Back in college, I remember a few of my professors speaking ironically about the image of Little House on the Prairie. That the story didn’t exactly match the realities of western expansion was pretty much a forgone conclusion at the time, but I don’t recall anyone going into depth as to the nature of the problems or the reasons this popular story might not have gone so consistently in a suspicious direction.
As a kid, I certainly liked the show.
Hell, I loved it!
I actually remember the very first episode of Little House on the Prairie. I remember liking the characters immediately. I wanted them to succeed. I REALLY wanted to know if they could make that farm work. As the closing credits rolled, I remember, I couldn’t wait to see the next episode.
A whole week! How would I make it!?!
In the coming years, I watched a fair portion of the Little House television series. I can’t say that I ever got around to reading any of the books. It’s funny to think about it though, because those books have had an impact on my life and my thinking – filtered a bit through other media. When a series of books seeps that deep into the popular culture, it leaves an impression on everyone, even those who don’t seek it out. I figure that is why some of my old professors made a point to reference Little House while setting up lessons on western history. It isn’t that they had a specific point to make about the series or the books, but they new that story would be hanging there in the back of our minds. Whatever they meant to say themselves about the subject, these teachers knew they would have to reckon with the themes of the series in one form or another.
Typically, the comments in question took the form of an oblique reference to myths of the old west. The rugged individualism of the old west was a common target of abuse, and the Little House series had always put that theme front and center. Life on the frontier wasn’t really like it had been portrayed in Little House. Saying so wasn’t really necessary for most of us, but it was often a convenient (and amusing) way of sliding into a lecture about what the professors thought might be a little closer to the truth,
What I didn’t know then, not as a kid, and not later on as a college student, was that the tension between the presentation in Little House and the realities of frontier life was a lot more focused than these random comments would seem to suggest. The Little House books didn’t just happen to emphasize themes of rugged individualism, and my professors weren’t simply giving vent to some vague sense that the stories had oversimplified the matter. The original Little House books contained a very clear expression of libertarian views, and my professors were in fact trying to counter that explicit message in order to clear the way for whatever they themselves wanted to teach us. Far from an innocent theme and a series of off-hand rejoinders, the rugged individualism of the Little House books (and later the series) constituted an explicit ideological statement about the way people ought to live. I think some of those old professors knew very well about the connection between libertarianism the Little House narratives; others may have simply been irked at the persistence of themes they regarded a naieve. Either way, the story of that Little House on the Prairie was always political statement, a statement meant to tell us as much about the perils of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies or the depravity of the Great Society as anything that may or may not have happened on any particular prairie. The Little House story wasn’t just a story about the frontier; it was attack on a good deal of the the modern world. What I was hearing in class was at least partly a response from those that had noticed.
The key to this story is the realization that Laura Ingalls Wilder did not write the Little House books alone. They were a product of her collaboration with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, one of the great matriarchs of libertarian literature. It had always been acknowledged that Rose typed up Laura’s handwritten manuscripts, and of course that she had done a little editing in the process, but it turns out there was a good deal more to the story. The death of Rose in 1968 freed up the correspondence between the two of them, and along with that, the various drafts of Little House books exchanged between them over the years. Those familiar with these documents realized very quickly that Rose contributed a great deal more than her typing skills and light editing to the process. She was an active collaborator from the very beginning.
The collaboration between Laura Ingalls and her daughter is the subject of Libertarians on the Prairie, by Christine Woodside. I first heard about the book on an episode of Edward T.Odonell‘s podcast, In the Past Lane, wherein Woodside appeared as a guest. With a little travel on my agenda for this summer, I figured this was the perfect volume to help me get from Barrow Alaska to Billings Montana.
I was not disappointed.
This book is no hack job. Woodside is clearly a lifelong fan of the Little House series, and she clearly admires the work both women put into this series. Peering behind the curtain, so to speak, doesn’t seem to have dampened her enthusiasm. Woodside takes pains to reveal a good deal that Little House fans may find uncomfortable, but she also takes pains to praise Ingalls and Wilder on a number of points. Her work is critical, but not unsympathetic.
Woodside does an excellent job of sorting out the process that went into writing the Little House books. Of course, she is hardly working with a complete record, so she can’t piece together every detail of the process, but Woodside manages to support a number of interesting conclusions about it. She presents Laura as a story-teller with a gift for detail and a vivid memory without which the books could never have been written. It was Rose, according to Woodside, who provided the overall structure of these narratives, and shaped the line by line text enough to help bring that structure out in the final works. In doing so, Rose actively steered the narratives in a direction consistent with her own emerging interest in libertarian politics. If Rose was leaning toward such thought at the beginning of the books, she was fully committed to them by the end of the series, a phase in which Woodside tells us Laura had surrendered more control over the final copies to her daughter. Significantly, Rose omitted from the books a number of stories that would have undermined the central message of rugged individualism, even as she sometimes inserted into the work pointed stories of events her mother hadn’t written herself. The resulting narrative contains more than the occasional embellishment; it actively misrepresents the facts of Laura Ingalls’ early life, and it does so in the service of a specific political message.
Woodside is careful to point out that the books were not simply propaganda. If Rose steered the Little House series in the direction of libertarian thought, it was because that was precisely how she came herself to view the world. It seems unlikely that Laura would have objected to the larger themes of Rose’s politics. Neither were fans of the New Deal; each was increasingly skeptical of government authority (and in fact, their own collaboration had emerged partly out of an effort to commit tax fraud). There is evidence that Laura and Rose sometimes argued over details to be included in their stories, and Rose clearly took a more strident position than Laura had, at least in her written work, but it seems that both women shared a number of assumptions about the importance of hard work and limited government. These assumptions made it into the books. They also made it into the series.
So what of it?
We could haggle over the details. Where the Little House narrative has the Ingalls family working hard to get money for that Laura’s sister, Mary, can attend a school for the blind, we know that in fact the school was funded by the Dakota Territorial Government. We know that the family generally settled closer to other people than they have been portrayed in the Little House books, and we even know that major events in their lives (such as a year in town) were omitted from the stories Laura and Rose chose to tell. Their eviction from Indian territory was played up for the purpose of inserting an anti-government message (which is ironic as Hell given the role the military played in freeing up such lands to begin with). We could go on…
These facts do matter, and Woodside provide a brief list of such details near the end of her book, but the larger issue is a bit murkier.
It may well be that the Little House books contain a very pointed message, and that message may be squarely in tune with libertarian thought, but it would not be true to say that the appeal of these stories is limited to such circles. You don’t have to be a libertarian (much less a Libertarian) to enjoy the Little House stories. Hell, I have little patience for that school of thought myself. That didn’t stop me from watching (and enjoying) an episode or two after reading this book. Their appeal goes beyond the narrow confines of free market fundamentalism, touching upon narratives of American exceptionalism with a much broader appeal in the popular culture of our nation.
It goes without saying; the spirit of Frederick Jackson Turner haunts the Little House narrative. Indeed, the series seems taylor-made to illustrate the Turner-thesis, presenting us with a living, breathing, example of a family struggling against the forces of nature at the meeting point between savagery and civilization. It was the frontier, according to Turner, that made this country unique. That is a message fraught will all manner of perilous implications, but it’s also a message that resonated with generations of historians, and with generations of writers, television and movie-makers, and even musicians. It may even have resonated with a few children reading the Little House books or watching Ma and Pa Ingalls on television. It probably even resonates with a few people who should know better. People who do know better.
Simply put, the story doesn’t become less interesting just because you know it’s fiction. It doesn’t necessarily become less interesting when you realize just how sideways the whole story spun from the realities of life for the Ingalls, or for anyone else on or near that frontier. The story-line itself is just so ingrained in the American imagination. It, like so many other myths, will outlast countless debunkings, even this one.
…which brings us back to the whole ‘what does it matter’ question.
In blending the central themes of libertarian thought with the larger myths of the American frontier, the Little House books effectively provided an exceptionally powerful re-enforcement to those themes. If we can all believe that ma and Pa Ingalls were able to survive along with their little girls out there mostly alone on the frontier, then we can believe Americans with televisions, and credit cards, and cell phones certainly ought to make it on their own too. If we can forget all the ways that frontier families derived help from friends and family, and from government policies, then we can also forget why we have social security, bank regulations, an EPA, Medicare and food stamps. Some of us may think these things are important, but a good number of very powerful people don’t care about these things, and those people are uniquely situated in today’s political environment to do away with them.
They might even tell us it was all about making American great again!