Split Personality

posted in: Laura and Rose Wilder | 2

Rose Wilder Lane–journalist, short story writer, novelist, essayist–for all her output is a long-forgotten author. Only the Little House books, which she edited and ghostwrote, have stood the test of time–just not with her name attached. Ironically, her most ephemeral writing–letters and diary entries–may be the most worthy of preservation. At least those of her young adulthood and early middle-age. Something happened in her mid-forties that narrowed her vision, diminished the number of her correspondents and the diversity of her interests. Her journal lay fallow for long stretches after 1930. Political screed replaced philosophical musing as her primary literary mode. The doubt and vulnerability and curiosity that had made her ephemeral writings most compelling were replaced by conviction, combativeness, and intolerance. What prompted the radical change?

Reading journal entries selected by her biographer, one is struck by the self-awareness they reveal. In her early thirties, from Paris, she described her own “harum-scarum mind” in a letter to a male friend and incipient lover. As she explained, “I do not want things in an orderly manner, but helter-skelter, all at once & when that chaos is added to the chaos of living the result is messiness and frustration.” Honesty in her letters was matched by persistent self-criticism in her journal. At forty, in the middle of a third Albanian adventure, she admitted, “I don’t know anything about any part of life, because I’ve never lived any of it; I’ve only muddled about in dreams.” Even a frivolous 1920s magazine questionnaire became, in Rose’s hands, an occasion for rigorous self-evaluation. To the question, What are your strongest points?, Rose dutifully recorded for posterity: restlessness, tenacity, imagination, impulsiveness, generosity with money, desire to acquire, nervous irritability, morbid sympathy, vanity, recklessness, intelligence. It is easy to forget in the reading that she (apparently) saw all of these as strengths!

Her letters and journal entries were not all doubt and self-criticism. She could be expansive in them, as well. To her now-lover, she wrote, “If one neither seeks nor expects happiness anywhere else, it is there. Just to be alive, if nothing else matters to you, is to be happy.” A year later in Albania, she was no less buoyant: “It’s enough for me, just to be alive, just not to be dead yet. Just to see, and hear, and think about, this fascinating, interesting variable world.”

A certain restlessness in her personal writing mirrored the restlessness of her living. Like her grandparents–Charles and Caroline Ingalls–she seemed impelled across frontiers in search of a better elsewhere. Kansas City, San Francisco, Paris, Tirana, Baghdad, Tblisi: in the end, Albania came closest to fulfilling her dreams. Three times she visited the Balkan nation, the last time living and writing in a rented house for fifteen months. On the horizon, snow-capped mountains ringed her world. Across rooftops, the muezzin’s cry called the faithful to prayer five times each day. Below her window, beasts of burden plodded through winding streets, their bells clanking. Life in Albania had an air of timelessness for Rose. It could not last. Signs of modernity were sprouting up around her. She had been chasing “dream lands,” she realized, and documented the epiphany in her journal: “We continue to cling to the belief that when we see them they will be beautiful, but an implacable circle of reality moves with us wherever we go.”

For all her travels, Rose lived mostly within lines on a page, within pages in a book. Her life was dominated by thought–thought that sprang from the doubt at her core. In one journal entry, she questioned all that we think we know, finding, “Dizziness at the edge. Life is thin narrowness of taken-for-granted, a plank over a canyon in a fog.” In another, she invoked the fear and trembling of the mystics: “There is something very beautiful and terrible in the world–at the core of the world, of life–something neither beautiful nor terrible, but both, inseparably–if only we could get to it–could only know it somehow. But one gets only a glimpse, now and then, indescribable, ungraspable, only a feeling….” Mystery and wonder were her subjects.

Sometimes her doubt bled into debilitating self-doubt. “I have the blues,” she wrote a few years after Albania. “Why is that hell in all of us? A fundamental discord, it is: an agony of mal-adjustment to life, or to our conditions of life? Or is it because we can not accept the mystery, the unknowableness, the mists? We want solidities.” Through the years, she regularly chastised herself for falling short of her own ambitions. She wanted too many things, she said, but none of them passionately enough. It might also have been that her passions were too numerous, too diffuse, for her to pursue any one productively. As a result, self-doubt turned into the blues turned into depression. More than once. In 1932, as the country stumbled through hard times, Rose fell into her own Great Depression: “I am old, I am alone, a failure, forgotten…. All my trouble is still my old trouble of almost twenty years ago. I am not leading my own life because any life must coalesce around a central purpose, and I have none.” [Italics mine.]

Oh, but Rose did have a purpose waiting to emerge. It lay dormant in her soul, planted there by her parents, waiting for the right conditions to sprout. Like all children, everywhere, she had discounted her parents’ stories of the past as hopelessly old-fashioned and irrelevant to modern life. But, now, as she strove for a central purpose and the country struggled for its survival, the relevance of her family’s pioneer stories became unmistakable.

In 1932, Laura Ingalls Wilder, published the first of her now-famous children’s books. Her manuscript, which began as an autobiography, had been trimmed and reimagined into the book we know as Little House in the Big Woods. As editor, Rose had been steeped in her mother’s pioneer material, off and on, for two years. Now she adapted (plagiarized?) segments of it into an adult novel of her own, Let the Hurricane Roar. She set the story in the 1890s, the decade of her youth and another era of deep economic depression. Rose had spent a lifetime forgetting the grinding poverty of her early years, but now she allowed herself to remember. And the memory gave her authority in the current crisis. Rose had her heroine declaim, as if in counsel to Depression-era Americans, “We are having hard times now, but we should not dwell upon them but think of the future. It has never been easy to build up a country, but how much easier it is for us…than it was for our forefathers.” This was the consolation of an ice bath: Life is hard, but it could always be worse.

To her critics, Rose explained, “living is never easy,…all human history is a record of achievement in disaster.” Therefore, “disaster is no cause for despair.” She had taken the comforting maxim of her mother’s generation–“Sweet are the uses of adversity”–and given it a hard edge: “The only freedom is to be found within the slavery of self-discipline.” Even the young readers of her mother’s books were exposed to Rose’s crystallizing thought. “This is what it means to be free,” Laura muses in Little Town on the Prairie. “It means you have to be good.” Later, Ma instructs, “This earthly life is a battle. If it isn’t one thing to contend with it’s another. It always has been so and it always will be.”  These words could only have come from Rose Wilder Lane.

Gone was Rose’s self-doubt, gone her sense of mystery. She was sure of herself now, sure she understood the arc of history. It bent toward individual freedom, within a rigorous self-discipline. Stubbornly, she railed against any evidence to the contrary. The New Deal, she complained, was killing the American “pioneering spirit,” encouraging dependency. Americans were growing soft, accepting handouts from their government. Sometimes, she let her animus get the better of her. In 1937, she confided to the privacy (thankfully) of her journal that she hoped Roosevelt had been assassinated at his inauguration. Now, at the start of the president’s second term, Rose admitted she would “make a try at killing FDR” if she believed the country able to take advantage of it.

The woman of words had become an activist (of a sort). She lived out her ethic of self-reliance as a modern-day hermit, if not a westering pioneer. On a plot of land in southwestern Connecticut, sixty miles north of Manhattan, she raised her own fruits and vegetables, canning them by the hundreds for winter. She shared a milk cow with a neighbor, raised chickens and pigs. She churned her own butter, made her own cheese, cured her own ham. The foodstuffs she could not provide for herself–flour, salt and a minimum of sugar–she bartered for. She quit a longtime smoking habit rather than pay for cigarettes. This was Little House in Small Town Connecticut, Rose proving she could be as independent and self-reliant as her forebears.

To avoid the much despised income tax, Rose kept her earnings below a taxable threshold. She refused to register in Social Security, which she saw as a government-sponsored Ponzi scheme. War rationing in the forties became just another form of “political control” she could not abide. Rose lived by her principles and called on ordinary citizens, like herself, to resist the government’s overreach. She made the mistake (no doubt a “Freudian” one) of expressing subversive views on a postcard, which was intercepted by an overzealous postmaster and passed on to the FBI. These were wartimes and Rose’s words were potentially seditious. A local policeman–again, unduly officious–was sent to make inquiries. The resulting encounter yielded a sharply-worded riposte from Rose’s typewriter: “What Is This–The Gestapo?”

Rose’s notoriety grew. She was no longer simply a reporter on events. Her words and her actions sometimes made the news. “NOVELIST HAS GIVEN UP WRITING AND INCOME TO FIGHT NEW DEAL,” blared one headline. To some she was a courageous hero, taking on the “counter-revolutionary” New Deal. To others she was a crank.

Her friends were at a loss to account for the change. “Strange, erratic girl,” wrote one. “Floating between sanity and a bedlam of hates,” wrote another. Saddest was the price paid by longtime confidante, journalist Dorothy Thompson. Twenty years earlier, Rose had told Thompson she was the very rarest of friends. Now she allowed political differences to cripple their relationship. Rose chose ideological purity over loyalty. When Thompson published articles with pro-New Deal leanings, Rose attacked: “Once you were a fine person, sensitive, intelligent, witty, poetic, ardent for truth and justice. Now you are coarse and stupid.” With friends like that…, as they say.

Rose Wilder Lane felt increasingly out of step with her times and with her countrymen. History was passing her by, so she took the long view. The cause of freedom advanced in 1776 might take a “millennium or two,” she decided, to reach fruition. Until then, Rose could only keep the faith. To her most loyal supporter and the future author of the Rose of Rocky Ridge books, she wrote:

I wait for the natural to return; for newspapers to report the news with care for accuracy and grammar; for schools to teach and pupils to study; for faces to be sane and intelligent and even humorous; for American artists and writers and poets to be exuberant and optimistic and gay and VERY hardworking to create beauty and express truth; for poetry to be IMPORTANT again, and a new poem–beautiful or witty– to be a sensation from Maine to Baja California, a new painting to be intelligible as a matter of course, and discussed everywhere with intelligence, a new writer to be hailed with joy and hope; and work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, a good day’s work for a good dollar and devil take the hindmost., Hurrah!

Such nostalgia for a time that never existed! Such longing for a world outside the “implacable circle of reality”!

What happened to Rose in mid-life? What caused the shift, circa 1932, that made her harden so? A mid-life crisis? The election of FDR? One gropes for a more satisfying explanation. Tirelessly inquisitive, Rose might simply have tired of the quest. Fearlessly self-examining, she might, finally, have feared what she found lurking inside. Exquisitely sensitive to the “indescribable” and “ungraspable,” she might, in the end, have exchanged the fascination of mystery for the comfort of “solidities.” It might be that she–consciously or not–quashed her own “harum-scarum” mind, forced a unity on her too-varied passions. Perhaps. Even so, we are left with the question: Was the trade-off worth it?

In the end, the compulsive diarist lost her compulsion. In March 1959, at the age of seventy-two, Rose wrote these few words in her journal, marking the end of a writing life: “I am incapable of continuing the conversations with myself that fill this book so far. Don’t know why. Just don’t do them any more.”

Source:  Holtz, William. The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.

2 Responses

  1. Andrew Speno

    Oh, and then there was this to her editor at Knopf: “The more I see of the public temper in this depression, the more I’m reluctantly concluding that this country is simply yellow. Our people are behaving like arrant [sic] cowards. And it’s absurd. Nothing’s fundamentally wrong; we’re going to pull out of this quite all right. Only we’d do it much sooner if everyone wasn’t cringing and crying and yelping like a scared pup.” Ouch!

  2. Andrew Speno

    Caroline Fraser, in “Prairies Fires,” shows convincingly that Rose is a kind “unreliable narrator” (my phrase), predisposed to self-dramatizing and fabrication. Holtz, she believes, did not read her critically enough. Nor did I read Holtz critically enough, though questions were raised in my mind.

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