I am a teeny bit embarrassed to admit, I’ve not read Vonnegut. Although certainly aware of his work. I’ve never had the inclination to pick his titles. Perhaps until now. On the Banned Books Week’s site, they linked to a letter Vonnegut wrote in 1973 to the head of a school board who had burned all copies of Slaughterhouse Five being used as part of a curriculum. Burned. Books. 32 books. In the school furnace. Because of the violence displayed? No, of course not. Violence isn’t harmful to teens. Explicit sex? No. I don’t think there are sex scenes within the book. What else would a self righteous individual become riled up over when it comes to books students read? Religion has caused books to be yanked off shelves. No. Guess it? Obscenity. Verbal obscene language–curse words. Curse words in a book about the bombing of an entire city. A man in North Dakota is offended by language human beings use in an obscenely grotesque war. And he is allowed by the town to take the first amendment and burn it too. Because that’s what he and the town wherein Drake High School resided, did.
After Vonnegut’s books were destroyed, as is usual in cases of mass hysteria over imagined evils, they burned other ‘offensive’ titles too. Vonnegut was so disgusted by these actions he wrote a very personal, emotionally charged letter expounding upon who he was and why Charles McCarthy, the individual responsible, didn’t seem to believe authors were real people.
“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.”
He continues to explain how American he is, how he served his country, won a purple heart, raised children–some adopted, was never arrested, pays his bills, and is considered a very responsible and reputable person.
“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 find his decision not to publicize the actions of the school board amazing. Perhaps, because in this time period, it would be unheard of for anyone to remain quiet in the face of such insulting fascist actions. With all the communication outlets, it’s unlikely something as overt as the burning of books would be overlooked. However, it’s not as if the 70s were the dark ages and the media wasn’t used by every interest group around. It was. The president of the United States was being ousted daily on TV with the Watergate proceedings, we’d witnessed two assassinations earlier, via the television screen. All manner of info was being relayed at a rapid pace, the real beginnings of the unrelenting spotlight that is now part of our daily lives. Vonnegut would have been completely justified if he had exploded to the press and cameras. He could have exploited the insult turning around a negative to a positive of mega profits–it’s true, nothing sells something more than to tell people they can’t have it. Alcohol and drugs being the ultimate truth of that statement. But he chose not to. And his publisher agreed. That is also hard to comprehend. But admirable. Would a publisher stand by an author’s decision not to push the issue publicly? I think of “If I Did It” by O. J. Simpson being published by a ‘reputable’ house, and must believe that no, they wouldn’t honor anything that stood in the way of profits today. I hope I’m wrong.
“Angered and sickened and saddened.” Perfectly expressed without drama, bombastic shouting. I, personally, would be hard pressed not to lose it completely and start using the language Mr. McCarthy so objected to. Less extreme censorship has taken place recently, and losing my cool was almost automatic, and I’m not the author of the trashed books. Vonnegut never loses sight of his point during the lengthy letter. He makes his position and dislike of the school’s action precise, logical, and reasonable. And with passion.
“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. ”
This made me laugh out loud, as they say. What an idea. Rat-like people. What do individuals who demand books be banned from schools think of the authors who write the ‘offending’ works? Do they believe writers set out to damage humanity with their work? That they are innately evil? What a concept!
“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.”
I will need to keep this paragraph handy for the next response to censorship I’ll inevitably write, ha. Better yet–the following one is exactly how I try to express myself, but use paragraphs longer and with less perfection than the following:
“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.”
“Even your own children are entitled to call you that.” How sage. And true. And perfect for a comeback to the next parent who has coerced a cowered and pathetic school board into banning some great piece of literature for their own personal need for control and power. Because I do believe children of the parent that makes themselves fools and fascist like in front of the small community they are from, or to their home state, or to the entire country, will reject their parent’s actions inevitably, and feel embarrassed and betrayed by them. And if they aren’t, if they don’t come to that conclusion, then the sad reality will be, those kids will become the next in line to find reasons to ban, censor their children’s school books.
“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.” If I liked tattoos, I’d have this burned somewhere on my body.
Vonnegut ends with a reminder:
“Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.”
He certainly was. And worth a look by myself at his body of work. A little late, but heartfelt!
The entire letter is here: