In assessing the literary merit of a biographical essay, one has to weigh its stylistic nuances and connotative tone as well as factual content. Consider two lengthy yet informative essays on libertarian writer Rose Wilder Lane. The first treatment, “Wilder Women: The Mother And Daughter Behind The Little House Stories,” by Judith Thurman of The New Yorker, deals with Lane and her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the intricate back story of how the famous Little House series of children’s books came to be written. Displaying the haughty parochialism for which her urbane publication has been known since 1925 (“not edited for the old lady in Dubuque”), Thurman strategically inserts the requisite snarky backhand slap at that bourgeois babe of the frozen frontier, Alaskan Sarah Palin; at those she dismissively labels as “libertarian ultras”; as well as deceptively blaming the present Fed-generated economic crisis on “laissez-faire capitalism.” The Little House on the Prairie she painfully reconstructs is both bucolic and bleak. It is an existential exercise of pointless drudgery and frigid angst — Sisyphus on the plains. Those Westward pioneers would have done better if they never left the outer environs of Teaneck or Montclair. Contrast Thurman’s agenda-driven portrait with that painted by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito in “Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Zora Neale Hurston on War, Race, the State, and Liberty.” Here the tone is celebratory yet deeply probing. The Beitos’ exploration of the commonality of character and individualistic temperament of this trio of remarkable authors makes for fascinating reading. In particular, contrast how they extensively deal with Lane’s pioneering work as a wartime columnist with The Pittsburgh Courier, one of America’s largest circulation Black newspapers, as opposed to the scant mention of it by Thurman.
But in the end it is the damning fact that Rose Wilder Lane, her mother Laura (as well as Paterson and Hurston) strongly opposed Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the regimentation of his New Deal. That will never be abided by the Empire State sophisticates at The New Yorker (which endorsed Barack Obama). Hence this subtle attack on those middle class Americans who still see the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose as possessing admirable virtues of individualism, self-reliance, independence, and resistance to authority.4:26 am on August 8, 2009 Email Charles Burris