In the US, especially among those who see themselves as promoting family values and independent spirit, there is a tendency to lionize the Little House on the Prairie series, a sequence of children’s books written by a woman, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who lived on the American frontier and witnessed its transition into the modern era. The truth of the matter is that there was little to admire about the Ingalls family, something which remained hidden until Wilder’s death in the 1950s, when her daughter finally revealed some of her parents and grandparents’ more unsavory secrets which were the cause of their ongoing instability and poverty. It is ironic that the family often held up as a model of American independent spirit and frontier courage also engaged in behaviors which, if implemented at large, would destroy a free society. As America enters into another election year and the popularity of politicians who promote redistributive policies rises, an examination of the books idealized by those who hold themselves to be the guardians of the “American spirit” reveals that the template to which they look is filled with a destructive canker that leaves its devotees vulnerable to collectivist ideas.
One theme that runs through the first four books, the ones which cover from Laura Ingalls’ early childhood to adolescence, is the shame of being the poor relatives. This particular situation was very directly the result of Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, being deemed unsuitable by his wife’s family. The disapprobation was due to his lack of skills and education and, as his granddaughter Rose Wilder Lane later revealed, a pathological dishonesty which his in-laws found reprehensible. Understandably, the in-laws saw Ingalls as a liability and refused to take him into their business interests, with the result that his wife and daughters lived with less material wealth than the rest of the family, all whom either worked in family companies or received familial funding for their own endeavors. There are anecdotes in the first book, Little House in the Big Woods, about the care Caroline Ingalls, Laura’s mother, took in preserving a ballgown and some jewelry, remnants of her life as the eldest daughter of a prominent, wealthy family.
The narrative conveyed by Laura was one of social snobbery, not one of character flaws and poor decisions. In this version of the story, Charles Ingalls’ crime was being born poor and the poor decisions he made were a result of his efforts to prove his in-laws wrong. In the story told by Laura, her maternal grandparents never gave her father a chance to prove himself, which he could have done if his father-in-law had made a grand gesture of trust, such as giving him an authority role in one of the businesses. (In Ingalls’ granddaughter Rose’s more honest stories, which included episodes such as the family sneaking out of a frontier town at night because he had swindled too many local businessmen, the in-laws’ doubts received abundant confirmation.)
Today in the American socio-political debate, there is similar infantile focus on and understanding of the symptoms of poverty. While nothing as extreme as the British “poverty proofing” of schools, where schools banned designer coats to prevent poor students from "feeling bad," has occurred (to the best of my knowledge), the general narrative of “inequality,” especially as promoted by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, is as infantile as the Little House books. With even less excuse since the author was a child when the events she chronicled unfolded and therefore can be forgiven for having only a child’s understanding. Brookings Institute published the now-infamous “Success Sequence” showing that the path out of poverty remains for young people to acquire skills, become educated, and start a nest egg before marriage. Charles Ingalls’ refusal to fulfill the first two steps was the source of Caroline’s father’s refusal to agree to their marriage and later rejection of his unwanted son-in-law. Despite the difference of over a century between the Ingalls timeframe and the story of the Brookings study, some things have not changed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given that she eloped in order to marry a man of whom her family disapproved, Caroline Ingalls was not the type of mother capable of teaching her daughters principled self-interest (their father could definitely teach them about the unprincipled variety), the setting of goals, genuine prudence, or any of the skills necessary for succeeding in a capitalist society. None of this would be a problem if it were not for the fact that the aphorisms of “Ma” are still admired and she is held up as a role model for an important segment of society today. For the record, there was also an eponymous TV show based on the books which was wildly popular in the 1980s, which is the main reason the vision of America as promoted by the Ingalls-Wilder family is still pervasive. Their influence is still represented in the character story for Amy from the wildly popular TV show The Big Bang Theory.
Among the plethora of examples, two are particularly egregious. Growing up, “Ma” frequently told the girls that it “was sinful to want what you cannot have.” Consequently, as the books follow the daughters into adulthood, one realizes that they deliberately did not pursue viable employment and familial decisions on the assumption that obtaining career training was not for people like them and therefore it was “sinful” to want. Tragically, they all wanted to be “career girls” but only the blind sister received parental support in pursuing secondary education, more out of concession to her disability than any real belief that careers and strong futures were admirable ambitions. While the “wanting things is sinful” mentality was perfect for silencing older toddlers who wanted to know why their aunts and cousins had nicer clothes and toys, it hardly equipped the daughters for life at the turn of the century, much less the goal-oriented, professionalized world of the twentieth century in which they spent their adulthoods.
The second is the most chilling because of its collectivist overtones. In the fourth book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, the Ingalls have moved further west, unable to settle due to Charles’ dishonest proclivities. As they try to settle in, some neighbors call, and Laura’s mother forces her to give her beloved doll to the neighbors’ child simply because the little brat asked to have it. As justification, the mother cited “being neighborly,” i.e. community spirit. Consequently, the social paradigm the girls learned – this being but one of many such episodes – was one of exploitation. Having self-interest, or even legitimate personal boundaries, was not a behavior trait to be rewarded. The world for them was take or be taken. At the same time, the social model was one of making pointless sacrifices in the name of some arbitrary and ill-defined idea of rightness, one which never received any reward.
In many ways, the overarching story of the Little House on the Prairie series is one of multigenerational poor decisions and subsequent poverty. On the one hand, the story is not particularly remarkable in the historical sense; there is always a group of people that have not, and will not, prosper due to individual flaws that are passed from generation to generation (Laura Ingalls Wilder married a man similar to her father, and her life’s course resembled that of her mother.). On the other hand, such people are not generally mythologized as the “salt of the earth” types. Those who a nation picks as its heroes reflect a vision for the future. It is unsurprising that now a society nourished on the subtle tropes of Little House on the Prairie – “we work hard but don’t succeed,” “no one will take a chance on us,” “everyone else has more than we do,” “we just want a better life for ourselves and our children,” but at the same time “it’s sinful to want X” – has turned toward the call of socialism in a belief that capitalism doesn’t work or is broken. The roots for such an idea run deeply into the nation’s consciousness and its extirpation will involve an assault upon a mythology that has become interwoven within the American identity.