The Association for Library Service to Children (part of the American Library Association per the article) has decided to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder's name from their award, a bronze medal, which recognizes "an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children." While it hasn't been quite as widespread and, for lack of a better word, "loud" in the cultural conversations (especially as seen on social media and the like) as many recent cultural debates, it has seemed to mobilize similar sentiment to those around the removal of confederate statues last year. And, as you might guess, the battle lines have been pre-drawn and much of the rhetoric seemingly pre-articulated as is often the case in "hot-button issues" in the contemporary moment.
I don't want to rehash some of the broader, haymaker-style swings of the more animated members of the debate, but I would like to clarify a few misunderstandings that I've seen on Facebook and Twitter over the last few days. To begin with, as far as I know, the discussion about "revision" in this article and elsewhere is to the literary canon, not to the works themselves as many have complained about. This is not an example of attempting to clean up Twain's classic, Huckleberry Finn, though the WashPo article does note that in the 1950s they tried to revise an instance, in the very first chapter of Little House on the Prairie no less, where the book outright declines to include Tribal peoples/nations as "people" full stop. Even the Harper's editorial staff seemed astounded at their own oversight. And, because this editorial revision has been mentioned in the discussion around this award, there has been a conflation with Harper's editorial staff attempting to clean that section up in 1952, and the ongoing attempt to revise and rethink the literary canon as a whole—and even what the literary canon means in our contemporary moment.
Certainly, as I saw it described by a fan of Wilder's work in a well-meaning but somewhat misguided post on Facebook, no one is trying to "eliminate" Wilder's work from history, and no one is saying you cannot, or even should not, read her work to yourself or others. In fact, moments like this seem to emphasize the importance of critical reading which includes the historical context of her novels which differs from our own in fairly profound ways, not the least of which is the shift in popular American attitudes about blackface and the sub-humanity of Native people. That point is made and emphasized in the closing paragraphs of the article through the commentary from Caroline Fraser, a Wilder scholar, who seems to stop just short of saying the name of the ALSC award should not, in fact, be changed in an article for WashPo from earlier this year, but does advocate compellingly for the value in a continuing critical approach to Wilder's texts.
To return to the main point of the initial WashPo article, it's worth highlighting that it's discussing the removal of her name from a literary award; no one should erase the material reality of the negative side of American history, and certainly removing someone's name from an award differs dramatically from trying to erase their work. The erasure of the reality of slavery, genocide, and the cultural attitudes which worked to facilitate those acts would be a tremendous error. Nevertheless, the sentiment behind the removal of her name from the award reflects a desire to avoid naming contemporary awards after people who perpetuated some of those cultural attitudes. To wit, there isn't a D. W. Griffith Award anymore -- the Director's Guild of America went through this same conversation and evolution nearly 20 years ago. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't think Griffith is part of the foundation of modern cinema, but you'd find it equally difficult to find someone who thinks we should be giving people awards named after a KKK propagandist.
To be clear, I don't put Wilder's work in the same category as Griffith's, and I think there is a more fundamental and important conversation that needs to be had about how we interact with artists whom do things in their lives or in their art which is morally, ethically, or politically problematic. It is certainly something I think about a lot, so I may return to this topic in a future post, but for now some clarification on thoughts on the debate will have to suffice. Wilder is certainly outside of my area of interest and experience, but it's still an important space in the work of the American cultural imaginary, and as such demands careful attention, especially in works like this which are targeted at younger children. If we don't take pains to historicize, contextualize, and discuss the racist attitudes and assumptions in works even as loved as Wilder's, maybe especially as loved as Wilder's, we run the risk of continuing to perpetuate "good-hearted racism" to our children. And that, to my mind, is one of the more pernicious and also one of the easier to correct errors in the struggle over racial/ethnic representation. And "pernicious and easy-to-fix" are great words to hear in concert.