11 November 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Vonnegut


Vonnegut self portrait
image courtesy of saabapedia.org


In, on, and during the 1973 version of yesterday (10 November) Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (most often referred to simply as Slaughterhouse-Five; please read the text for more information regarding the extended title) was set aflame in a school incinerator in Drake, North Dakota. Below is an introductory paragraph written by Vonnegut about the incident and then the letter he wrote to the chairman of the Drake School Board. For those unfamiliar with Vonnegut, his writing, and his anti-war, social justice, re-humanization ethic, this is perhaps the single best piece of explanatory writing you'll find. Take a few moments to appreciate the wit, humor, and sincerity that typify Mr. Vonnegut's writing. If you're pressed for time (we all know it's nonlinear anyway), here's what I believe to be the crux of Vonnegut's argument. Everything you need to know about anything is in this paragraph. Peace.

"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."

Here begins the introduction and letter (text courtesy of the excellent Out of Print Clothing. Go buy something from them, now! I'm certain Vonnegut would applaud their business model. If it's any consolation, I know I do.)
My novel Slaughterhouse-Five was actually burned in a furnace by a school janitor in Drake, North Dakota, on instructions from the school committee there, and the school board made public statements about the unwholesomeness of the book. Even by the standards of Queen Victoria, the only offensive line in the entire novel is this: “Get out of the road, you dumb motherfucker.” This is spoken by an American antitank gunner to an unarmed American chaplain’s assistant during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe in December 1944, the largest single defeat of American arms (the Confederacy excluded) in history. The chaplain’s assistant had attracted enemy fire. 
So on November 16, 1973, I wrote as follows to Charles McCarthy of Drake, North Dakota: 
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.
If Vonnegut's birthday and Remembrance/Veterans Day weren't enough for one Friday, let it be known that today is also Corduroy Appreciation Day. There was a great segment on NPR this morning that noted,
The Corduroy Appreciation Club loves Friday's date, 11/11/11, because of its visual likeness to corduroy wales. To get into a party Friday night in New York, you must wear at least three items made of corduroy. 
Who doesn't love the mulitsensory experience of wearing corduroy? Want to learn how to "cultivate good fellowship by the advancement of Corduroy awareness, understanding, celebration and commemoration of the fabric?" Please visit The Corduroy Appreciate Club where all wales are welcome (no this is not a sociocultural satire presented by McSweeney's, the CAC is quite real. In the event that you fulfill the two requirements you too "can join this esteemed organization and be a part of the deep fellowship" free of charge.)