Wilder Evicted

August 3, 2018

2144 words

Contrary to the fears of some, the little house on the prairie has not vanished. Well, perhaps the house itself, but not Little House on the Prairie, or any of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s other prairie books. What’s missing, as you may have read fleetingly a month ago, is her name, which until then was attached to a prestigious award, administered by a division of the American Library Association, for the best children’s books authors. The ALA’s first Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, back in 1954, went to . . . Laura Ingalls Wilder. The question I want to raise is whether common sense took flight along with her name, as has been suggested.

In late June, the ALA, through its Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), announced that it had dropped Wilder’s name from what is now called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, originally bestowed once every five years but annually since 2016. Among its previous 23 winners, besides Wilder herself, were Dr. Seuss (Thedore S. Geisel), Maurice Sendak, and E. B. White. This year’s winner is Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming).

In a written statement, ALA president Jim Neal and ALSC president Nina Lindsay said Wilder’s “works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.” What that meant, as near as I can tell from the dozen or more stories I’ve read about it, is that here and there she, or some of her characters, disparaged blacks and Native Americans — most famously in the line “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” In other words, Wilder breached the ALA’s values of “inclusiveness, integrity and respect.”

I should say, right here and boldly, that to the best of my recollection I have never read Little House on the Prairie or its companions, nor do I have time now to investigate the volumes personally, though they sit invitingly on my shelves in the Library of America edition. So what follows is merely second-hand, and I invite readers to set me straight.

In deciding whether to strip an honoree’s name from an award, building, or professorship, or to recall honors from one formerly adjudged worthy, we ought to consider not only what prompted the honor but also how much of the honoree’s life and passion and work fell short of the standards that we value today. In the case of buildings, money often prompts the acclaim: I’ll give you $50 million, you name the new student center or the concert hall after me. Nothing wrong with that. Perhaps no less often, a building is named to revere the memory of someone considered estimable at the time of the gesture. But few will object to removing the name when it transpires that unbeknownst to owners or trustees their benefactor was guilty of crimes or breach of trust at the time of construction. That’s why we’ve heard no outcry against the rescinding of honorary degrees bestowed on Bill Cosby or Theodore E. McCarrick (just days ago forced to resign from the Vatican’s College of Cardinals).

The difficulty arises when the honoree’s history was known at the time of the designation. Such was the situation when Yale’s Calhoun College was named in 1933. That John C. Calhoun as senator and vice president was a leading proponent of slavery was scarcely a secret; but that didn’t count as shameful in the 1930s, at least to the committee overseeing naming rights to Yale’s original colleges. By the late 20th century it had come to seem so, and last year Calhoun’s name was finally dropped, amid considerable controversy over “erasing history.” But history as lived and history as remembered are different things. The preservationist argues that history will be lost unless we freeze into place the values of an earlier era, in particular a prior generation’s valuation of a hero’s worth, as embodied in the person’s association with a current name or title. But historical narrative cannot be protected through landmark legislation. Nor does eponymous designation merit historical preservation simply because we have become habituated to it — and more particularly if what’s removed is not the artifact but the name attached to it.

But that’s only half the issue. The other is whether the honoree really did violate our standards and, if so, how seriously. It would be one thing if Calhoun had merely mouthed off injudiciously now and then, speaking offensively of blacks (in his case) or of other disfavored minorities. The problem is that he made it his life’s work: the very eminence of the offices Calhoun held and for which he was being honored were the platforms in which he pressed a great evil. That’s why, I think, despite his seemingly nonchalant acceptance of slavery, we do not sandblast Aristotle’s name from library friezes, change the name of the U.S. capital, or drop Monticello from the National Register of Historic Places.

What’s upsetting many people in the recent flurry of rescinded honors is the changing tolerance for respecting an accolade made during a period when standards of propriety and morality may have been different from ours for the dominant reader. Torquemada may have been a truly excellent Inquisitor, but that doesn’t mean anyone other than Mel Brooks should honor him today.

With all that in mind, back to Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s clear that Wilder’s beliefs were known at the time the award was named in her honor. It should be equally clear that what upset the ALSC and prompted it to abandon her name was not her life’s passion or mission. Her sin, if sin it be, was not in the book of her life but in the life of her books. The ALSC’s judgment rests entirely on the thoughts expressed in her novels. So what about them?

First, it appears that relatively little disparagement actually infects her tales. There is some, to be sure (one such instance noted above). But it’s straining to believe that the message of her books is disparagement and belittling. I realize that it’s of little comfort to the offended reader to be told to chill because the author insults only occasionally or isn’t as loud as others have been. But the ALSC’s rationale would seem to support an argument — one that I have never encountered — against naming an award for William Shakespeare, citing the antisemitism of The Merchant of Venice.

Moreover, Wilder was not above self-reproach. In the original edition of Little House on the Prairie, a word seemed to indicate that Indians are not people. Speaking of the Kansas plains, she wrote: “There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” Seventeen years after first publication, a reader took her to task in a letter to her editor at Harper & Row. The editor was nonplussed, as was Wilder herself when the letter reached her: “You are perfectly right,” she wrote back to the editor, “about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction as you suggest. It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not.” The word “people” was changed to “settlers” in editions thereafter.

Second, the ALSC appears to have ignored (at least its statement ignored) the question of intention. Was she bent on infecting her young readers with racism or was she exposing them, through her characters, to the beliefs of nineteenth-century midwestern farmers? Unless the position is that authors must avoid invoking racist tropes in telling the story of a time and place, they ought not be condemned, certainly not outright, for what their characters say. There’s a world of difference between saying as bad guy “[ethnic group] are scum” and saying it as author. I’m not inviting literary critique here, but I do remind you that Shakespeare put a remarkable speech (for his time and place) in the mouth of Shylock, even as playwright he woefully let his audience munch on the antisemitic dishes of their day. (And it’s why there’s no reason to doubt the antisemitism of T. S. Eliot, whose authorial beliefs are clear in a number of notorious lines. The T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry persists in the U.K., but then, it’s apparently funded by the family and its foundation.)

What of Wilder? As those versed in her books have noted, her characters were multi-faceted; she did not portray them as single-mindedly anti-Indian. Many commentators pointed to Pa’s pronouncement that “Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone.” I’m not equipped to judge the issue of Wilder’s personal beliefs or intentions in telling the stories that constitute her novels. There’s evidence on both sides of the moral ledger in some of the characterizations and depictions.

The name change unleashed many critical responses, some nuanced (here and here), some bordering on the unhinged — William Shatner, for one, who charged the association with trying to “obliterate the past.” A columnist for The Inquirer in Philadelphia veered far off course, misreading (or misstating) the central event: “Censoring language is oppressive to all, and infantilizing to the people who are allegedly protected from its harsh sounds.” In a lengthy and otherwise carefully argued piece in National Review, Dedra McDonald Birzer let fly at the end, thundering that the librarians are out to “destroy” Wilder as a “literary heroine” and, gosh, even “to destroy us all”:

This brave new world of erasure threatens to wipe out such questions [about our past], favoring instead a history of “inclusivity” that respects nothing of the past, denies the integrity of beloved authors, and responds only to that which is most trendy and politically correct. . . . Renaming the medal with the generic title, Children’s Literature Legacy Award, uncovers the motives of the ALSC: removal, if not complete destruction, of a beloved coming-of-age story set in the complicated context of westward expansion . . . . The rejection of the author and the rejection of her semi-autobiographical novels produce the same result: In favor of safe spaces and trigger-free zones, this country’s professional librarians seek to destroy the literary heroine that millions of American girls (and boys) identified with and aspired to emulate. In doing so, they seek to destroy us all and re-make us in their own image, based on their core values of inclusivity and responsiveness . . . .

In fact, as should be clear, an association that created and named a literary award decided to change the award’s name. You can agree or disagree that its members have correctly characterized the import of the author’s works (and even the effect of those words), and ask whether the association has properly gauged the virtue or vice of honoring such an author, but no one has said anything about burning the books or even advocated that they be quietly removed from the shelves. As the ALA/ALSC statement expressly noted:

This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books. Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.

This was not a decision by a public body (unlike what’s at stake in municipal displays of monuments), nor is Laura Ingalls Wilder or her family entitled to have her name so honored. Likewise, the ALA has no monopoly on literary prizes. Anyone else is free to endow a new award in Wilder’s name, for the same or any other purpose. In denouncing political correctness, hasn’t Ms. Birzer declared that it’s politically incorrect to detach Wilder’s name from the prize?

Should the librarians have made the change? I don’t know. I’m not sure how I would have voted had the choice fallen to me. But I do know that renaming a literary award will have no bearing on the continuing reception or rejection of Little House on the Prairie. It and its companion volumes still have their lessons to teach and will no doubt continue to attract legions of devoted readers.

But in encountering racist tropes, children of disparaged groups may understandably smart from the wound. To those who are offended by the removal of Wilder’s name, the children might charitably respond: Now you know how it feels.

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