Bringing Kurt Vonnegut to the high school students of Republic, Missouri

As you might have heard, the Republic, Missouri school board voted unanimously a few weeks ago to ban Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The vote, according to the Christian Science Monitor, was set in motion when a complaint was filed by Republic resident Wesley Scroggins. Scroggins, whose children are home-schooled, apparently felt strongly enough about Slaughterhouse-Five to lobby for its removal from the high school curriculum. Well, among others, the folks at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, Indiana responded. They did so by offering free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to any students currently enrolled in the Republic school system. All they had to do was write in and request a copy… Following is my brief email exchange with Julia Whitehead, the President of the Vonnegut Memorial Library on the progress of the initiative, and a few other things.

MARK: I’ve been following the activities of the Vonnegut Memorial Library via Facebook for quite some time, and I noticed today that you’d weighed in on the recent banning of Slaughterhouse Five in Republic, Missouri. As I understand it, you’ve offered to send copies of the book to the first 150 students in that school district to request them… Have you had anyone take you up on the offer thus far?

JULIA: We’ve had approximately 40 requests for books with more trickling in.

MARK: How, if at all, are you planning to promote this campaign outside of Facebook? I think, for instance, that it would be great to raise money on Kickstarter for a billboard in Republic.

JULIA: We probably have not promoted this as much as we should have. We will take your suggestion under consideration.

MARK: If people wanted to help you offer additional copies, how would they go about doing so?

JULIA: The best assistance we can receive at this point is either a donation to the organization or a donation of time from our volunteers to spread the word through their own facebook pages or blogs. It’s been great to learn about thousands of Vonnegut fans around the world who are showing support for our cause.

MARK: Are you working with the ACLU and others to fight this in Missouri?

JULIA: We got the ball rolling with the ACLU in Missouri but it is really up to the parents of students in Republic to step up and fight this fight. We are voicing our concerns but parents have a much stronger voice than we do. Together, though, we make quite a powerful team struggling to protect the rights of so many students.

MARK: Can you tell me a little about your Teaching Teachers to Teach Vonnegut program, which I believe it was scheduled to take place in July? I’d like to know how it went, and whether or not you have plans to offer it more widely, perhaps though the internet, so that teachers around the world can participate.

JULIA: Teaching Teachers to Teach Vonnegut was a fantastic program. We agreed that we absolutely need to offer this program year after year. And we are going to include discussions of other books so that people who attended this year will have an opportunity to learn something new next year. Rodney Allen is such a knowledgeable and engaging teacher. In addition to the class work, we took the students out to Crown Hill Cemetery, where I read some passages in Vonnegut books and interviews in which he discusses certain family members buried at Crown Hill. The students participated in the discussion and offered excellent insight into Vonnegut’s work. The week was a great success. These people in Republic who want to ban Slaughterhouse Five should look into bringing our program to their community instead of banning the book.

MARK: What can people expect to find when they visit the library? In addition to operating a space dedicated to art and literature, are there also exhibits on Vonnegut and his life in Indianapolis? If so, can you tell us about an artifact or two?

JULIA: We have the typewriter he used in the ’70s, his reading glasses, his Purple Heart, many photos, military uniform insignia, a Nazi sword he brought back from Dresden, and many more artifacts. We especially love the 15 rejection letters in our collection. We put a new one out each quarter.

MARK: What’s the status of the Library? I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall that you were in the process of raising money to move out of your current space, which is being donated, and into a more permanent home. Is that the case? If so, how is the fundraising going?

JULIA: We are actually quite happy with our current home in the Emelie Building. It’s perfect for the size of our collection and the stage of our development. We would like to raise $20,000 to purchase a private collection of Vonnegut-related artifacts that we’ve recently discovered. We also need funds for our various wonderful programs that you can learn more about on our website.

MARK: I’m curious to know a bit about the relationship between the library and the Vonnegut family. Is it safe to assume that they are supportive of the undertaking? Do they participate in any way?

JULIA: They are absolutely wonderful. They attend and participate in our events, they are major donors to our organization, they share artifacts with us, they give us guidance and encouragement, they are all-around wonderful people.

MARK: It’s not really a question, but I thought that you might be interested to know that readers of my site, a few years ago, got together to send copies of Vonnegut books to another reader of my site, who teaches English Lit in Minnesota. (You can read more about it here.) I haven’t had an opportunity to act on it, but the undertaking caused me to think that a wider campaign might be called for… to either put more Vonnegut books in schools, or to get people to leave their Vonnegut books in public places, with instructions for those who find them to read them and then pass them on.

JULIA: This is really neat. There’s definitely a way we can collaborate on something like this.

Vonnegut, I assume most of you would agree, is more important now than ever. With that in mind, I think it’s incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to get his message out in front of people, like the high school students of Republic, Missouri. If you have any ideas as to how that might be accomplished, please leave a comment… And stay tuned for more on this subject.

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  1. Christine M
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Guess I need to read it.

    Isn’t this the plot to Footloose? or was it Dirty Dancing. Nooo maybe a Hollywood plot because they are remaking both these films.

  2. Edward
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Yes, Footloose was loosely based on Slaughterhouse Five.

    And the world absolutely needs more of Vonnegut’s brand of well-informed compassionate humanism these days.

  3. Edward
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    I love that this man is expending his effort to keep Vonnegut out of a school that his child doesn’t even go to rather than, let’s say, encouraging kids to lay off the Jersey Shore and pick up a copy of a book instead. His idea of what’s destructive to our culture is laughable.

    Sorry, but I can’t stop thinking about this.

  4. Glen S.
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I agree that these kids should not be reading “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

    They should definitely be reading “1984,” instead.

  5. Mr. X
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    It’s a brilliant book. If you’ve never read it, you can do so online, thanks to Google.

  6. Mr. X
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    In one of my favorite passages, Billy Pilgrim, who has become “unstuck” in time, watches WWII unfolding in reverse.

    American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

    The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

    When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the rack and shipped back to the United States, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous content into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anyone ever again.

    The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

    I thin it’s one of the most beautiful things ever written.

  7. dragon
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I still think Slaughterhouse-Three was the best.

    Interviewer: Billy, what’s your prediction for the War?
    Pilgrim: My prediction?
    Interviewer: Yes, your prediction.
    Pilgrim: [Looks into the camera] Pain.

  8. Eel
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Young Billy Pilgrim was brought to Dresden, where he fell in love with a girl whose dad was kind of a… well… Nazi. He wouldn’t let them listen to jazz at all. He said it was a degenerate art form. Billy, however, had a different view.

  9. TeacherPatti
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I shudder to think what he is teaching his kids who he is “homeschooling”. I shudder further to think that those kids will one day be released on an unsuspecting public.

  10. Meta
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Wesley Scroggins is a professor of business at Missouri State. You can read what his students have to say about him here:

    Here’s one of my favorites:

    Class was easy enough, but his casual neoconservative remarks got under my skin. I had enough political indoctrination back in high school. He just oozed Fox News each and every time he strayed from his prepared lecture. One example of this would be his suggesting that “rape is over-reported to further the liberal agenda.” Really? Wow.

  11. josh s
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Most of those professor reviews look like fakes. The negative ones were mostly posted in the past month or so, after this story got out. Not that I like the man besides his awesome last name.

  12. Elf
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    There are certain books you should have to read. This is one of them. Anyone who says different is an asshole. If you need for me to send a copy somewhere, let me know. I would also chip in for a billboard. I’d prefer, however, to just drop a ton of paperbacks from a helicopter.

  13. TaterSalad
    Posted September 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Michigan Senate Bill 120 / Right to Work Zones within the state of Michigan. Please write your elected official and get this moved through the system.

    (Your state Senator in Michigan)

    Would you please support legislation on SB 120 and move this bill forward.

    This bill would give the working people of Michigan the option of joining a Union to acquire a job in their living/home area without having to join a Union. This is an excellent bill and would give people this option who have relocated from a Right to Work state and do not want to join Unions inorder to live in Michigan which would help Michigans housing markets also.

    Thank you for your time.

    (Name & address)

  14. Bob
    Posted September 8, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Go fuck yourself.

  15. Mr. X
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Jim Lehrer to be speaking about Vonnegut. I thought that you might be interested.

    On April 14, Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s third annual Night of Vonnegut event will take place at the Athenaeum Theatre. This gala is shaping up to be one of our best yet!

    Jim Lehrer ranks Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater among his top six favorite books. Now, in a rare Indianapolis appearance, the former PBS NewsHour host will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Night of Vonnegut. Lehrer will also be joined on stage by MAD Magazine’s senior editor Joe Raiola. Raiola is bringing The Joy of Censorship, his critically praised, nationally performed one-man show, to Indianapolis for the first time.

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  1. […] All I know about Indianapolis is that there’s a Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library there. I interviewed the woman who runs it a few years ago and she seemed cool… Other than suggesting that you go and check it out, I don’t really have […]

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