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Critical take on Little House books is off by a century

In “Little Libertarians on the Prairie” (Ideas, Aug. 11) Christine Woodside argues that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, hijacked the editing of her mother’s works in order to promote libertarian political ends. Woodside alleges “a pattern of strategic omissions and additions” and editorial decisions designed to “recast the stoic . . . pioneers” as “people who achieved success without government help.” Though Lane’s political views are clear, as is her active participation in the revision process, the published works hardly comprise an “anti-New Deal fable,” as the article’s subhead suggests.

As proof of her characterization, Woodside cites examples, including the books’ minimal reference to the Homestead Acts of the 1860s and a pivotal scene at the end of “The Long Winter,” which she labels a moment of “free-market speechifying.” But the books do mention the homestead policies, in both laudatory and critical language. And it’s simplistic to label the wheat standoff in “The Long Winter” as a libertarian moment — in fact the scene is a classic example of the late-18th-century ideal of the “moral economy,” the conviction that some commodity prices ought to be exempt from the laws of supply and demand.

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As a history teacher, I have long marveled at how well the Little House books encapsulate complex 19th-century ideas about agrarian capitalism, the white settlement of the West, and the lived experience of frontier survival.

Woodside’s inquiry into the mechanics of the editing process is fascinating, but her provisional conclusions here are off by a century. These are fables of 19th-century Jeffersonian Republicanism, not 1940s Ayn Rand libertarianism.

Sarah Bridger

San Luis Obispo, Calif.

The writer is an assistant professor in the history department at California Polytechnic State University.

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