Ethics Quiz: The Little House On The Cultural Divide

From the New York Times:

The American Library Association is dropping Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s literature award in order to distance the honor from what it described as culturally insensitive portrayals in her books.

The decision was made out of a desire to reconcile the award with the organization’s values of “inclusiveness, integrity and respect,” representatives of the association said in a statement on Monday. The award is given out by its children’s division.

“Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s,” the association’s president, Jim Neal, and the president of the children’s division, Nina Lindsay, said in the statement. “Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”

…Despite their popularity, Ms. Wilder’s books contain jarringly prejudicial portrayals of Native Americans and African Americans. In the 1935 book “Little House on the Prairie,” for example, multiple characters espoused versions of the view that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” In one scene, a character describes Native Americans as “wild animals” undeserving of the land they lived on.

“Little Town on the Prairie,” published in 1941, included a description of a minstrel show with “five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms” alongside a jolting illustration of the scene.


Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for today:

Is it fair and reasonable to remove Wilder’s’ name from the award, essentially taking away an honor despite no new information or evidence arising?

I think this one is a close call.

On one hand, it is obviously presentism and cultural airbrushing. Using this standard, no author who wrote in less enlightened periods will ever be appropriate for a permanent honor. The statue-topplers are relentless. There seem to be only two mutually exclusive options. Decide that honoring past figures of prominence are appropriate, and hold their now-discredited attitudes are  historical relics of their times that should be understood and tolerated in the context of their larger body of work,  or accept that the powers of oppressive political correctness will seek constant retribution for the failure of figures in the past to foresee the evolution of attitudes and values to come years or decades in the future.

On the other hand, it is a children’s book award. Such an award should be an author’s whose work is appropriate to be read by children, no?

On the third hand, I haven’t read any of the books. How many offensive statements are in the Wilder books? How pervasive are the “jarringly prejudicial portrayals ” of minorities? The Times writer apparently couldn’t find a genuinely “jarring” description of blacks: a description of a minstrel show with “five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms” isn’t even a reference to African-Americans, is it? Which is the racist part? Is writing about mistral shows racist? Presumably they did have black faces and “raggedy-taggedy” outfits. Someone is looking to be offended. Someone always is.

50 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Little House On The Cultural Divide

  1. “Is it fair and reasonable to remove Wilder’s’ name from the award, essentially taking away an honor despite no new information or evidence arising?”

    Bit of backstory: my husband and I were both inveterate readers when we were children. Oddly enough, neither of us read “children’s books” when we were kids … we went from Dick and Jane to fairly adult novels very early on.
    However, when we hit our 40s-50s, we started a campaign of reading the great classics of kiddie lit. (Just a note — Wind in the Willows is a masterpiece, the first six [and only the first six] Oz books are spectacular, E. Nesbit rocks and the popularity of Peter Pan is a mystery we have never plumbed.)
    Among those books were the entire Little House corpus. They are quite terrific. (As with most series, some are better than others.) While the attitudes may be dated, there is nothing “hateful” about them. In order to be hateful, there should be some evidence of a clear animus against a particular group of people; Wilder has no agenda, and simply reflects the attitudes common of her era.
    It is essential to note that these books are not virulent anti-Amerind screeds, but stories of the heroic pioneers who built our nation. Native Americans occasionally cross this landscape, but these books are neither about nor against them.

    It does seem as if there is a concerted effort to erase (or … re-envision) American history to something more palatable to post 1960s sensibilities. This is mischievous and dangerous, and should be confronted whenever possible.

  2. The missus has her Masters in Library Science.

    She’s read the Little House series multiple times, and came home the day this news broke citing it as final proof the apocalypse is upon us.

    By her telling, Maw did say “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” But Pa corrected her. The books apparently relate a number of friendly dealings between Mr. Ingalls and Native Americans.

    The vote was unanimous by the ALA folks. Unbelievable. Isn’t this the type of thing children today ought to read?

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