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"I am very real"
April 5, 2012 10:45 AM   Subscribe

"In October of 1973, Bruce Severy — a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota — decided to use Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school's furnace as a result of its "obscene language." Other books soon met with the same fate. On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn't receive a reply."
posted by the man of twists and turns (50 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons.."

So true. So why are all the libraries being closed? hmmmm..

Amazing letter; even now, he can move me by his words.
posted by marienbad at 10:50 AM on April 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


And so it goes.
posted by spicynuts at 10:50 AM on April 5, 2012


Charlie McCarthy is just a dummy.
posted by SPrintF at 10:52 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Christ, what an *
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:53 AM on April 5, 2012 [35 favorites]


Obligatory:

The Big Space Fuck


Teach THAT in high school English!
posted by edgeways at 10:53 AM on April 5, 2012 [10 favorites]


When I would visit Manhattan I was always secretly hoping to run into Kurt Vonnegut. I haven't been back since he died.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:57 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Truly wonderful.
posted by odinsdream at 10:58 AM on April 5, 2012


You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake

Well, not the only copy. And not private as of 1999 when he published his autobiography.
posted by Houstonian at 10:58 AM on April 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


There's something to be said for Vonnegut's WWII Greatest Generation-style liberalism. "I fought a war against countries that burn books, dammit!"
posted by jonp72 at 11:04 AM on April 5, 2012 [14 favorites]


Fantastic letter. Thanks for posting it. I wonder if it had the slightest effect on the close-minded Mr. McCarthy and the people of Drake, though.
posted by zarq at 11:09 AM on April 5, 2012


I loved that. Thanks.

"I fought a war against countries that burn books, dammit!"

All I could hear while reading it was the schoolboard hearing in Field of Dreams:
"Who's for Eva Braun here? Who's for burning books? Who wants to spit on the constitution of the United States of America, anybody? Now who's for the Bill of Rights? Who thinks that freedom is a pretty darn good thing? Who thinks that we have to stand up to the kind of censorship that they had under Stalin?"
posted by yerfatma at 11:11 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


"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.'

Amen.
posted by teleri025 at 11:14 AM on April 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


*
posted by item at 11:26 AM on April 5, 2012


That was fucking great.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:28 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


...and on preview I see that spikeleemajorsomethingwaytoolongformetobotherwithbutisupposeicouldhavecutandpastedhisorhername beat me to the *, which would make me the * of this thread if it wasn't for Charles McCarthy.

What is it with people named McCarthy and their shitty, fascist eras?
posted by item at 11:29 AM on April 5, 2012


Bravo.
posted by Splunge at 11:29 AM on April 5, 2012


Quoted for the truth:

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.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:33 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I actually played basketball against drake when I was in high school. I remember that everyone was off in that town. I can't really explain what it was that was off, but it wasn't just me because even our coach was noticing it. We actually had a running joke to explain it. We said that it must be something in the water. We also beat them every time we played them and pretty handily too. Sooo...BOO-YAH
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:39 AM on April 5, 2012


AElfwine Evenstar: "I actually played basketball against drake when I was in high school. I remember that everyone was off in that town. I can't really explain what it was that was off, but it wasn't just me because even our coach was noticing it. We actually had a running joke to explain it. We said that it must be something in the water. We also beat them every time we played them and pretty handily too. Sooo...BOO-YAH"

Did you check the team bus for pods? :D
posted by zarq at 11:41 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thought it was a great letter, except for the 'I am real' part. A meathead can stipulate that KV is real without having to concede any other points.
posted by found missing at 11:42 AM on April 5, 2012


I wish our political leaders had the courage to send letters like that. Not to every idiot in a Fox studio, but just a few, every now and then.

you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

I would love to know more about how Drakeans felt about this school board yahoo and whether the community eventually came around.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:42 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


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 ... If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own...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.

It's almost sad how striking and fresh Vonnegut's simple, straightforward language sounds. Why can't more people defend freedom this way?
posted by straight at 11:47 AM on April 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


hah, found missing. I liked that part best because our insult culture seems so often to be speaking over their supposed target to another audience, using the object of their outrage as a prop in service of a larger demagogic strategy. When Rush Limbaugh slurs $ANYBODY I'm sure he's not thinking for a nanosecond of humans somewhere reacting as a human might to his words. I'm not sure any of us are anymore. "I am very real." I love that.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:50 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


This weekend, I got to hang out with a friend and her friends who are all teachers (I am not) and, I have to admit, I was a little sad when one lady who teaches middle school had not heard of Kurt Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse Five. Even more so when she told me that she has some students who, in their "essay" about what they wanted to be when they grew up, stated "soldier" so they "can kill people". So I told her a little about the book. I'm not sure if she will ever read it, but I told her about it. How it's not out to make heroes out of anybody. She thought of a student of hers who reads constantly who she thought might like the suggestion. So there's that.

It's funny how many times I've read that book and how, even now, I have a better understanding of it each time I read or discuss it. And I just came upon it randomly in the back seat of my friend's brother's car one summer.

My youngest nephew is 15 and has, within the last year, gotten quite caught up in stories about WWII spies. There must be a selection of books, or something, where there were kid spies in WWII. So for Xmas this last year, I got him a book about WWII fighter pilots and Slaughterhouse Five. Again, I'm not sure if he'll ever read it, but it's out there.

I probably should have emphasized the aliens, time travel and poorly scribbled boobs more.
posted by jillithd at 11:53 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


straight: "It's almost sad how striking and fresh Vonnegut's simple, straightforward language sounds. Why can't more people defend freedom this way?"

Why can't more modern authors write this way? I love Vonnegut's writing style, because it's so refreshingly direct.
posted by schmod at 11:58 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would love to know more about how Drakeans felt about this school board yahoo and whether the community eventually came around. -- Here's more information about Drake High School ... "there was an out of court settlement in the Drake case that resulted in permission being granted for "Slaughter-House Five" to be taught to high school juniors and seniors, while Severy received a settlement of $5,000."

You know, it's a different time, now compared to 1974. I was listening to The Big Broadcast, a radio program on every Sunday night that replays old radio programs, like Gunsmoke and Jack Benny. This past weekend, they played an episode of Dragnet from April 6, 1950 (around the 30 minute mark), which revolved around Sgt. Friday investigating how a local high school was flooded with "obscene literature." And as I was listening, I was wondering how someone from 1950 would react to how available porn is now with the internet.
posted by crunchland at 11:59 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


When Rush Limbaugh slurs $ANYBODY I'm sure he's not thinking for a nanosecond of humans somewhere reacting as a human might to his words. I'm not sure any of us are anymore.

For a lot of people (and I'll admit that this is often true of me), it's extremely hard to think of people who get talked about in mainstream media as being real. For some people, it's hard to really recognize that Rush called Sandra Fluke a slut because, well, she's on TV, and everyone on TV gets a little shit splattered on them. But of course the problem is that Rush is a big part of the reason she's on TV. Attacks have this weird way of legitimizing themselves.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:05 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I would visit Manhattan I was always secretly hoping to run into Kurt Vonnegut. I haven't been back since he died.

That's okay, neither has he.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:13 PM on April 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


...wars have been fought against nations which hate books

From now on, when vexed by the inane, I'm going to ask, "Why do you hate books so much?"
posted by mmrtnt at 12:18 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


If read selectively, that letter is sort of threatening ...

I'm a veteran. I'm big. I know how to use tools. ... And I am very real.

;)
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:22 PM on April 5, 2012


While attending North Dakota State (Go Bison!), my then girlfriend and now wife, was friends with a girl from Drake. She said the books were never actually burned. She said they were in a box in the furnace room but the janitor never bothered to toss them in the flames. Every now and then a kid would take a copy and read it.

I do know that bookstores in ND could barely keep Deliverance and Slaughterhouse 5 in stock in those days. High school kids were picking up copies like there was no tomorrow, which is kind of a fitting outcome. I know it made me read them and paradigms were shifted.
posted by Ber at 12:27 PM on April 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


When I would visit Manhattan I was always secretly hoping to run into Kurt Vonnegut. I haven't been back since he died.

That's okay, neither has he.


Well someone's never seen Weekend At Vonnie's, apparently.
posted by inigo2 at 12:29 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I used to see him around a lot back when he was alive (usually in the east 60s.) I often had a notion to thank him personally for his books, but he looked like he'd rather not be bothered.
posted by borges at 12:34 PM on April 5, 2012


I went to high school in Indiana. I remember seeing a lot of copies of Slaughterhouse Five on the shelves in a work or storage room. The story was that an English teacher had lost his/her job over the book and that they'd just been put away until ... something changed some day?

The other story was that a group of parents had turned up at the school library to demand the removal of the library's copy from the shelves (or just to remove it themselves), but that the librarian locked herself in so they couldn't get at it.

I don't know how true either of those stories were, but they were enough to get me to read it.

Oh, that was Goshen, Indiana in case anyone here can corroborate or refute.
posted by mph at 12:59 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake

Well, not the only copy. And not private as of 1999 when he published his autobiography.
posted by Houstonian at 10:58 AM on April 5 [4 favorites +] [!]


The letter was published in 1981 in Vonnegut's "Palm Sunday". Was it republished in another book?

At any rate, it wasn't an autobiography. He proposed calling it a "blivit", explaining that the word had been used by the peers of his youth to describe "two pounds of shit in a one pound bag".

Whether or not that sheds any light on the letter is questionable, but I thought you would want to know.
posted by notmtwain at 1:10 PM on April 5, 2012


Small town North Dakota kid here. One summer in the 90s I helped update the school library's accession book -- there wasn't a single copy of Vonnegut, yet we had multiple complete sets of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.
posted by nathan_teske at 1:40 PM on April 5, 2012


Why can't more modern authors write this way?

Clean direct declarative writing like Vonnegut's is painfully difficult. His language is Chris Ware-style illustration in prose form.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:49 PM on April 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


Soon very few novels will be taught in high schools at all, regardless of authorship--they've cut fiction out of the high school English language arts standards with the Common Core; it's relegated to independent reading, which only a subset of kids will actually do. It breaks my heart because every year, I had high school freshmen who report they'd never read an entire novel--they'd been taught exclusively out of the textbook anthologies.

Wish you were still with us, Mr. Vonnegut.
posted by smirkette at 4:12 PM on April 5, 2012


I read Slaughterhouse 5 when I was 12 years old. It was in my school library and I overheard some sixth-formers saying it had lots of "dirty bits" in it. I found it, took it out and eagerly began reading.

Billy Pilgrim had come unstuck in time. So did I while I read that book. By the time I finished it I was blown away, moved, thrilled... and I realised that the sixth-formers who seemed to see nothing in it beyond the "dirty bits" were bloody morons.

The idea that American schools had a problem with this book still shocks me, even though I've long known the stories - including this one.
posted by Decani at 4:14 PM on April 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Soon very few novels will be taught in high schools at all, regardless of authorship--they've cut fiction out of the high school English language arts standards with the Common Core;

What the fuck? That's unacceptable.
posted by odinsdream at 5:05 PM on April 5, 2012


Man, I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut when I was in high school in the late 80s.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:12 PM on April 5, 2012


Soon very few novels will be taught in high schools at all, regardless of authorship--they've cut fiction out of the high school English language arts standards with the Common Core;

I taught two novels this year to my eighth graders, under College Board SpringBoard curriculum, but Florida is changing to common core next year. We already use too much anthologies. It's hard for kids to appreciate whole works, especially when curriculum designers keep denigrating and further underestimating their already withered attention spans. Btw, school types call this the Disney rule, after a study supposedly commissioned by the Disney Corp, that states that a child's attention span, in minutes, is mol equivalent to his/her age, +/-2.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:47 PM on April 5, 2012


Tell that to 3-hour-long Harry Potter movies.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:18 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Soon very few novels will be taught in high schools at all, regardless of authorship--they've cut fiction out of the high school English language arts standards with the Common Core; it's relegated to independent reading, which only a subset of kids will actually do.

Could you elaborate on this? The English Language Arts Standards at the common core website seem to list various novels as representative texts for 6th through 12th grade students, and at the very least includes fictional "stories." It also seems to suggest that particulars are left up to local determination.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:59 PM on April 5, 2012


I'm sorry, but this: "Soon very few novels will be taught in high schools at all, regardless of authorship--they've cut fiction out of the high school English language arts standards with the Common Core . . ." is patently untrue. Common Core calls for no such thing, and no districts I am aware of will reduce the novels in their respective curricula.

From the Common Core description of ELA anchor standards . . .
To become college and career ready, students must grapple with works of exceptional craft and thought whose range extends across genres, cultures, and centuries. Such works offer profound insights into the human condition and serve as models for students’ own thinking and writing. Along with high-quality contemporary works, these texts should be chosen from among seminal U.S. documents, the classics of American literature, and the timeless dramas of Shakespeare. Through wide and deep reading of literature and literary nonfiction of steadily increasing sophistication, students gain a reservoir of literary and cultural knowledge, references, and images; the ability to evaluate intricate arguments; and the capacity to surmount the challenges posed by complex texts.

Novels aren't going anywhere. The most striking difference one would see is the incorporation of more nonfiction, informational texts, and more cross-disciplinary pollination.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:13 PM on April 5, 2012


^ and I say this as someone who has been steeped in Common Core, and am one month away from completing my MAT in Secondary Ed., English and NYS certification. There are a lot of problems with public education these days, but CC isn't one of them.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:17 PM on April 5, 2012


I stand corrected. That said, most of the conversation I've heard has been around cutting novels all together for a few short stories and focusing on the non-fiction. I'm glad to hear that's not the case elsewhere.
posted by smirkette at 7:24 PM on April 5, 2012


smirkette: sorry, didn't mean to come across as fighty-- I'm a bit touchy about CC lately, as there is a discouraging amount of misinformation floating around. It's a shame that you are hearing of plans to cut novels. This might be due to others (school boards, administrators) misunderstanding the intent of common core. There will probably be more literary nonfiction (memoir) worked into the curriculum, as well as informational texts . . . but the intent is not to supplant longer literary fiction with them.

A quick example I can think of would be teaching a literary text, like The Crucible, for example, and working in news articles on the Committee on Un-American Activities, or the Hollywood blacklists-- these are secondary informational texts that add something to students' understanding of the primary text.

Or teaching Gatsby, and working in informational articles about prohibition and bootlegging, the Roaring 20s, F. Scott Fitzgerald's personal correspondence . . . etc.

This is stuff many teachers already do, but common core simply provides a common vocabulary to articulate what students ought to be able to do at a given point in their schooling, and aims to help teachers achieve that.

(Sorry for the derail . . . I will teach Vonnegut in HS if given half a chance . . .)
posted by exlotuseater at 8:23 PM on April 5, 2012


I am so, so glad I got to see Vonnegut speak at the Chicago Public Library in the early 2000s. I think I'll remember that forever. He's one of my humanist saints, along with Fred Rogers. Thank you so much for posting this; I'd never read it before.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:58 PM on April 5, 2012


"Fuck me? Hey, Kurt, can you read lips, *fuck you*! Next time I'll call Robert Ludlum!"

Man I loved that movie.

But seriously if you want to make a child read a book. Tell them that they are not allowed to read it. Put it on the top shelf. Always works.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 9:11 AM on April 6, 2012


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