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. Bruce was as young and idealistic as they come. However, one student found the material distasteful and showed her mother, who then complained to the school board. From there, things got out of hand.
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.
Three books were set aside to be burned at Drake High: “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Deliverance” by James Dickey, published in 1970. and a short story anthology with works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, among others. The objection to the first had to do with profanity, the second with some homosexual material and the third because the first two rendered all of Severy’s choices suspect.
Students were asked to hand in the offending books. If they didn’t, the books were confiscated from lockers.
It was forty years ago. A media firestorm descended on Drake, a town of 650. Drake got its 15 minutes of infamy… Interesting that the Drake High school library, which also is now the town’s public library, does not have either “Slaughterhouse-Five” or “Deliverance” on its shelves. Nothing is censored in teaching or in the library anymore, but — according to the library — there is no need to ignite long-dormant embers.
So it goes.
About the same time as vigilant Drake acted in an extraordinarily insulting manner toward Kurt Vonnegut, far away, across the wide ocean, light as a bird, I was perched atop of a rickety 15 foot ladder in the Regional Public Library. Although balancing on top of ladders wasn’t in my job description of the senior bibliographer, I was the youngest and most agile staff member to climb ladders.
What was I doing up that ladder that fine afternoon? I was pulling books from the shelves and throwing them onto the floor, trying — although not too hard — not to hit the library director. Not all the books, mind you, only those titles the aforementioned library director read off the list in her hand. It was a routine “censorship raid” — books of the blacklisted authors were banned and taken out of circulation in all the libraries and bookstores.
What happened to those volumes? I don’t know for sure. In all likelihood, the “execution” of those books weren’t quite as “incendiary” as being thrown into a pyre.
“Only in Soviet Union!” I seethed with anger, getting down from the top of that blasted ladder. Instead, I wanted to spread my wings and fly away…
Over the ocean.
Say, to Drake, North Dakota…