Who needs a welfare state?

Deborah Friedell

  • The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
    Library of America, 1490 pp, £56.50, August 2012, ISBN 978 1 59853 162 6
  • The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ by Wendy McClure
    Riverhead, 336 pp, £10.00, April 2012, ISBN 978 1 59448 568 8

After the Vietnam War – or so the story goes – a little girl whose parents had fought the Communists in Laos was resettled with her family in St Paul, Minnesota. They didn’t like it. St Paul seemed noisy and expensive, and they worried about crime. But the little girl watched Little House on the Prairie: she knew there was a Minnesota town called Walnut Grove where girls in long dresses ran through tall (California) grass, and townsfolk gathered for spelling bees and barn raisings. She persuaded her parents that it was where they should be. The actual Walnut Grove had been dying, without even enough people to support a small grocery store. Now more than 250 Hmong live there, and run two grocery stores.

Little House on the Prairie was Ronald Reagan’s favourite television programme and also, by some accounts, Saddam Hussein’s. It was based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s eight novels, which have now entered the Library of America as The Little House Books: the first Tea Party favourites to join its ranks. Rose Wilder Lane, who wrote the books with her mother, intended them to be a defence of ‘the self-reliant, the independent, the courageous man’ whom she saw ‘penalised from every direction’, but especially by the New Deal, which was ‘killing what, to me, is the American pioneering spirit’. She told a friend that if only there were a politician on the scene she really admired, ‘I would make a try at killing FDR now.’ Four years ago, when the New York Times interviewed Sarah Palin’s relatives, the Little House books were the only ones that anyone could remember her having liked. Caroline Fraser, who edited the books for the Library of America, points to an essay in National Affairs by Meghan Clyne, a former Bush speechwriter, which argues that ‘much as the Tea Party renewed Americans’ appreciation of the freedoms that are our birthright, a historical-appreciation movement built around Wilder and her fellow pioneers could help Americans recover the habits of self-reliance’ – that is, by scrapping ‘Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security’ and ‘food stamps or other nutrition benefits’. The books are a fantasy of self-sufficiency in its most charming form.

In The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of ‘Little House on the Prairie’, Wendy McClure, a children’s book editor, details her obsession with what she calls ‘Laura World’. She visits the Big Woods in Wisconsin where Wilder was born; the places where Wilder’s parents farmed – never successfully – in Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota; then Missouri, where Wilder moved when she married, and stayed. McClure’s mother dies, and immersing herself in Laura World becomes a way of mourning her own childhood. She makes candy by pouring syrup on snow, twists hay, buys molasses (at Whole Foods) and prowls eBay for a butter churn, but none of it satisfies. What she’s really after is a state of mind: ‘Sometimes Laura World wasn’t a realm of log cabins or prairies, it was a way of being. Really, a way of being happy.’ She wants the confidence of the Ingalls family, who never seem to doubt that they’re leading the best possible life, competent and productive, unfailingly cosy.

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly: ‘What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?’

‘They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,’ Pa said. ‘Go to sleep, now.’

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

In Minnesota, McClure visits a re-creation of the family dugout from the fourth book in the series, On the Banks of Plum Creek, but it seems too small: ‘Now, when I imagined how it all took place in that tiny room, the whole thing was absurd … All the cooking and fiddling and ironing and living that the Ingalls family did in that room seemed nearly impossible.’ She feels betrayed. And she wonders if the truth of Laura World is more likely to be found in Lane’s letters:

No it is not jolly on the farm when the snow flies. You just try it once, with the well frozen, I mean the bucket frozen in it, and the floors dirty with muddy feet and dogs and wood-dirt and ashes-dust, and the whole front of the house shut like a tomb because no one has the strength to keep it warmed, and three human beings living in one room with the dogs, and the swill having to be cooked for the hogs, and a sick lamb in the corner, and – well, you just try it once.

But because of Lane and her mother many of us have indeed longed to try it. They meant the Little House books to be both an example and a rebuke. Wilder told her daughter that farm technology had so much improved since her girlhood that ‘anyone who will half try can make money surprisingly now. How they can keep from it I can’t see, nor what they do with the money they can’t prevent themselves from making.’ Once, the United States had been full of real men, like her father, but now she saw only leeches and fools: the pioneer had given way to the breadliner. She was a Christian, and knew her duty, ‘but I find my heart is getting harder. I can have no least sympathy for people any more who can do and will only holler there is no chance anymore.’ Wilder’s parents lost their savings in a bank collapse during the depression that followed the Civil War, but they didn’t ask for help. The earth is rich. What does the honest man need but an axe?

All by himself, he built the house three logs high. Then Ma helped him. Pa lifted one end of a log onto the wall, then Ma held it while he lifted the other end. He stood up on the wall to cut the notches, and Ma helped roll and hold the log while he settled it where it should be to make the corner perfectly square. So, log by log, they built the walls.

One of the Little House books, Farmer Boy, is about Wilder’s husband, but the rest form a Bildungsroman of a girl and a nation, who seem to mature in tandem. ‘I realised that I had seen and lived it all – all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns,’ Wilder would say, in the stump speech she delivered in libraries across the country after the books became famous. ‘I wanted children now to understand more about the beginning of things, to know what is behind the things they see – what it is that made America as they know it.’ In the Little House books, crops are lost to hail, fire, grasshoppers and blackbirds; various Ingallses get dysentery or malaria, or go blind. But the characters never forget that whom the Lord loves he chastens, and are comforted. Above all, they are grateful to have been born in a free country, where the only king is God, and ‘the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty.’

When the first Little House book was published in 1932, Wilder was 65. Until then, she had written only short essays about her life in the Ozarks for the benefit of other farmers’ wives, hectoring platitudes about the virtues of hard work and thrift. Little about them suggests an aptitude for fiction, but in asides she sometimes offers a recipe for plum jelly or instructions on raising hens, the sorts of detail her daughter plucked out for her own writing. ‘What these two heroic young pioneers went through dwarfs your present hardships and makes you ashamed to complain,’ the ads for the newspaper campaign claimed for one of Lane’s several novels, Let the Hurricane Roar, about homesteaders in the 1870s. Lane called two of her pioneers Charles and Caroline, after her grandparents, but Wilder objected: her parents were nothing like the people Lane described. She would produce a better version, and Lane would help her.

Lane was hurt: she usually was. Her writing paid her parents’ bills, but their approval never followed. She sometimes imagined herself the daughter her mother really wanted, ‘married fairly well … let us say, a socially successful woman in Springfield, with a car and accounts in the good stores’. She had been married, briefly, as a young woman, but not again. After the First World War she reported from Europe for the publicity bureau of the Red Cross, then for newspapers, and travel confirmed the superiority of the country she had left. ‘The Americans come close to being the most humanly decent, and certainly physically the most perfect, of all the peoples I have so far seen … A traveller from Mars could see that Europe has been a battleground for centuries – the people are short, ugly, misshapen. I have yet to see one handsome man or one beautiful woman.’ On a boat train from Cherbourg to Paris, she refused to be charmed by the countryside: ‘Remember, there is not a single bathroom under one of those damp thatched roofs.’

Lane’s biographer, William Holtz, suggests that Lane rewrote her mother’s books out of duty, but also to show off. Her agent remembered Wilder’s drafts as the narration of a ‘fine old lady … sitting in a rocking chair and telling a story chronologically but with no benefit of perspective or theatre’ until Lane intervened, adding dialogue, cutting and rearranging scenes, getting rid of characters or turning them into composites. To add details to the books, Lane had her mother fill out questionnaires. ‘I see the pictures so plainly that I guess I failed to paint them as I should,’ Wilder admitted. ‘Do anything you please with the damn stuff if you will fix it up.’

Lane met Ayn Rand, and didn’t like her: too anti-religion. But on ‘rational egoism’ they were in agreement. ‘If men were kind,’ Lane decided, ‘what you would have would be a crowd that could not go forward because every man in it would be stepping back to let someone else go first; and they would keep stepping back to the unicellular amoeba and so on off the field of creation.’ And she agreed with Rand about the perniciousness of the federal government. At the end of her life Lane wrote for free rather than have to pay tax on her income, and she refused Social Security benefits as a matter of honour. She was opposed to planning regulations and to wartime rationing; for fear of communist assassins she wouldn’t sit with her back to a door. When she sent a friend a postcard that compared Social Security to National Socialism, a state trooper went to her house to investigate. She lectured him on his Gestapo tactics, then offered him cookies. Throughout the Little House series, the ‘men in Washington’ are stupid and intrusive, no less a menace than the blackbirds that go after the corn; it’s no shame to cheat the tax man, and the best characters do.

In Little House on the Prairie, Wilder’s family leaves the Big Woods of Wisconsin for ‘Indian Territory’ – a strip of land in southern Kansas, which belonged, by treaty, to the Osage tribe. Pa builds his house and the family spends the book Ingallsishly braving wolves and prairie fire. They’re finally ready to farm, but it’s not to be:

Pa said something to Ma that made Laura sit very still and listen carefully. He said that folks in Independence said that the government was going to put the white settlers out of the Indian territory. He said the Indians had been complaining and they had got that answer from Washington.

‘Oh, Charles, no!’ Ma said. ‘Not when we have done so much.’

For once, the government will keep its agreement with the Osage, but the Ingallses know that this is perverse: ‘Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that’ll farm it. That’s only common sense and justice.’ Pa decides that the family must move again: ‘I’ll not stay here to be taken away by the soldiers like an outlaw!’ And – though there’s no evidence for this – he claims that the government had given him permission to homestead: ‘If some blasted politician in Washington hadn’t sent out word it would be all right to settle here, I’d never have been three miles over the line into Indian Territory. But I’ll not wait for the soldiers to take us out.’ They pack up the wagon and go back to Wisconsin, but by the next book, indefatigable as ever, they’re on the way to Minnesota.

Lane insisted that her mother’s books were autobiographies, not fiction, even though they were shaped like novels and though written from Laura’s perspective aren’t in the first person: ‘They are the truth, and only the truth,’ she insisted. Her mother had ‘added nothing and “fictionised” nothing that she wrote’. But fans who looked for the Ingalls family in census records realised they weren’t always to be found in the part of the country where Wilder had said they’d been, and details about the characters weren’t necessarily consistent from book to book. Some of the changes Lane made to her mother’s stories were merely concessions to young readers. In the past, Wilder wrote to her daughter, ‘children weren’t raised to be helpless cowards,’ but now they had to be coddled, so out went the neighbours’ kids who froze to death during a blizzard, and also the death of Wilder’s baby brother. In the books, Ma and Pa Ingalls only ever have daughters.

But the effect of most of Lane’s changes was to make the Ingalls family seem more isolated than they had been, and so more gloriously self-sufficient. In several of the books Laura does odd jobs and works as a schoolteacher to pay her sister’s tuition at the Iowa College for the Blind: they couldn’t admit that the Dakota Territory had actually paid for it all. In By the Shores of Silver Lake the family spends a winter alone in a surveyor’s house on the Dakota prairie, guarding railroad equipment until it’s warm enough for the workers to return. ‘No one else was anywhere near. Everybody had gone now. The prairie, the whole vast prairie, and the great sky and the wind were clear and free.’ They have ‘no neighbour closer than Brookings. That’s sixty miles.’ But they don’t need anyone else; the house is full of supplies – ‘Laura had never seen so much salt pork’ – and Pa hunts and traps. They walk in the snow and slide on Silver Lake. Who needs a welfare state?

In the 1960s, a fan published a booklet claiming that the family’s splendid isolation had of course been exaggerated: the spread of the Northern Pacific railroad and a gold rush had led to a population boom in the Dakota Territory (later the states of North and South Dakota). It lasted only a few years: the gold was difficult to extract and there were droughts; farmers gave up their homesteads when the price of wheat collapsed. But in 1879, when the book is set, the Ingallses would surely have had neighbours. Lane sent the author of the booklet, William Anderson, a ‘formal protest’: was Anderson calling her mother a liar? Anderson backed down. As Lane later admitted to him in a letter, ‘a great part of the value of her books is that they were “true stories”,’ and she worried that if her mother’s books were revealed to be ‘not absolutely accurate’, she would be ‘discredited as a person and as a writer’. For the same reason, she kept her own contribution to the books quiet. Her fears weren’t groundless. When Holtz published The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane in 1993, the denizens of Laura World were outraged. Twenty years later, it doesn’t seem to have held them back.