Kurt Vonnegut’s cautionary fable “Harrison Bergeron” was inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame at the 2019 Worldcon in Dublin, Ireland – where acceptance statements by the late Vonnegut’s family and by the Vonnegut Museum and Library were read.
In ‘Harrison Bergeron,’ first published in 1961 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vonnegut blends a satirical and tragic tone in depicting a dystopian future in the United States where constitutional amendments and a Handicapper General mandate that no one can be stupider, uglier, weaker, slower (or better) than anyone else. Vonnegut dramatizes the destruction of people’s lives and talents and the obliteration of basic humanity via a denial of emotions and knowledge that leaves parents unable to mourn a son’s death. ‘Harrison Bergeron’ exposes and mourns the chilling authoritarian consequences of radical egalitarianism taken to an inhuman and Orwellian extreme that denies individuality, diversity and the opportunity to excel.
The sons and daughters of Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) sent a short statement, in the wry self-deprecating spirit of their father, which was read at the ceremony:
“Without wanting to make anyone else feel bad about having written or published less good stories and without wishing to appear vain or in any way showy, we are moderately proud of this story, what it’s meant to others and this award.”
The Vonnegut children and cousins and their children and cousins
The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, based in Indianapolis and about to reopen Sept. 22, 2019, in new and larger quarters there, also prepared a longer appreciation and statement, written by the museum’s education director Max Goller and also read in Dublin:
The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis, Indiana, is thrilled to receive news that the short story, “Harrison Bergeron” is being recognized by the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS) with the Prometheus Award in the Hall of Fame (Best Classic Fiction) category.
The story, like much of Kurt’s other writings, seems a perfect fit for LFS, who identify as, “libertarians and freedom-loving science fiction fans who believe cultural change is as vital as political change in achieving freedom.”
Kurt’s principles, in keeping with LFS standards, include passionate promotion of the necessity for free expression in the world. In fact, in 1973 in the very month of Kurt’s birth, November, the school district of Drake, North Dakota controversially burned 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in the school furnace. Kurt responded passionately in a letter that was later published in the very first chapter of his non-fiction collection, Palm Sunday, appropriately entitled “The First Amendment.”
Among other sentiments in the letter, Kurt stressed, “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.”
The work recognized for this year’s award, “Harrison Bergeron,” is one of the most widely taught texts in schools around the country. It is often featured during the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library’s annual workshop specifically created for teachers interested in bringing Vonnegut’s messages of freedom of expression and common decency to their own classrooms.
Seemingly contradicting the sentiment expressed at the beginning of this acceptance that Kurt’s writings are a perfect fit for LFS, it might be noted that he was not very fond of being known as a science-fiction author.
In fact, in his book Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, he rather succinctly noted, “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ … and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”
This might sound like a man who did not appreciate science-fiction as a genre, however, in the last of his books published within his lifetime, Man Without a Country, he expounded by writing:
“I became a so-called science fiction writer when someone decreed that I was a science fiction writer. I did not want to be classified as one, so I wondered in what way I’d offended that I would not get credit for being a serious writer. I decided that it was because I wrote about technology, and most fine American writers know nothing about technology. I got classified as a science fiction writer simply because I wrote about Schenectady, New York. My first book, Player Piano, was about Schenectady. There are huge factories in Schenectady and nothing else. I and my associates were engineers, physicists, chemists, and mathematicians. And when I wrote about the General Electric Company and Schenectady, it seemed a fantasy of the future to critics who had never seen the place.”
Above all, Kurt wanted to be recognized not for the genre he wrote in, but for the importance and humanity of his words and themes.
It is the honor of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, therefore, to thank the Libertarian Futurist Society for recognizing the importance and humanity of our Hoosier son, Kurt Vonnegut’s words with this 2019 Prometheus Award in the Hall of Fame (Best Classic Fiction) category.
If he were here with us today, I am confident he would have shared his favorite expression taught to him by his favorite uncle, Alex, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
For more information about Vonnegut’s legacy and the Vonnegut Museum and Library, visit www.vonnegutlibrary.org
For more information about joining the LFS, visit https://www.lfs.org/join.shtml