Voices of the Northwest
|Memory Project: Rose Wilder Lane, Ghostwriter in the Sky
Making and Breaking the Myths of the Prairie Madonna and the New Woman
By Bill Nygren
Posted on Nov 20, 2008
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|New Woman in Old West? Or did the Western experience mold a New Woman? |
A classic work of W.H. Koerner, an American artist
At the peak of her fame, she was a best-selling author and some say the ghostwriter of her mother’s adored Little House on the Prairie novels. Yet, battered by the 1930’s Depression, she was nearly-broke and had her electricity cut off.
Rose Wilder Lane had been a socialist and Red among the Greenwich Village bohemians. Divorced, she sought a man who “can love on a hill in the wind and who won’t clutch and cling and muddle.” A world-traveler, she had stood night-guard with a rifle while lost in the Syrian dessert and had ridden mules on dangerous Albanian mountain passes. Among her friends were an ex-President and the feminist Dorothy Thompson, satirized by Kate Hepburn in Woman of the Year. A fierce individualist, Lane wrote, “My own view is that 99 99/100ths of tradition is wrong,” and described life as “a plank over a canyon in a fog.”
Lane’s life was a mismatch of the heroine of the 19th century female “regionalist” novelists and the proto-feminist New Woman heroine who flourished in fiction of 1914-30. Like the Gilded Age romantic heroine, aspiring -artist Lane left her small town for Big City Bohemia, returning home chastened to reconcile with her parents. Like the New Woman, Lane found her way in the Big World and never did return entirely to conventional life. She won awards as a writer before collaborating with her mother. Even with the success of the Little House series, Lane relentlessly moved on, writing a realistic novel that critiqued the pioneer genre and then abandoning fiction to become a fierce anti-statist iconoclast. Torn between the two poles, she kept a gay façade, describing herself as merely a plump, middle-aged woman of simple tastes. However, her diary shows her as mercurial, often under mental stress and no stranger to modernist aesthetic aspirations. With the hardiness of the Ozark Dogwood, Lane buckled down. She wrote. She ghosted. She crusaded. She joined with neighbors to grow vegetables. She tended chickens and pigs and made butter and cheese. She stored in her cellar 1200 jars of food she had canned.
Time has been unfair to her. Forty-years after her death, Lane is remembered, except among radicals and feminist academics, less as a political writer and best-selling novelist under her own name than as a contributor to the Little House series.
The nine-novel series still sells well and is widely-regarded as skillful historical fiction for children. All ten-seasons, 207 episodes, from Michael Landon’s Little House TV series, 1974-83, are on DVD. ABC enjoyed success with a miniseries in 2005. As befitting a popular franchise, there are spin-off picture books, four additional book series, museums, dolls and a musical. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis is shattering all its box office records with a Little House musical, which started in Aug. This saga of a caring, self-reliant family pulling together during hard times is evocative for all eras, but perhaps once again it seems especially apt. Rose’s own books are available in public libraries and most sell in paperback for under $10 on Amazon.
Loyal to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lane died having kept secret her role in giving narrative form to the Little House books. Her mother did, after all, personify the chronicle, since the stories were based on her own pioneer childhood; one of the principals was named “Laura.” The mother was the brand name, the literary equivalent of Betty Crocker, except even better because she was a real person. As a result, Laura got the fame and remains the main attraction in the “Little House” pageant for biographers.
Two people have done the most to restore the luster of Lane among the general public: professor William Holtz and her longtime friend and literary heir, Roger MacBride. Following upon his success as editor of a 1991 collection of Lane and Dorothy Thompson’s 40-year correspondence, Holtz published in 1995, “The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane.” According to Holtz, Lane’s contribution was “nothing less than a line-by-line rewriting of labored and underdeveloped narratives.”
A protégé of Lane, MacBride was co-creator of the Little House TV series. A Libertarian Party leader and Vermont legislator, he edited a book of her letters and helped re-issue her 1943 political tract, “The Discovery of Freedom.” He also developed a young adult fiction series based on Lane’s youth, beginning with “Little House on Rocky Ridge.”
Several books released this year have devoted chapters to Lane’s role as a rugged crusader for classical liberalism, pairing her seminal political works with those of her quarrelsome friends Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson: Brian Doherty’s “Radicals For Capitalism” and Justin Raimondo’s “Reclaiming the American Right.” Jim Powell also paid tribute to Lane in his “Triumph of Liberty” in 2000. Feminist academics also find Lane notable, especially Ann Romines’ “Constructing The Little House” and Donna Campbell’s essay in “Middle Brow Moderns,” edited by Lisa Botshon and Meredith Goldsmith.
Like many a mother and daughter, Rose and Laura had a tangled relationship, except theirs was aggravated by comingled but differing assets, artistic projects and public identities. Why this was so goes back to Rose’s childhood.
On The Edge As A Girl
Rose was born in 1886 in The Dakota Territory. Her parents, Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder, were lured by the “Dakota Boom.” However, their crops dried up. Forced to move, the family finally tumbled into the Missouri Ozarks in 1894 where they struggled to hold onto a dairy and apple farm.
Any enduring literary work draws readers, in part, with a magnetic theme. The “Little House” explores the conquest of the mythical Promised Land by a bold, sacrificing pioneer family whose members deepen their love for one another in the process. Rose, of course, as a child lived the reality not the myth.
She keenly felt the family’s anxiety at living on the edge. Shabbily dressed, she felt humiliated at school. Years later in her journal, she remembered a “dizziness about to fall,” declaring, “The fact was I hated everything and everybody.” Mother Laura held the family together with a strong hand. Self-control was the key to keeping the wolf away. Finances improved when the family moved into the local town in 1898, though Rose felt stifled by rural culture. Graduating at the top of her high school class in 1904, she lit out for Kansas City.
Holtz writes, “Much of her emotional energy, as well as considerable time and money were invested in trying to separate herself from a bondage to her mother, to live by values… that repudiated her upbringing.” Adult Rose noted her mother made her “miserable” as a child. Twenty-five years later, Rose would return to her Ozark home, embrace the values she had rejected and give them a mythical sweep in a narrative whose appeal transcends the generations.
In Kansas City, Rose worked as a Western Union telegraph clerk and landed a similar job in San Francisco. The next year, 1909, she married a cocky salesman, Gillette Lane, soon becoming pregnant only to have a miscarriage or stillbirth.
Separated and later divorced from her unreliable husband, Rose kept his name. She began writing a women’s column for the “San Francisco Bulletin,” a radical labor paper edited by the renowned Fremont Older. With Older’s guidance, Lane polished her natural yarn-spinning talent, churning out fiction serials for a paper which, at its best, featured Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson. This was still the time when newspapers spawned novelists: notably, Dreiser, Hemingway and most of the Chicago Renaissance. Besides running with The City’s creative bohemians, she began writing books, sensationalist, factually-challenged bios of Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin and Jack London. Slightly later, she penned a more reputable book on Herbert Hoover, starting a 40-year friendship. She also had published “Diverging Roads,” a slim but readable fictional depiction of her Bay Area experiences and marriage.
In The European Cockpit
Awaiting a posting as a Red Cross publicist, Lane moved to Greenwich Village in 1919, finding pals in the radical colony in nearby Croton. She made a longtime friend of Floyd Dell, then associate editor of “The New Masses” magazine, and knew Max Eastman and John Reed, though she exaggerated when claiming, in the memoir “Give Me Liberty,” that she attended the founding convention of the American Communist Party, or to be exact, Reed’s Communist Labor grouping, one of two factions which later fused to become the C.P.
Lane got her call from the Red Cross. She was dispatched to the Balkans to assess relief efforts, reporting through the “Red Cross Bulletin.” Besides most of Europe, she travelled to Turkey, Greece, Albania, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Optimistic at the outset, she soon was troubled by what she witnessed: bribery, banditry, blistering inflation and barbaric civil wars. Was Soviet Russia the lone beacon of hope? A first-hand view disillusioned Lane of the regime her Bolshevik comrades had installed four-years before. She began to doubt the efficacy of collectivist, centralized power. “It’s too big,” one of her hosts lamented, “at the top it is too small. It will not work.”
One bright spot was meeting and becoming fast friends with another Red Cross worker, Dorothy Thompson, who remained a valuable sounding board even into the Thirties when Thompson lived a whirlwind life as famous journalist, foreign correspondent and fretful wife in bad marriages, including one with Sinclair Lewis.
Lane was haunted by an incident in Poland that seemed to dramatize the menace of Europe’s disorder. Citing an article of hers, Holtz describes the time a grotesque, red-caped beggar with no arms and one-leg suddenly reared as a specter outside Rose’s car. Thrown money, the figure howled in pain and rage over his inability to pick it up.
Returning to the U.S., Rose freelanced, trying to build on her surprise best-selling novel, “White Shadows on the South Seas.” She traveled widely across the country. Revisiting San Francisco, she “realized I am middle-aged.” Unhappy with bohemian life, neither was she pleased when she went back to visit he folks in small town Missouri, seeing life there for a cosmopolite as “solitary imprisonment.” Intending to write a book, she roamed Albania, but ended up depressed, now feeling certain Europe was hell-bound for revanchist blood-letting. Overworked and anxious by the end of the Twenties, she decided to move back to the Ozarks, helping her parents build a new house and remodeling for herself the old farmhouse.
In The Middle As The World Broke in Two
Lane was riding high on a $10,000 serialization fee for her novel, “Cindy,” when she headed back to the Ozarks in 1928. Construction costs put her in debt. The market crash of 1929 wiped out her investments. Fighting to pull out of a tailspin, she was driven to reconsider her literary course. Lane had longed to put aside “hack work” chastising herself for writing a novel of “utter rot” like "Cindy" mostly for money.
Her mother, Laura, a farm columnist, was sitting on a vast treasure of raw material about growing up in the Dakota Territory, but from pioneer stories Rose derived “nary a spark.”
Just as the Depression shook the social order, her artistic world “was torn in two,” as Willa Cather wrote of Twenties culture. Typically, Rose stood astride the chasm, one foot planted on each edge.
Cather’s remark was purplish; however, it describes the interplay of cultural currents, several aspects of which directly affected Lane. One was that historical fiction once a gain came into vogue. Another was that “serious” critics built a sanctuary on one side of the cultural divide and cast off popular literature. Because much of this literature was written by and for women, this devaluing was inherently gendered. Lane’s best novel, “Free Land,” didn’t appear until 1938, but as a certain type of fiction it suffered from such snobbery. This divide lasted until the 1960’s cultural shifts. The modernist lit cliques were no longer embarrassed when, in 1964, two “higher” novelists, Saul Bellow and Mary McCarthy, published huge best-sellers.
In “This Side of Paradise,” Scott Fitzgerald writes of his generation finding “all Gods dead… all faith in man shaken.” The disillusionment over World War One and the bitter failure of promised global social reform accentuated cultural views already stirring in the prewar era. As technology, advertising, mass media and “money/consumer culture” began to hold sway, “serious” artists found themselves marginalized and turned to alternative life-style enclaves, small magazines, small galleries, small theaters. This Lost Generation saw itself being pitted against a frivolous mainstream composed of main-street Babbits, flappers, sports fans and flag-pole sitters. Even worse, Klanners, gangsters and born-againners were gathering force. The Modernist and High-Culture artists revered the experimental, the self-referential and their coteries flailed against the threat of commodification. Max Bodenheim put it in simple terms when he attacked those who “always held one eye cocked toward the adding machine in the publisher’s office.” Neo-Marxists still hold to the basics of this outlook, putting a plus sign by art that subverts existing power relations.
Magazine and book sales skyrocketed in that mainstream, tapping into the craze for self-improvement and self-help. Women read more fiction than men. High-minded critics disparaged this readership as Midwestern, middle-aged, middle class and middle-minded passive fanciers of mass-produced, formula stories. Fitzgerald resented that “women control the fiction market at present.” By no means exclusive to women, this category includes Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Booth Tarkington, John P. Marquand, Edith Wharton, Edna Ferber, Dorthy Canfield Fisher, Zona Gale, Pearl Buck and Lane herself. Contrary to the stereotype, these writers cross class, race and left-right political divisions. They also challenged conventions and gender-roles, but not in avant-garde ways.
Actually, this is what worried critics like Virginia Woolf and Dwight MacDonald, progressives who were anti-democratic about culture. Woolf turned up her nose at such English middlebrows as Thackery, Trollope, Jane Austin and Anthony Powell.“The true battle,” she wrote, is “against the bloodless and pernicious pest who comes between high and low culture.” For Modernists like her, high culture represented pure art and beauty and low-or mass culture realistically reflected the life of the unrefined, unreflective masses. Middlebrow culture represented neither beauty nor brute reality, just commerce. It was phony, pretending to be refined and the danger was that, if cleverly packaged, it might entice even elite readers too lax to undergo the rigorous training necessary for appreciation of true art.
As she records in her diary, Rose Lane nursed Modernist impulses while feeling her natural talent lay with strong characterization and storyline, perhaps not coincidentally inviolable rules for market sales. Still, she felt “directionless” in 1929 and wanted to move toward more “serious” popular fiction. The Depression impeded her development while blasting open the door to collaboration with her mother on constructing the Little House series.
|"Prairie Madonna," 1922 by W.H. Koerner, courtesy of Mississippi Museum of Art |
Inside The Little House Series
Part of the Twenties popularity of the pioneer experience was nostalgic and reactionary: Emerson Hough, a best-selling author of 30 books, stressed the image of a “pure” West defiled by immigrants and the money culture. However, the allure of the Western Myth, especially of the pioneer farmer, was much more enchanting. Like any other time, most people didn’t want to go back and live in the past. Rather, in a fast-changing and confusing modern world, many wanted to connect with American origins and traditional values as they pondered how these things might be relevant if recast. When the Depression hit, people identified with stories of everyday folks digging deep within themselves and triumphing over adversity. The appeal was as much inspirational as escapist.
Hough himself published in 1922 a popular novel, “Covered Wagon” whose front cover featured a W.H.D. Koerner illustration of the novel’s “Prairie Madonna,” which became a national icon in films, ads and statues. This “Madonna” might hold a gun in one hand and a baby in the other. Strong yet domestic, with an eye on the future, she worked hard on the land, surely not attending discussion clubs nor coveting the latest fashions like the Twenties New Woman. No matter the agenda, a fascination with the topic of women of the frontier sprouted in the mass media.
Laura Ingalls Wilder had not only attended but formed discussion clubs and, besides farming, had been an officer in a local loan association for 15 years. Yet she knew the pioneer story firsthand. Born in 1867, she had grown up on the prairie. She was a gifted story teller and had been a farm columnist for regional newspapers, even breaking into national print with her daughter acting as go-between and editor.
For years, Laura had dreamed of writing her memoirs. The market for pioneer stories went up as the stock market went down. Her family really needed money. It was now or never. Finally, in 1930, she penned her autobiography. Rose helped circulate it among acquaintances, taking a short section excised from the memoir and using it as a text for a proposed children’s picture book. Knopf’s Juvenile Department liked the picture book story, asking Laura to adapt it for older readers and add to the copy. Rose advised her to write in the first person. She would revise it, using the third person, while typing, shaping the storyline and reworking the prose. Rose loved her mother and wanted to help, but over time, despite all the success, she felt trapped, resented the burden and disliked writing primarily for juveniles instead of adults. Harper published “Little House in the Big Woods” as fiction and shortly before Christmas, 1931, Laura was informed the novel had been selected as Junior Literary Guild Selection. She was on the cusp of wealth and recognition.
The extent of Rose’s involvement in the nine-book series is hotly debated. The extreme positions are: (1) that Laura was a late-blooming, natural story teller and Rose’s role as editor was important but subordinate and (2) that Rose was really the principal author, supplying dramatic framing, pacing and characterization.
Two scholars have made careers of examining Lane’s diaries which detail time she spent on the series, Wilder’s initial drafts and work-related exchanges between the two based on Rose’s carbons of her letters after she had moved away. They disagree.
John E. Miller, in “Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder,” assigns the mother primacy, stating, Lane’s “contribution while important was less significant than has been asserted….” Miller does credit Lane for “almost all of the storylines,” conceding that “Rose often did expand or embellish scenes and she sometimes rearranged the order of her mother’s material to make the narrative more coherent and to emphasize high points.
In “The Ghost in the Little House,” William Holtz disagrees, arguing Rose applied her “magic” and ghostwrote the series: “To appreciate… Lane’s contribution to her mother’s books, one must simply read her mother’s fair-copy manuscripts in comparison to the final published versions. What Rose accomplished was nothing less than a line-by-line rewriting of labored and underdeveloped narratives.”
Other scholars—Rosa A. Moore, William T. Anderson, Caroline Fraser—see the project as a mutual collaboration. In the later books written after Lane had moved, Wilder grew more confident and able. Despite her occasional grumbling, Lane also benefitted from the pairing: her two most popular novels, including “Free Land,” were based on her mother’s family folklore material.
In Pursuit of Free Land
It was during the Little House years that Lane published her two best novels, “Let the Hurricane Roar” in 1933 and “Free Land” in 1938. While both were based on her mother’s family material, Rose, in her late forties, finally found her artistic direction, adopting a serious realism, critiquing the prairie myth and confounding some of its conventions.
Really a novella, “Hurricane” tells the harrowing adventures of a self-reliant young heroine struggling to survive a Dakota winter alone in a sod dugout as her husband is stranded elsewhere.
According to Holtz, it was at this point that Lane came to identify her mother’s life story as an archetypal one that America needed to hear during the Depression. “This vision was one of radical individualism,” he observes, “a vision deeply and essentially in the American tradition, but of clarity and intensity seldom asserted in American life.”
“Free Land” is an expanded version of “Hurricane,” this time featuring a young man, David Beaton, who over five grueling years, protects his family and farm against life-threatening weather and violent intruders. At novel’s end, Beaton is in debt, barely hanging on to his farm, but he vows to stay on and prevail: contrary to the novel’s title, it turns out nothing is free, everything must be redeemed through effort, often at high cost and demanding self-mastery and courage. Unlike the Little House version of the prairie myth, Lane treats issues of poverty and violence and shows that land settlement commonly required outside sources of income to supplement backbreaking work. This was a more complicated and unyielding world, where dreams were dashed and hopes denied by forces sometimes beyond control.
This was Lane’s final novel. She had written her “serious” novel within the constraints of popular culture. A big money-maker, it was serialized in eight issues of “The Saturday Evening Post” before being released in book form. An editorial in the “New York Times” recommended it for a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Lane had struck a vein of gold in the salt mine.
“Free Land” marked another turning point in Lane’s life, as significant as when she left home in 1904 and when she returned to her parent’s Rocky Ridge home in 1928. Her mother wasn’t rich from the little House series but she and her husband were now comfortable and secure. With the royalties from her two popular novels, Rose had the resources to make some big decisions.
At age 52, with the resolve of a worn Prairie Madonna, perhaps a modern Prairie Maid, she uprooted her life, moved to a Connecticut farmhouse and with the courage of her fictional characters gave everything she had to struggle against the emerging national consensus. She still helped shape her mother’s work, but besides becoming an all-purpose do-for-herself farmer, canner and builder, Rose now felt she was primarily a “movement” person, although one who was searching for a philosophical grounding of her activism. She was prominent in 1938-39 in support of the Ludlow or Peace Amendment which would have required a national referendum before war could be declared. She fought conscription in 1940 and later in the Cold War years.
Despite her political turn, one thing didn’t change. The several Roses stayed in conflict. While she battled the blues, complaining in her diary that she felt “empty,” she breezed through the political campaigns, ever the buoyant warrior, lifting the spirits of her comrades. Scrimping by, she was able to maintain her farmhouse while also renting a modest East Side apartment in New York City. While Rose might have slipped, skidded or strained to unite her selves, there was one constant. Like many of the readers of the prairie stories, she was concerned with carrying bedrock values into the changing future. She always looked ahead to tomorrow. It was never about being reactionary or trying to go back to a past era. Neither was it about nostalgia, status anxiety nor resentment. She never considered herself a conservative. Among the plates she balanced on her stick were the principles of social tolerance, right to privacy, strict separation of church and state concern for human/individual rights and non-interventionist foreign policy. National security state -advocates and Burkean, cultural traditionalists, the likes of William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk, were attempting to “scuttle backward, crabwise, to medievalism.”
Struggling to find an ethical and philosophical basis for her beliefs, in 1943 Lane published a non-fiction celebration of liberty, “The Discovery of Freedom.” Despite small sales, it became influential and is today a cult classic. She took up a natural rights position and posited a dynamic world that would someday “abolish all barriers between human beings.” Wilder always referred to herself as “a theist not a Christian,” respected Islam from her experiences in Albania, and fiercely fought anti-Semitism. She often in polemics used the language of Tom Paine, an authentic American radical. A man of vision, Paine wrote in a bold, straightforward manner, pointing toward a “new world” that would honor individual rights. As befitting an honest political person, despite his heroic service in the worst days of the American revolution, when he died he had to be buried on a friend’s land because no cemetery would take his kind.
What Jeffrey Tucker writes about Lane’s close friend, Garth Garrett, the brilliant but unsung essayist and novelist, applies equally to her: they “saw peace and freedom as the essential precondition for the real drama of human life that revolves around creation, association, risk, love courage and the full range of experience that transforms society in spectacular ways.” She spent much of the rest of her life editing and improving “Discovery” for another edition that was never completed.
At mid-century, Lane took part in a regular discussion group, a small, defeated remnant of intellectual warrior/luminaries. They met at a New York mansion, called by one of her confrerees, a “safe house for a funny bunch of people.” Besides her insights and conviviality, Lane bestowed home-made pastries on the group. In “Unsanctioned Voice,” Bruce Ramsey cites among the members: famed Austrian School-economist Ludwig von Mises, 1974 Nobel economic lauriat Fredrich Hayek, “Freeman” journal founders Henry Hazlitt and John Chamberlain, political theorist and ex-Communist leader Frank Meyer and seminal anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard. Given her fiery spirit and focus on the future, Rose wasn’t as downbeat as some of the others. Her networks generated “little ripples that begin the turning of an ebb tide.” Even then, the little band wasn’t totally isolated. Her buddy Garrett, also a group member, edited a magazine supported by Joseph P. Kennedy and others who came up large in the country’s future.
While devoting the bulk of her remaining life to reworking “Discovery,” Wilder also wrote for years a newspaper column, did regular reviews of books for the National Economic Counsel’s journal and wrote a book on needlepoint. When Laura died in 1957, Rose inherited the Little House royalties. In posterity, as well as life, the fates of mother and daughter were entwined. Despite the tensions and frustrations, Rose stayed loyal to her mother’s legacy, never shouldering aside her memory to take primary credit for the Little House series. This was not an act of self-sacrifice. Lane had reservations about the artistic limits of the series and wanted to be appreciated for her own “serious” novels and the “Discovery” treatise. In line with her optimistic view of the future, in contrast to the black moods that often troubled her, she adopted a “let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may” attitude, carefully preserving her diaries and carbons of work-related letters to her mother. If any scholarly snoops should come along one distant day, she left a paper trail.
At the age of 78, she went to South Vietnam as a war correspondent for “Woman’s Day.” When she died at age 82, she was hoping to go on an extended world tour. Her grave is marked with an inscription that reads, in part: “An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.” That’s a paraphrase of that old hero of hers, Tom Paine, another American radical who bravely endured the consequences of planting one’s feet and taking a bold stand. Even though they lived into a maturity out of sync with their times, they helped bear a torch that still lights the world.
Copyright ©2008 by Bill Nygren
Bill Nygren, an Oregon independent writer and scholar, lives in Salem. His web debut piece, Life in the Jaws of the Crocodile: Walter Benjamin's Last Project first published at West By Northwest.org. E-mails to Mr. Bill Nygren may be sent c/o the publisher at westbynorthwest.org. Just put "Nygren" in subject line, please.
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