American author Kurt Vonnegut was no stranger to censorship – especially with his 1969 semi-autobiographical novel Slaughterhouse-Five. According to the American Library Association, Vonnegut’s novel met resistance (and still meets resistance) in libraries and is often challenged or censored by schools.
In November 1973, 26-year-old Bruce Severy assigned Slaughterhouse-Five to his sophomore English students at Drake High School in Drake, North Dakota. Severy noted that the students seemed to enjoy it and “C and D students were suddenly writing A papers.” However, one student in particular took issue with the book’s bad language. She complained to her mother who, along with another student’s mother, went to the school board.
The Drake Public School Board members voted and ordered the books to be taken from the students (they were only a third of the way through it) and burned in the school’s coal burner. In addition, the school board ordered about 60 copies of Deliverance by James Dickey and copies of “Short Story Masterpieces,” an anthology including pieces by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, into the fiery inferno along with Vonnegut’s novel. On November 9, 1975, the Minot Daily News ran the headline: “Books at Drake Burned by School Board” and quoted the school board president Charles McCarthy as saying, “We didn’t approve of its obscene language. It might pass in a college, but not in this school.”
This did not go over well with the sophomores. When the school board ordered the books to be confiscated, the students protested. Some refused to turn over their books or stated that they simply lost it. The students’ lockers were search and their parents were told to hand over the books. A protest letter made its way around the school and sophomore Pam Schnase said, “We think it’s respectable and interesting, and better than what we’ve been reading.” Rev. J.S. Axtmass, a Catholic priest, attended the school board meeting and told the board that he did not like certain parts of the book but was against the idea of burning it. “It sounds too much like years past to me,” Axtmass told the Minot Daily News.
Severly, the English teacher, was dismayed with the idea of any books being confiscated and burned. When asked why he chose Slaughterhouse-Five, Severly informed the newspaper that the book had good qualities such as “its immediacy, its modern style, its brevity.” He continued, “I believe the theme, or message of the book is a question: Why are we killing each other still? . . . This is a moral book. It deals with a moral question that we as humans have been trying to deal with for time immemorial. The book begs the reader to come up with a workable answer.” Severly alleged that many of the school board members did not actually read the book before deciding its fate. They did not take into consideration the context and complexities of the novel and judged it solely on the use of certain language. That language, Severly purported is “out there in the real world.”
As the situation progressed, Severly held steadfast to his position that the book should not have been burned. He told the Minot Daily News that he was advised by the school superintendent to resign or be fired. Severly left Drake High School (he later receive a settlement for $5,000). Many supported him, including the Minot Education Association. A lawsuit was even threatened by the American Civil Liberties Union against the school board. It was finally decided that Slaughterhouse-Five can be taught to Drake’s junior and senior classes.
Vonnegut, himself, was outraged over the events at the school and wrote a letter to Drake’s school board. The letter was included in his 1981 Palm Sunday – a collection of his previously unpublished short stories, letters, essays, etc….
This is Vonnegut’s letter to Charles McCarthy (the school board president):
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 talks back to book ban,” Lakeland Ledger, June 27, 1982.
Andrea Johnson, “Books at Drake Burned By School Board.” Minot Daily News, October 1, 2008.