Whether you realize it or not you’ve probably read the words of Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968). She was the daughter of famed children’s book author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House books have delighted several generations of children (and adults) and which were adapted into a long-running, if somewhat mawkish television show. For all intents and purposes, Rose, an accomplished journalist and novelist in her own right, co-authored those books with her mother.
She was also one of the “three furies” of libertarianism. In 1943 three women published books that are considered important sources of modern libertarian thought. The best-known is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Also in the annus mirabiles were Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine and Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom. These books have often marked Rand, Paterson, and Lane the “founding mothers of American libertarianism.”
Albert Jay Nock, the dean of American individualist/libertarian writers was deeply impressed by Lane. Writing to a correspondent he declared:
You must read The Discovery of Freedom. I don’t know who Sister Lane is. but she is a credit to the Cause, I assure you.
On anything basic she always shoots straight to centres, and hits damn hard. Another odd thing is that while she has the philosophy of individualism down fine, she seems to have got it entirely out; of her own head. There is no evidence that she has read the individualist writers, and considerable evidence that she has not–I believe she hasn’t. I think this is a remarkable achievement, and darned creditable. I’m all for Rose.
The Discovery of Freedom was not literary success. Historian Jennifer Burns wrote:
Lane knew how to play with character, drama, plot, and description to craft works that drew readers into ideological sympathy even as they entertained, but Discovery of Freedom played to none of her strengths. Repetitive, simplistic, and plodding, the book lacks the personal detail and compelling voice that propelled Lane’s fiction and short articles. (pp. 763-4)
For what it is worth, Lane pretty much agreed with this assessment. She thought the book had been rushed to publication in an unfinished state. She also thought the publisher had printed far too few copies and had not promoted it. This is the entirety of her diary entry on the day of the book’s publication:
It was perhaps that Lane was largely self-educated and no one’s disciple that she was a fierce anti-racist writer. Moreover her anti-racism seemed to be born of her libertarianism. Unfortunately, her anti-racist stance was not taken up by the larger libertarian movement.
If you want to find Lane’s anti-racist writings, you need to go the columns she wrote for the Philadelphia Courier, a nationally-circulated newspaper for African Americans.* There, Lane took a stand that was almost unique on the American right wing: a firm embrace of the equality of all human beings. As I noted elsewhere on this blog, the belief in inequality was the defining characteristic of American conservative thought. For Lane, human equality had to extend to racial equality for a reason that was truly radical when she put it forth in 1942: human races didn’t exist and hence racial inequality was impossible:
How can there be equality between races when there are no races? These professional thinkers have burned millions of kilowatt hours of incandescent brain-power, trying to find human races; they’ve divided human beings by geography, by languages, by ‘cultures,’ by colors and shapes of heads, and not one of these theories has held water long enough to give a hummingbird a drink. They’re still at it and still they can’t find any ‘races’ that fit facts, or any facts that fit their ‘races.’ Show me at least two races, before you try to tell me that races are equal to each other. (26 December 1942)
Lane was following the lead of George Schuyler, the Courier‘s most famous writer who had long argued against the reality of race. His satirical 1931 novel, Black No More posited a machine that could change the skin color of African Americans. As “white” Americans, they find more and more opportunities available to them, thus demonstrating that racial capacities were equal and that racism and discrimination were the real barriers to African-American advancement.
Lane wrote that Schuyler was “in my opinion and in that of many others, the most brilliant living American writer” (13 February 1943). But she was also sensitive that she was not in the same position as Schuyler, although race was non-existent, according to Lane, it nonetheless had real effects: “Now, in honesty, I admit I cannot know colored Americans. You are courteous, even friendly to me, but you do not forget my color. You can’t the barrier is like a national frontier; it is purely imaginary, but it is there” (27 March 1943).
The year before Gunnar Myrdal rebranded America’s “Negro Problem” as a problem of racial prejudice of white Americans, Lane pointed squarely at white people as the cause America’s racial problems:
I must admit that the progress of my people is slow…. Whites can not be fairly judged by their present mentality; the handicaps against which they must struggle should be taken into account. The White child is a victim of prejudice from his infancy. Socially he is segregated from other Americans; he is placed young in a school which teaches him that whiteness is the ineradicable mark of superior race. Every influence around him confirms this delusion. (6 February 1943)
Lane despaired of the lost potential of individuals who had been denied their full potential because of racial discrimination,
Who knows how many George Washington Carvers died hoeing cotton in our country? Was that misery and waste their fault? NO. It was the inevitable result of the lack of law to protect their God-given individual liberty. Doubtless some of theme had no more idea of their natural human rights than their masters had, or than most persons living on earth have now. (30 June 1945)
Lane’s racial views were published around the same time as much better-known fusillades against racism. Lane never promulgated her racial views outside the Courier. In 1945, just as she ended her stint at the Courier, she took over writing and editing the Economic Council Review of Books (ECRB) following the death of Albert Jay Nock who had previously filled those roles. The ECRB was one of two regular publications by Merwin K. Hart’s National Economic Council (NEC). Hart was an outspoken free marketer, anti-Communist, and antisemite. In 1947 the Anti-Defamation League noted that Hart’s NEC “abandoned its policy of subtlety and be came openly anti-Semitic. Hart adopted blatant bigotry as a weapon in his alleged anti-communist crusade” (p. 23). Hart himself wrote the Economic Council Letter which was often peppered with Hart’s conspiratorial view of Jews. That being said, Hart obviously gave Nock and Lane a completely free hand in the ECRB and neither shared his antisemitic views, although both carried on friendly relationships with him. But Lane wrote nothing in her monthly publication about race or race relations.
At some point, Lane put together her Courier columns for a possible book publication:
This never-published two-volume collection of essays did not contain any of her materials on race or race relations either. A savvy professional writer, Lane may have left out that material for market reasons (and who knows the market better than a libertarian?) This is simply speculation on my part, but she may have believed that her audience of libertarians had little, if any, interest in racial matters.
Whatever the reason, Lane’s writings on race for the Courier deserve to be better known than they are. She was one of the very few writers of the 1940s to put forth the radical idea that race is a myth, and a harmful myth at that.
* There is a very good article about Lane’s work for the Courier which I recommend to you. If anything, however, Beito and Beito understate how radical her stance regarding race was. See: Beito, David T., and Linda Royster Beito. “Selling Laissez-Faire Antiracism to the Black Masses: Rose Wilder Lane and the ‘Pittsburgh Courier.’” The Independent Review 15, no. 2 (2010): 279–94.
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