The View From Here – History is immutable and cannot be rewritten to appease modern sensibilities

Tom Henihan

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) recently elected to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from an award designated in her honour that celebrates American books that make an important and enduring contribution to children’s literature.

Wilder is the author of the renowned “Little House on the Prairie” series of books that have been a mainstay of children’s literature since their publication in the 1930s.

The ALSC board, which is a division of the American Library Association, reached a unanimous decision to remove Wilder’s name from the award because of negative and stereotypical references Wilder made regarding Native Americans and black people.

Born in 1867, Wilder was the first writer to receive the ALSC award in 1954, which until now also bore her name.

The autographical Little House on the Prairie series tell the story of the Ingalls family and of life on the Great Plains in the mid to late 1800s.

Prior to its final decision, the ALSC announced its misgivings about Wilder’s legacy saying it “may no longer be consistent with the intention of the award named for her,” and following their final decision to remove her name the ALSC issued this statement:

“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.”

Saying that Wilder’s legacy “may no longer be consistent with the intention of the award name for her,” is somewhat absurd as it suggests that either Wilder’s legacy was perfectly consistent until recently or that the ALSC board never read her books up until now.

This also poses the question: have Wilder’s books been responsible for promoting racism or racial disrespect over the 64 years the award carried her name?

Words can be powerful; they have the power to persuade, corrupt, intimidate, deceive, incite hatred and to be profoundly hurtful.

However, they usually exercise that negative power over people who lack the education to understand the complexities of language, who are not adequately schooled to be alert to the ambiguities of language, sensitive to the transformative power of metaphor and open to the experiences that literature can convey.

Words also have the power to inspire, to mitigate, to resolve conflict and to enlighten but words will lose that power if they are culled, and sanitized by boards and committees.

To justify its position, the ALSC said that while Wilder’s work continues to be published her “legacy is complex” and “not universally embraced.”

No writer of merit has ever had their work universally embraced; though it might be universally discussed. The Bible or Shakespeare are not universally embraced and neither is “Leaves of Grass,” the seminal work by America’s national poet Walt Whitman.

What will become of the historical record animated in literature if we allow books to be expunged from the canon because they offend contemporary sensibilities? This practice offers posthumous absolution to tyrants and by falsifying the record diminishes the trials of those who, due to their ethnicity or cast, were forced to suffer unthinkable degradation and who heroically prevailed over near impossible odds every day of their lives.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” If he were speaking today he may very well add: those who attempt to sanitize and rewrite history doom all of us to repeating it.

 

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