Bigotry on the Prairie?

Today’s Liberal Outrage is the American Library Association’s announcement that it is renaming the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, which is given annually to the author of an outstanding children’s book:

A division of the American Library Association voted unanimously Saturday to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a major children’s literature award over concerns about how the author referred to Native Americans and blacks.

It’s been a long time since I read any of Wilder’s books, but I don’t recall any blacks in them. I think the issue here is her portrayal of Indians.

The Little House series was based on Wilder’s own life and told the story of the Ingalls family as it moved around the Great Plains in the 19th century. While many of the Little House books became widely read, critics said her work included many stereotypical and reductive depictions of Native Americans and people of color.

In 1935’s Little House on the Prairie, for example, Wilder described one setting as a place where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” That description was changed in later editions of the book. And multiple characters in the Little House series intone that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

It would be helpful to have some context here. Did Wilder really mean that Indians aren’t people? There is an exchange in Huckleberry Finn where Huck tells Tom Sawyer’s aunt (going from memory here) that his arrival was delayed by an explosion on the steamboat he took down the Mississippi. The aunt asks whether anyone was hurt, and Huck says, “No ma’am. Killed a nigger.” The aunt replies, “Well, that’s good, because sometimes people do get hurt.” But Mark Twain meant to expose, not endorse, the view implicit in that exchange. As for the “dead Indian” quote, people did say it. Are we not to read books where people behave as they do (or did) in real life?

My wife, who read the “Little House” books much more assiduously than I did, says that the narrator’s father, who was a very tough guy–she says that Michael Landon was woefully miscast in the television series–got along well with Indians and wasn’t afraid of them. She and her mother, on the other hand, were frightened of Indians, in part because of the fearsome appearance that they often deliberately assumed.

I suppose any realistic narrative of 19th century pioneer life will include the fear that Indians sometimes engendered, in many cases for good reason, even though relations between whites and Indians were generally peaceful, and often friendly. Perhaps the real problem with Wilder’s books is that they are told from the perspective of a white pioneer family. If a leftist wrote a children’s book from the point of view of an Indian girl and articulated her family’s fear of whites, I don’t think there would be an issue.

Until recently, pretty much everyone thought that the story of the frontier was primarily the narrative of European-Americans conquering the wilderness (sometimes including Indians), bringing civilization to the primeval forest and prairie, and in the process, building the greatest country in world history. Today, that is perhaps a story that must not be told.

“The decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness,” the ALSC said in a brief statement following the [unanimous] vote.

Nowadays, not even library associations consider promoting great works of literature to be a core value. It’s identity politics, all the way down. And any failure to conform to the leftist orthodoxy of 2018 is “bigotry.”

Debbie Reese, a scholar and the founder of American Indians In Children’s Literature, tweeted that the vote to change the award’s name was a “significant and historic moment” but still only a step. “There are many more, ahead of us. The backlash to the change is already evident.”

I am sure there are many such steps ahead of us! If you assume that 21st century identity politics is the only proper lens through which to view literature, the long march has barely begun. Pretty much every book written before last month will fail one leftist litmus test or another. It isn’t hard to see where this all goes.

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