(Note to the Glibsters: This was originally written with publication in a local newspaper in mind, after I had communicated with the editor of that paper several months ago, with her saying she wanted some different (i.e., not so picayune) editorial material submitted. Well, I messaged her about this finished piece and she never wrote me back, so… her loss is the Glibs’… um… ‘gain.’ Anyway, that’s why it’s written in such a stodgy, formal manner and doesn’t have any cursing or STEVE SMITH references.)
This past Saturday (June 23rd 2018), the U.S. Association for Library Service to Children (or ALSC) decided to rename the award they give now and then to writers and illustrators of outstanding contributions to children’s literature. Previously known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (or Medal), and named after its first winner, the author of the Little House series of books, the honor will now be referred to by the more generic title of Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
This sounds perfectly innocuous, on the face of it. But why rename the award at all, given that Wilder’s books have been widely read and loved by probably millions of readers, most of them children? Well, it turns out that, all this time, the Little House books were racist: they sometimes contained unflattering depictions of Native American and African-American characters.
Certainly, these are not the first or only books written for children which have received widespread success and recognition, but which also aren’t quite acceptable by modern race-acceptance standards. Sam Clemens’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are often cited as containing uncomfortable material, though the latter in particular can be read as particularly anti-slavery. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, might not have shown much in the way of racism in his fictional work, but wrote several editorials for his local paper, the Aberdeen [South Dakota] Saturday Pioneer, calling for the extermination of Native American tribes. There are others, but these are the most frequently cited examples.
It should be noted that each of these authors was born in the 19th century. Clemens, of course, became famous starting in 1865 when he was about thirty; Baum’s famous first novel of his Oz series was published in 1900 when he was in his forties; and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first book of her defining series, Little House in the Big Woods, appeared in 1932, when the authoress was in her mid-60s.
Each of them, therefore, grew up, and lived their young adult years, in a world completely different from our own: a world without automobiles, television, or even radio, a world where even such mundanities as electricity and indoor plumbing were uncommon, usually reserved for the well-to-do. They lived through the eras of the Western expansion, of the coming of the telegraph and the railroad. They were alive when the gunfight at the O.K. Corral would have been a current news item.
Why, then, do we think it would be a good idea to judge their written work by our modern standards? They lived their lives in a world so different from our own that they might as well have been from another planet. Our era is not only separated from theirs by technology, but also (much more so) by sociological ideas. The idea that, for example, female or gay or black persons ought to receive the same rights and privileges as white men, would have been considered outrageous in the late 1800s. Simply expressing it might get one run out of town on a rail, if not prosecuted on some moral statute.
Much of the world has moved forward on such things, of course, and rightly so. One can hardly expect any society to take a look at its accepted ideals and say, “All right, we’ve come as far as we can; we don’t need to ever change how we feel about anything.” A society’s morals and values are always in flux and changing, moving forward, or at least in one direction or another. To declare that things are now fixed and correct, never to be changed, is ridiculous.
But isn’t that what’s happening now with situations like the award name change? We’re taking an item from a different time, judging it from our current standards, and, finding it unacceptable, tossing it over our shoulder onto the ash heap of history. It’s inevitable that we would view things through a modern lens. But where things become unsettling is when we decide that such items not only fall short of modern sensibilities, but must be purged from our sight altogether – not merely ignored or even seen as a quaint anachronism, but all mention of it wiped out completely.
Certainly, no one is currently calling for the Little House books to be pulled from store and library shelves, or copies burned during some nighttime rally. But this is exactly how such things begin. (Keeping Wilder’s name on the award was apparently considered such a problem that a survey was sent out to members of the ALSC -as well as “ALA ethnic affiliates,” whatever those are- who voted for the change, 305 to 156.)
If this incident were happening in isolation, we could shrug it off as a curious anomaly, chuckle at the stupidity of the ALSC, and almost immediately forget about it. But in the current cultural climate, it isn’t. Everything, it seems, is being dragged through a crucible process of sociological fitness according to currently-favored values (which are subject to change, but not necessarily subject to internal consistency); and very few artistic works of the past, as one can imagine, are coming out unscathed.
This is all well and good, as society’s ideas must, again, keep moving forward. But while it’s perfectly all right to judge things according to modern standards, it’s particularly dangerous to do away with them completely, in the name of whatever banner our cultural betters might be waving currently. Judge them, chuckle at them, dismiss them if you like: these are all perfectly acceptable behaviors. But it is a horrible mistake of hubris to go so far as to start removing them completely – to start dismantling the old to make way for the new. In doing so, one denies others the ability to make that choice for themselves; after all, another person might decide he likes some of the old stuff just fine, thank you very much. And the reason for much of such destruction, it could be argued, might just be to deny others the chance to disagree with the destructor.
There is no scientific barometer for social correctness. The soft “sciences” aren’t like the disciplines which can prove their hypotheses mathematically. In other words, we can never know when we are absolutely right or wrong. That’s why societies change their ideas over time. As things shift, people decide that, well, maybe they’ve been a bit too hard on this or that social group that they’ve been prejudiced against all these years. And maybe the heroes of the previous revolution don’t look quite so virtuous as they used to. People change their attitudes: but it’s far preferable for such attitudes to change gradually, by virtue of logic and experience, rather than by force or shame.
So, judging 19th century authors by modern social standards –standards which, really, haven’t been in place very long– is a bit imbecilic. Could a person of the previous century have been able to see into the future, to our modern day, to see what ideas are in vogue? Of course not. Would she even change her own attitudes, if she could see into our world? The very idea is preposterous. Would she even understand what we’re talking about? More than likely, our society would seem like a mad anarchy to her. After all, she lived in her own world, not ours; so why would we not expect her to generally conform to our values? Again, the entire premise is ridiculous.
But, wait. What if current authors are going to be judged by our future society? What if the cultural critics of, say, 2137 decide that we’re all just a bunch of barbaric rubes? Absent any time-travel technology, shouldn’t we put our finest historians, our most decorated social critics, to the task of figuring out what future persons will think of us, and then change our opinions so as to please them?
No. Because that would be completely stupid.
Stop trying to dismantle the past and rewrite history. Let people make up their own minds. After all, we’re all of us going to be history quite soon enough.
(Note: a pdf outlining the ALSC’s decision-making process can be found here)