Introducing Dedra Birzer, New Press Director

24 November 2020

As a child, I devoured Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, dressed as Laura for Halloween, and faithfully watched “Little House on the Prairie” each week. The scholarly potential of Wilder’s work, though, eluded me until I took Elizabeth Jameson’s course on Western Women’s history in my first semester as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico. Jameson’s use of Wilder and other literature that focused on women in the Dakotas gave me new insight into the teaching power of such books, which I have eagerly employed in my own teaching, researching, and writing ever since. For the past two decades, I have taught a wide variety of history courses at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where my husband is also a history professor. I earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of New Mexico in 2000, a M.A. in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1993, and a B.A. in History and Spanish from Texas Lutheran University in 1991.

Throughout my career as a professional historian, I have been an enormous fan of the SDHS Press’s publications centered on Laura Ingalls Wilder (Pamela Smith Hill’s biography of Wilder is the best biographical analysis of her as a writer). I am a scholar of Wilder’s and of her daughter’s intellectual thought, having had the privilege of teaching courses on Wilder’s literary genius for the past two decades. I have a book manuscript under contract with that focuses on Rose Wilder Lane as a public intellectual, and have had the privilege of perusing her papers at the Hoover Presidential Library as well as visiting the Wilder historical sites at DeSmet, SD, and at Mansfield, MO. My response to the American Library Association’s removal of Wilder’s name from its lifetime legacy award (I disapproved of it) was widely disseminated and quoted by Publishers Weekly in its list of the top ten library stories of the year in 2018.

As an historian of the American West, I have studied and taught South Dakota history (though it, like other Great Plains states, is generally considered Midwestern as much as Western). My husband is from Kansas and I am from the Gulf Coast of Texas. We dearly love the Great Plains and have made it something of a mission to acquaint our six Michigan-born and bred children and our college students with the region, through literature, history, and photography.

I see myself, or at least aspire to be seen, as a public intellectual, with one foot in the academic world as an editor, professor, researcher, book reviewer, conference presenter, and scholar, and the other foot in the world of the general reading (and listening) public. Although my first month as Press Director has been filled with lots of reports and meetings, I’ve also gotten my feet wet with reading manuscripts and meeting with potential authors to discuss book ideas.

South Dakota and its history are at the center of national debates about regional autonomy and whose history should be memorialized in stone. This is not a new experience for South Dakota. From the Black Hills Gold Rush, to Sitting Bull and Wounded Knee, to the second Wounded Knee, to George McGovern’s presidential run, to the political battles swirling around Mount Rushmore, South Dakota has shown its significance to American history and the depths of its spirit and character. The SDHS Press has proudly documented much of that history since its inception. Under my leadership, the Press will continue to capture that South Dakota character and spirit, using the best tools of history — storytelling based on thorough research and analysis — to imbue both scholarly and general audiences with an understanding of the varied facets, landscapes, voices, and faces of the entire state and its people.

—Dedra Birzer