Monday, August 08, 2011

Michele and Laura

I was flipping through Ryan Lizza's superb* New Yorker profile of Michele Bachmann.  I was reading this:
In the speech, Bachmann said that her family arrived in the state in the eighteen-fifties and experienced a series of misfortunes: “the worst winter in fifty years,” “the worst flooding in forty-two years,” “the worst drought that anyone had ever recorded,” and then a plague of “locusts.” But they persevered, and even started the first Lutheran church in the area. The family came to Iowa, she said, after reading the Muskego Manifesto, a letter sent from Norwegian settlers in the town of Muskego to their families back home. Bachmann quoted the manifesto, which describes an America where people “have civil and religious liberty, and here we can choose whatever profession we want, and no one tells us what profession we go in.” Her ancestors, she said, read those words and “sold everything and took their five children and bought boat tickets to come to Iowa.”

In fact, Muskego is a town in Wisconsin, the state where Bachmann’s forebears, the Munsons, settled in 1857, twelve years after the manifesto was written. Then, in 1861, they moved west, to the Dakota Territory, near present-day Elk Point, South Dakota. That is where, according to the family history that Bachmann relied on, they encountered the awful winter and the flooding and the drought and what the text calls “grasshoppers.” The Munsons seem to have been part of the group that established the first Lutheran church in the Dakota Territory, but there were already Lutheran congregations in Iowa when they arrived there, in late 1864 or early 1865. As the author and historian Chris Rodda has pointed out, the story chronicled is not quite one of superhuman perseverance on the frontier; rather, it’s the story of a family fleeing to the relative safety and civilization of settled Iowa. In other words, Bachmann’s dramatic tale happened near Iowa, but not actually in it.
...and I thought: Laura Ingalls Wilder.   Surely you remember Wilder whose Little House books are not, even on the face of things, quite as anodyne as we remember them (winter in the Dakota Territory is pretty hairy by any standard).  But more than that, the Laura behind the legend and more particularly, the shaper of that legend, Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who, after a number of false starts, finally found her dual vocation as, one, the keeper of her mother's legend, and two, as a raving conservative ideologue.

Perhaps better "libertarian ideologue," and the distinction may be important. It's not always easy to sort out the repressive and Bible-thumping "conservatives" from the let-it-all-hang-out dope-smoking libertarians, but it may be important that the number two Google hit on Lane just now (right behind Wiki) is a fanpage from the Cato Institute where she shares billing with the celebrated athiest Ayn Rand and with Rand's sometimes-acolyte, Isabel Paterson

So, what would it be: the brutalizing weather?  The charmless landscape, the loneliness, the repeated vulnerability crashing disappointment: what is it about the great midsection that generates a mythology so compelling and with which it is so difficult to come to terms?
*Matt Taibbi, take that to heart as well as to mind. 

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