On Laura Ingalls Wilder, “presentism,” the Victorians, and other random stabs to the heart
There’s something happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.*
I’m not in the habit of quoting protest songs from the 1960s. In fact, I’m less than enamored with the Sixties, as a rule, my birth during that volatile decade notwithstanding. However … and with deepest apologies to Buffalo Springfield … those are the words that keep springing to my mind recently.
Some sort of shift is taking place, deep inside my core. I feel unsettled and restless, drawn to something I can’t yet name. This sensation could be the result of too much caffeine, or of eating dinner too late at night, or of ingesting seafood that’s gone a bit “off.”
But I don’t think so.
A couple of recent events gave rise to this feeling (I’m making every effort to avoid using the tired, baggage-laden word “triggered.” It’s worn out its welcome.)
The first event was a gut-punch to my midsection when I of the Association of Library Service to Children (a division of the American Library Association)’s decision to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s book award. According to the ALSC website, “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.” So, some eighty years after her books were published and sixty years after her death, Laura Ingalls Wilder is to be booted out of the pantheon of American literature for not being up-to-date.
I’d barely had time to process my deep feels of regret over this disappointment when a second incident occurred. A lazy Saturday-morning browse of my local (if an hour away can be called local) Barnes & Noble produced a book that promised a cheeky look back at Victorian manners and morals. Expecting to be both enlightened and amused, I scanned a few pages and thrust it back on the shelf. It wasn’t a book most readers of this blog would enjoy. Instead of offering the reader an interesting trip in the Wayback Machine, it was a snarky, mocking, and thoroughly unfunny skewering of Victorian viewpoints concerning femininity, gender relations, and a host of other topics. What could have been a delightful, charming book, both amusing and informative, failed to do either as it vented its vindictive, mean-spirited spleen against the ideals of an earlier generation.
Now, clearly, I’ve rejected books before. Plenty of them. I’ve placed thousands of them back on the shelf or deleted them from my Amazon cart with regularity and not given them another thought. So why is this particular book still pricking at my mind days later? Because I think these seemingly insignificant events, both of them, are symptoms of a deeper problem.
Have you heard the term “presentism”? I hadn’t either, until quite recently. When I first heard it I was tempted to roll my eyes at yet another “ism” to supposedly confront and contend with. But this one actually clicks with me. According to dictionary.com, presentism is “uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.” In other words, it means judging people of the past by the standards of today. It’s painting Laura Ingalls Wilder or Mark Twain or Agatha Christie or a host of other authors with the damning stripe of “racist” or “sexist” or “classist,” when their writings merely reflecting commonly held viewpoints and thought-patterns typical of their place and time in history. It means skewering authors of the past (among other people–name your historical hero and I bet there’s some lode of non-PC something-or-other in his or her life, waiting to be unearthed) for not being feminist enough or environmentally-friendly enough or fill-in-the-blank enough to suit their very specific 21st-century standards.
This is what makes me angry: the wholesale slandering of historical figures based on 21st-century standards. Makes me angry enough to … what? That’s the part I haven’t figured out yet. Angry enough to write a blog post: done. But then what? Does Laura Ingalls Wilder need my help? Do the Victorians? I think not.
The name of this blog (in case you didn’t know, which you probably didn’t because I’m neglectful at pointing it out) is A Sparkling Vintage Life. Its mission is to celebrate the best of the past, to enjoy historical fiction and nonfiction, and to incorporate vintage touches into a modern life. To uphold wholesome, healthy, and God-honoring values. “The best of the past” does not mean approving of racism, sexism, and other “isms” so offensive to modern sensibilities. But neither does it mean throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. It means taking what works and leaving the rest. Being a generous enough human to respect fellow humans who went before us for what they did well, and extending grace to (and learning from) those things we no longer accept or condone in this generation.
Laura Ingalls Wilder deserves to be admired as a writer whose stories have been beloved by generations. There are ways to point out what modern eyes see as her failings, without trashing her entire reputation.
The ways of the Victorians deserve to be respected, studied, and learned from, not mocked and ridiculed. Yes, they had their oddball quirks, to be sure, and it’s fine and good to point out where we disagree, to see how far we’ve come as a society in certain respects. But there are things we can learn from them, too. Things that are worth preserving,worth bringing back. It’s arrogant and prideful to think our society is so much “better” than theirs. And anyone who thinks our generation doesn’t have just as many oddball quirks, if not more, is simply delusional.
Oh, dear. I believe I’ve gone off on a ramble. If you’ve read this far, thank you for your patience. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with these feelings churning about in my psyche. I just know that the past must not be painted over with politically correct Day-Glo. There are things worth saving, conserving, preserving, bringing back.
What can I do about it? Maybe nothing. Or maybe something. What it is ain’t exactly clear. Stay tuned.
And thank you for living out your own juicy, generous, and joy-filled Sparkling Vintage Life.