Kurt Vonnegut, who died on April 11th at the age of 84, was many things in his life. A war veteran. A journalist. A great writer. A teacher of writing, expression, and thinking. A trained mechanical engineer. A scholar of anthropology and biochemistry. And a leader.
For those who protect the First Amendment and Free Speech, he was a hero.
Vonnegut’s influence came from the unique way in which he looked at the world and how he expressed that vision. Through his writing, he redefined writing itself, opening up new forms of expression, and influencing generations of writers. And in the process, his perspective helped uncover hidden truths about the way our world really worked.
As Michael Crichton said of Vonnegut in a review of Slaughterhouse-Five for the New Republic, “He writes about the most excruciatingly painful things. His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilts, our fiercest hatreds and loves. Nobody else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelistic approaches."
Often, that Vonnegut way of looking at things revealed realities of the world that many were not ready to deal with. These realities resulted in many challenges of his books by schools and public libraries, numerous court cases, and even book burnings. It was in these challenges that he became more than a quirky writer exposing the absurdities of life, thrust into the role of defender of expression, an affliction to the powers that all too comfortably be.
Vonnegut took on the responsibility of being not just a writer but a leader. He took on censorship as an active member of the PEN writers' aid group and the American Civil Liberties Union. The American Humanist Association, which promotes individual freedom, rational thought and scientific skepticism, made him its honorary president, as well as its 1992 Humanist of the Year.
The effect of Kurt Vonnegut’s life and work will be felt for some time to come. To this day, his books are still facing challenges.
To honor Kurt Vonnegut, we will take a look back at who he was, what he said, and what challenges he stood up to in the name of the freedom.
Some facts about Vonnegut’s life
• Taught English at the Hopefield School
• Residency at University of Iowa Writers Workshop
• Taught creative writing at Harvard
• Awarded a Master's degree for "Cat's Cradle" by the University of Chicago
• Appointed Distinguished Professor of English Prose by City University of New York
• Was awarded honorary doctorate of literature by Hobart and William Smith College
• Trained as a mechanical engineer at Carnegie Institute and at the University of Tennessee studied Anthropology at Chicago University where his MA
• Worked as a police reporter for the Chicago News Bureau
• Worked as a publicist for General Electric
• Studied Biochemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York
• Was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, receiving their Literary Award in 1970, as well as receiving a Guggenheim grant.
Cases and Incidents of Challenging Vonnegut’s Books
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five is number 29 on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the 20th Century and number 69 from 1990-2000
“Because of its realistic and frequent depiction of swearing by American soldiers, occasionally blasphemous language (including the sentence "The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the zipper on the fly of God Almighty,") and some sexually explicit content, Slaughterhouse-Five is among the most frequently banned works in American literature, and in some cases is still removed from school libraries and curricula. Conversely, this book has also become a part of the curriculum of certain schools. The suitability of the work has even been considered by the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was one of the works at issue in Island Trees School District v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982).”
In 2007, Slaughterhouse-Five was among a number of books challenged in Howell Public Schools in Michigan. The NCAC and other organizations sent a letter defending the books and free speech. The NCAC and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression sent a press release announcing that the Howell school board had ultimately retained the books.
A History of Challenges to Slaughterhouse-Five (Taken primarily from the ALA)
• Burned in Drake, N.Dak (1973). More on the case here.
• Banned in Rochester, Mich. because the novel "contains and makes references to religious matters" and thus fell within the ban of the establishment clause. An appellate court upheld its usage in the school in Todd v Rochester Community Schools, 41 Mich. App. 320, 200 N. W 2d 90 (1972). More on the case here.
• Banned in Levittown, N.Y (1975) Supreme Court case: Board of Education v. Pico at Wikipedia and Caselaw, North Jackson, Ohio (1979), and Lakeland, Fla. (1982) because of the "book's explicit sexual scenes, violence, and obscene language."
• Barred from purchase at the Washington Park High School in Racine, Wis. (1984) by the district administrative assistant for instructional services.
• Challenged at the Owensboro, Ky. High School library (1985) because of "foul language, a section depicting a picture of an act of bestiality, a reference to 'Magic Fingers' attached to the protagonist's bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: 'The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty."'
• Restricted to students who have parental permission at the four Racine, Wis. Unified District high school libraries (1986) because of "language used in the book depictions of torture, ethnic slurs, and negative portrayals of women:'
• Challenged at the LaRue County, Ky. High School library (1987) because "the book contains foul language and promotes deviant sexual behavior'
• Banned from the Fitzgerald, Ga. schools (1987) because A was filled with profanity and full of explicit sexual references.
• Challenged in the Baton Rouge, La. public high school libraries ( 1988) because the book is "vulgar and offensive.
• Challenged in the Monroe, Mich. public schools (1989) as required reading in a modem novel course for high school juniors and senior because of the book's language and the way women are portrayed.
• Retained on the Round Rock, Tex. Independent High School reading list (1996) after a challenge that the book was too violent.
• Challenged as an eleventh grade summer reading option in Prince William County, Va (1998) because the book "was rife with profanity and explicit sex."
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
A History of Challenges to Cat's Cradle (Taken from the ALA)
• The Strongsville, Ohio School Board (1972) voted to withdraw this title from the school library; this action was overturned in 1976 by a U.S. District Court in Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District, 541 F. 2d 577 (6th Cir. 1976).
• Challenged at Merrimack, NH High School (1982).
A Few Moments in Fighting Censorship
The McCarran-Walter Act
“In 1986, Vonnegut appeared before a Senate subcommittee to argue for repeal of the McCarran-Walter Act, which allowed the State Department to bar foreign visitors whose views were unacceptable to the government. ‘All citizens are entitled to hear absolutely any idea anyone from anywhere may care to express,' he said. ‘And where did I get the notion there was such an incredible entitlement? I got it from the junior civics course that was given in the seventh grade at Public School 35 in Indianapolis.’
“Vonnegut called censorship ‘a disease that's been around a long, long time, like Legionnaires' disease, maybe, or Altzheimer's.’ That same year he appeared at Berkeley's Sproul Plaza to join demonstrations against South African apartheid, and soon after he flew to Mozambique as part of a relief mission.”
–from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/sfgate/detail?blogid=18&entry_id=15365 Vonnegut
Works with the NCAC to Expose the Meese Commission
“On January 16, 1986, Betty Friedan and other prominenti, organized a press conference that eventually got released as a pamphlet entitled: The Meese Commission Exposed: Proceedings of a National Coalition Against Censorship. In attendance, in addition to Ms. Friedan were Kurt Vonnegut, Colleen Dewhurst, who eventually became head of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Harriet Pilpel of the ACLU, who made a career of defending Alfred Kinsey long after the man was in his grave, threatening to sue Pat Buchanan for a column he had written about Reisman’s expose of the deceased sexologist.”
In Vonnegut's Words
Vonnegut said his goal was “to catch people before they become generals and Senators and Presidents and poison their minds with humanity. Encourage them to make a better world."
"All citizens are entitled to hear absolutely any idea anyone from anywhere may care to express,'' he said. "And where did I get the notion there was such an incredible entitlement? I got it from the junior civics course that was given in the seventh grade at Public School 35 in Indianapolis.''
"All these people talk so eloquently about getting back to good old-fashioned values. Well, as an old poop I can remember back to when we had those old-fashioned values, and I say let's get back to the good old-fashioned First Amendment of the good old-fashioned Constitution of the United States — and to hell with the censors! Give me knowledge or give me death!"
"It's the same thing every time. They ban something of mine, the ACLU jumps in, loses the case in the lower court, and wins the appeal. After all," he stresses optimistically, "they can't win. What they're doing is unconstitutional."
—From a 1973 interview in Library Journal
“New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.”
–From Breakfast of Champions
"'My motives are political,’ he once told Playboy magazine. ‘I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society…. Mainly, I think they should be — and biologically have to be — agents of change.’”
–From the LA Times article “His popular novels blended social criticism, dark humor”
“Well, the telling of jokes is an art of its own, and it always rises from some emotional threat. The best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful.”
–From the Mcsweeneys.net article "The Best Jokes are Dangerous, an Interview with Kurt Vonnegut"
“Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile!”
“I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.”
–From A Man without a Country
"The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings, not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions and systems."
–From Player Piano
“In Palm Sunday, he wrote satirically about the attempts to censor his works. About the First Amendment, he wrote, "How could a nation with such a law raise its children in an atmosphere of decency? It couldn't – it can't. So the law will surely be repealed soon for the sake of the children." –From the Zanesville Times Recorder article “Now More Than Ever, Vonnegut Needs to be Read”
"I doubt that literature has ever triumphed over repression. I think of Hitler in his bunker, with a pistol at his temple and with the Red Army only a few blocks away, and I have to admit that the overthrow of a tyrant is not a literary enterprise.
"Literature has, however, encouraged some repressed people to behave as proudly and honourably and humanely as possible, under the circumstances, and it has suggested to them models for a better society and better citizens, should the tyranny be overthrown.”
–From the Index Online article “Literature as Encouragement”
Here is a transcript of his 1992 Humanist of the Year award acceptance speech, “Why My Dog is Not a Humanist”