Books, Law

Banned book week

In Indianapolis this week a series of events are being run as a protest against books being banned in the United States. This includes the reading of a letter sent to the Chairman of the Drake High School Board in North Dakota in 1973, after 32 copies of the novel Slaughterhouse-5 were burned in the school’s furnace. A copy of that letter from the author of the novel, Kurt Vonnegut, appears below.

Vonnegut fought for the US army during the Second World War against a nation run by those who hated books and famously burnt them. Vonnegut was in Dresden as a prisoner of war during the weekend of 13th to 15th February 1945 when Allied bombs fell and created a firestorm that destroyed much of the famous city and its inhabitants (many Germans were crowded there seeking refuge, wrongly relying on the Allies not bombing this historic and beautiful architectural site).

Slaughterhouse-5 tells the story of that weekend, with mordant humour via the fatalistic hero Billy Pilgrim with his resigned acceptance and lack of jingoism. It is a brilliant novel from that sub-genre of literature: the comic war book (The Good Soldier Schweik, The Sword of Honour trilogy, Oh! What a lovely war, Catch-22 etc.) These texts are a challenge to the literal-minded and those who prefer their war representations to be heroic and patriotic. Many are not comfortable with the combination of irony and battle.

In1972 the novel was banned in Oakland County, Michigan by a circuit judge who described it as ‘depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian’. When a 26 year old teacher, Bruce Severy, started teaching it in October 1973 at Drake High, the book burners moved in. Here is the letter from the author a couple of weeks later:

November 16, 1973

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.

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 eduction 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.

Kurt Vonnegut

Don’t think that this sort of episode is limited to the battles of the counter-cultural Sixties and early Seventies. The American Library Association has calculated that since 1990 there have been over 18,000 attempts to remove materials from schools and libraries. Sarah Palin, when Mayor of Wasilla in Alaska, had (among others) the following offending texts banned from the public library: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Silas Marner by George Eliot.

In August 2011 Slaughterhouse-5 was banned at the Republic High School in Missouri. So it goes.

Edward Bindloss
23rd September 2014


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s