This Day In Literary History
On November 10th, 1973, copies of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), the classic novel by the legendary American writer Kurt Vonnegut, were burned by administrators of a high school in Drake, North Dakota, as per the orders of the Drake School Board.
Slaughterhouse-Five, considered to be Vonnegut's masterpiece, was a landmark experimental novel. Opening during the Battle of the Bulge in the second World War, its main character is Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier.
A poorly trained soldier who hates war, Pilgrim is captured by the Nazis and becomes a prisoner of war. He and his comrades are interned in a prison camp whose quarters used to be a slaughterhouse.
Pilgrim soon finds himself "unstuck in time," as he travels through the past and the future, experiencing historical events out of sequence. He meets a failed science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout, who would return in Vonnegut's 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions.
In his most memorable adventure, Pilgrim is kidnapped by space aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who exhibit him in their zoo, along with his "mate" - a sex film starlet named Montana Wildhack.
Vonnegut's brilliant, fantastical, and scathing antiwar satire was controversial for its political themes. The novel explored the Allied extermination of thousands of German civilians in the Dresden bombings.
It was also one of the first major literary works to explore the fact that in addition to Jews, Gypsies, and political opponents, the Nazis also exterminated homosexuals during the Holocaust.
An English teacher at the Drake high school had assigned Slaughterhouse-Five to his students for classroom study. One student complained to her mother about profane language in the novel, and the disgruntled parent contacted the principal, who then brought the issue to the attention of the board of education.
The Drake School Board decided not only to ban Slaughterhouse-Five from the classroom and the school library, but also to confiscate students' personal copies of the novel and burn them.
Most of the students refused to turn over their copies of the book, so school officials just raided their lockers and took them.
All the seized copies of Slaughterhouse-Five (and other books banned by the Board, including James Dickey's classic suspense thriller Deliverance) were tossed into the school's furnace and burned.
When Kurt Vonnegut learned that copies of his novel had been burned, he wrote the following to a member of the Drake School Board:
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.
Nine years later, in the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment limits the authority of school boards to remove books from middle and high school libraries.
Students had sued the Island Trees School Board over their decision to ban Slaughterhouse-Five and other books, which the Board had declared "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-[Semitic], and just plain filthy."
Public burnings of books still take place in the United States. More recently, church groups conducted public burnings of J.K. Rowling's series of Harry Potter fantasy novels, which they accuse of encouraging children to practice real witchcraft and dabble in devil worship.
Quote Of The Day
"Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae." - Kurt Vonnegut
Today's video features Kurt Vonnegut speaking as part of a panel discussion on the Dresden bombings at Florida State University in 1997. Enjoy!