What Mark Twain was to the 19th century, Kurt Vonnegut was to the 20th. Both are among the finest examples of the American Satirists. He was, and is, a beloved fixture of American literature. When Vonnegut died in 2007, members of the Alplaus Volunteer Fire Department in New York lowered the flag to half mast, hung the funeral shroud, and rang a fire bell in accordance with the traditional 5-5-5 alarm used to honor fallen brothers.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a satirical 1969 work about a WWII soldier’s journey through time. Ranked the 18th greatest English novel of the 20th century by Modern Library, it is by far Vonnegut’s most influential and popular work.
But there’s another list it graces.
Why all the fuss over a time-traveling WWII yarn that involves alien abduction?
The various themes explored in the novel include the definition of fate, free will, fatalism, and the illogical nature of humanity. You know, all that bad stuff that might cause people to think for themselves.
A Tralfamadorian says in the story at one point, “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” The story’s central notion is that most of humanity is insignificant; they do what they do simply because they must. The Tralfamadorians counter Vonnegut’s true theme that life is only enjoyable with unknowns. Tralfamadorians don’t make choices about what they do, but have power only over what they think.
It was one of the first literary acknowledgments of the fact that homosexual men, referred to in the novel as “fairies,” were among the first victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
Thus began its history as one of America’s most loved, yet most banned books of the 20th century because its “irreverent tone and purportedly obscene content.”
Residents of Drake, North Dakota challenged it in 1973 and it was banned in Rochester, Michigan because the novel “contains and makes references to religious matters” and thus fell under the establishment clause. An appellate court upheld its usage in the school in the case of Todd v. Rochester Community Schools.
Banned in Levittown, New York (1975), North Jackson, Ohio (1979), and Lakeland, Florida (1982) because of the “book’s explicit sexual scenes, violence, and obscene language.”
It was forbidden from being checked out at Washington Park High School in Racine, Wisconsin in 1984 because it contains “foul language and promotes deviant sexual behavior.” It was eventually returned in 1986 with checkout by parental consent only.
At the Owensboro, Kentucky High School in 1985 it was challenged because of “a reference to ‘Magic Fingers’ attached to the Billy’s bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: ‘The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty.’”
Other incidents include being challenged in the LaRue County, Kentucky High School library in 1987; banned from the Fitzgerald, Georgia schools because it was “filled with profanity and full of explicit sexual references;” challenged in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana public high school libraries in 1988 because the book is “vulgar and offensive;” challenged in the Monroe, Michigan public schools in 1989 as required reading in a modern novel course for juniors and seniors because of the book’s language and the way women are portrayed.
The U.S. Supreme Court measured the First Amendment implications of its removal, along with other titles, from public school libraries in the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico in 1982, and concluded that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’”
In 2000, it was removed from the sophomore reading list at a Rhode Island High School after a parent complained about “vulgar language, violent imagery, and sexual content.” In 2006, the book was ultimately retained on the Northwest Suburban High reading list in Arlington Heights, Illinois, after a board member “elected amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making,” pointed out a few controversial excerpts she’d found on the Internet.
In 2007, it was challenged in a Howell, Michigan court to determine whether it violated laws against “distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors.” The county’s top prosecutor ultimately decided against any legal action, stating “It is clear that the explicit passages illustrated a larger literary, artistic, or political message and were not included solely to appeal to the prurient interests of minors.”
The biggest story hit newswires just last week, when a school in Missouri voted to ban the classic novel and two other books because they “teach principles that are contrary to the Bible.”
College business professor Wesley Scroggins called for the banning of “filthy books” assigned to students at Republic High School including Slaughterhouse-Five, Twenty Boy Summer and Speak.
He called the latter two books “soft pornography” and said of Slaughterhouse-Five (in the Springfield News-Leader), “In English, children are also required to read [this book]. This is a book that contains so much profane language it would make a sailor blush with shame.”
Scoggins scored a two-thirds victory, when the Republic school district voted 4-0 to ban Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer, but keeping Speak. Aside from one reporter, only six people were there for the meeting- four board members and two administrators. Scoggins himself wasn’t even there. Of the members of the school board who voted on the issue, only one- Melissa Duvall- had actually read either of the books in question. According to the Huffington Post, superintendant Vern Minor was “out of town” last week and did not return emails or calls requesting comment.
After the banning was announced, Ockler attacked the decision on her blog. “Not every teen who has sex outside of a relationship feels guilty, shameful, or regretful later on,” she wrote. “And you can ban my books from every damn district in the country — I’m still not going to write to send messages or make teens feel guilty because they’ve made choices that some people want to pretend don’t exist. That’s my choice, and I’ll never be ashamed of my choice to write about real issues.”
So there you have it. In a quite room, behind closed doors, the fate of two literary works was decided without fuss, without debate by the few; while the right to read them freely by the many was unceremoniously stripped away from the young minds of tomorrow.
So much for higher education.
Sources: American Library Association, Wikipedia, Huffington Post, Yahoo news, CNN, Springfield News-Leader
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions