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Worlds Without End Blog

Vonnegut Banned – Again Posted at 10:00 PM by Rico Simpkins

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Slaughterhouse-Five

“A book is a loaded gun.”
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

We like to think that the banning of books is a thing of the past or, better yet, the stuff of fiction. These days, banned books are celebrated across the world, even (perhaps especially) in public school libraries. One Missouri school board, however, didn’t seem to get the memo, banning Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five both from the curriculum and from the local high school library after a local resident (with no children in the district) complained that it contradicted his interpretation of Christianity. The WWEnd staff Some of the WWEnd staff would like to respond is considering responding. While we figure out the best way whether to protest, we’ll leave you with the best response of all: Vonnegut’s.

In 1973, another board (Drake Public School Board in North Dakota) reacted to a parental complaint by banning Slaughterhouse-Five, going to so far as to collect student copies and set them ablaze. Here’s a copy of a letter that Vonnegut sent to the board in response:

 


Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this. I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.


Please return to this blog in the coming days.

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14 Comments

Rico Simpkins   |   30 Jul 2011 @ 14:32

We’re considering starting a campaign to send copies of Slaughterhouse Five to the Republic, MO school board in protest.

Kit   |   30 Jul 2011 @ 15:40

Are you going to send Vonnegut’s letter as well?

Rico Simpkins   |   30 Jul 2011 @ 15:46

That’s a great idea, but I guess we’d have to explain it, since it might be confusing. They didn’t literally burn books, after all. We were considering sending a matchbook with every book, just to make the comparison more obvious.

Kay   |   31 Jul 2011 @ 06:28

Wouldn’t do that. That would just keep their fires burning.What about our friends in Missouri to spread the book by "loosing" copies in coffee shops, train stations etc.?

Kit   |   31 Jul 2011 @ 10:41

Oh, that’s a good idea too, Kay! The closer to the school, the better?

Jonathan   |   01 Aug 2011 @ 07:25

The WWEnd staff is far from unanimous in condemning the removal of Vonnegut’s novel from this high school’s curriculum. After reading the news stories on the matter, I think the school’s action is quite reasonable and prudent. I am against censorship that stems from pusillanimity and willful ignorance, but I do not think that’s what’s happening here. I might have more to say in a future blog post. (In any case, it’s not like these high school students can’t check out "Slaughterhouse-Five" from the local public library if they really want to: http://bit.ly/pVciJa.)

Rico Simpkins   |   01 Aug 2011 @ 08:55

I’ll look forward to reading the post. I also think that replacing a book in the standard curriculum with some other work is not particularly controversial, especially given that there is a limited amount of time to teach all students. I’ve seen many of curriculum changes over the years in various high schools and colleges, and those changes might even serve to spark debate, which is always healthy. This wasn’t simply a curriculum change (which would be defined as updating the "recommended readings" list), but an outright ban. This entails banning all teachers (including senior AP teachers) from allowing students to read the book for class (even optionally) and banning the library from stocking the book. Prior attempts to ban Slaughterhouse Five have all been reversed, once by a supreme court decision. It’s true that this particular school board is taking a different tack, saying that the obscenities are not age appropriate (even for 18 year olds, apparently), and I’m not aware of this being challenged by any of the court rulings.

Jonathan   |   01 Aug 2011 @ 09:26

That’s not quite accurate. According to the story, "students wishing to read materials that fall outside of the standards – including the two books [Slaughterhouse-Five and the bizarrely obscene Twenty Boy Summer -J] – can select those books for classwork as long as they have signed parent permission." That is not an outright ban.

Rico Simpkins   |   01 Aug 2011 @ 10:27

That is true for independent reading, where students may read a book on their own but may not receive instruction on it as part of a group. This is a small blessing, and I stand corrected. Of course, de facto censorship can be just as effective as the original kind. If the school forbids a teacher from talking to the class about the book, will not provide the book as text, and even pulls it from the library, a student would only be able to choose the book against extreme prejudice and only if (s)he knew about it in the first place. This, of course, goes against the very idea of education ("you can read it if you already know it" isn’t teaching). They are there to learn about what’s out there. This reminds me of the old poll tax or the "citizenship exams" that allowed areas to *say* anyone could vote, but made the practice virtually impossible for the excluded class.

kevin heller   |   01 Aug 2011 @ 12:50

If you keep the dangerous books behind the counter, you may prevent people from reading them when they otherwise would. It’s not a ban per se, but it is a significant impediment. Which is pretty messed up.

gallyangel   |   03 Aug 2011 @ 04:43

This is a fuss about obscenity in a book? When the kids can have all the rap music, MTV, and the rest of the internet when ever they want it? Just who are these people trying to kid? Themselves apparently. Out of all the influences on young people, they go after that one. Don’t they know they’re teaching lessons in intolerance and dictatorial behavior patterns? Obviously not. So blind.

Mattastrophic   |   04 Aug 2011 @ 19:46

I have my students read the Necronomicon, and they turn out perfectly fine (the ones who survive that is). Seriously though, once a kid gets to high school age the time of complete sheltering being effective (or healthy) is done. It’s much better for parents to teach their kids in a compassionate, informed way how to deal with swearing, sexual content, violence, etc. than to outright ban (officially or effectively) anything that has those elements. Besides, these people don’t seem to grasp a fundamental truth about the teenage brain: nothing tempts a teenager to do something like telling them NOT to do it. I have serious doubts about their ability to run their own lives let alone a school, primarily because the champion of this cause, that Professor, lamented in his article that yet another thing sapping the innocence from the education system is teaching kids about sex in 8th grade. Well Mr. I-don’t-read-any-research-but-I-feel-entitled-to-wisdom, having done some limited counseling in sex education for children of that age, I can say that’s the age that they start experimenting with that kind of stuff, whether they understand safety and consequences or not or whether you like it or not!

Kit   |   04 Aug 2011 @ 19:58

Perhaps it would be prudent to just send copies of the book to every residence in the school district? Allow the children and parents to make the choice instead of the school board?

Rico Simpkins   |   10 Aug 2011 @ 02:19

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (http://www.vonnegutlibrary.org) is sending free copies of Slaughterhouse Five to any student of Republic High school. So far, they have 150 copies ready to go. They are taking donations to help pay for shipping.

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