Reading The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure
The Wilder Life is as the subtitle suggests about McClure’s attempts to reconnect with the books that meant the most to her when she was a little girl, the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the course of re-reading Wilder’s books and biographies and critical studies and even a cookbook, McClure learns things she didn’t know about Laura Ingalls and her family and one of the things she learns is that the little house in the big woods wasn’t as deep in the woods as it seemed in the book named after it. The nearest town, which McClure had always imagined as a long, long way off from the Ingalls little house, was actually nearby. Laura and her family had neighbors and more than McClure would have thought.
What astonishes her, though, is that the town was a town.
In the book Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder…John E. Miller points out that the Chippewa River valley region where Laura’s family lived was home to a bustling lumber business district; he cites a local newspaper editorial, written a few years before Laura’s birth, that describes Pepin, the town only a few miles from the Ingallses’ log cabin, as having a “busy hum”: “The air was alive with the sounds and voices of intelligent and independent industry,” the editorial claimed. Miller thinks that was likely an exaggeration, too, but you can’t help but think that even if the industrious hum wasn’t that loud, Pa Ingalls and his family might have been close enough to hear it, so to speak, in between the sounds of the whispering trees and the howling wolves.
There was a school in the area close enough for Laura to walk to and Pa Ingalls was the treasurer for the local school district:
…so in between making bullets and tanning hides with brains, he must’ve found time every now and then to wipe the bear trap grease from his hands and attend some boring meeting like an 1870s soccer dad.
Even more astonishing was discovering that De Smet, the town in what’s now South Dakota that’s buried and battered by blizzard after blizzard during The Long Winter, had a roller rink!
“How,” McClure asks, “did the town progress so quickly from nearly starving to death to building teen hangouts?”
I’m only three chapters in, so maybe McClure answers that question later in her book, but if De Smet was like most frontier towns from the beginning of the white settlement of America, starting with Plymouth---Jamestown wasn’t founded as a town; it was a fort or, from the Indians’ point of view, a bandits’ lair.---it didn’t have to progress because the town itself was the progress.
The settling of the continent was a progressive process. The image from the movies of the settling of the west occurring as a lonely log or sod cabin is built in the wilderness with maybe a trading post a day’s walk away and the settlers fighting off Indians, wild animals, and starvation while waiting for the cavalry to arrive and civilization to catch up---that happened, here and there, but mostly in wilderness areas we now regard as the East.
Mainly, what happened, though, was that whole towns sprang up practically overnight. Daniel Boone did a lot of solitary exploring but then he came back to the woods to cut it down and found a town.
Looking at the iconic image of wagons rolling west, it’s easy to forget that wagon trains were in fact trains. They were doing what trains still do, carrying lots of passengers with all their attendant baggage and delivering goods. And when we picture those pioneers bumping along in their wagons, the sounds of pots and pans clanging in the beds behind them, we need to remember what else they were bringing with them besides cooking utensils and some bedding. They brought books and musical instruments---think of Pa Ingalls and his fiddle---and clocks and pictures to hang on the walls of their log cabins and sod huts once they got them built. They were also bringing themselves. That is, they were bringing their attitudes, customs, and habits and generally these were not the attitudes, customs, and habits of “pioneers.” The people we call pioneers had been born and raised and had lived most of their lives in towns and cities. There were of course countryfolk among all these townsfolk and cityfolk, but almost from the moment the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, Century living in the country meant living close to town instead of in it, and countryfolk could hear that same hum, so to speak, that McClure was astonished to learn the Ingallses heard in between the sounds of the whispering trees and the howling wolves.
The pioneers were bringing civilization with them.
They didn’t settle themselves in the wilderness and then build civilization from scratch. It came with them, pre-fab.
It often happened like this, because along with everything else they brought with them they brought their religion and they brought children: As soon as they could, the settlers built a church and the church usually served as a schoolhouse until they could build a separate one. And around the church they built stores and offices. Not everyone who went west went west to farm. A lot of people went west to sell things, goods and services, to farmers. They were storekeepers and blacksmiths and lawyers and doctors and newspaper editors, all of whom brought the tools and rules of their trades with them. Things got social very quickly, and complicated. That meant hiring or appointing a minister and a teacher and a town police force, which may have included only one man, but he still had to be hired and paid. In order for the farmers to get to and from town and for people in town to get around, there had to be roads and those roads had to be kept relatively clear. There were all these wooden structures right up against each other, all lit and heated by flames. They were fire hazards and that meant they had to watched carefully. Do you remember the episode of Deadwood that revolved around appointing a fire marshal? A fire brigade had to be organized, just in case. Now who did all that? How did they do all that? Usually by committee. Essentially, then, one of the first things they did was put together a town board. That is, they formed a government.
Some people lit out for the territories like Huck, to escape being civilized. But most people went west in search of opportunity, the kind of opportunity that is made possible by being civilized. Even the most self-reliant, anti-social, temperamentally anarchistic, libertarian-minded farmer had to come into town from time to time to buy supplies.
What I’m saying is that it’s not really surprising that whole towns, some with roller rinks, sprang up very shortly after the first settlers felled their first tree or plowed their first furrow, because they needed towns in order to settle. And a town is almost by definition a government.
Which brings me to libertarianism and libertarians. Which is not a change of subject away from The Wilder Life, as you’ll see.
Generally, I don’t give much thought to libertarianism because I don’t think libertarians themselves give much thought to it. As far as I’ve ever been able to see, libertarian describes a temperamental aversion to certain ideas, one in particular, which I’ll get to, more than a philosophic attraction to any. The libertarians I know are either conservatives who think they’re too cool to be Republicans, hate anyone telling them how to behave, and don’t like be told they owe anything to anybody else or they are liberals who think they’re too cool to be Democrats, hate anybody telling them how to behave, and don’t like to be told they owe anything to anybody else.
That last point of agreement doesn’t mean that either type acts as if they don’t owe anything to anybody else. Most of them have strong senses of civic responsibility, duty, and obligation. It’s why they believe that a libertarian society would work. They would do all the pitching in that would be required if the government didn’t plow the roads and put out the fires. It’s just that they feel scolded when they’re told that they have to pitch in and that makes them cranky.
The libertarian ideal is predicated on the notion that if you leave people alone, their self-interest if not their innate decency will compel them to live together as if they had a government. You don’t need to enact lots of laws and impose lots of rules and regulations if people are going to act lawfully and follow the “rules” and regulate themselves on their own. In other words, societies are self-regulating. But as the most libertarian of the Founders was in the habit of saying, People were made for society and therefore they were made for government. Society and government are practically synonymous, because the first isn’t possible without the second. As I said, everywhere they settled, one of the first things the pioneers did was form a government. They didn’t wait around to find out if their neighbors were going to act as if they had a government. They just set to work setting one up, using as their models the governments they had seemingly left behind. Another way of putting this, is they brought government with them.
The thing about libertarians that I find alternately annoying and amusing is that virtually none of them live as self-reliant farmers far from towns they only come into when they absolutely have to. Most of them live in some of the most well-governed, well-ordered, well-regulated, civilized places on the planet. Suburbs.
Those who don’t, live in cities.
Rand Paul didn’t wander in from the hills. He was born in Pittsburgh. He grew up in Texas but in a city, a little city, but still a city of over 20,000 people. He went to college at Baylor University, a little city on its own of about 14,000 people, in Waco, Texas, population of about 125,000, then went on to medical school at Duke University, another little city of around 14,000, in Durham, North Carolina, a city of close to a quarter million people. He hung out his shingle in Bowling Green, Kentucky, a city of only 58,000 or so.
You can’t have that many people bumping up against each other without lots of rules and regulations just to control the traffic.
It’s not simply the case that Paul’s lived his whole life sheltered and protected by governments large and small. His life as it is wouldn’t have been possible except for those governments. He is a pure product of government. And this is the case for most self-proclaimed libertarians. Their lives wouldn’t be possible without not just government but without liberal government.
What libertarians hope for is that the democratic-republicans who found and run towns and cities create a solid, functioning, and unobtrusive government that the libertarians can then pretend isn’t there.
It gets down to this. It’s surprising that De Smet had a roller rink but not that much more surprising than the fact that it had a school Laura could play hooky from one day to go to the roller rink. Life on the frontier was only possible because there were towns like De Smet that could provide schooling for the children of the pioneers and support businesses that sold things the pioneers needed and among those things, the pioneers being civilized folk and civilized folk need to sustain their minds and spirits as well as their bodies, were recreation and entertainment.
Now. The connection between the Little House books and libertarianism doesn’t end there. It ends with an irony.
Here’s another surprising fact McClure turned up in the course of her research.
Laura Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a founder of the Libertarian Party.
Here’s Wendy McClure talking about The Wilder Life at NPR.