“One bates an author that’s all author.”
The line between the Old America and the New is closer than most of us think. A single generation separates not only the Western pioneer from the St. Louis suburbanite, it separates the New Woman from the Old. Rose Wilder Lane, child of westering parents, was born in a claim shanty in Dakota Territory and died two years after the U.S. Department of Defense sent her to Saigon to propagandize on behalf of the Great Society’s War for Democracy in Southeast Asia. As the emancipated—or liberated, as we say today—cosmopolite daughter of an Ozark matron and farmwife, she was also an early divorcee concerned with the difficulties of a professional woman seeking to reconcile the duties of matrimony with the demands of a career, as well as a confirmed neurotic who had a lifelong love-hate relationship with her mother, was incapable of a sustained relationship with a member of the opposite sex, and finally repudiated nearly every close friend of either sex she ever made.
This unsympathetic and essentially uninteresting figure somehow provides William Holtz with a sympathetic subject, perhaps because he discovered that she offered him a theory to push. Mrs. Lane, a hack journalist, slick Bction writer, and third-rate novelist until her attentions were claimed by narrowly political enthusiasms, happened also to be the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of far greater literary fame; and the irony is that while Mr. Holtz’s stated purpose is to rectify the imbalance between undeserved oblivion on the one hand and unearned celebrity on the other, the ghost in his biography overshadows its ostensible subject as much as he claims the presence of Mrs. Lane haunts the so-called Little House books of which her mother continues after 60 years to be recognized as the independent author. In this case the phantom has been conjured by sheer and obvious loathing, for Holtz’s hatred of the older woman—caught apparently by contagion from the younger one—is undiluted by an equal measure of filial love, however tortured and confused. As an exorcist, Holtz is of no use at all: Mama Bess (as Laura was known to her family) rampages behind the wainscoting from the front of the book to the back—a domineering, ungenerous, grasping, sponging, parochial snob and philistine (as well as “a determined but amateurish writer to the end”), who withheld maternal affection from her only surviving child and whose “last gift” from beyond the grave was a probable diabetic condition in old age.
Since Mr. Holtz has produced a finely researched, beautifully written, and very readable biography, it is more the pity that he has done himself the disservice of grinding his axe in plain view of his public, and that public another disservice by prompting it to mistrust his judgment and suspend its own, pending a personal perusal of the evidence. If Mrs. Wilder’s reputation as the untutored genius of Mansfield, Missouri— the literary Grandma Moses of the Ozarks—is, as William Holtz asserts it to be, a myth, then any but the most sentimental reader ought to be prepared and willing to acknowledge that claim: the nine books attributed to Laura Ingalls Wilder and published in her name stand like the Teton peaks from American literature, and their beauty and perfection cannot be diminished by discovery of authorial collaboration, which indeed might be taken for elegant proof that a horse may be a camel designed by a committee. If Rose Lane was in fact the ghost—”the spirit, vital principle”—behind her mother’s work, well and good: let honor be given where honor is due. But why does Holtz appear to find even greater pleasure in taking with the left hand what he happily gives with the right?
What is merely of interest in Mr. Holtz’s book is the literary detective work by which he seeks to prove his case; what is crucial is the mystery it implies regarding the nature and operation of literary genius. The facts, briefly stated, are as follows:
Rose Lane, a born writer who plied her trade from her youth until almost the day of her death at the age of 81, was nevertheless prevented from distinguished literary accomplishment by her desire for fame and fortune and by a restless, impatient temperament that would not permit her to define a coherent artistic goal for herself and persevere toward it. After beginning her career as a woman’s feature writer and reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin under its distinguished Progressive editor Fremont Older, she produced a pedestrian novel about a frustrated career woman before accepting an offer to work as a genteel propagandist for the Red Cross, filing stories from London at the end of the First World War and later from Georgia and Armenia that described the relief work the agency was accomplishing in distressed areas abroad. After returning from the incorporating Soviet Union and the Near East, she went to her parents’ farm near Mansfield, Missouri, where the Wilders had eventually come to rest after failing in their youthful endeavor as pioneer farmers on the plains of Dakota Territory. Her father Almanzo was a taciturn man whose sole interests were good horses and careful agriculture, her mother a literate woman and former schoolteacher who for years had contemplated writing about her experiences as a pioneer girl in Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota, and Dakota. Since at least 1911 she had contributed short work to the Missouri farm journals, and by the 20’s she felt encouraged—partly by her daughter’s success as a writer—to try her hand at something larger. (“I intend to try to do some writing that will count,” she had written her husband from San Francisco where in 1915 she visited Rose, “but I would not be driven by the work as she is for anything and I do not see how she can stand it.”) Finally at the age of about 60 she began to commit her own recollections and memories, together with her father’s stories, to paper, holding in mind the idea for a series of what she called “children’s novels.” Quite naturally, she submitted the early results for scrutiny to the only professional writer of her acquaintance, who “ran it through the typewriter” and afterward assisted her mother in placing the finished manuscript with a publisher, thus establishing a creative and editorial routine that persisted from Little House in the Big Woods through These Happy Golden Years; The First Four Years was published after the deaths of both women. Through her work on what she called her mother’s “g—damn juvenile [s],” Rose—the prodigal daughter home from San Francisco, New York, Paris, and Vienna—became interested in Laura Wilder’s pioneer material to the point that she finally reworked it into two “adult” novels of her own, Let the Hurricane Roar and Free Land, in the first of which the “fictional” protagonists bear the names of her maternal grandparents, the Charles and Caroline of her mother’s books. (Thus, as Laura labored to fictionalize fact. Rose was busy factualizing fiction.)
Mrs. Wilder, having completed what Holtz alternately refers to as “fiction” and “her life story,” quit writing by her late 70’s in order, as she explained, to live the life that remained to her as a celebrated and relatively wealthy woman; while Rose Lane, after producing the best-selling Free Land, lost her inspiration for fiction and immersed herself in libertarian theory until her death in 1968—a mostly forgotten and marginalized figure, supported in the final decade by royalties from her mother’s books. “Mama Bess,” Holtz concludes, “collected both prestige and money, while Rose collected neither.” Yet:
Almost everything we admire about the Little I louse books— the pace and rhythm of the narrative line, the carefully nuanced flow of feeling, the muted drama of daily life—arc [sic] created by what Mama Bess called Rose’s “fine touch,” as shining fiction is made from her mother’s tangle of fact. . . . The First Four Years [on which Rose did no work [ represents a fair sample of her abilities, and even despite some editorial sprucing up by Roger MacBride [Rose’s heir] it requires all the levitation and momentum afforded by the earlier books to justify its existence between covers.
What William Holtz does not even attempt to explain is why, if Rose Wilder Lane were capable of writing so brilliantly under the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder, she could not write equally well under her own. Let the Hurricane Roar and Free Land are wan restatements of her mother’s work (in the case of the second novel, strongly peppered with polemical additives) unlikely to appeal either to children or to the sophisticated literary audience at which their author, contemptuous of the “g— damn juvenile[s],” aimed. Indeed, when one compares Hurricane with The First Four Years, a fair conclusion is that Mrs. Wilder’s draft represents as strong an effort as the finished product of Mrs. Lane. And there remains the question of the competent artist’s ability for self-evaluation: whoever it was who “really wrote” the Little House books must have known how well and truly she had written, yet Holtz offers no evidence that, for Rose Lane, the work was anything more than a colossal nuisance to be resented, as well as, in time, the source of substantial royalty checks that supported her parents without her help in their extreme old age. Typically, he presents Laura Wilder’s pride of authorship as vanity, posturing, and dishonesty.
“To appreciate Rose Wilder Lane’s contributions to her mother’s books,” Mr. Holtz insists, “one must simply read her mother’s fair-copy manuscripts in comparison with the final published versions. What Rose accomplished was nothing less than a line-by-line rewriting of labored and underdeveloped narratives.” As he proceeds to explain this rewrite job in greater detail, it is important to note the ingenuous use of key words, marked here by italics:
From this manuscript Rose would retain the story line and many of the incidents, but sometimes little of her mother’s original language, and that often retuned to render leaden lines more felicitous. She rearranged material freely to achieve foreshadowing and thematic clarity. She added much exposition, dialogue, and description, often inventing incidents as well. She suppressed much that was tedious or irrelevant or inconsistent. At some point, these myriad changes became formative and then transformational, and a struggling story came alive. . . . shining fiction is made from her mother’s tangle of fact. . . . To give some sense of Rose’s transformation of the manuscript, I have selected a few pages from the manuscript and the published text of Little Town on the Prairie. . . . These are major instances of what occurred in hundreds of minor ways as Rose wrought aesthetic and ideological order in her mother’s manuscripts. “This kind of writing is called ‘ghosting,’ and no writer of my reputation does it,” she had written. . . .
Actually, “this kind of writing” is not called ghosting; and one may well wonder what experience, if any, Professor Holtz has had as a manuscript editor. The improvements he describes, invented scenes aside, are in fact routine editorial work at all serious publishing houses, including what Holtz describes (in an astonished tone) as “moving whole chapters” around. Bv his editorial standards. Maxwell Perkins and Edward Aswell at Scribner’s ghosted every novel published under Thomas Wolfe’s name, and the name of Ezra Pound belongs with that of T.S. Eliot over The Waste Land. Clearly it would have been helpful, to Holtz’s argument as to his readers’ conclusions, had the author been more precisely quantitative in estimating how many instances of Rose’s inventions and rewritten passages occur in Mrs. Wilder’s books. What is “sometimes”? How often is “often”? And at what “point” do the books become at least as much Rose’s work as Laura’s? In his acknowledgments, William Holtz thanks Clair Willcox of the University of Missouri Press “for his skill in converting my manuscript into a book.” Are we to infer that Mr. Willcox ghosted The Ghost in the Little House, and that Mr. Holtz is guilty of vanity and dishonesty in not having placed the name of his ghost on the title page of the book, equally prominent with his own?
Holtz never settles on a fixed meaning of the word “ghost,” as with matching confusion he is unable finally to identify the Wilder books as either the children’s “novels” he claims Mrs. Wilder intended or the straightened-out “tangle of fact” he adverts to in the passage quoted above. If one thing seems sure, it is that what he calls the “fictional Laura” of the Little House series is no more a fiction than the Mama Bess of Rose’s diaries and letters and of Mr. Holtz’s biography. Mr. Holtz’s animus against Mrs. Wilder is astonishing, and derives, apparently, from his uncritical acceptance of Rose’s anger and ambivalence toward her mother. Of course he should have known better. The world is full of women resentful of their mothers for their alleged lack of affection and perceived smugness, stodginess, snobbery, and other infuriating as well as—above all—embarrassing qualities; indeed the woman who loves-hates her mother is as much a stock figure of fun as the jealous husband or the doting mama’s boy. Whether with or without her daughter’s approval, Laura Wilder was an equal partner with her husband in the labor of making Rocky Ridge Farm a success and apparently served as a loyal and supportive wife for almost 64 years—a human achievement that Rose Lane never tried and actually scorned to equal. Holtz has included a single photograph of Laura Ingalls Wilder in his book, and—not I think coincidentally—it is by far the most unflattering I have ever seen of her, resembling as it does Lizzie Borden’s stepmother. “She says she wants prestige rather than money,” Rose reported of Laura. We have only her word for it; but even if that were true, what of it? Rose, by her own and her biographer’s admission, wanted money—a far, far less healthy ambition for a writer, and one that kept her career from proceeding beyond triviality, however well rewarded at times.
Rose Wilder Lane died a heroine to American libertarians, who are wont to lionize her to this day, along with Isabel Paterson. It is hard to say why since, granted that she was an early and vociferous anti-New Dealer, she also became an apologist for the American Century and a staunch advocate of the Vietnam War. “My attachment to the U.S.A.,” she wrote to Jasper Crane,
is wholly, entirely, absolutely to The Revolution, the real world revolution, which men began here and which has—so to speak—a foothold on earth here. If reactionaries [her word for leftists] succeed in destroying the revolutionary structure of social and political human life here, I care no more about this continent than about any other. If I lived long enough I would find and join the revival of The Revolution wherever it might be in Africa or Asia or Europe, the Arctic or Antarctic. And let this country go with all the other regimes that collectivism has wrecked and eliminated since history began. So much for patriotism, mine.
Could Joshua Muravchik and the Menshevik apparat of global democrats have spoken any plainer?
[The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane, by William Holtz (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 425 pp., $29.95]