Monday, July 07, 2008


Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture, by Anita Clair Fellman is getting some exposure today on the webpage for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Via correspondence some years ago, I knew Fellman was working on this book, and I'm glad to see it is out. Here's an excerpt from the article:

She found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Wilder's own staunch individualism had informed the tenor of the novels. "Distraught by New Deal policies that created an expanded role for government," Wilder had, in her books, expressly depicted government as "nothing but rules and bureaucracies destructive to the enterprising individual," sometimes manipulating the facts of her youth — on which the books are based — to achieve this effect. The Little House books instead champion the self-reliance, isolationism, and "buoyancy of spirit" Wilder felt had made America great.

Fellman carefully notes, "Looking at the Little House books in this way would be only a case study for my starting proposition that sources other than overtly political thinking and rhetoric might have contributed to a continued appreciation for individualist ideas." Yet, she continues, "there are not many people who are aware of the formative influence of what they read in childhood on their core political views."

Fellman and I are on the same page with regard to the formative influence of children's books. I've ordered her book and look forward to reading it. Given that so many Americans revere Wilder and her books, Fellman is likely getting some angry email. A sample of that anger can be seen in the 'Customer Reviews' portion of the Amazon website.

Little House and books like it that inaccurately portray American Indians as savages are formative in another way... They teach that there is such a thing as a savage other who is less than human, who must be dealt with for the security and safety of America. That ideology, well nurtured throughout the formative years, is what makes it possible for Americans to believe that there are savage others elsewhere, like in Iraq.

Recall the capture of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company in March of 2003. One of the soldiers said "We were like Custer. We were surrounded." (see Former POW: 'We were like Custer.')

And consider the words of Paul Strand, a reporter for the Christian Broadcast Network, who said to Pat Robertson (see the Indian Country Today editorial that includes this excerpt):

"Everywhere we've gone we have seen artillery ahead of us and then artillery behind and we're getting reports that there's fighting in all of the cities that we've already been through. So I guess if this were the Old West I'd say there are Injuns ahead of us, Injuns behind us, and Injuns on both sides too, so we really don't want to give the enemy any hints about where we are."

These are two examples of the 'savage other' ideology at work. I encourage you to read Michael Yellow Bird's article "Cowboys and Indians: Toys of Genocide, Icons of American Colonialism" (published in Wicazo Sa Review, Fall, 2004). He suggests that "select members of the Arab world now seem to have become the "new Indians" (p. 44).

Toys and books.

Some people argue that we put too much stock into the effects of toys and books. But it seems to me people make that argument when their (perhaps) unexamined values and decisions based on those values are challenged. These critiques are decried as "PC run amok." They don't (or won't) see their own views as the other side of that "PC" coin...

1 comment:

k8 said...

Those comments that you posted are the type of thing that makes me want to pound my forehead against my keyboard. I want to hope that comment on amazon is a poor example of sarcasm, but it probably isn't.

The book itself sounds interesting. I must get my hands on it. Thanks for posting about it.