Sunday, November 01, 2009

Edit(s) to 1935 edition of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE?

While doing research on Syd Hoff's Danny and the Dinosaur, I came across information about a revision to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. When it was first published in 1935 by Harper, the illustrations were done by Helen Sewell. I knew the publisher asked Garth Williams to redo illustrations for the book in the 1950s, but I did not know text had also been changed.

In Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, is the following letter. Nordstrom was the editorial director at Harper from 1940 to 1973, and she was Wilder's editor. The letter writer's name is not provided in Dear Genius. Here is Nordstrom's response (page 53 and 54)

October 14, 1952
Dear _____
Your letter to Mrs. [Laura Ingalls] Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, came several weeks ago. We took the liberty of opening it as we do many of the letters that are addressed to Mrs. Wilder. Often we can send the writers the photographs and biographical material they want. Mrs. Wilder is now in her eighties and we try to handle much of the correspondence here.

We are indeed disturbed by your letter. We knew that Mrs. Wilder had not meant to imply that Indians were not people and we did not want to distress her if we could possibly avoid it. I must admit to you that no one here realized that those words read as they did. Reading them now it seems unbelievable to me that you are the only person who has picked them up and written to us about them in the twenty years since the book was published. We were particularly disturbed because all of us here feel just as strongly as you apparently feel about such subjects, and we are proud that many of the books on the Harper list prove that. Perhaps it is a hopeful sign that though such a statement could have passed unquestioned twenty years ago it would never have appeared in anything published in recent years.

Instead of forwarding your letter to Mrs. Wilder I wrote her about the passage and said that in reprinting we hoped that she would allow us to change it. I have just received her answer. She says: "You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you suggest. It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not." We are changing the next printing to read "There were no settlers."*

We appreciate your letter, but we are terribly sorry that ___ could not have the book for her eighth birthday. The new printing will be available for her ninth one though, and we are making a note now to be sure that you receive a complimentary copy. As a children's book editor, I was touched by your not wanting ___ to know only the Saggy, Baggy Elephant and I was therefore all the more upset by your very reasonable complaint against Mrs. Wilder's book.

I am sorry this is not a better letter and I am particularly sorry that I have not written you long before this. I wanted to wait, though, until I had written Mrs. Wilder and received her answer.

The asterisk above is actually a numeral one in Dear Genius but I can't do footnote numbering in Blogger so used an asterisk instead. That asterisk corresponds to a note at the bottom of the page that says

The passage in question appears in the opening chapter. As revised it reads as follows: "There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there."
Hmmm...  And, WOW!!! Reading all of that, I wondered what the original text said. I posted a query to LM_NET (over ten thousand librarians subscribe to LM_NET) hoping someone had a copy of the 1935 edition.

A few hours later, I had a reply (thanks, Sonja!). The 1935 edition read "a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no people." Wilder and Nordstrom changed people to settlers.

Interesting, eh?

I ordered a copy of the 1935 edition and when it arrives, I'll study it closely. I wonder if additional changes were made?

I'd like to see the letter Nordstrom responded to. I wonder if the person who wrote the letter to Wilder objected to more than just that one passage? That passage appears very early in the book. In the copy I'm looking at right now, it is the fifth paragraph of the book. Perhaps the letter writer read that far and quit reading to compose her letter. I'll write to Leonard Marcus to see if he has more info. He is the editor of Dear Genius.

For now, let's go back to Nordstrom's letter.

Nordstrom says "we" (her staff, I assume) feel as strongly as the person who wrote the letter. Suggesting that Indians are not people is not ok with Nordstrom. But! There are many passages in it that equate Indians with animals. Wilder's Indians yip and yap and howl at each other. What about all those passages?

My question is, why not discontinue the entire book? If I had met with Nordstrom, would she have made more changes to the book? Or pulled it?

[Note: I've written about Little House several times. If you're interested in my (Native) perspective, scroll waaaay down to the bottom of this page and see the set of links at the bottom.)


Anonymous said...

I for one am glad you are doing this. I was a big fan of the TV show but had not read the books. When I found out that the books gave this profoundly negative impression of Native people I lost interest in the television as well. We are all fighting our own battles against different things that are detrimental to us. Thank you for this one!

Erica said...

Congratulations, Debbie, on this discovery within the text of Little House on the Prairie. When the 1935 edition arrives, it will definitely be interesting to see the other changes that were I'm sure this wasn't the sole change ("people" to "settlers") in the edition. Given the popularity of this book in American culture and society, it probably will never be pulled from the shelves or discontinued altogether. But hopefully modifications continue being made so that the negative and inhumane descriptions of Native Americans will eventually be completely removed.

Wendy said...

How can you write something like this and also claim that you don't support censorship and book banning?

Kynn Bartlett said...

Wendy, do you even know what "censorship" and "book-banning" mean? Because nothing Debbie said here is even close to calling for censorship.

Nonymouse said...

I can't answer for Debbie, obviously, but I can offer a general answer to Wendy's question.

Wendy said: "How can you write something like this and also claim that you don't support censorship and book banning?"

Because "censorship" is government interference and not an author choosing, with hindsight, to change their own work. Because "book banning" is an enforceable ban by a legally empowered authority, such as a government, and not the idea that rightful shame might cause an author to want to withdraw their previously published words from the public stage (which is what I read Debbie as meaning).

P.S. This is yet another great post Debbie. Thank you for your work.

Debbie Reese said...

Wendy---teachers in classrooms have choices to make about what they will teach. I do not think LHOP is a suitable text for third graders. Though most people don't realize it, LHOP has an "agenda." Most people don't see it as an "agenda" because it is aligned with their own ideas about Indians and pioneers. I believe the book is one of the vehicles we use (unconsciously, for the most part) to teach that Indians were savage, animal-like, primitive, and therefore, it was RIGHT to take the land and kill or move them from lands that were (and are) theirs to begin with.

I do think Wilder's book should be taught, but not to children. In high school, and certainly college, students can read it critically.

Debbie Reese said...

Nonymouse! Great phrase "rightful shame"! Your comment reminds me that I did not, in the post, take up Wilder's words in the letter she sent to Nordstrom.

Here's what I posted:

"I have just received her answer. She says: "You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you suggest. It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not."

Wilder says "It was a stupid blunder of mine." It is reasonable to say that she was embarrassed, and that she felt shame.

Which makes me pose another question. What if someone sat down with HER and talked about all the ways that her story denigrates and misrepresents American Indians? Would she make more revisions? Could the novel stand up to all the revisions necessary?

Wendy said...

Debbie, thank you for considering and answering my question honestly. I, too, think the choices teachers make about what books to teach in class (and how to teach them) are very important.

What I object to is the suggestion that Harper should have "pulled" the book entirely.

I understand that there are many things in the book that you object to (I do as well), but I think Wilder deserves some credit for wholeheartedly agreeing with the one revision--this is something that, as you have pointed out, Ann Rinaldi was unwilling to do.

Debbie Reese said...


It seems odd to call it a discovery. In a sense, that is what it is, I guess, because, as far as I know, even though the letter is in a book that scholars of children's lit would read, nobody has noted that letter or the revision it discusses. In that way, it is like what Nordstrom says in her letter. Even though people had been reading LHOP for decades, nobody had noticed that passage (I don't really think that nobody had noticed; rather, nobody had written to Nordstrom or Wilder about it.) Have scholars who've read DEAR GENIUS not noticed? Or not cared? Or not cared enough to note it in an essay or article?

Kathleen McDade said...

Debbie, I've read about the edit before (I think it's in Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life), although it certainly isn't widely known, which is surprising because it's much to Laura's credit.

I did not study the Little House books in school, but I certainly did grow up reading them, and I have never, ever succumbed to the supposed conservative/libertarian agenda (I've heard other people mention this).

My children are reading these books now. My method of dealing with things like negative portrayal of Native people in books is open discussion. I'm sure you've discussed this before, so I'll leave it at that.

JCD said...

Here's another thing that stands out for me:

"We were particularly disturbed because all of us here feel just as strongly as you apparently feel about such subjects, and we are proud that many of the books on the Harper list prove that"

Is it true that in the 1950s the Harper and Row catalog contained 'many' books that had positive and accurate portrayals of Native Americans?

Sarah Park said...

Wow, Debbie, this is a really interesting revelation. I can't wait to see what else you dig up!

Matt said...

Great find, Debbie! Lots here to unpack.

Debbie Reese said...

JCD.... Good question re Harper's 1950 catalog... and what about its 2009 catalog? I'm going to go see...

Jo said...

In response to Kynn, ""censorship" is government interference" - Nonsense. Censorship is limiting/hindering access or "interference" by anyone.

Making a book more difficult to find in a library/elsewhere is censorship, as is making it more difficult to buy a copy by stopping publication is as well.

I'm not saying anything about the negativity or otherwise of the book in question. It has been years since I've read these books, and I don't remember much of them. But requesting that any book be pulled or discontinued is censorship.

Kynn Bartlett said...

No, requesting is not censorship.

A company deciding not to publish something or deciding not to keep something in print or deciding to revise something? That's not censorship unless you want such a bizarrely diluted definition of "censorship" that it becomes meaningless to talk about it.

If I write a book, and you don't publish that book, are you censoring me? No, of course not. If you publish that book and then don't do another print run of the book a decade later, are you censoring me? No.

Your argument is absurd.

Censorship -- real censorship -- is a serious issue. You belittle that very serious issue by supporting the absurd claim that Deb Reese is "pro-censorship."

Jo said...

You're right. Requesting is not censorship. I mispoke. Following through is censorship.

I am NOT talking about publishers not decided to publish a book at all. I'm talking about discontinuing a book because, presumably, you [whoever] is offended (rightly or no, that's not the issue) - in turn making it more difficult to find and limiting (by making it more difficult) the possibilities of someone having the chance to read it for themselves and make their own decisions about what they believe.

As for Deb Reese's stand in particular, "I do think Wilder's book should be taught, but not to children. In high school, and certainly college, students can read it critically." I'm not arguing that. Just the way it was phrased/questioned in the post itself.

Limiting exposure of children to material that may cause/start harmful misconceptions/etc. is still censorship, but that doesn't make it wrong. Parents and teachers have a right and duty to censor to some extent.

Pulling a book/series from a library altogether or discontinuing it does not only have an effect on children - it effects teens/adults who can make their own decisions about what they believe, agree with, etc.

Jo said...

Oh, and I never said anything about their decision to revise the book after the author decided she had mispoke and given an impression she did not want to support.

Kynn Bartlett said...

Okay, so wait, Jo. If they decided not to republish the book and constantly keep it in print, the publisher is a censor?

Because that will make it harder for libraries to stock that book, and thus it's censorship?

Are you serious?

Do you know anything the publishing world here? Or even the term "censorship"? Cuz what you're saying makes absolutely no sense.

If a publisher reviews a book, discovers that it's full of racist nonsense that can't easily be edited out, and says "you know, we're not going to republish this again next time" -- that's not the same as censorship or book-banning.

a to z library said...


You spoke with my class (Sarah Park's Children's Literature at St. Kates). Your words and your blog have inspired a lot of thought on my part. I thank you for the work you are doing for young people and equity.

I wanted to let you know that your thoughts on Little House have been ruminating in my head since I heard you speak. I have pulled copies of the book from my 5th grade classroom, and am currently writing a flyer to share with my School Library Management class about the book and reasons it is not appropriate for a School Library. I will be sharing my information with my School Media Specialist as well.

I will continue to follow your blog, you have much to offer School Librarians and teachers.

Thank you for your thoughtful work, I apprecaiate it.

Anna Zbacnik

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Anna,

That was my second Skype lecture. I was really nervous! So, thanks for writing. I'm glad to hear from you. And, I would love to hear how it goes with your library management class. I'm guessing you'll get huge resistance, charges of censorship... Do let me know!

slashgirl said...

I just wanted to thank you for this site. I'm a library tech who runs an elementary school library on the east coast of Canada--your site, especially with the book reviews is very helpful--you give the reasons the books may or may not be appropriate. This helps me recognise problems with other books as well as gives me something to show anyone who questions my decisions about what books I do or do not have on my shelves.

I was first made aware of the inappropriate material in the Little House books via an essay on Sadly, they no longer have their essays about First Nations books up, but then about a month ago, I found this blog.

I took the LHOP books off the shelves of my then library. I moved to a new library in the same board a year ago September and have not had the chance to weed the Little House books off the shelves yet--but the whole collection was in dire need of weeding as my predecessors never did any (I weeded almost 600 non fiction books in June including a book ©1957 about the Malasite Indians of New Brunswick. Yes, it was on the shelf. This year, it will be the fiction books, including the LHOP books.)

I really appreciate this site as a resource and it is one I will be passing on to the other library tech's in my school board, as well as members of our board's RCH committee (race relations).

So, again, thank you for all the work you do and the information you provide to help everyone get the RIGHT types of books on First Nations peoples in our libraries and on bookshelves.

David Cartier said...

The story though is NOT about Native Americans, it's about a little girl, her natural fears and prejudices. During the course of the books her feelings about Native Americans change and evolve, and she shows respect, friendship, anger at their treatment and sometimes pity for them. As much as we'd like to, sometimes, we cannot, should not whitewash our own history.

Anonymous said...

What a silly conversation to be having about an important work of literature. I suppose there are people who have similar debates about The Merchant of Venice. Thank God they are not taken seriously and let's hope no one starts protecting children against Laura Ingalls Wilder in line with the idiotic opinions expressed here.

Nancy said...

I read every book in this series and I'm appalled at this conversation. It was a wonderful look back into history of a young girl and her family enduring hardships and danger as the U.S. grew as a nation. Shame on everyone who tries to make this a race issue. As another writer said, we cannot and should not whitewash our own history. That is a form of censorship or at least very poor form. Thank God our forefathers weren't as weak and sensitive as this generation!