Rose Wilder Lane
(December 5, 1886, De Smet, Dakota Territory – October 30, 1968, Danbury, Connecticut)
American journalist, travel writer, novelist, and political theorist.
Rose Wilder was first child of Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder. Rose was their only child to survive into adulthood. Her mother, as author Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote a series of children’s books about her life in the 1930s and 40s, that are now generally known as “The Little House” books. They continue to be in print, and the tv series of the 1970s and 80s produced by Michael Landon entitled “Little House On The Prairie” (the series title was taken from the second book in the series) was adapted from the book series.
Lane’s early years were difficult ones for her parents, the result of successive crop failures, illnesses and chronic economic hardships. During her childhood, Lane moved with her family several times, living with relatives in Minnesota and then Florida, briefly returning to De Smet, South Dakota, before the family 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 at the top of her high school class in Crowley in 1904. Lane’s ability to compress three years of Latin into one more than earned her the top spot in her graduating class.
Despite this academic success, her parents’ financial situation placed college out of reach and her formal schooling was over. After high school graduation she returned to her parents’ farm and learned telegraphy at the Mansfield railroad station where the station master was the father of a school friend. Wilder worked for Western Union in Kansas City as a telegrapher. She worked as a telegrapher in Missouri, Indiana and California for the next five years.
In 1909, she married salesman and occasional newspaperman Clare Gillette Lane. Around 1910, Lane bore a son who was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Complications from subsequent surgery appear to have left Lane unable to bear more children. The details of the child’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.
For the next few years Lane and her husband traveled around the US working various marketing and promotional schemes. Letters to her parents described a happy-go-lucky existence with both Lane and her husband traversing the US several times and working a variety of jobs, both together and separately. However, in diary entries and subsequent published autobiographical pieces concerning this time, Lane 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 her husband.
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.
During this time Lane read voraciously and taught herself several languages. Her writing career began around 1910, with occasional free-lance newspaper jobs that earned much needed extra cash. Between 1912 and 1914, Lane – one of the earliest female real estate agents in California – and her husband sold farm land in what is now the San Jose/Silicon Valley area of northern California. It made sense for the two to work separately to earn separate commissions, and Lane turned out to be the better salesperson of the two. The marriage foundered, there were several periods of separation, and eventually an amicable divorce in 1918. Lane’s diaries reveal subsequent romantic involvements with several men in the years after her divorce, but she never remarried.
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. 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, Rose Wilder Lane’s photo and byline were running in the Bulletin daily. She easily churned out formulaic romantic fiction serials that would run for weeks at a time. Her first-hand accounts of the lives of Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Jack London, and Herbert Hoover were published in book form.
In 1915, Lane’s mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 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 her husband and are available in West from Home, published by Lane’s heir in 1974. Although Lane’s diaries indicate she was separated from her husband in 1915, Wilder’s letters do not indicate this. Gillette Lane was recorded as living with his wife, although unemployed and looking for work during his mother-in-law’s two month visit. It seems the separation was either covered up for her mother’s visit, or had not yet involved separate households.
By 1918, Lane had quit her job with the San Francisco Bulletin to launch a career as a freelance writer. From this period through the early 1940s, Lane’s work regularly appeared in leading publications such as Harper’s, Saturday Evening Post, Sunset, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal. Several of her short stories were nominated for O. Henry Prizes and a few novels became top sellers.
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 Hoover for the remainder of her life, and many of her personal papers reside in the Rose Wilder Lane Collection at the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa. Lane’s papers contain little actual correspondence between Hoover and herself, but the Hoover Post-Presidential Individual series contains a file of Lane correspondence that spans from 1936–1963.
In the late 1920s, she was one of the highest-paid female writers in America, and counted among her friends Sinclair Lewis, Isabel Paterson, Dorothy Thompson and Lowell Thomas. Despite this success, Lane’s 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, Lane would easily find work as a ghostwriter or “silent” editor for other well-known writers.
Lane’s occasional work as a traveling war correspondent began with a stint with the American Red Cross Publicity Bureau in post-WWI Europe and continued though 1965, when at the age of 78, she was reporting from Vietnam for Woman’s Day magazine, providing “a woman’s point of view.” She traveled extensively in Europe and Asia as part of the Red Cross. In 1926, Lane, author Helen Dore Boylston and their French maid traveled from France to Albania in a car they had named “Zenobia”. An account of the journey, Travels With Zenobia: Paris to Albania by Model T Ford was published in 1983 by her heir. Lane became enamored with Albania, and lived there for several long periods during the 1920s, spaced between sojourns to Paris and her parents’ Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri. She informally adopted a young Albanian boy named Rexh Meta, who she claimed saved her life on a dangerous mountain trek; she later sponsored his education at Oxford University in England.
In 1928, Lane returned to the U.S. to live on her parents’ farm and there she took in and educated two local orphaned brothers. In 1938, Lane purchased a rural home outside of Danbury, Connecticut, where she spent the remainder of her life.
The stock market crash of 1929, which wiped out both Lane’s and her parents’ investments. The ensuing Great Depression further reduced the market for her writing, and she found herself isolated and depressed at Rocky Ridge Farm, struggling to maintain her commitments to support herself, her adopted children and her elderly parents, who had retired from active farming with Lane’s encouragement and financial support. Her ghostwriting jobs increased at this time, because her depression tended to affect her ability to generate ideas for her own writing projects.
In late 1930, her mother approached her with a rough, first-person narrative manuscript outlining her hardscrabble pioneer childhood, titled Pioneer Girl. Lane, using her well-developed sense of what was marketable, took notice. She recognized that an American public weary of the Depression would respond warmly to the story of the loving, self-sufficient and determined Ingalls family overcoming obstacles while maintaining their sense of independence, as told through the eyes of the spunky Laura as she matured from ages five to eighteen. Despite Lane’s efforts to market Pioneer Girl through her publishing connections, the manuscript was resoundingly rejected, although one editor recommended crafting a novel for children out of the beginning. Wilder and Lane worked on this project, thus producing “Little House in the Big Woods”, which was accepted by Harper & Row in late 1931. The success of the book resulted in the decision to continue the series, following young Laura Ingalls into young adulthood.
It remains unclear whether Laura Ingalls Wilder was a naturally skilled novelist who never discovered her talents until her sixties, with Lane’s only contribution to her mother’s success her encouragement and her established connections in the publishing world, or if Lane essentially took her mother’s unpublishable raw manuscripts in hand and completely (and silently) ghostwrote the series of books we know today. The truth appears to lie somewhere between these two positions — Wilder’s writing career as a rural journalist and a credible essayist began more than two decades before the Little House series, and Lane’s formidable editing and ghostwriting skills are well-documented. The existing written evidence (including ongoing correspondence between the women concerning the development of the multi-volume series, Lane’s extensive personal diaries detailing the time she spent working on the manuscripts, and Wilder’s own initial draft manuscripts) tends to reveal an ongoing mutual collaboration that involved Lane more extensively in the earlier books, and to a much lesser extent by the time the series ended, as Wilder’s confidence in her own writing ability increased, and Lane was no longer living at Rocky Ridge Farm. Lane insisted to the end that she considered her role to be little more than that of an adviser to her mother, despite much documentation to the contrary.
Many of Lane’s most popular short stories and her two most commercially successful novels were written at this time and were fueled by material which was taken directly from her mother’s recollections of Ingalls-Wilder family folklore—Let the Hurricane Roar (later retitled Young Pioneers) and Free Land, both addressed the difficulties of homesteading in the Dakotas in the late 19th century, and how the “free land” in fact cost many homesteaders their life savings. Let The Hurricane Roar was based on the early life of Lane’s grandparents-who would be know to future generations as Caroline “Ma” Ingalls and Charles “Pa” Ingalls. Free Land was based on the early years of her Lane’s own parents’ marriage and included members of both sides of the family. The Saturday Evening Post paid Lane large fees to serialize both novels, and both were also adapted for highly popular radio performances. The Young Pioneers would later be adapted into a TV movie in the 1970s.
During World War II, Lane had one of the most remarkable, but little studied, phases of her career. From 1942 to 1945, she wrote a weekly column for The Pittsburgh Courier, the most widely read American Black newspaper.
Rather than hiding or trimming her laissez faire views, she seized the chance to sell them to the readership. She sought out topics of special interests of her audience. Her first entry glowingly characterized the Double V Campaign as part of the more general fight for individual liberty in American history.
“Here, at last, is a place where I belong,” she wrote of her new job. “Here are the Americans who know the value of equality and freedom.”
Her columns highlighted black success stories to illustrate broader themes about entrepreneurship, freedom, and creativity. In one, she compared the accomplishments of Robert Vann and Henry Ford. Vann’s rags to riches story illustrated the benefits in a “capitalist society in which a penniless orphan, one of a despised minority can create The Pittsburgh Courier and publicly, vigorously, safely, attack a majority opinion” while Ford’s showed how a poor mechanic can create “hundreds of jobs … putting even beggars into cars.”
She combined advocacy of laissez faire and antiracism. The views she expressed on race were strikingly similar to those of Zora Neale Hurston, a fellow individualist and writer who was Black.
Lane’s columns emphasized the arbitrariness of racial categories and stressed the centrality of the individual. Instead of indulging in the “ridiculous, idiotic and tragic fallacy of ‘race,’ [by] which a minority of the earth’s population has deluded itself during the past century”, it was time for all Americans (black and white) to “renounce their race”. Judging by skin color was comparable to the Communists who assigned guilt or virtue on the basis of class. In her view, the fallacies of race and class hearkened to the “old English-feudal ‘class’ distinction.” The collectivists, including the New Dealers, were to blame for filling “young minds with fantasies of ‘races’ and ‘classes’ and ‘the masses,’ all controlled by pagan gods, named Economic Determinism or Society or Government.”
In the early 1940s, despite continuing requests from editors for both fiction and non-fiction material, Lane turned away from commercial 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 paying income taxes. She cut her income and expenses to the bare minimum, and lived a modern-day version of her ancestors’ pioneer life on her rural land near Danbury, Connecticut. 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.
A staunch opponent of communism after experiencing it first hand in the Soviet Union during her Red Cross travels, Lane wrote the seminal The Discovery of Freedom (1943), and tirelessly promoted and wrote about individual freedom, and its impact on humanity. The same year also saw the publication of Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine and Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, and the three women have been referred to as the founding mothers of the American libertarian movement with the publication of these works.
Writer Albert Jay Nock wrote that Lane’s and Paterson’s nonfiction works were “the only intelligible books on the philosophy of individualism that have been written in America this century.”
The two women had “shown the male world of this period how to think fundamentally … They don’t fumble and fiddle around—every shot goes straight to the centre.” Journalist John Chamberlain credits Rand, Paterson and Lane with his final “conversion” from socialism to what he called “an older American philosophy” of libertarian and conservative ideas.
In 1943, Lane was thrust into the national spotlight through her response to a radio poll on Social Security. She mailed in a post-card with a response likening the Social Security system to a Ponzi scheme that would ultimately destroy the US. The subsequent events remain unclear, but wartime monitoring of the mails eventually resulted in a Connecticut State Trooper being dispatched to her farmhouse (supposedly at the request of the FBI) to question her motives. Lane’s vehement response to this infringement on her right of free speech resulted in a flurry of newspaper articles and the publishing of a pamphlet, “What is this, the Gestapo?,” that was meant to remind Americans to be watchful of their rights, despite the wartime exigencies.
There was an FBI file compiled on Lane during this time, which is now available under the Freedom of Information Act.
As Lane grew older, her political opinions solidified as a fundamentalist libertarian, and her defense of what she considered to be basic American principles of liberty and freedom could become harsh and abrasive in the face of disagreement. She broke with her old friend and political ally, Isabel Paterson in 1946, and, in the 1950s, had an acrimonious correspondence with writer Max Eastman.
During the 1940s and through the 1950s, Lane played a hands-on role in launching the “libertarian movement”, a term she apparently coined, and began an extensive correspondence with figures such as DuPont executive Jasper Crane and writers Frank Meyer and Ayn Rand. Lane wrote book reviews for the National Economic Council and later for the Volker Fund, out of which grew the Institute for Humane Studies. Later, she lectured at, and gave generous financial support to, the Freedom School headed by libertarian Robert LeFevre.
With her mother’s death in 1957, use of the Rocky Ridge Farm house reverted to the farmer who had earlier bought the surrounding land. The local townfolk put together a non-profit corporation to purchase the house and its grounds, for use as a museum. After some wariness at the notion of seeing the house rather than the books themselves be a shrine to her mother, Lane came to believe that making a museum of it would draw long-lasting attention to the books. She donated the money needed to purchase the house and make it a museum, agreed to make significant contributions each year for its upkeep and also gave many of the family’s belongings to help establish what became a popular museum which still draws thousands of visitors each year to Mansfield. Her lifetime inheritance of Wilder’s growing Little House royalties put an end to Lane’s self-enforced modest lifestyle; she began to travel extensively again, and thoroughly renovated and remodeled her Connecticut home.
During the 1960s, Lane revived her own commercial writing career by publishing several popular magazine series, including one about her remarkable tour of the Vietnam war zone in late 1965.
Lane wrote an immensely popular book detailing the history of American needlework (with a strong libertarian undercurrent) for Woman’s Day and edited and published On The Way Home, providing an autobiographical setting around her mother’s original 1894 diary of their six week journey from South Dakota to Missouri. This book was intended to serve as the capstone to the Little House series, for those many fans who since Wilder’s death were now writing to Lane asking, “what happened next?”. She contributed book reviews to the influential William Volker Fund, and continued to work on extensive revisions to The Discovery of Freedom, which she never completed.
Lane was the adoptive “grandmother” and mentor to Roger MacBride, best known as the Libertarian Party’s 1976 candidate for President of the United States. MacBride was the son of one of Lane’s editors with whom she formed a close bond when he was a young boy; she later admitted that she was grooming him to be a future Libertarian thought leader. In addition to being her close friend, 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 Lane’s death.
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.
Rose Wilder Lane died in her sleep at the age of 81, on October 30, 1968, just as she was about to depart on a three-year world tour. She was the last surviving member of Charles Ingalls’ family line as his daughter Laura Ingalls Wilder (Lane’s mother) was the only one of his four daughters to have children.