All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1994

The Ghost of the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Was Not Only a Rebel but a Crusader

Rose Wilder Lane was born on December 5, 1886. She was a fascinating person. For most of her life she eked out a precarious livelihood as a freelance author, journalist, ghostwriter, and novelist. Yet her impact has been much greater than that of run-of-the-mill freelance authors, journalists, ghost-writers, and novelists. She became an important figure in the libertarian movement.

Rose was vivacious, lively, energetic, adventurous, a fascinating conversationalist, and a brilliant storyteller. A determined individualist, she was a rebel all her life. Rose was extremely bright and taught herself to read, she says, at three years of age. She rebelled against poverty and the hardships of her childhood. She also rebelled against uninspiring teachers and her formal schooling ended at an early age. She left home at sixteen and was soon supporting herself on $2.50 per week as a telegrapher. She made her way to California where she worked in real estate and journalism and married briefly.

After World War I, she went to Europe for the Red Cross and to the Middle East for the Near East Relief. She found poverty everywhere; Armenia was the worst. Repulsed by the suffering and destitution in war-torn Europe, Rose was attracted by Communism. But in time she rebelled against that too and became what she called a rebel in the tradition of the American Revolution, an advocate of individual freedom. She described her philosophical transformation in a piece in the Saturday Evening Post which later gained wide circulation as a booklet, Give Me Liberty.

Rose’s mother was Laura Ingalls Wilder,  author of the beloved series of Little House books for children. It now appears that Rose had much more to do with the success of those books than has previously been acknowledged. Rose had long encouraged her mother to write, and Laura had had quite a few articles published in local Missouri newspapers and farm journals. Then she began writing down her childhood reminiscences. Laura sent Rose her handwritten manuscript and asked Rose to help. As a skilled ghostwriter, Rose took the story in hand, added descriptive material and conversation, fleshed out incidents described, enhanced the narrative, and gave the tale a suitable beginning and end. After Rose had “run her mother’s manuscript through her typewriter” in this way, the first of her mother’s Little House books, The Little House in the Big Woods, was accepted in 1932 for publication by Harper’s and named a Junior Literary Guild Selection.

Laura Ingalls Wilder continued her reminiscences. In time there were eight books in the Little House series.* Laura sometimes resented her daughter’s help, but she realized Rose was making her manuscripts publishable. All of the Little House books have become bestsellers and they are still kept in print by their publisher.

It took Rose about a year to “run through her typewriter” each of the books that followed the first one. As Rose worked on her mother’s manuscripts, she introduced more and more of her developing philosophy of individual freedom. The extent of Rose’s involvement became apparent only after Laura donated “her handwritten, fair-copy manuscripts” of several of the books to libraries (the Detroit Public Library named in her honor and the Pomona, California, Public Library) and scholars began to compare Laura’ s versions with the published books.

Rose’s opposition to government intervention strengthened as the years rolled by. She became a strenuous opponent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Before Pearl Harbor she opposed our entry into the war. During the war, she refused to apply for a ration card, relying on honey for sweetening and canning her own garden fruits and vegetables. She even refused to accept a Social Security number. When a radio commentator asked his listeners for their views on Social Security, she scribbled on a postcard: “If [American] school teachers say to German [Nazi] children, ‘We believe in Social Security,’ the children will ask, ‘Then why did you fight Germany?’ All these ‘Social Security’ laws are German, instituted by Bismarck and expanded by Hitler. Americans believe in freedom, in not being taxed for their own good and bossed by bureaucrats.” The local postmaster, reading the message, considered it subversive and notified the FBI which sent a state trooper to investigate. Rose’s response was a newspaper article: “What Is This—the Gestapo?”

Rose presented her fully developed freedom philosophy in a book, The Discovery of Freedom, published during the war in 1943. It has just recently been republished with a new preface by FEE’s President, Hans F. Sennholz. Partly because of this book, John Chamberlain credits her, along with Isabel Paterson, author of The God of the Machine, and Ayn Rand as having “rekindle[d] a faith in an older American philosophy.” This book also inspired Henry Grady Weaver’s Mainspring of Human Progress, which is a FEE bestseller.

The freedom message Rose presented through her books has even reached people who don’t read. Her novel, Let the Hurricane Roar, later republished as Young Pioneers, which dealt as the Little House books did with life on the frontier, was dramatized  for radio and broadcast with Helen Hayes as the star. The Little House books ran for several years as a television series, starring Michael Landon.

Rose was not only a rebel but a crusader.  As she journeyed from Communism to freedom, she used every opportunity to convince others of her particular brand of individualism. She was a prolific correspondent. Two books of her letters have been published: one of those to DuPont’s Jasper Crane, The Lady and the Tycoon, and the other, just published, edited by William Holtz, author of this biography, of Rose’s correspondence with Dorothy Thompson, the prominent newspaper columnist. Economists V. Orval Watts, Jean-Pierre Hamilius of Luxembourg, Robert LeFevre, and Hans F. Sennholz all came under her spell. She also gave LeFevre’s Freedom School both spiritual and financial support. In the course of her life, Rose “adopted” several young men who became proteges. One of these, Roger MacBride became her attorney, heir, and most loyal promoter. Elected to the Vermont State Legislature, MacBride proposed and argued for legislation to reduce the size of the state government by disengaging the state from a host of enterprises. In 1972, as a presidential elector, MacBride surprised the nation by casting his vote, not for the Republican slate as expected, but for the Libertarian presidential and vice-presidential candidates, John Hospers and Toni Nathan. And in 1976, MacBride himself ran for U.S. president as the Libertarian Party’s candidate.

Rose Wilder Lane lived a full and colorful life. She thrived on intellectual challenges. She suffered heartbreak and hardships. She traveled widely. In 1965, under the sponsorship of the Defense Department, she was sent as a correspondent for Woman’s Day to Vietnam. In 1968, she was planning still another trip—to places in Europe she hadn’t seen before. On October 29, she baked several loaves of bread in her Danbury, Connecticut, home and went upstairs to bed. As Holtz wrote, “Sometime during the dark hours just before dawn, her heart stopped.” Her pilgrimage was over.

William Holtz, Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has done a prodigious amount of research, digging through voluminous files, documents, notes, and letters, to produce a sympathetic, delightful biography of a fascinating, dynamic, and complex individual. []

*The First Four Years was published in 1971, after Rose’s death, without benefit of her editing.

  • Contributing editor Bettina Bien Greaves was a longtime FEE staff member, resident scholar, and trustee. She attended Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminar for many years and is a translator, editor, and bibliographer of his works.