Little House, big idea
Last month the American Library Association voted to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Award to the rather bland sounding Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The reason for its previous name is because Wilder’s ‘Little House’ book series was one of the most successful and impactful pieces of writing in American history, and for good reason. The official announcement from the ALA was full of the typical weasel statements you’d expect when left oriented groups are trying to remove such influential writings from national consciousness. Try this on for size:
Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color (sic) that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.
There’s no Sherlock award for working out that the books are a product of her life experiences, any type of semi-biographical writing is. This sentence is only given as a precursor to the next sentence, which allows them to write amorphous pap like acceptance and celebration – all of which mean exactly what the author wants them to mean in any given context – with Humpty Dumpty like skill. It continues:
This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books. Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.
Anticipating that it will be seen as censorship, which it is, they string some words together to try and fend off criticism that it’s censorship. It is in effect, the most amateur way possible to try and avoid accusations of censorship.
The other denials are of course nonsense, they are most certainly trying to change the attitudes and feelings of readers. They are attempting to remove Wilder’s name from the literature canon and the only reason they don’t make an explicit call for this is because they know it would have no effect and make their hypocrisy completely plain. The only discussion they’d like to see is people discussing how terrible the books are, or to word it another way, they want everyone to agree with them.
19th century attitudes and language about minorities are probably the least of ALA’s concerns and this clumsy attempt at blighting Wilder’s name actually provides an excellent springboard to bring to the world’s attention the real message behind the books. Wilder, and the co-author Rose Wilder Lane, her daughter who was herself an accomplished writer, were libertarians and the books are chock full of libertarian thoughts and ideals. In fact, they were explicitly written this way, in part as a repudiation of Roosevelt’s New Deal socialist policies. A book has been written on the subject titled, Libertarians on the Prairie by Christine Woodside, which traces the inspiration and influence of the books and the effect they have had on the libertarian movement in the United States.
Although the works were often fictionalised and omitted unpalatable details, the ideals they encapsulate resonate with the natural inclination within all people to be free from government control. The essential truth within the stories is that people were willing to take the risks involved with independence, and often suffered the consequences of striking out on their own. The people often self-organised and assisted each other and made a life for themselves in very harsh environments. They did it voluntarily, willingly and largely without any government involvement. All they really needed was the government to do its real job of law and order and they took care of pretty much everything else.
The days of pioneering new country are largely gone with the world’s population now being four or five times what it was at the time the stories were set. With modern transport and communications, the world is a very different place. Smaller in many ways and more interconnected. What hasn’t changed is humans. We still know deep down in our souls that we were meant to be free, free from coercive control, free from interference, free to succeed and free to fail, free in our relations and free in our families, free to teach our children and free from government contradiction in those teachings.
The real reason for trying to eradicate from society the ideas espoused by Wilder, is to get the concept out of everyone’s head that you can get by without the government sticking its fingers into every area of your life. As the old saying goes, ‘a socialist is someone who is scared that someone, somewhere can make a decision for themselves’. And I can think of no more stupefying existence than that of the soft despotism our nation seems to continual skate around year after year. One of the greatest of political theorists Alexis de Tocqueville describes it thus:
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
It is anathema to those who want to exercise control over you for you to think and reason without them, and little by little we see de Tocqueville’s nightmarish vision implemented. ‘By all means think’ they say, ‘but think within these boundaries’. ‘Discuss all you wish, but discuss with these conclusions in mind’. ‘Speak, but only what is acceptable, choose yet only from these options’. ‘Explore but only so far lest you be hurt, reason but only so much lest you be uncomfortable, practice your beliefs but only so far lest another be offended’.
The authors of the Little House books are long gone but their ideas are stronger than ever. It may have been a little house but it’s a big idea.