Vonnegut on Censorship and Demonization

Books — By on December 5, 2012 at 3:00 am

(Editor’s note:  If you live in the Indianapolis -Vonnegut’s hometown - or will be in the area visiting family over the holidays, you might be interested in checking out the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, located downtown)

In Letters, one of the more forceful letters Kurt Vonnegut wrote was addressed to Charles McCarthy, who served as chairman of the Drake School Board of Drake, North Carolina. Vonnegut learned that the board burned a large selection of books, including his own. I was struck by the wisdom Kurt used, assuring McCarthy this was a private letter. He would not be using the news of the book burning to market his product. There were no appeals to the court of public opinion.

This privacy allowed Kurt to address the demonization that inevitably occurs during public brawls and culture wars. In Letters he writes:

“I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some others like me, as being sort of rat-like 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 of 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 Two, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work . . . ” (p. 205).

Vonnegut goes on to present his resume as an educator and a mentor. The purpose behind his resume? To point out how difficult it should be to present him as “other.” Kurt presents evidence that he is just as much of a hard-working American and is just as concerned for the welfare of the next generation as the Drake School Board.

He goes on to reveal his motive for writing his novels:

“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 any 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 in real life. Especially soldiers and hard-working 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” (p. 209).

I’m not writing this post to make the argument that parents should have a hands-off attitude toward what their children read. There is a season where it’s appropriate to keep certain works from children and a season to read disputable works with our children to help them develop their critical and moral reasoning. I suppose I’m impressed with Vonnegut’s insight that in a culture war, opponents must be misrepresented and dehumanized before they can be oppressed.

And I wonder what would have happened if the Drake School Board had encouraged the parents of high school students to read Vonnegut with their students. I wonder what fantastic conversations about ethics and faith could have occurred between parent and child.

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  • “in a culture war, opponents must be misrepresented and dehumanized before they can be oppressed.”

    True words, Larry!

    Excellent piece!

  • Thank you for this post. So often people judge a book or an author based on their reputation without taking the time to actually read the work for themselves. I tend to think how we view a book is oftentimes a mirror to ourselves.

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