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November 16 2017

Nobody Is Safe: New Republic Writer Takes on Little House on the Prairie Author

by Charlotte Hays

Quote of the Day:

"If Laura Ingalls Wilder were alive today she would be a member of the Tea Party. She would almost certainly have voted for Donald Trump."

-- Vivian Gornick in "Little House, Small Government" in the New Republic

If you thought that the esteemed literary critic Vivian Gornick's review of a new biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which begins noting that Wilder's association with pioneer values, was going to give Ingalls an even break, then you stopped reading after the first paragraph.

Gornick is reviewing Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. Here is how the full quote of the Quote of the Day reads:

Ultimately, that same drive to be alone with the wilderness got converted to a founding myth of individualism, out of which emerged an ideology that visualized freedom from government as an equivalent of freedom itself. The descendants of that myth are among us still. If Laura Ingalls Wilder were alive today she would be a member of the Tea Party. She would almost certainly have voted for Donald Trump, many of whose followers yet believe that he will restore to them the dubious glory of the frontier America that Wilder so passionately celebrated in her books.

Of course the pioneers Ingalls celebrates in her books are dupes in Ms. Gornick's more enlightened view:

What the people in the covered wagons did not grasp was that to a large extent they were pawns in the hands of political and business interests—especially those of the railroads—that needed to see ground broken across the entire continent. The pioneers never understood the hucksterism behind the “go west, young man” rhetoric that urged them to go where none had gone before, with no hard knowledge of what actually lay before them. All the pioneers knew—in their fantasies, that is—was that just over the horizon lay adventure, opportunity, possible wealth, and certain freedom.

And too stupid to recognize their own part in our national project of thievery:

The first Homestead Act, passed in 1862, promised 160 acres of uninhabited land (forget the Native Americans who were actually there) to anyone who would clear and farm it for a good five years.

And Laura was a Daddy's girl:

A few more months and the mud floor is covered with wooden planks: pure delight. Then, wonder of wonders, there is glass to be fitted into a window. What more could a settler’s daughter want? Meanwhile, Pa goes hunting and we learn how to skin a deer; he secures a cow and we learn how butter, milk, and cheese are made. Of course, there are the natural disasters to weather, and the wolves and the Native Americans. But, hey, Pa can handle it all.

I'm not a historian of the west and this period but I am working on a book that involves pioneers who went to Kentucky in the 1780s. Yes, there were iniquities and deeds for good and ill but it blows me away that men and women went out into the wilderness and created a civilization. To me the most American painting ever is George Caleb Bingham's "Daniel Boone Escorting the Settlers through the Cumberland Gap."

As a counterweight to Ingalls frontier, Gornick proposes Agnes Smedley's Daughter of the Earth:

In this book, capitalism makes a mockery of the illusion of freedom-just-ahead—the promise that sent millions traveling west during those same years when the Ingallses were loading and unloading their covered wagon and then loading it once again.

. . .

The family joined the exploited underclass that got the country built. Men like Smedley’s father, with all his brute strength and hunger of spirit, never realized that they were forever up against the exploitation of the owners of the mines and the railroads, who had the government in their pockets. Smedley himself proved an ignorant and frightened man, helpless before a world he could not fathom, much less define himself against.

The Ingalls were clearly more fortunate than the Smedleys, but what is interesting to me here is the view of American history enshrined in this review. People of the sort who write for magazines today don't find much to appreciate in American history and that is why the most educated among us often cheering  as statues are pulled down and our past is eradicated.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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