The Little House books barely mention the obvious, which is that the impoverished Ingallses never could have gone to Dakota Territory without a government grant: Like most pioneers, their livelihoods relied on the federal Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres for the cost of a $14 filing fee—one of the largest acts of federal largesse in US history.
Wilder’s memoirs offer a picture of the costs and risks of isolation that never made it into the book series: A baby brother who died at 9 months. A miserable year working and living in an Iowa tavern. A pair of innkeepers who murdered guests and buried them out back. Another pioneer couple who boarded with them during the Long Winter whose attitudes were far more whining than stoic.
Perhaps the most telling omission is the book that almost never was. Wilder wrote one final volume, never revised by Lane, and not published until after they’d both died. “The First Four Years,” the ninth book, told of the drought that led to the failure of the Wilders’ first homestead after they were married in 1885. No one is sure why Lane did not revise that book, but it’s no stretch to imagine that she found herself at a loss to mold its dire underlying story—struggling, borrowing more and more money, losing the homestead anyway—into another celebration of self-sufficiency.
A s Lane redrafted the last four of the original Little House books between 1937 and 1943, her extensive correspondence reveals, she was growing increasingly antigovernment in her personal views. She cut back her income specifically to avoid paying taxes; during World War II, Lane refused a ration card and retreated full time to her newly acquired 3-acre farm in Danbury, Conn., where she canned her own beans, beets, squash, and green-applesauce.
Throughout the early years of the Little House series, she had also continued to write fiction of her own. But Lane’s last novel, “Free Land,” about homesteading, published to great fanfare in 1938, had exhausted her. Her next effort, in 1939, the short story “Forgotten Man,” headed into what was becoming unpopular territory: It was an anti-New Deal story about a coal mine put out of business by government fees. The editors of the Saturday Evening Post rejected it for publication, calling it propaganda.
Once, in 1943, Lane was so outraged by a radio broadcast about Social Security that she penned an angry postcard comparing such programs to Nazi policies. (Someone sent it to the FBI, which dispatched a state trooper to her farm.) In 1944, the year after the last Little House book came out, newspaper reporter Helen L. Worden interviewed Lane, writing that Lane had “taken to the storm cellar until the Roosevelt administration blows over.” Lane had stopped writing her own novels, she said, “because I don’t want to contribute to the New Deal.”
She began to attend meetings against communism. She exchanged letters at the time with other conservative thinkers, including Isabel Paterson, H.L. Mencken, George Schuyler, and Clare Booth Luce. According to a 1990 biography of Lane by William Holtz, Lane socialized with Ayn Rand at her Danbury home and admired her writing, but found her elitist and irrational.
Just after World War II, an editor Lane had worked with introduced her to his 14-year-old son, Roger Lea MacBride. That began a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. As a teenager, MacBride learned antitax principles at Lane’s knee in Danbury. Later, she enlisted him to help her revise a book that she intended as an explicit argument against big government, “The Discovery of Freedom.” It was published in 1943, and although it languished in obscurity for decades, Libertarian thinkers consider it a treatise that helped the party rise out of the strong anti-Communist movement of the time.
MacBride became Lane’s lawyer, agent, and her sole heir. Wilder, now a widow, remained on her Missouri farm, answering thousands of fans’ letters each year but rarely venturing out. In 1949 she instructed their agent to assign 10 percent of the Little House royalties to Lane. Lane made regular winter visits to Wilder until the pioneer author’s death at 90 in 1957. Lane, by then a rich woman doing little writing, started living most of the year in Texas. She died unexpectedly in her sleep in Danbury in 1968, the night before she had intended to leave on a world tour.
MacBride eventually went on to help form the Libertarian Party, and he ran on its presidential ticket in 1976. Lane’s thinking on limited government had from the beginning influenced a relatively small group of people; most writers of the era called Ayn Rand the “mother of the Libertarian Party.” But MacBride believed that Lane was more important. In 1984 he wrote in an introduction that Lane’s political opus, “The Discovery of Freedom,” was “the seminal force creating the current wide trend toward individualistic views in America.”Continued...