Do we have to erase the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder to ‘fix’ history? And who will be next?

Should writers who wrote long ago, describing life in the past, be held to 21st century standards of political correctness? The question has arisen many times – most recently about Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born in 1867 and died in 1957. She is best known for writing the “Little House on the Prairie” children’s books, which became the basis for a popular TV series that aired in the 1970s and 80s. 

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In recent years, the question of judging past writing by today’s standards has come up dealing with Mark Twain’s use of a racist term for black people in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” claims that Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” was anti-Semitic, and hostility that Ernest Hemingway expressed toward homosexuals. It also came up with many other examples of works of literature that perpetuated negative stereotypes about women and just about every minority group – stereotypes that many people find offensive today.

The Association of Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, voted Saturday to rename its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. The award had previously “honored an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children's literature through books.” After Wilder’s name was removed from the award the line “that demonstrate integrity and respect for all children's lives and experiences” was added to that description.

Presumably, Wilder had failed to demonstrate integrity and respect for all children’s lives and experiences in her books written about 19th century America.

Wilder’s name was stripped from the award because her work contains “expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness,” the association said.

Do we want a revisionist history of how groups were targeted for discrimination in the past? Or do want literature that holds up a mirror to the past and reflects the reality of the time – even when the reality was harsh and ugly?

Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series of books for children were about her upbringing on the frontier. The books tell a story of a family’s survival in a new and harsh world. The Ingalls family worried about having enough food. They buried children. They spoke and acted like many other people did in the 1800s.

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Wilder did not gloss over her family’s interactions with Native Americans or African-Americans. Both these groups were the victims of racism and racist stereotypes. Wilder described the world as it was – just as Mark Twain described the racism of the time and the horrors of slavery in “Huckleberry Finn.”

Do we want a revisionist history of how groups were targeted for discrimination in the past? Or do want literature that holds up a mirror to the past and reflects the reality of the time – even when the reality was harsh and ugly?

Wilder’s books reflected reality.

Even the American Library Association acknowledges that Wilder’s books were not at all controversial when she wrote them in the 1900s.

“Her works reflect mainstream, although certainly not universal, cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color during the times in which she lived and during the era in which the award was established,” the association said of Wilder. But it added that concern that her books “have been deeply painful to many readers” is too great.

The only disadvantage the ALSC could find with changing the name of the award was that in changing it, it would have to publicly reference Wilder’s name, which might upset people.

“The disadvantage in changing the name is that the old name (the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award), which has painful associations for many, must continue to be referenced by ALSC in the interest of communication and transparency regarding the change,” the association said.

The association apparently never considered that it was venturing on the slippery slope of redacting history. History is filled with far greater monsters than Laura Ingalls Wilder. If the group can’t even mention her name, what other names must the group erase from history?

As Amelia Hamilton notes on the Red State website: “It will now simply be called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, probably because every single person they could think of is problematic, or will be at some point in the future.”

If we continue to impose our modern-day sensibilities on historical figures we’ll eventually fail to celebrate any of them. No one will be woke enough; everyone will need to be erased. Laura Ingalls Wilder is just the latest to go.