August 17, 2012
A Libertarian House on the Prairie
Shortly after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, four years ago, a journalist asked her sister Heather Bruce what books Sarah had read as a child. Only one came to mind: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie,” the third in a cycle of eight novels on pioneer life, which have sold some sixty million copies. (In 1974, when Palin was ten, the “Little House” saga was adapted as a television series that ran for nine seasons. It was Ronald Reagan’s favorite program.) This June, the Library of America published Wilder’s collected fiction in a two-volume boxed set, edited and annotated by Caroline Fraser, with a glossy picture of amber fields of grain on the cover. It’s a great gift for values voters—Paul Ryan should take note.
The youthful reading habits of our new Republican Vice-Presidential candidate have also been fodder for the news cycle. Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” was so influential to Ryan’s career, and to his view of ethics and society, he said some years ago, that he gave it to his staffers as a Christmas present. In the last few days, however, Ryan has had to shrug Rand off—she’s his Jeremiah Wright. A Soviet-born Jewish intellectual (née Rosenbaum), who emigrated to America in the nineteen-twenties and worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter before turning to fiction, Rand was a pro-choice, antiwar atheist and Benzedrine user with a scandalous domestic life, vehemently opposed to drug laws, sodomy laws, and any other state interference in the lifestyle choices of citizens. (Ryan now says that his favorite writer is Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century Catholic saint.)
At first glance, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the daughter of pioneers whose hardscrabble life as a farmer redefines frugality, and Ayn Rand, the flamboyant cosmopolite and champion of privilege who lived in a ménage à quatre in New York City, hobnobbing with the élite, do not have much in common beyond, perhaps, the fervor that their work inspires. There is a connection, however.
Wilder’s books were written in collaboration with her only child, Rose Wilder Lane, a best-selling author in her own right. The extent of that collaboration is disputed—some critics have called Rose Laura’s “ghostwriter.” The evidence suggests that, at the least, Lane edited and shaped the manuscripts considerably, and thought of her mother as an amateur. (I wrote about Laura, Rose, and the Little House books for the magazine in 2009.)
Lane was a compelling, and in many senses, a tragic figure. She was a woman of tremendous enterprise and passion who suffered from suicidal depressions that she diagnosed as a “mental illness.” Born on the frontier, in 1886, and raised in dire poverty, she rode a mule to the village school, where she was mocked for her rags. After high school, she became a telegraph operator, and eventually moved to San Francisco, where she married a feckless adventurer who fathered her only child. The baby died in infancy; Lane’s thwarted maternal instincts would thereafter be channelled into intense relationships with a string of protégés.
After her divorce, Lane made a career in journalism and as a popular biographer—of Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover, and Charlie Chaplin, among others. But Chaplin was so appalled by the inaccuracies of his portrait that he sued her. Factuality was never Lane’s forte. She preferred a “corking” story.
Lane also wrote novels, and enjoyed some commercial success, though not the kind of literary acclaim that she yearned for. Her prose was purple and simplistic, if not trashy. But an eclectic and discriminating circle of friends (Dorothy Thompson, Floyd Dell, who was the co-editor of The Masses, and Hoover) prized her for the wit of her letters and conversation. She transformed herself from a barefoot farm girl into a woman of the world who lived the life of a bohemian in Greenwich Village, and of an expatriate in Weimar Berlin and Jazz Age Paris, and filed dispatches from exotic places like Albania, where she befriended the leader of its ephemeral revolution, the future King Zog.
In the late nineteen-twenties, however, crippled by depression, Lane returned to her parents’ farm in Missouri. She was tortured by bad teeth—the product of childhood malnutrition; she lost her savings in the Depression; the state of the world increasingly embittered her. And the left-wing idealism of her youth took a hard turn to the right. When Roosevelt was elected, she noted in her diary, “America has a dictator.” She prayed for his assassination, and considered doing the job herself.
In 1936, the Saturday Evening Post published an essay that Lane called her “Credo,” and which announced a new phase of her career: as a right-wing polemicist. “I am now a fundamentalist American,” she declared. Her vision was of a frontier democracy—a Republic of the Fittest—with no handouts or entitlements, and minimal taxation. She may have been the first writer to use the term “libertarian” as the label for a nascent revolt against state authority. (Lane’s heir and adopted son, Roger McBride, was the Libertarian Party’s first candidate for President, in 1976.)
Lane, who died in 1968 (the Wilders were a long-lived family) spent her later years in a Connecticut farmhouse on several acres, protesting Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” (the F.B.I. took note) and raising her own food. A determined individualist, in her view, should be resourceful enough to live off the grid. Her goal was to reduce her income to the point at which she wouldn’t have to file federal taxes. Old friends were dismayed by her increasingly erratic militance. One of them described her as “floating between sanity and a bedlam of hates.”
Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand, and Isabel Paterson, a journalist, critic, and novelist who wrote the political treatise “The God of the Machine,” have been called “the founding mothers” of Libertarianism. (In a liberal chat room, a wag redubbed them “The Three Witches.” Paterson, like Lane, it’s worth mentioning, came from an impoverished farming background; Rand’s family lost all they had in the Russian Revolution of 1917.) Theirs, however, was a triumvirate of rivals (they would quarrel—about Rand’s atheism, among other things—and part ways), and compared to her co-parents of the movement that Paul Ryan now leads, Lane was the softie. As Rand’s biographer Jennifer Burns recounts, Paterson was infuriated by Lane’s emotionality. Their cause could only be served by cold reason, she believed; anything less surgical was treasonous. Rand, like all propagandists, was adept at manipulation, which is to say, mythification, but she found Lane’s politics too “holistic.”
Lane and Rand exchanged collegial letters for a while in the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties. But when Lane invoked the Biblical imperative to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and protested that “without some form of mutual coöperation, it is literally impossible for one person on this planet to survive,” Rand “tore apart [her] logic” and denounced it as collectivist heresy. That sort of impulse, she concluded (to help your neighbor save his burning house, for example) led inexorably “to the New Deal.”
Rand’s ruthless supremacism, however—her stark division of humankind into “makers and takers”—leads inexorably to a society like the one that staged “The Hunger Games.” And it’s to Lane’s credit that, for all her zealotry, she couldn’t quite transcend the instinct to give succor. Should Paul Ryan decide to revisit the “Little House” books, he will certainly hear the congenial echo of Lane’s polemics in them, though tempered by something more humane. They exalt rugged self-reliance, but as Lane suggested rather plaintively in her argument with Rand, the pioneers would have perished (in greater numbers than they did) had they embraced the philosophy of every man for himself.
Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/08/rose-wilder-lane-ayn-rand-and-americas-libertarian-literature.html#ixzz23pIkmlPu