By 1981 it was time for a change – the first marriage had ended and teaching English at the prep school in Rochester, in the quiet upper left hand corner of New York, had lost its charm, or at least seemed to stretch out endlessly into the future in a sad Mister Chips sort of way. The awkward adolescents finally became something or other and left for college each June, and there was the array of befuddled new raw ones each September, and then it was plowing through Hamlet and Great Expectations once again, and reading pretty much the same student essays, making the same comments, and then assigning a grade, which would be shrugged off or disputed in anger or tears – while real life went on elsewhere. This was training camp for that, and sending all those young people off into that real life obviously meant that you yourself had decided to remain behind, to prepare the next wave for their plunge into the big unknown, where they would do things and make things and succeed or come close. But that wouldn’t be you. Teaching – the molding and shaping of young minds at its best, and at its worst little more than the herding and containing of chaos – is a support position. Those young people would become something. You would not. You might be immensely proud when one of them became something extraordinary – a fine doctor or a famous lawyer or a first-rate writer or artist – but you always knew that didn’t have all that much to do with you. They did whatever they did on their own, with their own hard work and innate talents – you just nudged them here and there, in what you hoped was the right direction, and that might not have really made that much of a difference in the great scheme of things. That sort of thing can get to you after seven or eight years. The real world was elsewhere.
So it was off to California, to a place at the beach and a job in aerospace – which in the eighties seemed real enough. Yep, there was the little red convertible and heading off to work each day in a suit and tie, with a briefcase of all things, and conferences in Vegas or Newport Beach with PowerPoint presentations and talk about systems and return-on-investment and all that stuff. This had to be real life – after all, it paid more than three times as much, and no one really cared what Ophelia’s big problem might really be. The talk was about competitive compensation practices and management training strategies and succession planning and all sorts of organizational development issues, and information systems to manage all that. It was still support stuff – but in the next building they designed and assembled military satellites and in the next building over fire-control radar systems for fighter jets, and down the street it was guidance systems for our ICBMs in the submarines. All this was very real in a way Dickens wasn’t.
It was an illusion – Dickens and what he was trying to show us all seems far more real now – but at the time it would do. But there was the problem of Los Angeles, which is a city as real as any other, but in a way not real at all. The city was built on oil – the Getty and Doheny fortunes – and then the aircraft industry in the thirties and forties and fifties, where Rosie the Riveter worked, and then aerospace and electronics. But there were always the surfers, which spawned the Gidget movies and the Beach Boys, and there was Hollywood cranking out America’s movies since the early twenties and since the fifties all our television shows. Paramount is down on Melrose, Universal and Warner Brothers and Disney sit side by side out in Burbank, Twentieth Century Fox is over on Motor and MGM, now Sony-Columbia, is down it Culver City, which was Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, and Oz, and Gene Kelly’s Paris. It’s all illusion.
That was easy to see. Early on, driving home from a tedious meeting at the Hughes Research Labs high above Malibu, the next car waiting at the light was a snazzy red Ferrari, with Michael Landon at the wheel. He was a handsome fellow and the car was cool, but at the time he was the kindly father on the show Little House on the Prairie – and there was no prairie within a thousand miles of that stoplight in Santa Monica. This was not Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in the 1870′s – where frontier family, stuck in what was essentially the middle of nowhere, made it all on their own in a preindustrial dream world where everyone churned their own butter, so to speak. It was a pretty awful show but popular enough, if you’re into rugged individualism and the simple life, where you do it yourself or it doesn’t get done, whatever it is. Each week it was a life-lesson in honest and perhaps heroic self-sufficiency. Americans eat that up – the show ran for eight years and it’s still in syndication. This might have been 1982, just as the show was in its final season – and Landon didn’t look very homespun, nor did he look like the heartthrob cowboy he had played on Bonanza from 1959 through 1974, the year that shut down and Little House began its run. He was just a slick dude with good hair in a Ferrari. That had nothing to do with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s best-selling series of Little House books and homesteading out on the lonely prairie.
The light changed and we all drove on, but the whole thing was a little disconcerting. Landon should have been on a horse – but then Howard Hughes had once been in the movie business too, buying and running RKO for a time. His engineers may have then been building massive communications satellites, but Hughes had his Hollywood years – and did give us The Outlaw in 1943, featuring Jane Russell and that amazing cantilevered bra he designed or her, where engineering meets illusion. She didn’t like it much.
All that was a long time ago and those of us who live out here don’t make much of sighting celebrities – it’s not cool to gawk, or sneer – but some things lodge in your memory. And in the current New Yorker, Judith Therman offers an odd item on the correspondence between the two libertarian women, Ayn Rand and the woman who really wrote the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter. That might seem out-of-the-way, but Therman suggests it really isn’t:
Shortly after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, four years ago, a journalist asked her sister Heather Bruce what books Sarah had read as a child. Only one came to mind: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie,” the third in a cycle of eight novels on pioneer life, which have sold some sixty million copies. (In 1974, when Palin was ten, the “Little House” saga was adapted as a television series that ran for nine seasons. It was Ronald Reagan’s favorite program.) In September, the Library of America will publish Wilder’s collected fiction in a two-volume boxed set, edited and annotated by Caroline Fraser, with a glossy picture of amber fields of grain on the cover. It’s a great gift for values voters – Paul Ryan should take note.
There’s a progression here, from Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin to Paul Ryan:
The youthful reading habits of our new Republican Vice-Presidential candidate have also been fodder for the news cycle. Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” was so influential to Ryan’s career, and to his view of ethics and society, he said some years ago, that he gave it to his staffers as a Christmas present. In the last few days, however, Ryan has had to shrug Rand off – she’s his Jeremiah Wright. A Soviet-born Jewish intellectual (née Rosenbaum), who emigrated to America in the nineteen-twenties and worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter before turning to fiction, Rand was a pro-choice, antiwar atheist and Benzedrine user with a scandalous domestic life, vehemently opposed to drug laws, sodomy laws, and any other state interference in the lifestyle choices of citizens. (Ryan now says that his favorite writer is Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century Catholic saint.)
But there really is a connection here, which had to do with Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who along with Ayn Rand, is considered one of the founders of the American libertarian movement – where government is, as Ronald Reagan liked to say, always the problem and never the solution. He had his favorite television series, and Lane may have written the source material:
At first glance, Laura Ingalls Wilder, the daughter of pioneers whose hardscrabble life as a farmer redefines frugality, and Ayn Rand, the flamboyant cosmopolite and champion of privilege who lived in a ménage à quatre in New York City, hobnobbing with the élite, do not have much in common beyond, perhaps, the fervor that their work inspires. There is a connection, however.
Wilder’s books were written in collaboration with her only child, Rose Wilder Lane, a best-selling author in her own right. The extent of that collaboration is disputed – some critics have called Rose Laura’s “ghostwriter.” The evidence suggests that, at the least, Lane edited and shaped the manuscripts considerably, and thought of her mother as an amateur.
Therman covered that back in 2009 – it’s a strange story of just who was telling these tales – but it gets even stranger:
Lane was a compelling, and in many senses, a tragic figure. She was a woman of tremendous enterprise and passion who suffered from suicidal depressions that she diagnosed as a “mental illness.” Born on the frontier, in 1886, and raised in dire poverty, she rode a mule to the village school, where she was mocked for her rags. After high school, she became a telegraph operator, and eventually moved to San Francisco, where she married a feckless adventurer who fathered her only child. The baby died in infancy; Lane’s thwarted maternal instincts would thereafter be channeled into intense relationships with a string of protégés.
After her divorce, Lane made a career in journalism and as a popular biographer – of Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover, and Charlie Chaplin, among others. But Chaplin was so appalled by the inaccuracies of his portrait that he sued her. Factuality was never Lane’s forte. She preferred a “corking” story.
Lane preferred illusion:
Her prose was purple and simplistic, if not trashy. But an eclectic and discriminating circle of friends (Dorothy Thompson, Floyd Dell, who was the co-editor of The Masses, and Hoover) prized her for the wit of her letters and conversation. She transformed herself from a barefoot farm girl into a woman of the world who lived the life of a bohemian in Greenwich Village, and of an expatriate in Weimar Berlin and Jazz Age Paris, and filed dispatches from exotic places like Albania, where she befriended the leader of its ephemeral revolution, the future King Zog.
That didn’t last:
In the late nineteen-twenties, however, crippled by depression, Lane returned to her parents’ farm in Missouri. She was tortured by bad teeth – the product of childhood malnutrition; she lost her savings in the Depression; the state of the world increasingly embittered her. And the left-wing idealism of her youth took a hard turn to the right. When Roosevelt was elected, she noted in her diary, “America has a dictator.” She prayed for his assassination, and considered doing the job herself.
She’d fit right in with the current Republican Party:
In 1936, the Saturday Evening Post published an essay that Lane called her “Credo,” and which announced a new phase of her career: as a right-wing polemicist. “I am now a fundamentalist American,” she declared. Her vision was of a frontier democracy – a Republic of the Fittest – with no handouts or entitlements, and minimal taxation.
It’s almost as if Little House on the Prairie became a political tract:
Lane, who died in 1968 (the Wilders were a long-lived family) spent her later years in a Connecticut farmhouse on several acres, protesting Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” (the FBI took note) and raising her own food. A determined individualist, in her view, should be resourceful enough to live off the grid. Her goal was to reduce her income to the point at which she wouldn’t have to file federal taxes. Old friends were dismayed by her increasingly erratic militancy. One of them described her as “floating between sanity and a bedlam of hates.”
Now roll those last words around and try not to think of the Republican convention in Tampa, and consider the correspondence with Ayn Rand:
Lane and Rand exchanged collegial letters for a while in the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties. But when Lane invoked the Biblical imperative to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and protested that “without some form of mutual cooperation, it is literally impossible for one person on this planet to survive,” Rand “tore apart [her] logic” and denounced it as collectivist heresy. That sort of impulse, she concluded (to help your neighbor save his burning house, for example) led inexorably “to the New Deal.”
There was a falling-out, with implications:
It’s to Lane’s credit that, for all her zealotry, she couldn’t quite transcend the instinct to give succor. Should Paul Ryan decide to revisit the “Little House” books, he will certainly hear the congenial echo of Lane’s polemics in them, though tempered by something more humane. They exalt rugged self-reliance, but as Lane suggested rather plaintively in her argument with Rand, the pioneers would have perished (in greater numbers than they did) had they embraced the philosophy of every man for himself.
But wait – Sarah Palin loved the books and Ronald Reagan loved the television series – and then the light changed and Michael Landon drove off in his Ferrari.
And that leaves Paul Ryan, all super-disciplined buffed-out rugged self-reliance, who lost his father and grew up all on his own in Wisconsin – not the prairie but close enough. He’s a self-made man, who once loved what Ayn Rand wrote, even if’s now he is backing away from it a bit for practical political reasons. But he does like to mention he even worked at McDonalds when he was a teenager, and jokes that the manager made him a burger-flipper in the back because he didn’t have the “people skills” for the front counter. He made something of nothing.
Right – and out here in the land of pure illusion, the Los Angeles Times decided to set things straight:
In the year after his father’s death, Ryan’s maternal grandmother set up the Ryan-Hutter Investment Partnership, which remains an important part of Ryan’s finances with assets of up to half a million dollars, according to the congressman’s 2011 financial disclosure statement. Ryan continues as the general partner running the entity for the family.
Court records indicate Ryan’s father left a probate estate of $428,000, though the number of assets existing outside the will or the probate remains unknown. Ryan was to receive $50,000 when he turned 30.
In addition to the Ryan-Hutter Investment Partnership, Ryan also benefits from another family entity, Ryan Limited Partnership, which was established in March 1995 by an aunt. Ryan’s share of that is worth up to $500,000. Ryan makes no investment decisions in either partnership, the campaign spokesman said.
Of the Ryans’ maximum estimated assets of $7.6 million, Janna’s holdings account for about $6.5 million. She is the daughter of Dan and Prudence Little, two lawyers in Madill, Okla., who over the years have overseen a vast network of land and oil and gas mineral rights in the Red River area straddling southern Oklahoma and northern Texas.
The wealth derived from Janna’s grandfather, Reuel Winfred Little, a self-made millionaire several times over in oil and gas interests and other ventures.
He married money, although he wasn’t someone insignificant either:
Ryan was born into one of the most prominent families in Janesville, Wis., the son of a successful attorney and the grandson of the top federal prosecutor for the western region of the state. Ryan grew up in a big Colonial house on a wooded lot, and his extended clan includes investment managers, corporate executives and owners of major construction companies.
No one was churning their own butter there, and these folks were useful to him:
Ryan’s rise to political power and financial stability was boosted by family connections and wealth. The larger Ryan family has repeatedly helped the candidate along in his career, giving him a job when he needed one and piling up tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
And he read Ayn Rand, avidly, out there in his little house on the prairie, by candlelight no doubt, and he walked five miles to school each day, in the snow, uphill, both ways.
Kathleen Geier offers this:
Yes, like practically every other teenager of his generation, he worked a few low-paid service jobs for some pocket change when he was in high school. But for him to distort that experience and try to pass himself off as “blue collar” is a grotesque masquerade. Historically, it calls to mind nothing so much as the antics of Marie Antoinette and the ladies of her court, who from time to time would amuse themselves by donning shepherdess drag and play-acting at being pure and simple folk, modest toilers of the earth.
I’m pleased to see that at least one major media outlet is calling Mr. Ryan on this piece of outrageous bamboozlement.
Ah, but that major media outlet also offers an array of reviews from 1957 – reviews of the Ayn Rand’s new novel Atlas Shrugged, like this from Granville Hicks of the New York Times:
Not in any literary sense a serious novel, it is an earnest one, belligerent and unremitting in its earnestness. It howls in the reader’s ear and beats him about the head in order to secure his attention, and then, when it has him subdued, harangues him for page upon page. It has only two moods, the melodramatic and the didactic, and in both it knows no bounds.
There’s also Helen Beal Woodward in the Saturday Review:
Miss Rand … throws away her considerable gifts for writing by fixing her reader with a glittering eye and remorselessly impressing upon him her convictions. These range from a hatred of Robin Hood as “the most immoral and the most contemptible” of all human symbols to a belief in a kind of chrome-plated laissez faire. Much of it is persuasive…. But Miss Rand is undone by her prolixity and her incontinence. She sets up one of the finest assortments of straw men ever demolished in print, and she cannot refrain from making her points over and over…. Altogether this is a strange, overwrought book.
There’s Donald Malcolm in the New Yorker:
Apparently Miss Rand set out to write a novel of social prophecy, something like “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” But while Orwell based his predictions upon the nature of the police state, the lady who gave us “The Fountainhead” has based hers upon – well, it is hard to say. Miss Rand’s villains resemble no one I have ever encountered, and I finally decided to call them “liberals,” chiefly because I can’t imagine whom else she might have in mind. In her vision of the future, then, the liberals have brought the world to a sorry plight. America is plunged into a catastrophic depression, caused by the government’s infernal meddling with the economy, and most of the other nations of the world have become People’s States, whose inhabitants are actually grubbing up roots to keep themselves alive. The last sparks of industrial competence are concentrated in the minds of two dozen – at most – American businessmen, who manage to hold the globe aloft in spite of the best efforts of governments everywhere to bring it down.
That’s just some of them. It’s Little House on the Prairie gone mad, floating between sanity and a bedlam of hates – and all illusion. But then it all is. Los Angeles turned out to be no more real than Rochester – and in fact even less so. The Little House on the Prairie was a soundstage in Burbank. And no one churns their own butter, not even Paul Ryan.