As the far right’s attempts to ban books continues throughout the country, book lovers are fighting back.
The latest attempt to ban Kurt Vonnegut’s works for “obscenity” has been challenged by both a Florida English teacher and a group dedicated to maintaining the late author’s legacy.
Far right astroturfing group Moms for Liberty, whose members rode waves of inauthentic moral panics into positions on school boards, has pivoted from spreading disinformation and baseless fearmongering about face masks and critical race theory directly to attempting to ban classic books and replace them with far right propaganda.
One of their latest literary targets, Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, is an old favorite of book banners, apparently because of its “strong language” and even stronger anti-fascist messaging:
The book was banned in Levittown, New York in 1975, North Jackson, Ohio, in 1979, and Lakeland, Florida, in 1982 for its “explicit sexual scenes, violence, and obscene language.” Slaughterhouse-Five was challenged as recently as 2007 in a school district in Howell, Michigan because the book contained “strong sexual content.” Upon reviewing the book, the county prosecutor concluded, “After reading the books in question, it is clear that the explicit passages illustrated a larger literary, artistic or political message and were not included solely to appeal to the prurient interests of minors.” A conclusion we can only suspect must have horrified Mr. Vonnegut.
Some sentences worthy of censorship:
As part of the gun crew, he had helped to fire one shot in anger — from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch thirty feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.
In 1973, dozens of copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s books were burned by school board members in North Dakota, saying that the book was not fit for children due to its “obscene language.” In response, Vonnegut wrote a scathing letter to the head of the board, Charles McCarthy, which read in part:
Dear Mr. McCarthy:
I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.
Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.
I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?
He received no reply.
When Brevard County, Florida teacher Adam Tritt was ordered to remove Slaughterhouse-Five from his curriculum as a result of the Heritage-affiliated far right group’s complaints nearly fifty years later in May 2022, he organized a fundraiser to get banned books to students:
Hi. I’m Adam. I’m an Advanced Placement English teacher, author, college instructor, and elected official in Brevard County, Florida. The Spacecoast. Books have been taken out of use in our school classrooms, libraries, and our online student-access ebook library has been removed totally. Many of our students cannot afford to buy these books. I want to help.
I plan to purchase used copies (locally, whenever available) to distribute to age-appropriate students at various locations in our county over the sunmer. Slaughterhouse-Five, Handmaid’s Tale, The Kite Runner, etc.. If Brevard has removed it, I will make it available, getting as many as I can into as many hands as I can. I will enlist the help of many local businesses as distribution points and I’d love your help to get this done.
“They told me I needed to take the books out of my classroom,” Tritt told us. “I wrote them back and said, are you kidding me?… Two or three days later, I got something that came through the principal through my department head to me that Slaughterhouse-Five had to be removed from my shelf. And that really pissed me off.”
As a result, he began raising money and collecting book donations to hand out to students so that they could read the book.
The fundraiser, which is still ongoing, has been successful enough that Moms for Liberty took notice, with members of one of its Facebook groups promptly smearing Tritt as a “groomer” in order to attempt to taint his motives:
“Warnings to our children…1994: Don’t take candy from strangers. 2022: Don’t take pornographic books from strangers.” the Brevard Moms for Liberty chapter wrote on its Facebook page in response to Tritt’s book drive.
A lengthy and sometimes ugly debate followed, with some people comparing Tritt to a list of teacher sex offenders, and others calling him a “groomer” — a derogatory term used to describe people befriending children for exploitation or abuse.
Moms for Liberty has challenged 41 books in Brevard libraries, saying the books contain sexual content not meant for children. The chapter’s decision to challenge “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut sparked outrage from teachers and community members; the chapter said some of the books it has challenged may be appropriate for some high school students, but the district should reevaluate which age levels access the challenged works.
Attacking people by baselessly calling them “groomers” or “pedophiles” is a recycled right-wing tactic from the Satanic Panic years. It was originally reserved for LGBTQ people, but its use has now expanded to an all-purpose epithet and threat to level at anyone or anything with whom the far right disagrees:
Framing homosexuality as a wicked specter and queer people as pedophiles is one of the oldest narratives in the homophobic playbook; proponents of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and other recent anti-gay and anti-trans legal actions across the US have been all too happy to recycle it. Only now, due to the paranoiac tendency of the modern right wing, it’s also being expanded and applied to LGBTQ allies, to educators whose work gets caught in the cultural crossfire, and to liberals writ large.
“No one has contacted me directly with anything except a positive glowing response,” Tritt said. “I understand many people have spoken indirectly of me in terms which I would not like… and they can go fuck themselves.”
The story of the book ban reached the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, a decade-plus-old organization in Indianapolis, Indiana, which is dedicated not just to Vonnegut’s writing, but also to supporting the principles he championed, chief among them – naturally – the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
The Vonnegut Library joined the fight, with its chief executive officer Julia Whitehead issuing an open letter in early June 2022, pledging to donate books to any students who want them and are unable to find or buy them, and addressing Moms for Liberty directly:
You have misunderstood the meaning of the word “liberty.” Removing someone else’s privilege of reading a book is an act that is worthy of rebellion. But we don’t actually have to rebel because these are our rights as Americans. We just simply have to help the school officials and elected officials to understand that the Constitution is our law of the land. The whims of one group of moms is not the law of our land. I know – I’m also the mom of teens. I’ll be sure to put them to work to assist with this effort to help others access books. As former war General and President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal thoughts by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go into your public library and read every book.”
Julia Whitehead, who is also the founder of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library and author of the book Breaking Down Vonnegut, told us that the actions to ban books flies in the face of democracy and the rights enshrined by the United States Constitution.
“There’s so much other work that could be done with our time, but we have to pause the progress to stamp out the regression,” she said. “It’s so annoying.”
Whitehead added that while they have fought book bans in the past, this time feels different – more organized and sustained than before. She also said that there is an element of shaming to this effort; as with the “groomer” smears, there is a deliberate attempt to make those defending First Amendment rights as though they are doing something shameful, even obscene, by ensuring that young readers have access to the literature they want to read.
But there is an element of obscenity to it, said Whitehead.
“It is shameful,” she said. “It is shameful that they want to take the constitutional rights away from other people. There is certainly nothing shameful about a book written by a soldier who fought against fascism… Now they’re trying to stifle reading by an American soldier because they’re using profanity? That’s shameful.”
The effects of banning books go far beyond simply not being able to get reading materials, however. There is a ripple effect to telling stories about the world – and there is one when you stop those stories from being told, Whitehead said:
We do workshops, we go into schools. Because it’s one thing to be a Vonnegut superfan or have just read something by Vonnegut. It’s a completely other and more important thing to write yout story… create your beautiful piece of artwork, whether it’s about what you read or whether it’s about your own personal trauma. That’s the magic of Vonnegut – it’s not just about Vonnegut. That’s why Moms 4 Liberty are never going to understand this backlash against their efforts to take other peoples’ rights away. They just don’t get it.
Anyone who wishes to support this effort to get banned books out to students in Florida and beyond can donate money, time, or books through VonnegutLibrary.org or contact [email protected] for more information.
Additionally, Tritt said, people can donate books. “Send us whatever books they like that fall on any of these banned lists, they can donate certainly, locally they can drop off books at any of the locations that we have distributions at, they’re happy to take books.”
Or anyone can start a banned books distribution drive in their own communities — which Tritt says has been coming up a lot, given that these attempted book bans are popping up wherever the far right has made political gains.
“Get pissed off,” he advised. “Flood the area with exactly the books they don’t want there, and support the exact people they want marginalized. If they want them marginalized, support them; if they want them to disappear, make them visible.”
Adam Tritt’s GoFundMe, which lists the places book donations can be dropped off as well, can be found here.
Update 6/8/2022, 9:59am: Added quotes from Adam Tritt throughout and further background about Kurt Vonnegut. -bb