laughterhouse-Five revolves around Billy Pilgrim, who like Vonnegut, was a POW in Dresden when it was decimated by Allied firebombing during World War Two. Billy has “come unstuck in time.” And to complicate matters further, he is abducted by aliens, two-foot-tall creatures, who are shaped like toilet plungers, from the planet Tralfamadore.
Why was Slaughterhouse-Five banned? Kurt Vonnegut’s searingly sarcastic, darkly funny, science fiction-infused war story is considered one of the greatest anti-war novels of all time. Needless to say, it includes a good dose of rough language, the kind soldiers have been known to use. Bearing both of these things in mind, it’s no surprise that Vonnegut’s novel has been challenged at least eighteen times, with “obscene language,” and “anti-American” sentiment or “lack of patriotism,” consistently among the objections. But as always, some challenges were more successful than others.
A petition to remove Slaughterhouse-Five (among other books) from the junior high and high school libraries of Island Trees Union Free Public School District, made it to the US Supreme Court. Fortunately, citing the First Amendment, the court found that these books could not be removed from the school district’s libraries.
On the other hand, there’s Drake, North Dakota, a banning that got Vonnegut’s personal attention. In 1973, school officials voted to withdraw Slaughterhouse-Five from the curriculum. Most students, however, didn’t want to give up their copy of the novel. So, lockers were searched, books confiscated, and all 32 copies were ultimately burned in the school’s furnace.
The event made national headlines. And Vonnegut sent a biting letter to the chairman of the Drake School Board, who apparently couldn’t fathom what all the fuss was about. In his typical no-holds-barred style, Vonnegut stated what to many of us is obvious:
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.
Vonnegut concluded his letter by summing up the stand against censorship book burning like only he can:
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… it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books—books you haven’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 survive.
To Vonnegut’s point, this book is definitely more than just a stockpile of salty language. But, why is Slaughterhouse-Five important? Like all literature, it’s a snapshot of the culture that produced it. As noted in an earlier post, authors and their works present, analyze, and shed light on the social maladies of their day. When readers look beyond Slaughterhouse Five’s rough language, it’s obvious that this book addresses the devastating aftereffects of war. And the novel’s time-traveling, non-linear structure mimics a debilitating psychological condition, one our soldiers struggle with all too often as a result of their war experience.
No Parts for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.
Science-fiction tropes may carry Slaughterhouse-Five’s narrative, but Vonnegut’s novel tells the very real tale of a verifiable historical event. In the book’s opening chapter, however, Vonnegut makes it clear that he wrote about the firebombing of Dresden because of its historical significance, rather than simply because it made for an exciting personal war story.
But, Vonnegut doesn’t write from the romanticized, gung-ho perspective prevalent in post-World War Two culture. As he tells us in the novel’s autobiographical first chapter, after an uncomfortable conversation with his war-buddy’s wife (Mary O’Hare, to whom Slaughterhouse-Five is dedicated), he realized that the book he was about to write would add to the cultural mythology that perpetuates war and glamorizes young men’s participation in them.
So, Vonnegut made her a promise, vowing that if he ever finished his book and it was made into a movie, there would be no parts for actors like Frank Sinatra or John Wayne. There would be no roles for “glamorous, war loving, dirty old men,” who “make war look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”
Consequently, Vonnegut’s novel doesn’t praise the British bombers who carried out the raid, justify American involvement, or support World War Two generally for that matter. Instead, he wrote about… Read more here.
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