Written by Kurt Vonnegut and released in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five is a modern literary masterpiece. It is a novel rich in plot, characterization and theme that it is difficult to pin it down within one genre. For example, the novel has elements of science fiction and dark satirical comedy embedded in the drama of war. The novel is recognized as a preeminent work by critics of varied tastes, affiliations and dispositions. Yet, it is deemed as a cultist and morally repugnant work by certain sections of society – especially those from the extreme Right of the political spectrum.
Ever since its first publication four decades back, the novel is celebrated and reviled in equal measure. The controversy surrounding the work has at times resulted in outright bans in some college/school campuses across the United States. (Church & State, 2011, p.17) In 2011 alone citizens were forced to fight for their freedom to read by way of lawsuits in as many as 26 states in the country.
The rest of this essay will venture the reasons for the persistence of this issue and compare it with other controversial works of art. More importantly, the essay will show that the controversy pertaining to Slaughterhouse Five is largely a manifestation of political opportunism and outdated prudish thinking.
Slaughterhouse Five is objected to on the basis of subjective assessments about the authorial tone, free depiction of sex and use of profanity. The book also openly claims that homosexual men were the first victims of the Holocaust. What the case of Slaughterhouse Five and other bans on literary works illustrate is the serious threat to freedom of speech in the country. The removal of one book is the equivalent of stripping away the rights of thousands to choose books for themselves. Too often, the voices of a few have restricted the rights of many. The Religious Right is the chief proponent of censorship in such cases. They attack some works of literature ferociously, claiming they are obscene or that they employ filthy language. In the last few decades, such books as The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five and Go Tell It on the Mountain, were all targeted. (Boston, 1998, p.4) Even the highly popular Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer was banned in public school libraries in recent years. The danger posed by such books to the education system and the broader culture is thus expressed by ultra-Rightwing groups:
“A system so polluted by immorality and the `acceptance’ (tolerance) of homosexual/lesbian behavior encouraged for students, it is now a system beyond any decent person’s tolerance level. Atheism and many perverted forms of immorality are being forced upon all public school students, not just Christian students. Atheism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Indian Shamanism are freely taught in all public government indoctrination schools while Christianity, the one true religion of our Creator, is left out.” (Boston, 1998, p.5)
The narrow-mindedness, political jingoism and religious intolerance evident in the above quote weaken its own case. The most recent episode of censorship with respect to Slaughterhouse Five was due to a complaint received by Republic High School in Missouri that the book “teaches principles contrary to Biblical morality and truth”. (USA Today, 2011, p.13) Consequently, hundreds of students and their families lost access to this great work of literature. Historically, such censorship is usually followed by public outcry and demonstration. It is on account of such collective and courageous action that such books are “saved from confiscation or being kept under lock and key. It was not until there was a national outcry that the Republic School Board of Education in Missouri agreed to reconsider the banning of Slaughterhouse-Five.” (USA Today, 2011, p.13) The scale and scope of threat to freedom of speech is quite vast, as the following statistic proves:
“Each year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), Chicago, Ill., receives hundreds of reports on book challenges, which are formal written requests to remove a book from a library or classroom because of an objection to the book’s content. There were 346 recorded attempts to remove materials from libraries in 2010, and more than 11,000 attempts recorded since OIF began compiling information on book challenges in 1990…” (USA Today, 2011, p.13)
Slaughterhouse Five is joined by ‘ttyl’ by Lauren Myracle – a book fully written in online chat lingo. The latter was facing immense pressure from conservative groups that belittle it for loose grammar and foul language. The Ponus Ridge Middle School Library in Norwalk, Connecticut, was the scene of censorship in this case. Again, in what must count as testimony to the power of collective public action, the school officials decided to keep the controversial novel for young adults in the library. Author Myracle’s defense of her project is equally applicable to the persistent onslaught on Slaughterhouse Five too: “Library collections should reflect the diverse viewpoints of our nation…we may not share the same viewpoints, but we cannot live in a free society and develop our own opinions if our right to access information freely is compromised.” (USA Today, 2011, p.13)
“Book Banning Reaching Fever Pitch.” USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education) Dec. 2011: 13.
Boston, Rob. “The Public School Bashers.” Church & State Oct. 1998: 4+.
“Missouri School District May Reconsider Vonnegut Book Ban after Protests.” Church & State Oct. 2011: 17.