3/4/2017 08:32

Rugged Individualism

The current issue of the "Wisconsin Magazine of History" includes an article by Jennifer Van Haaften debunking once again the persistent myth of the rugged individual. She does it in an interesting way, by tracing the connections among Laura Ingalls Wilder's extended family as they moved with the frontier.

Of course the myth was never really about a rugged individual; it was always about a rugged nuclear family, but in the myth a family was invariably represented by its husband and father. In actual reality the husband and father might well have died young and the widowed mother taken charge (as indeed happened in the Ingalls family).

Van Haaften documents the coordinated settlement and resettlement of this famous family, demonstrating a pattern familiar to me from the history of my own ancestors and the stories of others. But she also quotes Laura Ingalls Wilder describing her own intention of fostering the myth of the rugged individual while writing the series during the 1930s.

The question we are left with is how and why this myth arose. There were parts of it extant by at least the 1920s; at the moment I'm also reading Beard and Bagley's "The History of the American People" from 1924. That suggests the myth wasn't merely a reaction to demands for handouts during the Great Depression. It could have been a reaction to industrialization and factory employment, part of a larger arcadian myth about life in the past, compared to which contemporary life could seem depressing even in the roaring 20s. The reverse hypothesis is perhaps tenable as well; might the rich industrialists have promoted an ideal of individualism in opposition to the nascent cooperation among their workers? Who would have benefitted most from suppressing the sense of community responsibility for neighbors?

Then again, perhaps assigning the benefits of this myth to reactionary elements of society is an anachronistic reading of our own times back a century. An alternative view is that the myth of the individual was an early salvo in the intergenerational war. Under this hypothesis, the rugged individual of the past represents the contemporary young adult who seeks independence from the strictures of older generations. The example of the mythical past justifies the desires of the present.

Not only do I not have the documentary evidence to support or refute any of these hypotheses, I'm not even sure what would constitute a reasonable proof of any of them. One should demonstrate which segments of society actively promoted the myth, and when. One might be able to show how the myth was linked to other social, economic, and political goals (in public speeches and editorials, for example) thus suggesting the benefits to be gained by this particular distortion of history.

But we ought to be wary of creating a myth of the myth of the rugged individual. In actual reality the myth likely benefitted different factions in different ways and its intrinsic ambiguity and need for interpretation has likely been a part of its allure.