Benjamin Reed – Teaching “Harrison Bergeron”

Originally published in 1961 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, “Harrison Bergeron” is Kurt Vonnegut’s most well-known story.   In The Short Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, Peter J. Reed describes the story as “vintage Vonnegut …extremely funny while at the same time touching on several serious social issues.” While often read as a satire on forced equality, the story is complex enough to merit interpretations across the political spectrum. Anyone who has not yet read the story can find it in Vonnegut’s collection, Welcome to the Monkey House. It is also available online.

A staple of high school and college anthologies, “Harrison Bergeron” is for many students their “first” Vonnegut. In his 2015 essay “Technologies of Amnesia: Teaching ‘Harrison Bergeron’ to the Millennial Generation” (published in Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice), Benjamin Reed, a writer and lecturer at Texas State University, examines the different interpretations of the story and his experiences teaching it to undergraduates.

Reed shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.

Q: In your essay you write that “Harrison Bergeron” always resonates with students. Why is that?

A: I think partly it’s their age. Most of my students are underclassmen, between 18 and 20. They’ve just made this tremendous, terrifying leap from a small, knowable world into a cosmos of uncertainty. Even if they don’t know it, they have been developing a personalized and reliable moral and philosophical framework from which they get a kind of pleasure by testing it against challenging stories. It’s one of the many reasons literature—especially fiction—needs to be taught heavily in high school and college. Also, because my young students still carry a residue of their teenage years, they’re very keen to notice unfairness, and the failings of well-intended authority figures, because they still bear fresh marks from the trauma of surviving late childhood in the households of their terribly human parents.

There is also the disquieting terror of seeing a lost child erased from his parents’ memory, which has to click, if only on a preconscious level, with young people who have recently left home for the first time.

Q: What are some of the most common student responses to the story?

A: Most of my students come from rural and suburban Texas, and they’re often politically conservative, whether they’re quite staunch or fairly tepid about it. There’s this stereotype that kids are blank slates before they’re “brainwashed” by their liberal professors, but I have to say I’ve had some pretty compelling conversations with young people about Warren Buffet and Ayn Rand, and how nominally atheistic literary and philosophical veins like realism and existentialism can nonetheless accommodate the basic fundamentals of Christianity. When it comes to “Harrison Bergeron” they are ready to pounce on an illustration of the folly of Affirmative Action, wealth redistribution, entitlements, you name it. They’re young, so they’re still critical and enthusiastic, and at least moderately anti-establishment, but they’re also the first generation to have grown up with FOX News on in the living room, exposed to a media model that overthrew the golden age of evening news by conflating journalism with informed opinion. Most of them feel informed and many of them are informed, but I’m sure how many understand the difference. And of course there are always the cadres of liberal-minded students ready to disagree, and the two parties make foils of one another. It’s great fun. I feel most rewarded when the indifferent or lethargic or prematurely jaded student suddenly sits up, takes a sip of coffee, and picks a side, whatever it is. Vonnegut has that power because he’s wise, funny, and ingratiating, and far too kind to condescend or sermonize.

Q: Textbooks and reading guides generally offer variations on two basic readings of the story. What are the conventional interpretations of the story?

You can find several prescriptions for reading (and teaching) this story, but they tend to break off into two major categories, depending on whether you think Vonnegut is just being clever and wry, or if he’s actually winking at the reader, creating a situation that is more nuanced than it seems at first blush. Specifically, is he warning us about the dangers of conformity, or is he satirizing the West’s Red-Scare era castration anxiety about losing our God-given individuality? Students tend to see the year of first publication (1961) and think “Ah, communism,” then work outward from there. And because of things like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Giver, they have a context and lexicon for talking about the brutal overreach of a functional yet morally-bankrupt state apparatus.

Q: Your reading of “Harrison Bergeron” differs from these views. What do you see as the dominant theme of the story?

A: The story cuts back and forth between a couple watching TV in their living room and the studio where the program they’re watching is being recorded live. George’s interruptive earpiece and the birdshot sash weight are essentially symbolic of what too much TV does to your brain and body. Hazel is the same—the pair may seem like an odd couple, but they are highly reflective of each other—she’s just internalized these “handicaps.” The primary reason they can be exploited by their government is because they have no mental continuity. At the end of Vonnegut’s story, George gets up for a beer—as we all did during commercial breaks, back before DVRs, when we still had to suffer through commercials—and neither he nor Hazel can remember what they saw nor understand why they are sad. This pernicious government overreach achieved by artificial amnesia—not brute force, or starvation—is Vonnegut diagnosing his present, not prognosticating America’s future.

“Harrison Bergeron” is foundationally about the deleterious effects of mass media upon society at every level—the family, the nation, and human civilization. Vonnegut saw a crushing force steamrolling our individuality and diversity, while also both piquing and then slaking a cheap, carnal desire for sex and violence. In a nutshell: In the late 1950s TV replaced reading books and magazines as our go-to method of killing time, and we suffered because of it. (TV also all but wiped out the market for magazines that paid good money for short stories, the best job Vonnegut ever knew until he finally found substantial success, in 1969, with Slaughterhouse-Five.) Thanks to encouragements from my friend and colleague Robert T. Tally Jr. (author of Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel), I ended up making a pretty exhaustive case for this thesis, but I think it’s timely. If for no other reason than the growing sense that the paranoid and dyspeptic 1950s have returned, replete with the nuclear specter, the Cold War geopolitics, the nonsensical idolatry of mass-market pop stars, and a galaxy of new, frivolous technologies.

Q: The critical interpretation of the story is often influenced by the critic’s view of Vonnegut’s politics. While Vonnegut is often associated with the Left, many, including his biographer Charles Shields, see him more as a reactionary than a radical. What are your views on this?

A: I seem to recall Vonnegut once being described as a proto-libertarian, but all things considered I think Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein should be allowed to battle for that mantle. My reading of Vonnegut is that he was contradictory but consistent. I’d sooner describe him as a Rockefeller Republican—but only incidentally, and under duress—much sooner than I’d call him “radical,” or “revolutionary.” I think a great deal has been made out of the somewhat comical situation of a fairly conservative writer who worked for GE and (allegedly) owned stock in Dow Chemicals being so widely championed by young, long-haired, dope-smoking Leftists on college campuses across the country, who then spent three decades lionizing the old man as an anti-establishment social critic and Twain-esque truth teller. I think this irony, which is probably speckled with truth, is what Mark Vonnegut has accused Shields of inflating.

Vonnegut embodied a particular hybridity, but this hybridity was far less exceptional in the 1930s and 1940s than it is now. I think those of us who are not historians tend to forget sometimes that there was a lot more to the American 1950s than Sputnik and poodle skirts. The political landscape was vastly different and changing rapidly (here again we see the black hand of television). Today we don’t have any Democrats who talk like LBJ, and we don’t have any Republicans who sound like Nelson Rockefeller, and so a writer like Vonnegut strikes us as an aberration. At the start of the Vietnam War era, these men were already dinosaurs. Richard Norton Smith writes how, in 1964, the Republican strategist Stuart Spencer asked Nelson Rockefeller to “summon that fabled nexus of money, influence, and condescension known as the Eastern Establishment.” Rockefeller replied, “You are looking at it, buddy. I’m all that’s left.”

Q: In the story George Bergeron, Harrison’s father, has an ear radio to interrupt his thoughts. You see some close ties to our current technology. Are we all carrying around “ear phones” now?

A: Most definitely. Literally the first time I put my oldest son in a car to drive him somewhere—he was maybe two or three weeks old—we were stopped at a red light on a wide, fast boulevard near our house, when I heard screeching tires. I looked into my rearview mirror and saw a young man in a gray hatchback skidding toward us at a high speed, having not seen the red light or stopped cars. His face was frozen with fear, his cellphone still in his palm, up at eye level, that being the object he’d been concerned with when he should have watching the road. Thankfully he had decent brakes and a light car and managed to stop in time, with maybe a foot to spare, but it was clear that my newborn and I were a fraction of a second from what would have been, for both of us, the worst day of our lives.

Of course this is an extreme example, and not what Vonnegut himself was getting at. I think the more pervasive damage represented by personal, portable technology is that constant contact with our friends and loved ones and media reduces our capacity to be quiet, alone, and empty. Also, everywhere I go I see restaurant hosts and cashiers and sales associates and stock clerks filling up their down-time by looking at their phones. I have no scientific data to back this up, but I think never being bored—and never having to creatively remedy boredom—leads to bona fide mental illness. Modern-day neurasthenia, or whatever. When I see a healthy, good-looking kid craning his neck to grin moronically at his phone for an hour straight, I feel like Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “What are you doin’ here? You oughta be out in a convertible, bird-doggin’ chicks!”

Q: In your classes you ask students to reflect on whether an authority has an obligation to lessen the inherent inequalities between individuals to help people feel more equal. What kind of responses do you get?

A: It’s mixed. In 2017 not a lot of kids want the government to be doing very much in their lives, which I can respect. (They’ve also been told, ad nauseam, that they have been coddled, making them underprepared and oversensitive.) What I find almost chilling is the pretty universal agreement that people deserve to “feel” equal. I have never considered equality to be a subjective experience. Maybe that’s my white privilege showing, I don’t know. But I spend too much time reading science fiction and philosophy not to be alarmed by a widespread need to feel good about liberty and justice. Vonnegut lamented the revision of Armistice Day, maybe I feel similarly about Jefferson fiddling with John Locke’s trinity of pursuit: life, liberty, and property. Because we couldn’t be any more boorish about money and status than we are right now, and because an inferred right to feel happy can get dangerous as we approach a technological horizon that will usher in an existence of manipulated dreams and designer realities.

Q: “Harrison Bergeron” is perhaps the only Vonnegut short story widely taught. Do you feel his short fiction deserves greater attention?  

I think the market has already spoken on that subject. Nobody’s hair caught fire when Donald Morse called Vonnegut’s stories “apprentice work.” In his Paris Review self-interview, Vonnegut even described himself as a “hack … of a sort.” The short fiction will always be there for fans and completists.

Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine Zoetrope: All-Story has resurrected two Vonnegut stories: “Who Am I This Time?” and “The Nice Little People,” and that’s good of them to do so. (Zoetrope was the first place I ever read Akutagawa’s 1922 story “In a Grove,” resolving an almost criminal oversight.) But those selections feel and smell like curated arcana. They’re good stories, and they deserve readership, but nothing sizzles and snaps and clicks with a concrete “aboutness” like “Harrison Bergeron.” The literary forms Vonnegut reliably excelled at were the keynote address and the semi-satirical novel.

Instructors who enjoy teaching “Harrison Bergeron” shouldn’t bemoan the dearth of similarly excellent social science fiction in the Vonnegut canon. There is also Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and most notably “Appropos de bottes,” a free-standing short story embedded in Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. “Appropos de bottes” is insanely good; it is beyond me why it hasn’t been widely anthologized in comp and survey course lit readers.

Q: How and when did you first become interested in Vonnegut’s work?

My brother is ten years older than I, and when I was maybe nine or ten—and already a heavy reader—I was allowed to read a handwritten poem he was working on for an English course at San Francisco State. It blew me away that a normal person could just decide to write. For my eleventh birthday, in 1988, he gave me a hardcover anthology of science fiction stories titled Space Odyssey. He inscribed the flyleaf, “Some of these stories you will read and remember all through college. The first one is one of my all-time favorites.” That story was, of course, “Harrison Bergeron.”

Q: In addition to your work as a scholar, you also write fiction. Where might readers find your work?

A: I’ve got a teeny-tiny prose thing up at Tin House’s The Open Bar, and a sort-of Vonnegutian flash piece up at Ghost Parachute. I also recently won the Texas Observer’s short story competition; my entry can be read here. I have a few more things waiting to be published by various folks, so if anybody likes what they see they can check in with my personal site, where I try to post links to new work. Right now I’m finishing a collection of short stories, and also working on a novel that takes a different approach to traditional dystopic narratives. Both should be finished by now, but I have that writer disease where I need to have five or six active projects going at all times.

In terms of recent scholarship, I actually have another essay about an intersection of politics and dystopian fiction—this time it’s gun control and Heinlein—in The Texas Review. That journal is print-only, but the text has been duplicated on Medium, available here.

Q: Any future Vonnegut projects on the horizon?

A: My hunch is that the next thing I write about Vonnegut will be focused on Mother Night. I can feel that novel creeping up on me.

 

Ben Reed holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University, where he is currently an adjunct lecturer teaching courses in composition, technical writing, and both world and American literature. His scholarship and other essays have appeared in Time and Mind, Teaching American Literature, The Texas Review, and Southern Humanities Review. His fiction has appeared in Pank, Seattle Review, Blue Mesa Review, Arcadia, West Branch, and other places. Some of his flash fiction can be read online at Ghost Parachute, Meridian, and The Open Bar. He also recently won the Texas Observer Short Story Contest, which can be read here. He lives in Austin.