Saturday, May 4, 2013

Rose Lane Wilder and Zora Neale Hurston

I am currently reading Old Home Town, a collection of short stories set a century ago and written in the 1930s by Rose Wilder Lane, who is not only the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but, with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson, one of the "Founding Mothers of Libertarianism." Her stories are absolutely delightful.

Midwestern small-town life is as you would expect it to be at the turn of the last century. It's narrow. There's lots of gossip. Social roles are strictly defined. A sixteen-year-old narrator and her mother are the central characters in each story. The daughter and her peers are not that unlike teenagers today—there are arguments about clothes and boys—but the mother is at the end always a source of wisdom, strength, and even justice. There is an old maid (in her twenties) who in a mischievous plot twist turns out victorious in her quest to land a husband. There's lots of talk of fabric and sewing. (The above linked Wikipedia page tells us that "Lane wrote an immensely popular book detailing the history of American needlework (with a strong libertarian undercurrent).") This is a book about women, a very difficult topic, which is why I at first found it confusing.

Is this the work of a feminist? The word "feminist" is even mentioned—I had no idea it had been even coined by 1936—in the dénouement of one of the stories, in which the narrator later meets in Paris the protagonist, Mrs. Sims, a glamorous local woman who made it big in the fashion world after marrying at the age of sixteen a spendthrift glutton whom she left after he had racked up debt, losing his own money and hers that she had almost scandalously earned making hats working sixteen-hour days. Men only appear in the background of these stories, and never in a very positive light. But there is no rancor. There is no resentment. What kind of book is this?

Then, last night, during a bought of insomnia, I finally understood this book, in the light of "America's favorite black conservative," the delightful Zora Neale Hurston. Her great novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is not a list of grievances but a celebration of Black culture. Likewise, Rose Wilder Lane's collection of stories is simply a celebration of womanhood. As a lover of women, it is delightful to read. Zora Neale Hurston's words pretty much sum up the philosophy of Rose Wilder Lane's strong women:
    If I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.

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