I've been fascinated by Rose Wilder Lane, the only child of Laura and Almanzo Wilder, since I read her introduction and afterword to the little book, On the Way Home, Laura's diary of the family's trek from South Dakota to Mansfield MO in 1894. My interest was sharpened in 1993 when I read William Holtz's excellent biography, Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane.
Since then, I've been collecting books about RWL and her unpublished diaries, journals, letters, papers, and manuscripts, with the idea of someday writing a novel about her.That someday is now. This month, I expect to finish a draft, under the working title of Wild Rose. Here are some highlights of the life of this fascinating woman.
Rose Wilder was born on December 5, 1888, on her parents' homestead claim in what was then Dakota Territory. She was named for the wild roses that grew on the prairies. Her parents lost the claim to the drought, prairie fire, and the bank, and her father was crippled by the effects of diptheria. The family traveled briefly to Minnesota, to Florida, back to De Smet, SD, and then (1894) to Mansfield MO, where they bought a 40-acre farm. It wasn't productive enough to support the family, so they moved to Mansfield for about 10 years. Almanzo Wilder hauled goods for the railroad with his team and wagon and Laura Wilder ran a boarding table, cooking and serving meals to paying diners.
Rose was very bright. She hated school, skipped it often, and educated herself by reading—borrowed books like Quo Vadis and The Conquest of Peru, as well as Dickens, Austen, and Alcott, among others. She invented her own private language, Fiskoopo, and spoke it with her donkey, Spookendyke. Her last school year was spent with her aunt, Eliza Jane Wilder Thayer, in Crowley, LA, where she mastered high school subjects and graduated at the top of her Latin class.
Rose was a career woman before most people knew what that term meant. She began her professional life as a telegrapher for Western Union in Kansas City (1904), then became a reporter for the KC Star and Post (1910-1911). As one of the first women real estate agents in California, she sold land for small farms (1913-14). Then she became a full-time reporter and feature writer for the San Francisco Bulletin (1915-18).
Rose was married in 1909 to Gillette Lane, a newspaper reporter, promoter, and real estate agent. They had one child, a boy, who died (a stillbirth or early death). The marriage ended in 1915, and Rose moved to what she called "The Little House on Telegraph Hill," where she lived with her friend Berta Hoerner. The Lanes were divorced in 1918.
From 1917-1920, Rose produced not only newspaper stories but books: Charlie Chaplin, Art Smith (a daredevil pilot), Henry Ford, Jack London, and Herbert Hoover. She ghost-wrote Frederick O'Brien'sWhite Shadows in the South Seas. She also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, Diverging Roads, which was serialized in Sunset Magazine and published as a book.
From 1920-1923, Rose traveled abroad for the American Red Cross, writing about the horrible aftermath of the Great War for readers back in the U.S. Her travels took her across Europe into the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Soviet Union. Her best-known book from that period is The Peaks of Shala, about her travels in Albania. Her short story, "Innocence," won an O.Henry award in 1922.
From 1925-1927, Rose lived with her friend, Helen Boylston (who would begin the Sue Barton, Nurse series in 1936) in Tirana, Albania. During that time, Rose wrote short fiction for American magazines. Her serial, "Cindy: A Romance of the Ozarks," was bought by Country Gentleman for $10,000, making her one of the best-paid magazine writers of the decade.
From 1928-1935, Rose lived at Rocky Ridge, her parents' Ozark farm. She built a retirement home there for her parents (the Rock House), and remodeled the farmhouse for herself and Boylston, who lived with her through late 1931. The stock market crash in 1928 wiped out the Lane, Wilder, and Boylston investments and dried up the magazine market. As the Depression wore on, Rose continued to write and sell magazine fiction, but at a slower rate and for less money. She ghost-wrote at least five adventure books for Lowell Thomas, and coauthored, with her mother, the first three books in the Little House series. In 1932, she wrote Let the Hurricane Roar, a very popular short novel that was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and published as a book in 1933.
In 1935, Rose left the farm and moved to Columbia MO to do research for a book about the state of Missouri. While she was living in Columbia, she wrote "Credo," a treatise on individualism for the Post. Writing from a strong anti-New Deal stance (clarified during a trip she took with New Deal critic Garet Garrett), she based her political philosophy on the principles of personal responsibility, limited government, minimal taxes, and no entitlements. The essay was immediately popular and widely distributed in booklet form.
In 1935-36, Rose began work on Free Land (her second important novel), co-authored the fourth book of the Little House series with her mother, and wrote magazine fiction. In 1937, she moved to New York City, where she completed Free Land (serialized in the Post in 1937 and published as a best-selling book). She used part of her earnings to buy a little house on King Street in Danbury, CT, her primary residence for the rest of her life.
From 1937-1943, Rose co-authored, with her mother, the three remaining books of the Little House series. After Free Land, she published no more fiction. Instead, she concentrated on her political writings, publishing her book,The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle against Authority in 1943 and beginning a series of articles ("Rose Lane Says") for the Pittsburgh Courier. Her isolationist, anti-war, anti-Roosevelt stance was not popular at the time, but The Discovery of Freedom has become increasingly influential, especially with conservatives. She is recognized as among the first to use the term "libertarian" to describe her political philosophy, and is often paired with Ayn Rand and Isabel Patterson as the three "mothers" of the Libertarian Party. Her "adopted grandson," Roger MacBride, was the Libertarian candidate for president in 1976.
Throughout her life, Rose was an ardent letter writer. Her 40-year correspondence with Dorothy Thompson was published by William Holtz in 1991 (Dorothy Thompson and Rose Wilder Lane: Forty Years of Friendship). Her correspondence with Jasper Crane was published by Roger MacBride in 1973 (The Lady and the Tycoon).
Rose was an accomplished needlewoman. In the 1940s, she wrote a series of articles on American needle arts for Woman's Day, and a second series in the early 1960s. In 1964, these were published as a book, The Woman's Day Book of American Needlework, blending Rose's interest in women's fiber arts and political history. In 1965, the magazine dispatched her to Viet Nam. At 78, she was the oldest war correspondent to cover that conflict.
Rose died in her sleep on October 20, 1968 at the age of 82. She was preparing to leave on a trip to Europe and beyond. On her plain granite stone are engraved these words from Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason: An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot. Neither the Channel nor the Rhine will arrest its prgress. It will march on the horizon of the world and it will conquer.
Note: This is the first in a series of posts about this project. Look for more in weeks to come.
Corrections/updates: Special thanks to Nansie Cleveland for corrections regarding grasshoppers in South Dakota and the dates of RWL's needlework articles.