October 5, 2012

Locked up with Vonnegut


Many people in the book world spent the week thinking about banned books. Here at Melville, we made a list of the books we’ve published that have been banned, yanked, vilified, politely but firmly dismissed by a state censor (see: The Colonel), circulated in samizdat, or whose authors were discouraged from the very first from writing but who wrote anyway, despite the consequences (see: Yoani Sanchez and Anna Politkovskaya). However, one intrepid individual, Corey Michael Dalton, had an even closer relationship with banned books. Dalton has been spending the week “locked up with Vonnegut,” specifically, living in the window of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, IN, behind a wall of books that had been banned.

Of course he wasn’t just sleeping next to them. He was also reading them, right out front, in the library window, along with visitors—authors, activists, including Michael Moore, and locals. On Day One, author Dan Wakefield, an old friend of Vonnegut’s, stopped by and read a letter Vonnegut had sent to the head of a school board who’d ordered, in 1973, that copies of Slaughterhouse-Five be burned in the school furnace because of its “obscene language.” Vonnegut’s letter, available here, ends:

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 education 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.

Kurt Vonnegut

Dalton spent his days blogging, and you can read his posts on the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library site, whose slogan is, by the way, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” He suffered no major hardships, other than a minor cot collapse. My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, The Grapes of Wrath, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird were read from, and many discussions were had. Dalton’s “sleep-in” was, in particular, to protest the banning, last year, of Slaughterhouse-Five by the school board of Republic, Missouri. The board has ostensibly backed down from the ban by placing copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in a “secure location” in libraries, where it can be checked out only by parents—thus, the “locked up with Vonnegut” idea.  The Vonnegut Memorial Library points out the irony of the situation:

During World War II, Dresden, Germany, became a haven for some 600,000 refugees after allied forces bombed the city. Kurt Vonnegut was huddled captive in a former meat locker when the bombs fell; his son, Mark Vonnegut, tells how, following the bombing, his father was “forced to go into civilian bomb shelters and bring out rotting and dead children and their pets and their parents, and he was a 21-year-old kid. It had a huge effect on him.”

When Kurt Vonnegut finally returned home to Indianapolis, he went to the library to see how the local newspaper had covered the bombing of Dresden. He was shocked to discover it had never been mentioned.

More than half a century later, students at Republic High School in Missouri were about to have a similar experience: being unable to find Vonnegut’s novel based on his time in Dresden because Slaughterhouse-Five had been banned.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.