Little Government in the Big Woods

Melissa Gilbert’s lost bid for Congress and the forgotten political history of ‘Little House on the Prairie.’

Mary Pilon | Longreads | July 2016 | 8 minutes (2,061 words)

 

Last May, and much to the disappointment of many “Little House on the Prairie” fans, Melissa Gilbert announced that she would be ending her bid for a congressional seat in Michigan’s 8th district.

Best known for playing Laura in the 1970s television adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s iconic series of books, Gilbert, a Democrat and former president of the Screen Actors Guild cited health problems as her reason from stepping away from the campaign.

But during her short-lived bid for elected office, many Michigan voters and fans of the “Little House” television show and books may not have realized that politics is far from anything new for the franchise. In fact, they’ve been integral since the books’ Depression-era genesis.

Given the wholesome, all-American image of “Little House,” the political history of the books may surprise some readers. Wilder, who was born in 1867 and published the first “Little House” book in 1932, was an impassioned hater of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. In a letter, she once called Roosevelt a “dictator,” and like her journalist and politically-active daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder also maintained strongly anti-government views. Lane, along with Ayn Rand, is noted as one of the pioneers of the American libertarian movement.

“Little House” scholars, chiefly William Holtz, an English professor and author of an exhaustive 1993 biography of Wilder’s daughter, “The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane,” are accepting the notion that Lane had a heavy hand in the editing and writing of the “Little House” series and infused her politics into their pages as a co-author.

Skeptics have pushed for more evidence, arguing that it’s impossible to know the full scope of either woman’s work today. Others have argued that Lane wasn’t capable enough to have really helped. But from what correspondence and evidence has survived—a variety of letters, manuscripts and diaries from the two women—it appears that Wilder eagerly took her daughter’s edits and rewrites. “Without your fine touch,” Wilder wrote to her daughter, “it would be a flop.”

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, which houses a trove of Wilder and Lane documents, refers to the “mother-daughter collaboration” and notes that Lane, like her mother, loathed Roosevelt and was an ardent advocate of Herbert Hoover and his policies. For years, Lane was friends with Hoover and in 1920 published a biography of him, “The Making of Herbert Hoover.”

Lane “not only wrote about freedom,” the Hoover Library said in its archival notes connected to her papers, “but acted when she felt the government was infringing on her rights.” That included canning her own fruits and vegetables during World War II to protest government rationing, leading efforts to prevent zoning and a strident opposition to Social Security, including, what the Library notes claimed, was her desire to have “no income that required her to pay that deduction.”

Lane, only 20 years younger than Wilder, had a far more cosmopolitan existence than her mother. She traveled extensively through Europe and Asia and mingled with radical political circles, including journalist and raconteur John Reed, prominent poetMax Eastman and influential magazine editor Floyd Dell in New York, according to documents at the Hoover Library. In letters to friends, Lane defended Hoover during the 1928 campaign and she and Hoover shared a friendship and political philosophy, even as Lane lost money she had invested in the stock market and suffered from drought and the Depression while living on her parents’ farm in Missouri.

Although the “Little House” books are universally familiar to adults, Lane and Wilder didn’t publish the series until they were in their forties and sixties, respectively. They spent most of their formative years and adulthood toiling under conditions similar to what had been described in their pages, infusing the lens of the Great Depression on post-Civil War 1870s and 1880s.

In “Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture,” Anita Clair Fellman argues that Wilder’s and Lane’s dark narratives greatly fueled their reflections on the era, which are rife with anti-government, pro-family views of America’s more rugged patches, a contrast to the more chipper, image of Laura and Mary regaling themselves with simple pastimes like tossing a pig bladder that many readers carried for generations. The notion doesn’t sit well with some readers, who have long formed their own relationship with the fiction; finding out that a treasured children’s classic may, actually have been a political polemic.

Wilder and Lane were not alone in their criticism of the New Deal. Others had argued that it was “fascist,” a charged term considering the rise of dictators in Europe at the time, or compared it to Communism. Lane said she would “vote for anybody—Hoover, Harding, Al Capone—who will stop the New Deal” and that it is “killing…the American pioneering spirit.” She even wrote: “I hoped that Roosevelt would be killed in 1933….I would make a try at killing FDR now.” (Holtz, in his analysis of this comment, wrote that Lane’s harshness toward the president “was probably not so much a threat as it was a rhetorical symptom of her anxiety.”)

For Wilder and Lane, the economy was a personal matter. The stock market crash, biographers said, wiped out Wilder and her daughter’s savings, forming the bleak backdrop against which the two began to discuss writing up some of Wilder’s childhood prairie memories as autobiographical fiction with the hopes it could generate some additional income. With the help of one of Lane’s publishing connections, in 1932, “Little House in the Big Woods” was released to successful sales and reviews, triggering the authorship of subsequent tales.

The “Little House” books, some receiving more of Lane’s hand than others, retell a lightly fictionalized version of Wilder’s childhood that depict rough, but cozy, family life on the Midwestern prairie and a hard-working ethos. That image—of American self-sufficiency and grit—was at the heart of their political message, scholars said, making the books at best a captivating credo for independent citizens to live by, at worst tinny, anti-government political propaganda.

Scholars have argued that it was Lane who was responsible for the rewrite of the Fourth of July scene in “Little Town on the Prairie,” in which the family heads to town and a man there offers up a lengthy speech about how everyone there is “a free and independent citizen of God’s country, the only country on earth where a man is free and independent.” He adds, “Most of us are out here trying to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps” and reads the Declaration of Independence, which Laura and Mary know by heart.

In the “Little House” series, the family harvests their own tree sap to make maple syrup, Laura and Mary endure the teasing of nemesis Nellie Oleson for being “country girls” and after a plague of grasshoppers destroys the family crops, Pa goes and gets another job, not a handout. The cash crops that were to help pay for Mary’s college are destroyed by blackbirds, but instead of whining or asking for assistance, Pa sells a calf to earn some of the money needed.

Although the mother-daughter collaboration was productive, at times, it created tension. Lane spent much of her adulthood trying to distance herself from her mother (often literally, moving far from the Midwest) and maintaining a lifestyle that in many ways had rejected the homestead-heavy values of her mother, but also embraced individualism. However, the generation gap between the two women manifested with the changing times, one woman seeing the virtues in holding down the ranch, the other in traveling the world on her own terms.

By the time Lane started working with her mother on the “Little House” books, she was in her forties, and well-established as a writer and connected in political circles. Lane smoked in public, a taboo for women at the time, but a behavior she saw as a sign of liberation. She had been divorced. Her deep love for Hoover aside, Lane also dabbled with Eugene Debs and author Jack London’s flavor of socialism as she and her mother began work on their children’s books.

“Hoover’s intelligence is his weakness,” Lane wrote in her journal in June 1932. “It keeps him seeing problems all around, instead of dramatically.”

Nine months later, Roosevelt was in the White House and Wilder and Lane’s furor over what they perceived as unnecessary government meddling was amplified. In the fall of 1933, Lane published an article in the Saturday Evening Post that was a treatise against government in the grain market. The nation’s Great Depression, in some ways, mirrored her own. “I am mentally sick,” she wrote in her diary. “Don’t know if will can break this.”

As mother and daughter continued work on their series based on Wilder’s childhood, Lane continued her work as a Depression-era journalist, interviewing a variety of farmers and political thinkers. Lane wrote of her shock at what she felt were freedoms that the farmers had to sacrifice in the name of government intervention, which echoed some of what she had seen in traveling in Bolshevik Eastern Europe in years prior. She dubbed it “Communist Terror in Illinois.”

The political ripple effects of Wilder and Lane continue today, long after Wilder’s death in 1957 at 90. At 70, Lane had financial security from inheriting her mother’s estate and when Lane died in 1968, she had designated Roger Lea MacBride as her “adopted grandson” and agent. MacBride would eventually run as a libertarian candidate for president eight years later.

“Rose was always looked on with suspicion,” Christine Woodside, author of the forthcoming “Libertarians on the Prairie,” said. “And the idea she helped write the books ruins this image we have of Laura sitting in her apron in her sixties and having her life story flowing out so beautifully. That messes up the story for us. It’s shocking and it really hit the fans badly. It burst a bubble.”

Now, scenes from the books, and later the TV show, like Pa going to the store and discussing prices or Laura and Almanzo farming and refusing welfare, seem like free market anecdotes, Woodside said. Yet, and paradoxically, government action like the subsidization of railroad construction and the Homestead Act is part of what created Wilder’s American frontier culture, Woodside said. “Still, the books have this message of, ‘We need to push on, because we’re Americans.’”

Some scholars posit that the messaging of “Little House” books helped contribute to the rise of conservatism, particularly in the 1980s as another actor-turned-candidate, Ronald Reagan, reframed the Republican party. (The television adaptation was his favorite television show, according to the New Yorker.) Businessman and noted political donor Charles Koch attended the Freedom School, a small institution in Colorado that Lane had championed, and had served as a trustee. Today, the “Little House” books are still an academic mainstay, particularly among homeschooled students, even if their full political context isn’t always known or discussed.

But there’s also a case to be made that much of the book’s messages transcend Washington chatter, particularly as a narrative of a little girl and her family overcoming the odds. There’s no shortage of commentary either online or in elementary school book reports of readers describing either a nostalgia for the depiction of childhood in the series, or a heartbreaking yearning for it as a fantasy if it was far from the reality of their own family dynamic, Michelle McClellan, a history professor at the University of Michigan, said.

“People talk all the time of this feeling of really wanting to be in that family,” McClellan said. “The books have a profound amount of psychological insight. What child doesn’t want to feel safe?”

Ironically, Wilder was a descendent of the Delano family, the same trunk of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s family tree, as a Delano emigrated to the United States on board the Mayflower. So, perhaps it only makes sense that the latest twist in the “Little House” political legacy is an ironic one, as well, with Gilbert having run for office as a Democrat, a party that Wilder and her daughter reviled.

“I think that’s part of why they’re so potent,” McClellan said. “We think we know what they stand for, but that may have been overt political discourse. But they’re also just good stories that stick with you.”

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Mary Pilon is the author of “The Monopolists,” a New York Times bestseller about the secret history of the board game, Monopoly, and the forthcoming “The Kevin Show.” She previously covered sports as a reporter at The New York Times and business at The Wall Street Journal. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Fast Company, The Guardian, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Smithsonian Magazine, Gawker, USA Today and New York Magazine. Visit her website at marypilon.com and on Twitter @marypilon.

Editor: Mike Dang; Fact-checker: Michael Fitzgerald