Vonnegut recalled on Writer's Almanac

Dateline: Tue 10 Nov 2009

This was sent by a reader and is from today's The Writer's Almanac from NPR...thank you:

On this day in 1973, school officials in Drake, North Dakota, burned copies of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut (books by this author) had served in WWII, and he was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner in Dresden when the Allies bombed the city. For years, he tried to find a way to tell his story. Meanwhile, he went to graduate school in anthropology, worked at General Electric, got married and had three kids and adopted three more, and struggled to find his voice as a writer. His stories kept falling flat — too serious and straightforward. But finally he wrote his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969. It was extremely popular and for the most part it got great reviews, but it has been banned many times, for being obscene, violent, and for its unpatriotic description of the war.

In 1973, a 26-year-old high school English teacher assigned Slaughterhouse-Five to his students, and most of them loved it, thought it was the best book they had read in a long time. But one student complained to her mom about the obscene language, and that mom took it to the principal, and the school board voted that it should be not only confiscated from the students (who were only a third of their way through the book), but also burned. Many of the students didn't want to give up their books, so the school searched all their lockers and took them, and then threw the books into the school's burner. While the school board was at it, they decided to burn Deliverance by James Dickey and a short-story anthology.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to one of the members of the school board, and he said:
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. […]

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. […]

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.

In recent years, several churches across the United States have organized public burnings of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

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Comments

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

I read the other day that "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck was banned from a school classroom as recently as 2007.

Don't want the kids to know what it historically has been like - and continues to be like - for the "have-nots" in American society.

They've been trying to muzzle old Tom Jobe for decades.

2009-11-10 18:44:04

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

In my northern Indiana farm community when I was in junior high, the two most-banned books were Grapes and a more-modern tale of teen angst, "Go Ask Alice."

I'll never forget the Indy and Ft. Wayne news channels traveling to my hometown to report on two stories in the same day:

The school board banning a couple of books. And a city judge sentencing a man who was convicted of flag desecration, because he used an American Flag as a dividing wall in his van.

It was a civil liberties nightmare, and a newsperson's dream.

Defending the flag-desecrator was Indy attorney Belle Choate, a longtime civil libertarian who was fiery in that courtroom. She is married to local Democratic activist and military vet/attorney Sarge Visher, who went on to become Cong. Julia Carson's chief of staff for 10 years.

I heard Belle say on that day: "You can't be serious about civil rights until you're ready to defend them in difficult circumstances."

Amen to that.

Here's a Vet Day salute to civil libertarians like Belle, and Sarge, and Steinbeck and Vonnegut, in their own ways.

And a thanks to the vets who have/will protect us in order that we might enjoy those unique liberties. It's the grand cosmic joke--soldiers die so we can speak up. I never cease to be amazed at that Orwellian bargain.

2009-11-11 06:31:37

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

I seem to recall the Birchers in Indy getting their bowels in a knot in the 1960s, over "Grapes," "Catcher" and "Tom Sawyer." And others.

They wanted to take 'em out of our public libraries lest they corrupt decent God fearin' Commie hating kids.

Seems we have to stay vigilant when it comes to letting others tell us what we should avoid reading and seeing.

2009-11-11 07:57:16

George Stuteville [unverified] said:

I used to get all red-neck liberal mad and angry when I would hear about some book banning or burning somewhere.

Over the years, my response has changed. I'm actually encouraged when I hear such news now.

What it really means is that the book has not been ignored. It means, that the book was read, at least, in places.

It also means -- and I have a lot of faith in the basic contrariness of humans -- that when word of a book ban gets out, ten people somewhere and someplace who hear about it will go get a copy for themselves.

2009-11-11 08:44:56

hendy [Member] said:

When you think about it, the US was built on subversion and sedition. I'm with Stuteville. Ban more of them: their sales skyrocket. Diversity of thought breeds questioning, and intellect blossoms.

2009-11-11 10:04:55

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