From The Washington Post:
Since 1954, the American Library Association has awarded a medal for lifetime achievement in children’s literature in the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The original impetus behind the honor was dismay. Librarians were “chagrined,” wrote historian Leonard Marcus, that none of Wilder’s eight critically acclaimed Little House books had been recognized by the ALA’s highest children’s accolade, the Newbery.
Now, however, librarians are chagrined again. In February, the ALA announced that it was reconsidering the name of the Wilder Award. Alluding to the depiction of American Indians and African Americans in Wilder’s work, the ALA declared that her legacy put the group in the uncomfortable position of serving children while being unable to model values of “inclusiveness, integrity and respect.” Wilder’s books, it went on, “reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced.”
True enough. But the ALA’s statement nonetheless evokes the anodyne view of literature it has sought to correct through its annual Top Ten Most Challenged Books list. Changing the name of the Wilder Award is not an act of censorship, but no book, including the Bible, has ever been “universally embraced.” Mark Twain — whose “Huckleberry Finn” often appears on the list — himself mocked the idea that children’s books should never cause outrage. “The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean,” he once sighed sarcastically.
. . . .
Whatever the ALA decides, as a Wilder biographer, I would argue that her work and its reception are more complicated than we may once have believed, shedding light on the myths that white Americans have woven about the past.
Over the past 20 years, Wilder’s most famous novel, “Little House on the Prairie” (1935), has inspired almost as much disapproval as devotion. The novel has racist elements, and its portrayal of Indians has consequences when read uncritically and approvingly in schools. In 1998, an 8-year-old girl on the Upper Sioux Reservation of southwestern Minnesota — only miles from the storied town of Walnut Grove, immortalized in the 1970s-era “Little House” TV show — came home in tears after listening to her third-grade teacher reading the novel and a character’s repetition of the infamous slur, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Indians appear alternately as thieves or screaming warmongers, and the overall portrait is not tempered by Laura’s childish fascination or her father’s remark about a peaceable Indian, whom he describes as “no common trash.”
. . . .
The Minnesota girl’s mother, Waziyatawin Angela Cavender Wilson, a member of the Wahpetunwan Dakota and a scholar of history and American Indian studies, complained to the school, only to discover that her daughter’s teacher was “a fervent Wilder fan.” Wilson devoted months to an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to have Wilder’s books dropped from the curriculum, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to threaten the school board with a lawsuit over censorship.
In recent years, Wilson’s disgust has been echoed by other academics and joined by demands for greater diversity in children’s publishing, extending to editors, booksellers and librarians. Decrying Wilder’s widespread popularity, the scholar Debbie Reese, a member of Nambé Pueblo in New Mexico and founder of the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, has pleaded for everyone to “read more history.”
. . . .
Complicating the issue, other writers and immigrants, including those of color, prize the Little House books for their cozy family values. In her 2014 novel, “Pioneer Girl,” Bich Minh Nguyen, who was born in Saigon and immigrated to the Midwest with her family in 1975, explores Little House fandom as a means of negotiating assimilation. As for Walnut Grove, some 70 Hmong families — natives of Laos — are now living in and around the town, drawn by one Hmong girl’s devotion to the television show. There is a mural there, painted on the side of a brick building, featuring a smiling Laura alongside a Hmong woman in traditional dress. Their integration into the community has been called “the little marvel on the prairie.”
Whether we love Wilder or hate her, we should know her. For decades, her legacy has been awash in sentimentality, but every American — including the children who read her books — should learn the harsh history behind her work. Vividly, unforgettably, it still tells truths about white settlement, homesteading and the violent appropriation of Indian land and culture.
. . . .
Each generation revises the literary canon. While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no 8-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of “Little House on the Prairie.” But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell. If the books are to be read and taught today — and it’s hard to escape them given their popularity—then teachers, librarians and parents are going to have to proceed armed with facts and sensitivity.
Link to the rest at The Washington Post
In disputes such as have involved Ms. Wilder, PG tends to be in favor of historical accuracy and also respect for the right of an author to choose her words and phrases, particularly when she is writing about her own life and experiences.
In times of violent conflict, it is common, even expected that each side will create some epithets to describe those on the other side of the conflict. In 20th century United States history, World War II brought Krauts (see, for example, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 4, 1944) and Japs (see, for example, The Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1942) into regular use. If you look at contemporary newspaper accounts of battles, you will see those terms used liberally. The Korean War (see, for example, the Wilmington Morning News, December 26, 1952) and The Vietnam War (see, for example, The Boston Globe, December 9, 1969) brought Gooks into prominent use.
Turn the sides around in these wars and you will find Americans referred to as Scheiss-Ami, Gaijin and Miguk Nom.
To address the particular anti-Native-American epithet in Wilder’s stories, it’s easy to find “The Only Good Communist Is A Dead Communist”, ‘The only good Kraut is a dead Kraut”, “The Only Good Russian is a Dead Russian”, “Tthe Only Good Chinaman is a Dead Chinaman” and “The Only Good American is a Dead American” (“The continued survival of life on this planet depends on the extermination of the american nation. This is the simple, unvarnished truth, as any informed person will understand. No tears should be shed for americans, who are not humans any more. They have long since lost the right to be called that. One should not waste tears over roundworms and pathogenic bacteria.”)
The sentiments of the people on one side of an armed battle toward those fighting on the other side tend to be extremely demeaning. The brutal calculus of armed conflicts is that the side that creates the most dead enemies as fast as possible tends to win.
The Little House on the Prairie tells the story of the move of the family to Independence, Kansas, in the
southwest southeast corner of the current state of Kansas a bit west of the Missouri border and on the border of what would later become the Oklahoma Territory.
In 1854, what was formerly recognized as part of Indian Territory was, by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, organized into the Kansas–Nebraska territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively overturned the earlier Missouri Compromise between the the Northern and Southern states and nullified the earlier Dred Scott decision which declared that slaves and former slaves could not become United States citizens. These events were, of course, an important prelude to the American Civil War.
The states of Kansas and Nebraska were included in the large parcel of land acquired by the United States from France in 1803 and called the Louisiana Purchase. All the land east of the Mississippi River between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico had been transferred to the United States by Great Britain in 1783. A huge parcel of land west of the Mississippi, comprising the Louisiana Territory had been involved in disputes between the great powers of Europe, first claimed by France, then transferred to Spain then back to Napoleonic France.
Spain continued to own and control a huge portion of the land between the western edge of the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Ocean with this control and ownership dating back to the arrival of the first Spanish explorers at present-day San Diego in 1542.
President Thomas Jefferson engineered the Louisiana Purchase and determined that the acquisition of the land was permitted under the United States Constitution pursuant to the President’s power to negotiate treaties on behalf of the United States. After the acquisition, women, Native Americans, slaves, and freemen of color were not permitted to vote in any elections.
For better or worse, large European powers plus the United States were asserting ownership and control over North and South America. Spain and Portugal effectively divided all of Central and South America between them.
Back to Laura and her books. By the lights of standard legal understandings of the day in the United States and its territories, when Laura’s family moved to a farm near Independence, Kansas in about 1869 and settled, they were acting in a perfectly legal manner under the Homestead Act of 1862.
Homesteading in American territories and states continued through the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century with the last legislation, providing for Subsistence Homesteads as part of the New Deal in 1930. When PG was quite young, he remembers meeting a man who was living on land he homesteaded in the mountains of Colorado. The land titles in large swaths of the Midwest and Western United States derive from homesteads.
PG suggests that Laura Ingalls Wilders’ accounts of her experiences and the words and behavior of her parents that are recorded in her works of fiction were perfectly understandable and accepted as reasonable words and actions on the part of reasonable American citizens living under the conditions extant in the Western territories of the United States during the 1860’s.
PG suspects that locating anyone who held substantially different views of Native Americans within several days’ travel from Independence, Kansas, during that time would have been impossible. Indeed, traveling very far east from
Douglas Montgomery County, Kansas (where Independence was and is located) would take a traveler into a state in which slavery had been legal until a handful of years earlier.
PG suggests that applying 21st century mores and habits to 19th century words and fears is silly.
If the 19th century has nothing worthwhile to teach us, by all means, don’t study it. However, if we believe people who lived a long time before we do learned any lessons or discovered any truths during their lives that may be beneficial to us, we should be prepared to accept them on their own terms and as inhabitants of their own times and conditions, living among people who believed and spoke much as they did.
Some have suggested that Laura’s way of speaking has simply become unacceptable in today’s world. While PG would not make some of the statements contained in Laura’s book today, Laura has already made those statements and is notably unable to revise or adapt the words she wrote a long time ago.
Laura has moved on. She can’t be punished or shamed by anything we do or say today.
On the other hand, generations of readers have consumed the words of her books and, on balance, have loved what Laura has written. Like a great many readers of a variety of older books, they have worked around anachronisms and odd habits of speech to make a connection with the author and the characters she has created.
A great many readers have managed to deal with Twain’s Nigger Jim and found his works rewarding. Jane Austen’s characters seem to have survived blatant misogyny in a great many forms.
Have readers become so delicate that they’ll shatter if they read about the only good Indian?