of grasping Federal power, and enthusiastically, from motives which many of them regard as the highest idealism, began to make America over. The Democratic Party is now a political mechanism having a genuine political principle: national socialism.” Another way of saying this was to say that, again in Rose’s words, “[a] vote for the New Deal approves national socialism.” Unfortunately, however, the Republican Party was “a political mechanism with no political principle. It does not stand for American individualism.” Therefore, lamentably, “Americans (of both parties) who stand for American political principles … have no means of peaceful political action.” What was needed, Rose believed, was a political movement, which would unite writers, activists, teachers, propagandists, and politicians in favor of individual liberty. A “libertarian movement” — that was her phrase. Brian Doherty reports in his book Radicals for Capitalism that he found Rose using this phrase — “libertarian movement” — as early as 1947. He calls it “the first example I’ve found of the phrase in its modern sense.”
“Although Wilder and Lane hid their partnership, preferring to keep Wilder in the spotlight as the homegrown author and heroine, scholars of children’s literature have long known that two women, not one, produced the Little House books. But less well understood has been how exactly they reshaped Wilder’s original story, and why. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, as the Little House fans clamored for more, Wilder and Lane transformed the unpredictable hardships of the American frontier experience into a testament to the virtues of independence and courage. In Wilder’s original drafts, the family withstood the frontier with their jaws set. After Lane revised them, the Ingallses managed the land and made it theirs, without leaning on anybody.
Today, as Libertarian values move back into the mainstream of American politics, few citizens think to link them to a series of beloved childhood books. But the Little House books have done more than connect generations of Americans to the nation’s pioneer history: They have promoted a particular version of that history. The enduring appeal of the books tells us something about how deep the romance with self-reliance runs through American history, and the gaps between the Little House narrative and Wilder’s real life say a lot about the government help and interdependence that we sometimes find more convenient to leave out of that tale.
When Black Tuesday did come, the Wilder-Lane households began a painful two-year downslide, as Lane’s savings deflated from $20,000 to almost nothing. Magazine work dried up. Wilder, too, lost some money but, characteristically, scraped together savings and paid off the farm. Lane fretted about money, missed rent payments to her parents, borrowed thousands from friends, and continued to call herself the head of the household. She also began to consider other possible writing projects.
For a decade already Lane had milked various snippets from her parents’ lives for short stories. Now she saw an opportunity for her mother. Pioneer struggles could eerily mirror the struggles of the Great Depression, and Lane thought Americans were ready to hear about covered-wagon childhoods. After magazines rejected Wilder’s real-life account, Lane began reworking some of the memoir into what would become the first children’s book, “Little House in the Big Woods.”
Published in 1932 by Harper & Brothers, the book was praised by book critics for its honesty and caught the interest of readers nationwide. The Junior Literary Guild, a national book club, paid them an additional fee to print its own run. The income crisis at the Wilders’ ended. In the shadow of the crash, tales of overcoming great adversity resonated, and the editors wanted more.
Wilder and Lane responded with their now-famous sequels. From the start, there was tension between their approaches. Wilder argued for strict accuracy, while Lane, the seasoned commercial writer, injected made-up dialogue, took out stories about criminals and murder, and—most significantly—recast the stoic, sometimes confused pioneers as optimistic, capable people who achieved success without any government help.
Laura Ingalls Wilder never got used to Lane’s heavy rewrites, but the evidence suggests that on the main approach, playing up toughness in adversity, she agreed with her daughter. Both women believed fervently that the nation in the depths of the Depression had become too soft. In 1937, Wilder wrote Lane that people’s complaints about having no jobs made her sick. (“People drive me wild,” she wrote. “They as a whole are getting just what they deserve.”)
The early books celebrated Laura’s early childhood in a cozy log cabin in Wisconsin. They celebrated Pa Ingalls’s storytelling abilities and described in gripping detail how backwoods and prairie farmers took care of themselves—hunted, butchered, cooked, built, and made things like soap and bullets—in the 1860s and 1870s. The third book, “Farmer Boy,” was about Wilder’s husband Almanzo’s life on a New York State farm. In the fourth book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” the Ingalls family relocated to Minnesota (the locale of the TV show), where they built a house and became wheat farmers despite a grasshopper plague.
In shaping the memoirs into novels, Lane consistently left out the kinds of setbacks and behavior that cast doubt on the pioneer enterprise; the family’s story became a testament to the possibilities of self-sufficiency rather than its limitations. The last four books—which tell the story of the Ingalls family’s attempt to homestead in the future state of South Dakota—are particularly fired by Libertarian themes.
Comparing Wilder’s original memoirs to the contents of the published books, it’s possible to see a pattern of strategic omissions and additions. In the fifth book, for example, “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Laura promises to become a teacher to pay for her older sister Mary to attend a college for the blind. Wilder’s own account of her life reveals that although Wilder’s sister did attend a college for the blind, in reality it was the government of Dakota Territory—and not the family’s hard work—that covered the bills.
AS LANE REDRAFTED the last four of the original Little House books between 1937 and 1943, her extensive correspondence reveals, she was growing increasingly anti-government in her personal views. She cut back her income specifically to avoid paying taxes; during World War II, Lane refused a ration card and retreated full time to her newly acquired 3-acre farm in Danbury, Conn., where she canned her own beans, beets, squash, and green-applesauce.
Throughout the early years of the Little House series, she had also continued to write fiction of her own. But Lane’s last novel, “Free Land,” about homesteading, published to great fanfare in 1938, had exhausted her. Her next effort, in 1939, the short story “Forgotten Man,” headed into what was becoming unpopular territory: It was an anti-New Deal story about a coal mine put out of business by government fees. The editors of the Saturday Evening Post rejected it for publication, calling it propaganda.
Once, in 1943, Lane was so outraged by a radio broadcast about Social Security that she penned an angry postcard comparing such programs to Nazi policies. (Someone sent it to the FBI, which dispatched a state trooper to her farm.) In 1944, the year after the last Little House book came out, newspaper reporter Helen L. Worden interviewed Lane, writing that Lane had “taken to the storm cellar until the Roosevelt administration blows over.” Lane had stopped writing her own novels, she said, “because I don’t want to contribute to the New Deal.”
She began to attend meetings against communism. She exchanged letters at the time with other conservative thinkers, including Isabel Paterson, H.L. Mencken, George Schuyler, and Clare Booth Luce. According to a 1990 biography of Lane by William Holtz, Lane socialized with Ayn Rand at her Danbury home and admired her writing
Just after World War II, an editor Lane had worked with introduced her to his 14-year-old son, Roger Lea MacBride. That began a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. As a teenager, MacBride learned antitax principles at Lane’s knee in Danbury. Later, she enlisted him to help her revise a book that she intended as an explicit argument against big government, “The Discovery of Freedom.” It was published in 1943, and although it languished in obscurity for decades, Libertarian thinkers consider it a treatise that helped the party rise out of the strong anti-Communist movement of the time.
MacBride became Lane’s lawyer, agent, and her sole heir. Wilder, now a widow, remained on her Missouri farm, answering thousands of fans’ letters each year but rarely venturing out. In 1949 she instructed their agent to assign 10 percent of the Little House royalties to Lane. Lane made regular winter visits to Wilder until the pioneer author’s death at 90 in 1957. Lane, by then a rich woman doing little writing, started living most of the year in Texas. She died unexpectedly in her sleep in Danbury on October 30, 1968, at age 81, the night before she had intended to leave on a world tour.”
“The Democratic Party is now a political mechanism having a genuine political principle: national socialism.” — Rose Wilder Lane
During World War II, when she was in her late 50s, Rose began working with Burt MacBride, an editor at Reader’s Digest who was planning to condense one of her books for the magazine. Through Burt MacBride, Rose met his 14-year-old son Roger MacBride, and Rose and Roger quickly became devoted friends. Within a couple of years, he was calling her “Gramma” and coming to spend weekends with her, weeding her garden, running errands for her, and talking with her about history, economics, politics, and philosophy. Lane’s biographer, William Holtz, writes that young “MacBride found himself receiving another education, an alternative to his classroom learning that was compelling by the range, focus, and energy his other grandmother brought to the political and economic arguments she had spent two decades in refining.” Lane became the adoptive “grandmother” and mentor to MacBride, best known as the Libertarian Party‘s 1976 candidate for President of the United States. She later admitted that she was grooming him to be a future Libertarian thought leader; he also became her attorney and business manager and ultimately the heir to the Little House series and the multi-million dollar franchise that he built around it after her death.
Rose gave a guest lecture in Roger’s government class at Philips Exeter Academy, his tony New England prep school, and lent moral support to his efforts to establish libertarian student groups at Princeton, where he earned his undergraduate degree, and at Harvard, where he went to law school. As Roger’s education progressed, he continued to make himself useful to his adoptive granny — first as her agent and business manager, then as her attorney. In the end, he and his wife moved Rose and her 6,000 books into their home and took her with them when they moved that home from Vermont to Virginia.
The last of the many protégés to be taken under Lane’s wing was the sister of her Vietnamese interpreter; impressed by the young girl’s intelligence, she helped to bring her to the United States and sponsored her enrollment in college.
After inheriting the rights to the literary works of both Lane and Wilder, MacBride agreed to the commercialization of the books via the “Little House on the Prairie” television series, and approved the miniseries The Young Pioneers, which was based on a compilation of Lane’s two best-selling novels.
MacBride also was the author of the spinoff The Rose Years Little House Series, a multi-part semi-fictional re-telling of Lane’s life from the age of seven to nineteen.
MacBride eventually went on to help form the Libertarian Party, and he ran on its presidential ticket in 1976. Lane’s thinking on limited government had from the beginning influenced a relatively small group of people; most writers of the era called Ayn Rand the “mother of the Libertarian Party.” But MacBride believed that Lane was more important. In 1984 he wrote in an introduction that Lane’s political opus, The Discovery of Freedom, was “the seminal force creating the current wide trend toward individualistic views in America.”
MACBRIDE succeeded at managing Lane’s estate. Lane had been divorced since 1918; her only child had died at birth. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s will had specified that when her daughter died, the valuable book rights should go to the tiny public library in Mansfield, Mo. Lane, however, instead left the Little House rights to MacBride, whose daughter still owns them today.
MacBride began systematically renewing copyrights to the Little House books in the 1960s, and sold the rights to television—turning it into the series that aired in the 1970s. Although the TV show departed in a saccharine way from the Little House books, it entranced another generation of fans.
Clearly, the Little House ethic of self-sufficiency appeals to a much wider American audience than just one with Libertarian politics. Pioneers could be cold, dirty, or hungry without whining. They faced down adversity. They made do with little. They respected the power of storms and the patterns of wild animals. The books inspired whole generations of women, and Americans of all political persuasions admire the tenaciousness of settlers like Ma and Pa Ingalls and their four daughters.
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Lane must have known, as she redrafted her mother’s handwritten memoirs, that this notion of pioneer bravery—and the very real fortitude of the family—would prove an irresistible American theme. The result was a series of books that helped instill a deep national code of frontier values, including the notion that isolated Americans can thrive because the government leaves them to draw only on their personal energies and ethics. It’s an appealing idea, and it has become woven into our image of the pioneers. But it’s not the full story of what happened out there on the prairie.
(This biographical post purloins heavily from the works of Christine Woodside. who is writing a book on Rose Wilder Lane and her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the work of Jeff Riggenbach.)